June 2, 2010

 I had the opportunity to work with both the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Family Services earlier this spring.  Quite a humbling experience to say the least.  I have a Master’s degree-but not in Farsi, Nepali, or Somali.   Not only did many of the participants have little or no command of English, but many were not able to read or write their native language.  This was particularly true of the women for whom education was not an option in their country of origin. As a result, I often felt awkward due to my limited frame of reference for the corresponding words in other languages.  And English is quite complicated. 

For example, say aloud the following words:  “meet” and “meat”.  Sound the same, right?  Same definition, right?  No.  Changing one vowel makes a big difference.  When reading, that difference is visually apparent; even if the meanings are unknown.  However, context is the key when speaking as many words in English sound the same (“there”, “their”, and “they’re” is another example) but have very different meanings.  The participants with whom I was working decided that they could understand “meet” when thinking about people and “meat” when thinking about cows.  (What happens when you encounter some cows blocking a road?  You then meet the meat.)

On the other hand, I make it a point to pay attention to world events and read constantly.  In fact, I often blame Terry Gross for breaking my budget as I often purchase and read books written by authors she has interviewed.  Doing so provides an understanding and context for this global community in which we all live.

For example, during one session at the IRC, we were discussing a worksheet designed to assist the participants with understanding tense-past, present, and future.  Included were questions such as “Where did you live?”, “Where do you live now?”, and “Where do you want to live in the future?”  One woman from Iraq talked openly about her life growing up in Baghdad and her current residence in America.  When it came to discussing the future, this is what she had to say:

“No speak of future in Baghdad.  Alive today, tomorrow dead.”

That is clear in any language.

Take care.


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