‘Why, who makes much of a miracle?’ Shared Reading in Skelmersdale
How one Shared Reading group is making a difference for asylum seekers in the North West
Tucked away in the streets of Skelmersdale in the North West of England is The Ecumenical Centre, known locally as ‘The Eccy’. Established in the 1970s, the centre is a place of worship and home to an array of events and activities serving the whole community.
One of the weekly activities hosted at the centre is a Friday afternoon Shared Reading group. The group was originally set up by volunteer, Jane, a retired teacher from Lancashire who now runs it with the help of another Reader Leader, Mel.
Jane says: “After I’d trained to become a volunteer for The Reader I heard about the community of refugees and asylum seekers in Skelmersdale. My daughter works for The British Red Cross so I was aware of the plight of refugees, and I wanted to do something to help.
“I approached a local library, which offered services and support to people seeking asylum, and asked if I could set up a Shared Reading group. They put me in touch with The Ecumenical Centre and we’ve been here ever since – which is more than three years now.
“Group members often pass through quickly as their status changes and they move on, but over the years we’ve read with people from Iran, Palestine, Syria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Recently we’ve had more people joining from Eastern Europe and Ukraine, sometimes we have mums coming along and bringing their children which is lovely.”
The Reader recently dropped in to read with the group which, on this particular Friday, comprised people from Iran, Albania, Ukraine, Palestine, Turkey and Darfur.
Reader Leader, Mel, had brought along Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Miracles’. Looking around the table at the group of people gathered together from around the world in this unassuming room in a community centre in a small Northern town, felt, without exaggeration, like some sort of miracle in itself.
The universal theme of the poem transcended language barriers and, thanks to Mel’s kind and gentle guidance, the discussion was rich, both in laughter and quiet reflection. It was particularly moving to hear one of the group members recount an experience from his journey when he witnessed a fellow refugee being rescued from the sea.
‘To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves – the
Ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?’
We ended the session by reading the poem aloud, in unison. Hearing these words that were first published in 1856, read live and aloud in a range of voices from around the world was a joyous reminder that, whatever our own personal story, ‘we are far more united than the things that divide us’.1
‘These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.’
Group member, Tariq, came to the UK from Palestine two years ago. He had been living in Gaza with his family where he was studying law but eventually he was forced to flee with his brother to escape the continued conflict that has become part of everyday life under the Hamas regime.
Tariq is seeking asylum in the UK and has been attending the Shared Reading group for the last 18 months.
He says “Through the group I’ve made new friends and my English has improved a lot. I’ve discovered many new words through poetry and it’s helped me to develop my knowledge of everyday English.”
This last point about Shared Reading as a tool for language-learning has deep significance for Reader Leader, Jane who says “For displaced people, so much of their interaction with their new country is transactional – filling in forms and so on. I wanted to communicate with them as humans – soul to soul.
“Shared reading really is a way to meet people as equals, where we are all learning from each other. The literature is a catalyst for connection which is so needed by transient and marginalised communities. For that hour when we’re stuck into a great poem or story they feel seen and heard.”
As a charity, we rely on the generous support of individuals and organisations to help us change lives through Shared Reading. A donation allows us to train volunteers, provide resources for groups and help reach more people. We want to make sure everyone can attend a Shared Reading group, no matter their background, income or situation, and we'll be so grateful for your help.
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