Tasilu: Supporting Syrian Refugees in Oxford
Oxford is a place for study and intellectual exploration, time for self-discovery and reflection – or that is what I was told to expect and what I was looking forward to. It had been two years since undergrad, I was excited for the opportunity to delve more deeply into questions of refugee policy and to reflect on the work I had been doing; or so I thought. I quickly realised I can only spend so much time in a library. I grew frustrated. I’m happiest when I’m working with people, applying what I’m learning to practical experience, and working to improve my community. Resultantly, my first term at Oxford was rough; I had come to Oxford to better learn how to serve refugee communities and change the wearisome policies I had seen in the field. Instead, I found myself feeling farther away from the communities I hoped to serve than ever before.
That changed when a course mate in my Refugee and Forced Migration Studies course asked if I would tutor for a recently arrived Syrian-Kurdish family seeking asylum. I had a background in teaching English and working with recently arrived immigrants. She thought I’d be a good fit. I jumped at the chance to get out of the library and back to working with communities I cared about. I began tutoring for ‘my family’. I helped their elementary aged son with his homework, assisted the mom with basic things like explaining Council notices or forms, and just generally became a family friend. Finding my family was one of the best thing that happened to me in Oxford. It reminded me why I was there, gave me a practical application for my studies, and connected me to communities within Oxford that many never meet. As I got to know the family better though, each tutoring session ended with sharing a meal together and I learned that my family wasn’t the only recently arrived asylum-seekers in need of assistance. Oxford had a significant and growing community of Syrian refugees.
Returning for second year, I knew the need for assistance was there and there were students throughout Oxford willing to provide it. They just needed to connect. It turned out to be easier than expected. The mother of my family is head of the Syrian Sisters in Oxford – a support group of Syrian women who help each other through resettlement. As such, she was connected to all of the Syrian asylum-seekers in Oxford. Together, with a fellow tutor at Harris Manchester College, we paired the families with students and staff from Oxford with an interest in refugee work and a background in education. What started out as a small group of 3 volunteers working with 3 families, spread to almost 20 volunteers and a dozen families.
But, as the increasingly frequent questions of what I planned to do after Oxford continually reminded me, my time at Oxford was not indefinite. I knew a more sustainable solution to finding tutors for the asylum-seeker community was necessary than me and a google doc. Looking for possible solutions, I signed up for Rhodes Incubator’s inaugural IDEATE weekend – designed for Scholars interested in entrepreneurship to develop an idea. Through that weekend, Tasilu was born. It also brought me my co-founder, fellow Rhodes Scholar, GTC’er and friend, Leah Michalove. Leah’s strong anthropology background, Middle East expertise, and language skills paired with my background in refugee assistance and education made us a perfect team. Together, we’ve spent the last year building Tasilu.
Tasilu, meaning to reach in Arabic, is about community building. Using a web-based platform, Tasilu connects Oxford students/staff with local refugees and asylum seekers. It recruits qualified tutors who create profiles, which based on a variety of factors, enables us to present refugee families with a number of tutors that fit their needs. They then pick the tutor that works best for them – giving agency and choice to the refugee families involved.
Tasilu aims to address multiple challenges refugees experience. Under current UK policy, spontaneous arrival asylum-seekers are limited in the state services they can receive – resultantly, many struggle to access additional educational resources to help their children or themselves with language learning. Tasilu helps fill this gap. English competency is critical for helping refugees better advocate for themselves, navigate British bureaucracy, (which even native speakers struggle with), and helping make their case for refugee status. In addition, English skills helps access fruitful employment which can ensure refugee families can support themselves.
But Tasilu is about more than just learning English. As its name implies, it’s about forming connections and reaching out. Its personalised approach to learning means English tutors become more than just teachers, they become family. Many of the tutors end up celebrating events like birthdays and holidays with their families. Additionally, many families report that getting to know the tutors have made them braver about getting to know others in the local community and to feel less isolated. Together, tutors and families are helping expand the Oxford community.
Tasilu has come a long way. Leah, with help from a great mentor at Google, built a website, we have dozens of volunteers, and are actively working to reach more families. We’ve also won awards to support our efforts, including the Oxford Social Enterprise award and grants from Magdalen Trust and St. Michael’s Parish Charities. Despite no longer being Oxford-based (yet still not having an answer to the question of what comes next), Leah and I are still actively engaged. We are slowly navigating the process of registering as a charity (if any Scholars have advice on law firms that might help us with this pro-bono, we’d love to be in touch). We’re beginning the process of matching families and tutors for this year and exploring potential revenue models to make Tasilu sustainable. With time and if positive results continue, we’d love to expand. We’re excited to see what it may become and continue to build communities, one tutoring session at a time.
Rachel Mullin (South Dakota & Green Templeton 2016) completed her MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studied and MPP at Oxford. Her research focuses on the intersection of humanitarian assistance and development practices. She hopes to pursue a career in refugee policy work.