The ease of day-to-day communication is something that I take advantage of; at home and on campus, I speak the same language and come from a similar culture as almost everyone I interact with. For the most part, it takes little to no effort to understand those around me. Being in Serbia has presented two distinct communicative challenges: not understanding the native language of the country nor the languages spoken by most of the people that I interact with at work.
Before coming to Serbia, I did not expect my English or French language skills to be particularly useful, and while it has come in handy now and then, that prediction was quite accurate. Most refugees who come into my organization, Info Park, speak Farsi or Arabic, with some having at least a basic level of English. I have encountered very few refugees who spoke French, and those that do often preferred Arabic. This has made communication especially difficult. It means explaining complex things, like the Serbian system for receiving refugees or the rules regarding who we can provide food, in simple terms. It also means asking for assistance from my colleagues more often than not.
Amidst my daily communication struggles, I have also been thinking about the frustration that refugees must feel when communicating with myself and my coworkers. It can be difficult to express one’s needs when you’re coming from two different languages and cultures. In particular, I have noticed that it is challenging to explain to refugees why we cannot provide hot food to them if they are not new arrivals and/or have not registered with the authorities. One of my colleagues recently explained to me that, for many of those of Islamic faith, feeding the hungry is an integral part of their religion. When a group of refugees did not understand why we could feed some people and not others and became upset, she told them, “If you came to my home, I would feed you. But this is an office, so I must follow the office rules.” They almost immediately understood her point and ended up thanking her when they left the office.
This interaction, among countless others I’ve experienced, has reinforced the importance of compassion in communication. My coworker observed this group of refugees’ frustrations and took a moment to remind herself that there may be more than one explanation for their interpretations of the situation. In doing so, she hoped to convey the message that she did indeed care for and sympathize with them, but unfortunately, her hands were tied.
I took that lesson to heart and attempted to apply it in my own interactions with refugees. It’s easy to assume that someone fully understands you, especially when the office is hectic and you’re trying to juggle several things at once. But the fact of the matter is, a passing comment that does not allow for further explanation or conversation is simply not enough when working with a vulnerable population. The refugees who seek out assistance from Info Park, or any organization for that matter, deserve an individual’s undivided attention so that their needs can be fully met and that they can understand the rules and expectations that organizations must follow. If we claim to provide a safe space for refugees, we must also ensure that we are communicating in such a way that expresses the welcoming and secure environment we strive to achieve.