Language Barrier

It’s only been two days since we started our work with Catholic Charities and I already feel like the refugees and the employees I’ve met have completely changed my outlook on life. Cliché, I know, but I seriously could not have prepared myself for the emotional experience that this trip has consisted of. I wasn’t ready for the ups and downs of service. The feeling that even though you’re doing so much you cannot help but feel like you’re not doing enough. We talked about this coming into the trip, about how there would be a void sometimes because you won’t always see the immediate effects of your service, and I didn’t realize how much it would effect me until now.

Today, that feeling changed for me. After a long morning of clearing out storage units, the afternoon was dedicated to visiting with more refugee families. This time, there were three apartments we were visiting, one family was from the Central African Republic (CAR) and two were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We had missed our first visit due to a scheduling issue, so we ended up going to visit the family from the DRC early. We were apprehensive as we approached the door, a mix of excitement and nervousness that this family wouldn’t be home either. After a strong, loud knock on the apartment door, we heard some rustling inside, and the door was opened by a woman with the biggest smile I’d ever seen.

IMG_4534            She welcomed us into her home, so sweetly, and then we realized she spoke only French. At first everyone was polite and said “Oh thank you” and things of that nature, and we all sat in a small circle in the living room waiting for the other family member we were going to talk with to arrive. She then proceeded to speak to us (saying something along the lines of welcome to our home and thank you for being here) and we all stared back with blank faces. I’m embarrassed to say that even though I’ve taken French for 7 years I was at a loss for words. I was trying to keep up with her, but I kept getting mixed up. That’s when it dawned on me – I cannot imagine coming to a new place and being forced to acclimate to a culture where you know how to say absolutely nothing in the local language.

The language barrier is one of the hardest obstacles that refugees face when they are resettled. This causes problems when it comes to things like trying to get a job, grocery shopping, or when children are enrolled in school and cannot understand their teacher. Catholic Charities makes ESL classes very accessible and easy for refugees to enroll in, but those skills won’t come overnight. When I finally bucked up the courage to try and speak with our host, I realized my skills are not nearly enough to get me by if the situation had been reversed. It is so difficult to want to communicate with someone but not being able to find the words. She would ask me questions, and I would sit for a second to try and process and then try and think of the words but by then she’d already continued. I did my best, and with the encouragement of my ASB team, we began to have a great conversation. She told us that she was so happy we had come to speak with her and her family and that she wished she knew English so she could talk more with us. She told us about her family a bit and what she was making in the kitchen before we arrived. She even promised to send me an English to French translation book so that I could practice!

Spending time with her today was a real turning point for me in this trip. As I was doubting my mission a bit in Arizona, our host helped me regain perspective. This trip is about understanding the issues that refugees face every single day. I had a hard time communicating for about two hours, but she will continue to have difficulties in her new home until she is able to learn the language. Learning more about how difficult it is for refugees to settle into their new homes has changed how I act everyday. You never know how difficult someone’s life is or what they’re struggling with.


As we left the apartment, I asked our host to take a picture and I almost felt like I was asking a celebrity (she really made that much of an impact on me!). I walked down the apartment steps, I waved goodbye with a final “Merci et au revoir!” and she responded (in English) with “Thank you and God bless you”. For me, nothing on this trip has been more perfect than that moment.



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