Three weeks ago, at the invitation of Bridget Stratford, I visited North East Solidarity and Teaching (N.E.S.T) – a Newcastle University Students’ Union project. Bridget, who runs this wanted me to meet and share my experiences of living in the north east of England with some of the African women they supported. On arrival at their temporary location in the Hadrian building of the Newcastle campus, I was greeted by the volunteer students who checked me in. Whoever is in charge of welcoming people, also tries to answer any questions the visitors and learners might have, including signposting.

N.E.S.T offers English classes to recently arrived asylum seekers and refugees in the region. These classes can take up to 40 learners at any one given time. In the intermediate and comprehension classes, learners get around speaking from Farsi to English and other languages. This is possible with the help of some improvised software that seems to play an important part in the running of the project. This project also provides one-to-one meetings for learners who are working on individual pieces of work or homework. This part works on a first come, first served basis.

For women who have young children, this amazing project offers a nursery which helps them attend classes. In my life, I know very well how a lack of childcare affects my ability to do so many things, and these women are no different.

One of the classes

Older children are kept busy with different activities, which vary depending on the children’s school stages and form of education they have had. What usually happens is N.E.S.T tries to find activities that everyone can take part in while keeping an eye on the children to see how they manage. On my visit, I found the older children, T-shirt printing. The T-shirt’s are designed and decorated by the children, but the ironing of the design onto the t-shirt itself is done by the student volunteers. All the children I saw seemed very happy and engaged, as they waited to see their finished product. I also came to learn from Bridget, that in the past, most of the children they looked after and supported had been born in the United Kingdom, which meant they spoke English.
But for the children sitting for GCSE’s and whose parents have limited English this is also when project came in handy. But of late, many of the children they’ve been receiving are from refugee camps in Syria and countries of Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Venezuela, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

T-shirt design in progress

While there, I also met and had a brief chat with some African women who were present, the majority of whom were from Sudan. I learnt that some had just arrived within the last 6 months, while others had been in the country for 3 or more years. Those who had been here longer sounded confident and spoke good English. As we waited for others to arrive, break time was now over and they all headed back to their classes. They told me how they wanted to get help with their assignments as they walked off. This was absolutely fine with me – I applauded them for it. In their own way, they were telling me that nothing was going to come between them and their eduction. Not long after this I was joined by other students, we had a chat and I talked about Teakisi until it was time to go home.

Visiting N.E.S.T was eye opening, and really loved what this project is all about. I studied my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Newcastle University and can’t believe I had never really got the chance to learn about them. These were busy times though. It’s is so humbling to see how much they accomplish. I believe the greatest gift you could ever give someone, is the gift of empowerment, and N.E.S.T are doing just that for the hundreds of asylum seeker and refugees that walk through their doors each year.

Every morning when the volunteers arrive, they begin by setting up all the rooms including materials the learners will use, and at 1pm when they shut their doors they clean up and store everything away as the areas and rooms they’ve been using will now be accessible to all the students of the Newcastle university. Imagine having to do this 7 days a week, plus provide breakfast and teas and coffees, juices, fruits and biscuits during break time? It’s a lot of work!

N.E.S.T seems to be managing really well in their current circumstances, but having their own premises would make things a lot better – for the learners and definitely for the volunteers! How can you help them? They are in need of children’s toys, blankets, children and adult clothes – especially the smaller men’s sizes that seem to be really scarce. To contact them, send an email to