INTERNATIONAL GRADUATE WIVES
by Wendy Rutter and Bodil Upton
In 1989 EUWC received a letter from Jan Hume in the Faculty of Arts Office enquiring if they would like to hold a coffee morning for the wives of overseas post-graduate researchers. Many members of the committee had themselves spent a year abroad with their husband and often with young children and had experienced the help and support of their opposite numbers, and so they were delighted to host such a morning in Edinburgh. Thus yet another branch on the Tea Club began to grow. Over the next two and a half years several well-attended coffee mornings were enjoyed and many questions about life in Scotland answered, but each occasion tended to end with a sense of frustration: 'When will the next one be held?' The questioning however did produce a more permanent response. Four of the committee - among them Patricia Richardson, Myra Hamilton, and Wendy Rutter, decided to collect information about education, finance, health care, children's activities and much more, which was then put together on simple typed sheets and handed out to the visiting wives, along with other leaflets containing local information. These became the basis for our later Welcome Book.
The University of Edinburgh welcomed increasing numbers of overseas post-graduate students, some of whom were married, and 1992 was the year when we began in earnest with regular 'information mornings' on health, finance, food and nursery provision, together with two mornings English classes each Tuesday during the winter months. The classes were begun in response to the young women, who needed both an inexpensive start to their English language learning and, for those who had small children, an informal creche. The Committee members who had first volunteered to help, from the beginning Patricia Tothill and Jo Knox, were joined by others, some long-serving - Helen Duggan from Australia is remembered fondly, Anthea Pawley who, with Patricia Tothill enabled us to hold our end up when lovely and interesting craft objects were displayed by our international members, and Joyce Jones, who involved herself with both the Senior Group and our youngest customers. We were delighted with our list of forty-five wives from twenty countries and nineteen university departments, many of whom attended regularly, who were joined, over time, by fifteen Edinburgh wives (many of whom were on the main Women's Club committee) to run the events. One of our first volunteer English teachers was Sandra Dent, and among our first regular attenders were Tzu Ling (Taiwan), Norah (Saudi Arabia) and Zuzana (Czech Republic). By the spring of 1994, Zuzana was herself helping with the classes in English and she is still in regular contact as we write this in 2005. Wendy Rutter attended a training course to continue with the teaching when Sandra left Edinburgh, Bo Upton joined her, and subsequently Patricia Fraser and Angela Harte, which allowed for some cover for absences.
We had found that our Welcome Book was much appreciated, and so in 1993 we totally rewrote and expanded it. The International Office undertook to print it and to underwrite its cost (£120), which they have continued to do ever since. On his world-wide visits the Director of the International Office, Dr. Tom Barron, was able to flourish the Welcome Book when asked: 'Is there anything for my wife to join?'
Many of the wives were in the habit of bringing in traditional foods for us to taste at various times including New Year, Eid and Ramadan, and fairly hilarious cookery demonstrations were given in a crowded kitchen in number 5 by Anita from India as well as Fumiko Usui. In January 1994 we presented a morning devoted to Scottish foods, all tasted before lunch! All this made us consider: 'Why not offer a buffet lunch?' Thus evolved our first and highly successful 'International Lunch' in March 1994. It was followed by an equally successful 'Scottish Lunch' in December of the same year attended by thirty-three wives, numerous children and ten helpers. So far we had offered a programme only between October and March. The wives were disappointed not to have any activities arranged in the Summer Term, and so from summer 1995 we offered six activity mornings including visits to the Royal Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Childhood and Lauriston Castle, as well as sessions in the flat devoted to 'Wedding Traditions' and board games.
By 1995 we had fifty wives from twenty-five countries and five new babies on our list, and many of them were appreciating 5 Buccleuch Place as a regular fixture in their week, while at the same time uncertainties grew about the best use of the space available in the flat. In June, we submitted a carefully crafted report on our activities, numbers and nationalities to the Director of the International Office, who together with his staff gave us warm support, distributed our programmes, continued to pay for our Welcome Book and for the first time donated £50 towards our running costs. This gift has become an annual one, and is particularly welcome since we charge the wives only a nominal sum (£1.00) or nothing at all for our refreshments, photocopying and general administration. It is important that we keep costs down, since fees and living costs in Edinburgh are very high for overseas students, even those from comparatively well-off countries. Many have saved very hard to come are in their thirties by the time that they arrive. Frequently visa restrictions prevent their wives from working in better paid jobs. During the academic session 2002-2003 several highly educated South American, African, and Chinese wives worked as cleaners in the University, night-duty nursing assistants, waitresses, or cake-decorators on the 6am shift at Greggs, to help overcome their financial problems.
Another area where consultations with the University and with the International Office proved helpful was with regard to our accommodation. We continued to use 5 Buccleuch Place until December 2003, but then moved along the street to 24 Buccleuch Place. Our greatest wish is always that the wives come out of their homes, gain play space and company for their children and meet new friends and sources of information.
