Refugees and asylum seekers: alone in the big Steel City

Integrating into a new city can be difficult for anyone.

So imagine travelling, often very dangerously, from overseas – you don’t know the language, you don’t know the people, and you don’t quite know what will be waiting for you when you get there.

This is the struggle that many refugees and asylum seekers face when they arrive in Sheffield. The city may be known for its friendliness, but understanding a strong Yorkshire accent can be confusing enough for English visitors, let alone anyone else. Finding housing, funding and friends, therefore, proves especially difficult for those from further afield.

‘Community Cohesion’ is the title of a recent report released by Sheffield City Council, which highlighted the need for better integration for refugees and asylum seekers.

Councillors have pledged to invest £835,000 into providing more organised and formal welcomes for new arrivals, employing street wardens to listen to people’s concerns, training council staff about migrants and creating a new Sheffield cohesion hub to support projects across the city.

All these ideas will hopefully help refugees and asylum seekers to an extent – but how can migrants progress without a language to listen, learn, communicate and therefore integrate?

The Conversation Club, at the heart of Sheffield city centre, invites refugees and asylum seekers to come and practise their English with volunteers as well as fellow Sheffield-newcomers.

Graham Cole, a retired ex-teacher, is one of the regular volunteers found on both Wednesday and Friday sessions at the club. Speaking with Graham revealed his empathy for refugees and asylum seekers living in Sheffield.

Having lived overseas for six years of his life, Graham understands the tendency to gravitate towards those from other countries.

Mr. Cole said: “The man who spoke to me in the first instance was African and I’ve lived in Africa.

“It was easy to be friendly but not easy to integrate.

“I just think I can return something.”

Mr. Cole highlights the importance of sitting down with refugees and asylum seekers, helping them with their English where possible, but most importantly, simply talking.


Speaking to a range of asylum seekers and refugees at the club revealed the lack of education available for them.

One asylum seeker has been in Sheffield for 4 ½ years now. His English is excellent, but with only four hours of college per week, this success seems largely down to his self-motivated involvement in volunteering and determination to learn. The 33-year-old seemed concerned for other, less confident refugees and asylum seekers that may not have the social or linguistic ability to integrate as well into the community.

The full ‘Community Cohesion’ report can be read here.