When Fahima first arrived in the UK, the only English she could say was, “Hello my name is Fahima. I am fine. How are you?” She could barely understand the barrage of fast foreign words thrown at her in reply. For the 10 year old, it was overwhelming, frightening and exhausting. Her younger brother and sister weren’t any better off and her parents were worse. The English language was a barrier, a locked door to another world and a daily battle to face. The children were struggling to keep up at school, their parents weren’t able to offer help or assist with their studies, and all three began to fall behind.
It was at this time that Home Reading Volunteers from Doorstep Library first visited the Jamal family. “When we knocked, the children were eager to look through our collection of books and were keen to share a story. But it became clear that language was a big issue for them, especially for their mother who was wholly reliant on the children to “speak” on her behalf. We used a lot of hand gestures in the early days,” says Laura, one of the volunteers who first started the weekly reading sessions with the Jamals.
“At the start, we concentrated on simple stories for Fahima and basic board books for her brother and sister. Confidence levels were low so we focused on the fun of reading. The rhyming books had a particular resonance for the children – I remember The Gruffalo being a big hit. They liked the play on words and the humour,” says Jana, the other Home Reading Volunteer visiting the family.
While Laura and Jana continued to visit the children every week, Mrs Jamal began to sit in on their reading sessions and practice her English. “I felt safe with Laura and Jana to try out my broken English. They didn’t mind if I joined in and they were kind and supportive. It made me feel a new sort of confidence.” In addition to assistance with her spoken English, Laura and Jana were able to signpost services to Mrs Jamal such as housing support, family mentoring and English classes.
Three years on and Doorstep Library volunteers still visit the Jamal family. Fahima only sees the volunteers to borrow books now that she is in secondary school, but she finds reading a welcome break from the demands of school work. Her younger brother and sister continue to see Laura and Jana each week; they have moved on to chapter books and read confidently to the volunteers. Mrs Jamal’s English has significantly improved and she attributes much of the family’s progress to Doorstep Library. “They reached out to us at such a key time in our new life in London. We needed the help and they delivered it to us, right to our door!”