Common Conversation makes common sense for Leeds - Refugee Council
December 13, 2007

Common Conversation makes common sense for Leeds

Students from Common Conversation, an English language conversation class, are celebrating this week after their class won a national award. Common Conversation, held at “The Common Place” in Wharf St, Leeds city centre, offers informal English language lessons followed by a communal meal.

As well as providing an opportunity to learn English, the group has become very popular as a social space where the students can meet, make friends and feel they belong, improve their confidence using English and get involved in running the project too—cooking, cleaning up, assisting with lessons and helping organise social events.

This week the group learned that they were the national winners of the Marsh Refugee Volunteer Awards, an annual award for volunteer-run projects working with refugees or asylum seekers. The award, a cheque for £650, was presented in London last week at the Refugee Council AGM by Brian Marsh, Chair of the Marsh Christian Trust to Liz Maddocks, one of the volunteers. Anybody wanting to help with the classes can email

Liz Maddocks, a volunteer from the Refugee Council said,

“Common Conversation is run by about 20 volunteers, from Student Action for Refugees, The Common Place, Oblong Resource Centre and the Refugee Council. When we started last year we had about 8 students – now we have up to 50 students each week, so there’s plenty of demand! “

“Everyone is welcome at Common Conversation and the social aspect is just as important as the lessons themselves, providing an opportunity for people to make friends with local people and other refugees and asylum seekers. This really helps reduce isolation and promote community cohesion.“

“Many of our students now volunteer at Common Conversation too, assisting with interpreting, cooking the food, paying out the bus fares and organising social events, including trips out to the seaside and local attractions such as Harewood House.”

“Winning the Marsh Award will mean that we can keep the lessons running, buy some resources such as dictionaries and hopefully organise a social trip out soon. In the longer term we hope to secure funding for next year.”

Maad Al-Mashhadani, from Iraq said,

“I came to Common Conversation to learn English and to make new friends. I started coming 1 year ago. When I started I couldn’t understand any English but after one year I can speak and I am more confident. The volunteers are very friendly so I like to come and now I volunteer too because I want to help other people like they helped me.

I cook, I serve the food and I give out bus fares after the lesson. It is a social and friendly place. I can meet and talk with my friends – local people and other refugees and asylum seekers. Common Conversation is like my second family and Common Place is like my second home.”

Amal Mahmoud Al-Araji, from Iraq said,

“My English is quite good but I come to relax, to meet new people and to learn new phrases and words and to practice my conversation with native speakers.
When we are together we forget that we are asylum seekers with a number. We feel like human beings again and we feel like we are alive. You can’t forget that happiness. It feels very nice.”

“When we are here sitting and learning we forget where we are from and we are all united. We help each other, we make friends with each other and we are the Common Conversation group.”

Zoube Maelke, from Syria said,

“Common Conversation has improved my English and it’s free, so I can come. If I had to pay I couldn’t come. My wife and children have started coming too. I enjoy meeting new people and have made friends with local people and other refugees and asylum seekers. All the volunteers are friendly and helpful so I like coming every week. I also do the cooking because I like helping people and I like cooking.”

“Some asylum seekers can’t go to college, so this is the only place they can come. The trips are important too because they help us learn about the UK and we can socialise. This is very important because life is difficult for asylum seekers and refugees and sometimes we need to have fun and forget all the problems”.

Charlotte Cooke, Refugee Council Head of Operations (North) said,

“It’s common sense that people who come here fleeing persecution want to be able to learn English and get along with local people. Clearly, that’s good for them and good for Leeds. Recent government funding cuts for English classes have made that much harder.

Projects like Common Conversation are a special, creative place for people to learn English in a relaxed, friendly environment. “It shows what can be achieved with the goodwill of people in Leeds, and a small budget and helps to make our city a friendlier and safer place for all.”

Contact Richard Byrne, Refugee Council Regional Media Officer on 0113 386 2235 or 07776203404 for more information and to arrange photos/ interviews.