Volunteering at the Back to Backs
Yemen-born Khalil Ali took on the Summer Challenge at the Birmingham Back to Backs. The week-long training changed his life. This is from an original article in published in the National Trust Magazine
What is the Back to Backs Summer Challenge?
It’s a week of training for young people that teaches you how to become a tour guide. The Birmingham Back to Backs are tiny terraced houses where working families lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. The programme is funded by two National Trust members and one of the Back to Backs volunteers. They read about how the Summer Challenge helped all the young people involved, and decided to support it. The tour guide training usually takes six weeks, so there’s a lot to learn in only a week. I was 20 when I did it. It was scary and I was really shy, but the National Trust staff and volunteers supported me and built my confidence.
Why did you volunteer for the Summer Challenge?
I wanted to learn about the culture and the history of the UK. I’m from Yemen – I arrived as an asylum-seeker when I was 16. I’ve volunteered for about 2,000 hours since coming to the UK – with the Children’s Society, in an old people’s home, at community events and mentoring younger people. I find it really satisfying to help other people.
Did you know anything about the Trust when you started the Challenge?
Not at all. With English as my second language, I couldn’t understand what ‘National Trust’ meant. In my culture, we trust people just once and if they break that, we never trust them again. After the Summer Challenge, Mukith, who runs the programme, said: ‘Do you trust us now?’ I said: ‘With my life!’
What interests you about the Birmingham Back to Backs?
I’m interested in how working people used to live in really small houses and what they used to do. The Back to Backs remind me of war-torn Yemen at the moment. There’s a lot of poverty there because people don’t have jobs, and families tend to stay together in one house. I think places like the Back to Backs are very important to help young people understand their history and heritage. It’s not just for kids in the UK – a lot of young people from different countries didn’t know about the Back to Backs, but when they visited, they learned a lot.
How would you describe the houses to someone who has never been?
The houses are built back to back around a courtyard. When you step inside, you really feel like you’re in someone’s home; it’s very personal. There are three houses that have been restored to different times – the 1840s, 1870s and 1930s – and a 1970s tailor’s shop. The furniture and the collections inside the houses make you feel like you’re living in that time. The people who lived here worked really hard. Large families lived in these very small houses and they worked at home a lot too. There were woodworkers, button-makers and leatherworkers. These houses are the last examples of their kind left in Birmingham.
What were the highlights of your Summer Challenge?
The best thing was on the final day when we had to lead the tour. You feel like you’ve achieved something when you’re talking and people are listening to you. Anything new is always challenging, but it was such a great experience. It improved my confidence as well. It changed a lot of things in my life for the better.
What’s the best way to get young people interested in heritage?
If teenagers did something like the Summer Challenge, it would change their attitude and their life prospects as well. Whatever they want to do in their life – teaching, engineering, anything – it would make them believe that they can do it.