Justin Robinson

Security isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when you think of BT, but when it comes to keeping everyone safely connected, ‘We Are The Protectors’. Justin is one of them. We sat down with him, to learn about his career with us and discuss the volunteer work he does setting up English speaking practices for Ukrainian refugees.

Hi Justin, why don't you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your role in BT?

I joined BT in 1998 as one of the first people brought in to start an eBusiness and IP-enabled portfolio at the time when BT was launching its first dial-up IP connectivity for consumers. I now have a cyber partnerships role in Security which is about directing vendor partnerships to enable sales in Cyber Security.

You’ve been with BT for almost 25 years. How has your career changed and grown since joining?

I started with devising a new internet-based business for consumers and business customers such as providing dial-up internet to people and consulting with banks on the journey to online business. I have worked in many industries and public sector areas and now focus on security capabilities.

Can you tell us about the volunteer work you’ve been doing to support Ukrainian refugees?

Almost immediately as refugees began leaving Ukraine, I realised many would have little or no English when arriving in the UK – especially as the government had no provision for this. I had experience teaching English many years ago and know a few words of Russian and wanted to provide the most urgent practical lessons to enable refugees to introduce themselves, request food, apply for schools and assistance, generally explain what they need and understand our manners so they could get along with their hosts. We devised a kind of “speed teaching” using conversational drills with English-speaking volunteers which are then repeated with other volunteers who swap places. Gradually, I introduce some basic grammar, games and even some creative role-play improvisations as their confidence grows. They arrive with differing levels of English and the drills need to allow for varying levels of ability.

What made you want to start this project?

I visited the Soviet Union and Poland while a student myself and then taught English at Polish universities during martial law from 1982-86. I learned to speak some Polish and Russian and still have Polish, Russian and Ukrainian friends.

I had anticipated the need for English language learning immediately after Ukrainian refugees got their visas, arrived and were being hosted. With my former TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training and my personal concern for the conflict, I felt it was right to devise a way to offer practical-speaking lessons among local Ukrainian hosting initiatives organised by North Moreton, Harwell, Brightwell and elsewhere in Oxfordshire where I now live.

Since you started the project, what progress have you made?

The main way to measure progress is really threefold. First, I expanded my own support rallying about thirty-five volunteers to help fifty odd refugees to learn basic English (who themselves support an even greater number of children). In many cases, these refugees have started some kind of work and are able to manage their lives and support their children who naturally learn English faster at school! But as the tragedy drags on, I realise the fundamental contribution is from the regular, sympathetic contact with all the volunteers – encouraging the refugees to find their own voice in a safe but strange country while all the time feeling the profound compassion of each volunteer at their side.

What would you say to people that want to get involved, but don't know where to start?

Just start by finding some refugees and their host families! Most face-to-face lessons are organised locally and aren't often promoted online. Many started as tea or coffee drop-in sessions.  I would suggest finding out who is hosting families in your community and asking what you can do to help or get involved. Please ask what is being done for English-speaking practice and offer to participate or start something, however small.

This requires people to take the initiative as there is no national response to teaching English to adults, only their children. You will need a basic DBS check (safeguarding), especially if children are routinely involved.

You can also try contacting your local council or check with the following: Ukrainian Societies, adult learning centres, libraries/Village Hall info, Church/Parish reps, refugee organisations.

How have you managed to balance your volunteer work with your day-to-day job?

I got support from my line manager to do this, but I hold lessons at the end of the working day or the evening, so it hardly interferes with my work. I started similar initiatives in four communities and encouraged some other educational initiatives. I had to limit my own contribution somewhat by “training the trainers” so that others can lead the English-speaking volunteers. I lead a couple of the groups each week and support the others. 

What's your hope for the people you're helping?

I hope to help people find their own voice again and feel they can start to take back their lives and re-build here for however long they need.  

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