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Syrian refugee Tarek wins Inspire! Award after his intensive commitment to learning English

A Syrian refugee who arrived in Cardiff unable to speak barely a word of English has won a national award for adult learning.

Tarek Zou Alghena fled the country when civil war broke in 2011 and came to the UK less than four years ago to build a new life alone.

Now the 30-year-old has earned an Inspire! Award for his dedication to learning against the odds.

The Inspire! Awards are hosted each year ahead of Adult Learners’ Week – initiatives co-ordinated by Learning and Work Institute with support from the Welsh Government and the European Social Fund. Inspire!

Award winners are rewarded for demonstrating the power of learning in raising expectations, building confidence and developing vibrant and successful communities, and their stories will also feature as part of Adult Learners’ Week, which takes place this year from June 17-23.

Tarek was just 23 when he was forced to leave Syria after his hometown, Daraa, became a battleground in the civil war which has so far claimed more 400,000 lives.

“I was scared for my life,” said Tarek, who has lost 17 friends to the violence. I have four younger sisters, three brothers and my parents. We all left together. They now live in Sweden.”

Tarek was a businessman, meeting friends at cafés and restaurants, going to the beach and riding his motorbikes before everyday life became a danger. During his family’s escape from the fighting, they became separated – with Tarek arriving alone in the UK in August 2015 after spending years in exile in Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

“I was a businessman in Syria, a car dealer working with my father,” said Tarek. I was very rich. But I left with nothing.  When the war started, our family business broke down.”

Tarek spent a month at the refugee camp in Calais before making his way to the UK in the back of a lorry. “It was bad at the camp. The life was very difficult there and we lived in the tents most of the time. Agencies gave us food but it was a scary place to be.”

In the UK, Tarek was provided with refugee status and settled in Cardiff after he obtained asylum.  He spoke no English, and there was a six-month waiting list for entry onto the nearest formal ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) course, so he set about attending every voluntary English class he could find in Cardiff. 

“When I arrived in the UK, it was sad being on my own. “All I could say in English was ‘Hi, hello, (I want to go) London, Cardiff, Manchester whatever the name of the cities and some very few words.

“When you’re alone in a new place where you don’t know the language or culture, everything is strange, and you have to make that place your home.”

For the first few months, Tarek attended survival English classes in Cardiff, delivered by volunteer teachers and university students at the Welsh Refugee Council and Oasis refugee support centre in Splott.

As soon as a place became available, Tarek started studying at formal ESOL classes at Cardiff and Vale College.

Two years later, he applied for a foundation degree and, due to his refugee status, was able to take part in the University of South Wales’ Refugee Sanctuary Scheme. The scheme provides free intensive English preparation for refugees who want to study at university but don’t speak English as a first language. 

Tarek was taught on a three month-intensive English course, which he passed last year, allowing him to successfully complete the first year of his university course.

“I’d be studying for about 12 hours a day. Sometimes I didn’t sleep or I slept for just a few hours. I’d often sleep for two hours, then be awake studying for another two,” said Tarek on the months leading up to his language assessments. “I’m always learning. I work at it every day.”

He works hard to improve his English language and update it daily and keeps up with the language by watching YouTube videos by the popular Learn English with Papa Teach Me, and TV programmes.

Tarek, who took the ‘Different Past: Shared Futures award’, is one of 12 winners who were recognised in a ceremony at The Exchange Hotel in Cardiff this week.  [Wednesday, June 5.]

Tarek said: “Cardiff is such a welcoming place, and everyone has been so lovely to me. My time in Wales has been like a journey and I’ve had so much help from people in the colleges and university.”

Now he has finished the foundation year and he’s on his way to starting the first year of three-year degree in Quantity Surveying, and Commercial Management in September and making plans for the future.

“I loved my old life,” he said. “It’s hard to explain how hard that is, having to leave and start somewhere new when you don’t want to. In your home, you have rights. When your country is broken down and becomes weak, you have no rights.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to anything, you have to say ‘yes’. You have no voice. Learning English has changed my life. I got my rights as a human being and I can have a voice. Maybe I’ll stay in Wales, maybe travel the world or maybe one day it will be safe for me to return to Syria.”

Mike Chick, senior lecturer in Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at University of South Wales, nominated Tarek for the Inspire! Award. He said:

“Tarek’s an example of the resourcefulness and stamina of the human spirit. 

“His journey illuminates the tremendously important role that adult education can play in shaping lives. It also shows how important ESOL is to the lives of refugees who seek sanctuary in Wales and the crucial role that universities can play in integration and community cohesion.”

Jane Hutt, Deputy Minister and Chief Whip said:

“Wales has a diverse cultural heritage and is proud to welcome and support migrant and refugee communities, but we recognise there are barriers to making a new land home. Adult learning can help overcome these barriers by providing opportunities for integration.

“Adult learning can improve social well-being by bringing people together, helping to address loneliness and isolation. Adult learning also offers opportunities for personal development, skills development, improved self-esteem and confidence, leading to further learning, employment or volunteering.

“Tarek is a perfect example of someone who has brought about positive change in their life and the lives of those around them as a result of embracing the opportunities that adult learning affords.”

David Hagendyk, Director for Wales at Learning and Work Institute said:

“Now more than ever we understand the impact that going back into learning can have on making people healthier and happier, as well as improving prospects for their families and at work.

“We hope these stories will inspire adults from every corner of Wales to take that first step back into learning.  There are opportunities to learn out there and professionals ready to help you access the support you need.  So if you have been inspired, now is the time to act and to start learning again.”

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