Found in Translation

Recently my husband went with Refugee Services to pick up a refugee from the airport and help him get to his new home.

Usually this involves showing the individual or family around their new apartment, helping them understand what food is on their shelves, and then leaving them alone so that they can sleep for a full day and try, somehow, to regain their energy after a very difficult trip.

It is probably impossible to understand what it is like to go from life in a tent to life in a new apartment with indoor plumbing. And it is definitely impossible to understand what that is like after years in a refugee camp and the trauma of life in a war-torn country.

That is, unless it’s your story, too.

Refugee Services tries to welcome refugees whenever they can with someone else from their home country. When my husband went to the airport, he brought along two guys who were also refugees from the arriving man’s home country.

When the man walked out of the gate, the first faces he saw were two other people from his homeland, running up to greet him in his native language – a language he had not heard once on his long journey of flights. It was shocking and wonderful to him that this foreign country, which in many ways he likely feared, could also be filled with people so familiar.

They laughed together and talked about the differences between this country and theirs. They made sure he had everything he needed, and helped show him how the thermostat and blinds work in his new apartment.

They began looking through the kitchen, showing the refugee how to use the appliances and what all of the food was. The new arrival held up a jar of dark powder. In his native language he asked what it was. The other two men laughed.

“It is coffee,” they told him.

“This?” Hysterical with laughter, the refugee said, “No, this is not coffee.”

Actually, it was Sanka. And while many people in this country might call Sanka a brand of instant coffee, these men from the coffee region of Africa know better. They, more than almost any other person in this country, know coffee when they see it.

The media doesn’t talk about refugees much, and when they do it is often a nostalgic story about how much better life is for them in the West.

In actuality, refugees receive very little aid and support after they arrive in the United States. They often start out in dangerous neighborhoods (at least by our standards) and work themselves ragged trying to learn English and find a job as quickly as possible.

They have loans to the US government that have to be paid by a deadline, children to feed on just food stamps and a few dollars, and a lifetime of hardship to harden their hearts. It is not always as easy as seeing their first snow and knowing everything here is peaceful and will be all right.

In fact, as much as we can work to help them get through the transition, feel safe in our cities, welcomed into our lives, nothing can compare with the mother tongue. Nothing can compare with another person of your color and language and culture laughing with you about the dirt these Americans call coffee.

When aiding refugees, it is always helpful to speak many languages. Some of our friends who have careers on the field can speak ten! But as culturally sensitive and adaptable as we can learn to be, there is something humbling and wonderful in being translated to, in getting to watch from the outside as two comrade strangers are reunited as though long-lost friends.

4 Responses to “Found in Translation”
  1. joan says:

    What a wonderful thought to wake up to.

  2. Claire says:

    What a nice glimpse into this experience. So much of this scenario is information I’ve never thought about, and I’m so glad you shared this experience. SO very glad some of the man’s countrymen were there to welcome him!

  3. If I happen upon a refugee somewhere, I will be extra nice to him or her considering the elequent way you detail their struggles. If I happen to become a refugee some day, well I hope that someone like you will be there to help me.

  4. Mary says:

    So happy to read about this!

    My friend Jan and I were talking about our experience of being “international whisperers”, and what it’s not nearly as useful as being from the culture itself, or looking like the person, but at least we can have learned to be cultural “brokers” or translators.

    Just coming alongside, and observing their responses, and not pushing our culture on them (despite all they “have” to learn in our minds), respecting how much they already know in their own culture.

    It takes time, and patience and love.

    I cringe when I hear loud American voices pounding away at these poor people, trying to jolly them into understanding, and then snide remarks from professionals who become offended when their “best” efforts at communication aren’t understood.

    We as an adult culture just don’t have much experience at waiting around for someone to “catch on”, especially if they are the same size and age as we are.

    It takes real perseverence and courage to become an American Citizen these days.

    I guess it depends on our attitudes, but I often kindly approach someone with a foreign accent, tell them it is beautiful and ask them what their first language is.

    When they tell me, and after we talk a bit, I welcome them to our country (if they are indeed new here) I tell them I’m so glad they are here and wish them all the best!

    Instead of just looking at someone’s foreign face and “guessing” they are strangers, this approach never offends and always end well.

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