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  • Writer's pictureNatasha at Jacari

Volunteering with Jacari in the 1970s

Jane Shillaker (Jesus, 1978-81) shares her reflections on her time at Oxford and experience volunteering with Jacari in the late 1970s:

Reading about Jacari recently led me to reflect that Jacari was the one thing I did entirely for myself at Oxford. I read PPE at Jesus from 1978 to 1981 and went on to marry one of my fellow PPE students from the same college. As a consequence my Oxford memories revolve around joint friends, tutors and experiences. It has been quite something for me to think back more than 40 years to Jacari.

I became aware of Jacari at Freshers’ Fair and decided to follow it up from no greater impulse than it sounded a nice way to volunteer. I was put in touch with a secondary school and met there with a teacher who referred a young girl to me. She must have been about 12, a shy, pretty girl with very limited English. She was from Sylhet in Bangladesh and had only moved to England relatively recently.

I duly went round to her small Victorian terraced home in East Oxford once a week and did what I could to help her with her English. The girl lived there with a couple whom I initially assumed were her parents and a number of small brothers and sisters – there must have been at least three boys and possibly another little girl and there was definitely a baby along the line. The house was in a very sorry state and on at least one occasion her father asked for my help in writing a letter to the council about it. The adults had a very limited grasp of English – my recollection is that the oldest boy – who was maybe 8 or 9 – spoke it best and did a lot of translating. I was asked round to eat with them. The family were just lovely and I wished so much I could communicate with them properly.

In the summer we took the girl and her brother to Eights week and looking back at the photos my now husband took we all had great fun on that day out.

At the beginning of my third year, I returned to the house to be told she had gone back to Bangladesh. I was truly upset to find her gone and not even having had the chance to say goodbye. I did get one letter from her. I must have it somewhere still. I’m sure she mentioned that she now had a dog! During the time I helped her I formed the view that she was not in fact the daughter or sister of the rest of the family but some other relative who had been sent over to UK for whatever reason. Whenever subsequently I heard about Bangladesh in the news, I would think of her and wonder how her life turned out.

I don’t know what, if anything, my attempts at teaching English did for her but the interaction with that family did an enormous amount for me. I had not at that point in my life encountered anyone living in that level of poverty; not only did it bring home to me just how awful some people’s living conditions can be, even amongst the wealth of a city like Oxford, but also how much of a challenge it is to get by when you do not have functional English.

I was the first in my family to go to university at all, let alone Oxford. I knew I was privileged in that regard; my experience with Jacari grounded me for a lifetime by showing me that privilege extends beyond education to having a clean, dry home and a family with the skills needed to tackle everyday life.

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