Saturday, September 17, 2016

How Spelling My Name Wrong is Opening Doors

In the babble of languages spoken in the refugee camps, English is the lingua franca. Since I really only speak English, I lucked out. The refugees' native languages include Arabic, Farsi (both Iranian and Afghan), Urdu, Kurdish, Pashtu, French... while the volunteers' include English, German, Greek, Dutch, French, Spanish, Polish... Communication can be awfully difficult and frustrating at times, but sometimes funny attempts to exchange information can also build friendships.

We volunteers wear nametags, and of course I've written my name in English on the badge, but I also added my name in Arabic. Farsi shares (mostly) an alphabet/script with Arabic, and as I can write my name in Arabic-- سارة -- I added that as well. What I didn't realize is that Sara in Farsi appears to be spelled slightly differently than Sara in Arabic. The letters in Arabic are sin, aleph, ra, ta marbuta (the round one with the dots over it on the right) while in Farsi, it's spelled sin, aleph, ra, aleph, or ساراز  

My misspelling (in Farsi) has become a conversation starter with a lot of Afghans and Iranians, and when they find out I have a few words of Farsi they really appreciate it, but wonder why. When I tell them I used to live in Iran, the Afghans are mildly interested, but the Iranians instantly become lifelong friends.

Most of the refugees have some English by this point--the first word they all seem to learn is "problem", and the children, of course, are learning particularly quickly, but many only have about as much English as I have Farsi or Arabic. In other words, barely enough to be useful. One of my personal goals for this round of work is to teach English. Education doesn't really fall under the purview of Project Elea, but every interaction is an opportunity to help with language.

As word has gotten round among the Iranians in camp that I used to live in Iran and speak a (very) few words of Farsi, more and more are approaching me for help. To my delight, much of my work day in the camp is now spent sitting and chatting with various Iranians, swapping languages. My Farsi is improving, and I hope I'm improving their English. To give them that skill, or  to enhance it, would be reward enough, but we get so much more than language from the exhange.

A couple of days ago I sat talking and laughing with two young men in a back and forth mix of English and Farsi, until I was called away to help an Iranian woman with English. We wrote simple sentences in her notebook--"Hello, how are you?", "I am fine, thank you.", "My name is...", "What is your name?", "I have a son named...". Again, there was much bonding and laughter over our bungled attempts at each others' language.

Then yesterday, while knocking on doors to share information about an activity we had planned for women (carrying a paper with the info written in English, French, Arabic, and Farsi), I met an Iranian man who wanted to learn to dance. He complained about his muscles being tight, and knowing we offered yoga for men, but not knowing the exact time, I offered to return after the women's activity with the day and time men's yoga was scheduled.

As promised, I returned a couple of hours later to tell him yoga was on Tuesdays at 6 pm. He invited me in for tea, and I sat with him and two other Iranian men, answering questions, practicing English, and, as always in these situations, laughing a lot. It turns out he didn't just want to stretch; he wants to learn ballroom dance. Project Elea doesn't have that in the schedule now, but who knows? Maybe at some point we can offer it. Some other volunteers told me that a former volunteer kept offering to teach the Lindy Hop, so you never know. Ironically, it was in Iran that I learned to ballroom dance.

Anyway, all these attempts at language, by virtually everybody in camp, volunteers and refugees alike, are all attempts at understanding each other. And after all, isn't that the goal? Makes me glad I don't know how to spell my name.