By the mid-nineties numbers continued to grow, with an intermediate English class often having up to twenty participants from a dozen or more countries, and we were now able to offer classes also at 'advanced' and 'beginner' levels. We remember particularly our three Rwandan wives, Elsie, Helene and Josephine, who had escaped from the trauma in their country. They were all determined to master English and add to their individual qualifications, and succeeded spectacularly; we remain in contact with them a decade later.
The University has from the start given us a lot of help; the Works Department put up a coat rack at child height and made its first ever baby changing table - a great asset to our young mothers; the Furniture Office was equally helpful when a filing cabinet and more appropriate tables were needed, and our own finances enabled us to put a lot of equipment ranging from a stainless steel tea pot to dolls and toy cars. Many members of the Women's Club have donated clothes and equipment to loan to the visiting families, none of who fly across the world with a cot or piles of toys! They in turn recycle many items amongst themselves.
The happy atmosphere in our Group is owed very much to the volunteer helpers who care for the 'wee ones' and provide friendship, advice, and a listening ear or at times a shoulder to cry on for the young women - among them, in the mid-nineties, Jean Usher who provided much happy piano-playing with the little ones, Toni Thomas, and Jean Duff. As 'aunt' and 'granny' figures to these multi-cultured families we derive great pleasure from gaining their trust and watching them develop. The sheer range of countries and cultures is exciting. The millennium year for example added a whole new group: Angola, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgystan, Mongolia, and Zimbabwe (Chimed, our Mongolian wife, appreciated the 'warmth' of an Edinburgh winter so much that she wore summer clothes - her own winter temperature can descend to 50C!)
For the wives themselves the international links developed in Edinburgh survive and flourish: Annette from Germany chose to marry her French husband in Tobermory; Hungarian Elizabeth was especially invited to open her University Graduation Ball in Budapest with a demonstration of Scottish dances; Japanese Mika visited Argentinian Rossana in Brazil; Guatemalan Claudia flew to Santiago to join five close Chilean friends, all of whom met originally in our flat at 5 Buccleuch Place. Rosanna and Alejandra, both from Santiago, met and made friends in Edinburgh and remain so back home; Alejandra is also still in contact with Chika from Japan. The young wives often inform newcomers from their own country of the Group - Xiao-hui from China and Fumiko, Japan, as well as Patti (Patricia) from Mexico, have been good at finding young newcomers to the Group. The University has given us a slot on their website, and quite often a freshly arrived young post-graduate student, having read about the group in advance, turns up at No. 24 with his wife, anxious to establish contacts for her before he starts his own work. Eveline Harkness has been a link with the Garden Group and a few wives have come along on garden visits. Vanessa Scarth became a helper and a good friend of one of our Muslim wives, Marion Donovan from Germany has been a welcome support for some of the few German wives we see, and Jo Blackburn has brought us her considerable skills as a granny. We have learned to reciprocate Far Eastern bows and expect hugs and kisses from our Latin American members, and seen many tearful good-byes, and addresses exchanged.
As the needs of our visiting wives change, so our own approaches evolve. For example, we now have relatively few 3-5 year olds because most of them quickly achieve nursery places; an increasing number of wives gain places on more extensive language or computing courses; since visa restrictions have changes to take account of the high cost of living, some wives can obtain jobs more appropriate to their abilities. We now have far fewer wives from Africa, but large and consistent groups from Japan, China, Korea, Russia and Latin America. Jack McConnell, the current (2005) Scottish First Minister, has been encouraging successful overseas postgraduate students to stay on in Scotland for a while and share their expertise to the benefit of the Scottish economy. We can confirm that a growing number of families are following this route: we are currently in touch with families from Uruguay, Chile, Russia, Japan, the Czech Republic, China, Mexico and Germany who are all looking forward to being here for some years to gain experience and promotion and to contribute to all aspects of Scottish life. Several husbands have returned to Edinburgh as post-doctoral fellows to participate in international research projects here.
We are adapting to change and we still feel that we are needed, valued and appreciated. That feeling is supported by the many letters, e-mails, cards and photographs we receive, as well as by the number of former members who pop in to see us. We hear, too, of the successes of husbands re-establishing themselves on their return home. One Chilean husband recently undertook the long and costly journey back to Edinburgh to receive his postgraduate degree in person. He told us how important Edinburgh was to him: he had gained not only his degree here, but a whole range of experiences that he would value for the rest of his life.
Now, with a well-established but flexible formula and a tight-knit group of generous and supportive helpers we are able to offer four teachers, if in a limited space, each Tuesday for about 35 weeks of the year together with plenty of support for the babies and toddlers and an element of extended family. On about six Thursdays we arrange social events, go out on visits or enjoy each other's music or crafts. The Scottish and International lunches always prove particularly popular. The wives show great pride in offering and sharing their dishes and are sometimes able to wear their national costume too.
We all of us, the Women's Club members and overseas wives alike, cherish these experiences which have given us a wide open window on the world. Real friendships are made and continue to be nurtured long after the award of the postgraduate degree. Chilean Alejandra had never met anyone from Africa before she came to Edinburgh, but in Sudanese Eva she gained a true friend. Truly, we are all now part of the 'global village'.