When Neda Nazari first arrived in Scotland, there was plenty to be nervous about.

“There were so many new things like language and culture that I didn’t know much about,” she tells me. “And I only knew a little English.”

To make matters worse, the local Glaswegian accent was so alien that, at first, she didn’t actually believe that those around her were speaking English at all.

Neda and her husband had come from Iran and were eager to “merge into the society” they found here, but their circumstances and limited knowledge of the “rules and laws” in their new home were an obvious barrier.

Luckily, a contact told her about English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) classes, and she was able to enrol in a college programme.

“I had studied some English about 10 years before we arrived here and hadn’t used what I had learned so I almost had forgotten it all. But going to college really helped me to remember everything. We had two teachers and they were really helpful. I’m always thankful for them.”

After this initial course, Neda progressed through the various ‘intermediate’ ESOL levels, and her developing language skills allowed her to continue integrating into Scottish society.

She began working with a local charity on a zero-hours contract, but then received an email inviting her to participate in a project involved the Scottish Refugee Council and the retailer IKEA. In May 2021, that experience turned into a permanent job, and she also decided to study Higher ESOL at the same time.

Longer-term, however, she has started to consider a tantalising possibility: “Sometimes I think about going to university. I don’t know when, or if it’s going to happen, but I was thinking if I study for a year I can get my Masters in psychology and then I could help in schools or as a counsellor.”

That narrative – from desperate beginnings to a desire to contribute – is not uncommon amongst ESOL students, and Neda is just one example of why the provision of support services for people like her is such a pressing issue. This is especially true in Glasgow, which is a dispersal city for asylum seekers and home to more of them than any other council area.

The Herald: Neda Nazari says ESOL course changed her life. Photo Gordon Terris.Neda Nazari says ESOL course changed her life. Photo Gordon Terris. (Image: Newsquest)


One of the key ways in which this work has been supported was through the EASE Project, which operated out of Glasgow Clyde College’s Langside campus.

Its work was carried out in two strands. First of all, two ESOL teachers were employed to carry out language assessments in community venues in the city, with results then used to assign individuals to an English class at the right level for them. Over more than a decade of operation, the project helped thousands of people access the form and level of learning that they required to take the next step in their lives.

The second part of the project, however, went much further. In order to keep as many people in college courses as possible, and conscious that vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers would be particularly susceptible to the pressures that force students out of education, the project staff were tasked with actively advocating for students not just inside the college, but also beyond.

Jim Lee was the EASE project co-ordinator for nearly ten years before retiring towards the end of 2023. He tells me that the main aim was “to engage with a wide range of public service providers, and some private providers, to advocate on behalf of the ESOL students where they were clearly not able to do so.

“This was because of an obvious language barrier, a lack of understanding of such societal structures that we often take for granted, or a problem with the provision.”

He adds that “health, education, employment and legal services were all contacted on a regular basis,” and that community and voluntary organisations also offered “invaluable additional support”.

Sometimes, the job involved helping people through various levels of officialdom, such as applications for benefits, educational support provision, or healthcare appointments – the kind of ‘standard’ issues that someone may face when they do not yet understand the language being used by those around them.

But some stories are incredibly shocking: the Afghan woman whose estranged husband tracked her down in Glasgow; the Eritrean man attacked while watching a football game; the apparently endless line of students so traumatised that they experience severe flashback episodes leaving them physically and emotionally drained.

Or the Iraqi who swallowed a bottle of pills when told she would be deported. Jim was the one who took her to the hospital in a wheelchair he found in a cupboard, and then kept in touch afterwards.

The whole approach was based on engagement that was person-centred, non-judgment and compassionate at all times. Many of those who have been supported by it, including Neda, speak incredibly highly not just of the project, but of Jim Lee himself.

The Herald:

All of this work was beneficial to Glasgow, and to Scotland, but ask why it really mattered and Lee’s answers aren’t economic, or even social – they’re simply human.

“It can be difficult for a person with a UK or European centric perception to understand or empathise with the dark forces that came to an immigrants’ homeland; ‘push factors’ that were sufficiently powerful to drive them halfway around the world to escape. But it is not difficult to understand the natural desire to seek a future without war or personal persecution because of one’s political, cultural, or religious beliefs.  To find and live in peace.  If asked, that was the overwhelming desire of all of the people that I tried to support. 

 “The EASE Project showed people how to access basic services. How to navigate the systems that would help sustain them in their hour of temporary need. For this need was temporary. Every person that I supported, wanted to regain their personal pride and self-respectability.  To become self-sufficient once again.  The real aim of the EASE Project was to help them to do that, to walk in the light once more.

“That’s why it mattered.”