Voices GY – Providing critical support for vulnerable migrant groups

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By Lakhram Bhagirat

Charlie Tokeley and Christian Vargas started Voices GY in 2018 after recognising the need for migrant support in Guyana and ever since they have been continuously working to improve the integration capabilities of migrants.

Charlie and Christian came to Guyana a few years prior to them starting Voices GY and always sought out places where other people speak different languages. Over time, they would have small social gatherings under the Spanglish GY banner where persons would meet up and try to communicate in various languages as much as possible. That grew from small events to the Language Lounge where it was bigger and had several designated areas for various languages.

It was focused on the cultural exchange, language and experiences. However, in 2017-2018 when the situation in Venezuela began rapidly deteriorating and a lot of persons started flocking Guyana, they recognised the need for a comprehensive plan to address the challenges faced by the migrants and in some cases, remigrants.

Voices GY now works in three areas – migration, culture and environment.

I recently sat down with the education team which forms part of the migration department which is primarily responsible for teaching English to migrants and Spanish to frontline migration workers.

Before we get into what the three-member education team does at Voices GY, we need to meet them.

Let us start with the Education Programme Coordinator, Sunita Samaroo. Sunita has been working in migration since 2018 as a volunteer and later became an employee with Voices GY. She is particularly keen when it comes to social development issues since it is the area she studied in.

Project Assistant for Education, Carolina Singh

Her mother is Haitian while her father is Guyanese. Sunita was born in Haiti and moved to Guyana when she was just about six months old and explained that part of her drive for working in migration comes from being a migrant herself.

“I hope to leave the world a little better. I know I am one person but if I can help persons to realise their own rights and help them to be able to adjust in this particular context (then it will be a bit better). One of our most important things is social integration and people come from different places for different reasons and that is important for us to ensure they’re here comfortably and that they can get by just fine. So, if I can help that process in whatever way whether it’s through language classes or as I was previously working on a livelihood project helping people to earn a living, I will do that and that’s something I can do,” she said.

Carolina Singh was born in Venezuela to Guyanese parents and moved to Guyana a few years ago. When she came, being raised in a different culture, she found it hard to adapt to the Guyanese culture. She had had to learn a whole new language to be able to integrate in the Guyanese society as well as further her education.

“This would have pushed me to try to help as much as I can do my very best to smooth this reintegration in this society. We cannot change the system but we can help people to adjust the system…it was challenging for me I know what the struggle is out there for migrants. So I want to do as much as I can to assist in a smoother integration for those persons,” Carolina said.

Education Programme Coordinator Sunita Samaroo

Carolina serves as the Project Assistant for the Voices GY’s Education Department with primary responsibility for teaching Spanish to frontline migration workers in Guyana. This ensures that persons interfacing with migrants in their own workplaces – whether it is a Government agency or NGO – can do so by bridging the communication gap.

“Here at Voices, we saw the need to expose persons that deal directly with migrants to the Spanish language so that when these persons approach them, it’s easier for them to understand them and can meet their needs more efficiently. You might find situations where the migrants are trying to explain themselves and they don’t know how to express it, and therefore if we have our frontline workers, knowing the language or at least the basics in, it will help a lot,” Carolina said.

Meanwhile, Maryoris Maestre had no connection to Guyana before moving here. Like many of her countryfolks, she left Venezuela to escape the economic and financial hardships the country is currently experiencing.

Maryoris worked as a professional elementary school teacher while in Venezuela but just about 21 months ago she packed up her three children and husband and moved. She explained that the move was a particularly hard one because she had to leave her life behind.

“I decided to move to Guyana, because the economy in Venezuela is very unstable and now the salary in Venezuela is US$3 per month and it’s not enough for a family, you know,” she told me.

Her husband had to leave Guyana because he was not finding a job here and moved to the United States where he can work as a petroleum engineer. Maryoris was an English student at Voices GY and when they had an opening for a teacher to teach English to migrants, she jumped at the opportunity.

Now she serves at a Project Assistant in the Education Department with her main focus being English as a second language (ESL).

The ESL programme is perhaps the biggest one at Voices GY with hundreds of participants. The main objective is to assist migrants from different backgrounds, who are trying to learn English. Based on their knowledge of the language, they are placed at different levels. The objective of the programme is bridging the communication gap and positioning the migrants to better integrate and function in the Guyanese society.

Project Assistant for Education, Maryoris Maestre

Voices GY not only provides the teaching for free to migrant groups but they also assist in addressing the various challenges the students may have. They would help with connectivity issues, since all the classes are now online owing to the coronavirus pandemic as well as offer psychological support to the migrants.

“So, all of our services offered to migrant persons are free. Nobody has ever had to pay for an English class or psychological support or anything like that it’s all free,” Sunita said.

Voices GY receives funding from various organisations namely the International Organisation for Migration, UNCHR, Pan American Development Foundation, United States Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, among others.

Graduation ceremony of one of the first courses Voices GY held back in 2019

“I really can’t imagine a space in Guyana where Voices doesn’t exist, simply because we, on a daily basis, fill something that’s needed… A person comes they learn a language or they learn to be able to interface with that language. You can’t take that away from them. That’s something that they will have for a really long time and that is something that will impact their life in a very positive way,” Sunita related.

The three women along with the rest of the team at Voices GY continue to go above and beyond to meet the needs of the migrant population here in Guyana. They are committed to ensuring those vulnerable groups are properly integrated into the Guyanese society.