My best social justice experiences have always been face-to-face, one-on-one. Doing something for someone has always been more fulfilling than writing letters or joining a picket line. So when Neighborhood Church decided to aid a Syrian refugee family, I signed on. My first task was to take the mother and her baby to the doctor. I recall driving VERY carefully that day – I hadn’t had a baby in my car for many years and there was a precious package in the back seat. The conversation was very limited – we exchanged names and I pointed to where she was to sit. As we waited in the sweltering June sun at the public health office for the rest of the family, I communicated by gestures and pantomime that we should wait in the car – the baby had no hat and little hair and the mother was covered entirely in heat-absorbing black except for face and hands.
Communication – words – English, how vital they are to getting to know and understand someone. A light went on somewhere in my head. I have been teaching English as a Second Language for some years, but always to groups of people who already had some basic English – never to a person or a family who knew less than 10 English words – and of course my knowledge of Arabic was zero. How do you teach English when you can’t explain something using other words? How do you start at the very beginning?
But I wanted very much to try, so when the family was together with an Arabic translator I offered to teach the mother and any of the other family members English. She was very surprised and interested. We agreed to begin when Ramadan was over.
I was constantly surprised by what the family knew and what they didn’t know. We started with basic identity information: name, address, phone number. Names were relatively easy. Address? She had no idea what I was talking about. So I taught it to her, had her memorize it and later showed her what the parts of it meant. Phone number? “I no phone.” “You don’t have a phone? How about your husband’s phone number?” She didn’t know the number, since she had never had to call him. She memorized that also.
I later learned that most Syrian towns don’t have well-ordered streets with numbers for each building. You reached someone’s house by knowing how to get to a well-known place nearby. So there is often no such thing as an address in the western sense.
We talked about when the children were born. In our culture that’s a fact immediately known. I was surprised when the mother hesitated. Each time I asked, the answer was different. Later I realized that Syria does not use our western calendar, so she was translating from one system to another and estimating. But, with a bit of coaching, both parents already knew the names of all the months of the year and days of the week.
The family’s twin babies were born in January, we were told. The mother and her sister were sitting at the dinette table in their apartment on a sweltering August morning. I decided to take a chance. I said “on birthdays, American families have a big party with a cake.” I had not idea whether they understood a word I was saying, but they were listening carefully, so I continued. “We put candles on the cake and light them.” At this point I was pantomiming the candles, the match lighting. “The kids blow them out.” I blew out through my lips. Immediately, in perfect unison, they burst into song – in English – “Happy Birthday to you…” (They also knew and sang the Arabic words.) I was astounded and they were delighted. Even in a place as geographically and culturally far away as Syria, children celebrated a birthday as we did.
I decided to teach English words for familiar things. Parts of the body by playing a “point to” game. Fruits and vegetables by bringing samples and looking at newspaper ads. Furniture and objects by bringing pictures and pointing to what was in the apartment. Actions using pantomime. (Pantomime is great – except when the actions involve more dexterity than I now possess. The children came home from school with suggested activities involving hop, skip, jump. I suddenly discovered that my body would no longer follow my request to hop or skip! Growing old is not for those who cannot laugh at their inabilities!)
And why am I doing this? First of all for the challenge of figuring out how to communicate meaning to a willing learner who knows so little English. Secondly, because I know that teaching English is like opening up a fascinating book. Each time a new set of words and grammar is mastered, I can find out more and more about my student by asking questions she wouldn’t have understood last week. Also I realize how closely language and meaning is tied to culture – without streets and numbers, there are no addresses.
But most of all I have come to realize that a new Syrian refugee’s wife leads a very narrow and traditional life – she cooks, cleans, does the laundry and takes care of her children. She seldom leaves the apartment, partly because she must always be with her infant, but also because she cannot speak to those she meets. Her husband shops for food, runs errands, is free to become familiar with the community. By teaching the mother some communication skills, I am learning more about her culture and life and perhaps opening a door for her to explore and understand ours.
-Audrey Vaughan, NUUC Member