In the Muslim culture, physical touch is not encouraged. This group has had some awkward missteps and hiccups, being the sensitive philanthropists-in-training that we are, with this cultural norm. I, on the other hand, have been completely fine with this social fact because I for one am not a hugger. That form of affection is really reserved for immediate family members and life long friends only. So naturally, I got along with the Somali families we visited very well.
With this being our last day with Catholic Charities, our group returned to the same apartment complex mentioned in previous blog posts. This neighborhood has come to hold a special place in all of our hearts for many reasons including the beautiful children, the rich mix of cultures and the collective importance of community, just to name a few. The first apartment we visited today was the residence of an older woman who we had met a couple days before with other families but today we were here to hear her story specifically.
The only problem was that she does not speak any English.
This session was 45 minutes of her son struggling to piece our questions together through broken English and our nil understanding of Somali. It was uncomfortable, frustrating, overwhelming and left both parties exhausted. This was also 45 of the most crucial minutes we will spend here in Arizona. This struggle to understand and negotiate meanings of both sides is a pretty good starting place for fixing day to day cultural misunderstandings at it’s source.
Our effort increased our understanding of what it is like to truly have to explain yourself and your story with no vocabulary in the native language. We are smart capable young women who could just not express ourselves in terms they could understand. They are just as smart and capable people that were facing the same barriers that we were. I can’t imagine having such an important and life altering story to share but not being able to communicate it to people that could help me out of this dire situation.
These 45 minutes spent in their apartment were also where we built some rapport for Americans in this Somali families eyes (you are welcome). In order to struggle for almost an hour trying to communicate to the mother that she was wearing a pretty dress, we had to first care to do so.
So many individuals are brushed aside once they arrive from their home countries, many from dire situations, because they do not know English. They did not have enough money for food in the refugee camps, let alone English lessons. These men and women in the room with us today are just as smart, twice as tough and much more thankful than I could ever be for the gifts in my life. Unfortunately much gets lost in translation.
Back to the mother of this household. I had now met her 3 times once I entered her home and had yet to share 2 sentences with her. While many were trying to google translate through this meeting (I had unfortunately left my phone in the car), I just smiled at her. Eventually, I got restless and was just spitting out English words and strange hand gestures but she could tell that I was focused on her and trying to understand. She appreciated my efforts and pointed to herself then to her 3 children and repeated each of their names until everyone in our group was not butchering the pronunciation. At this point, any progress was good progress.
We then went to a neighboring residence where someone could translate her story for us and tell her why 10 girls and Aaron have spent the week in her neighborhood. She was so grateful for our small donations of cleaning supplies and happy for us to finally understand where she was coming from. Although the lines of communication did eventually open between us, she did not forget the effort and desire we displayed to try and hear her story on her terms.
As we walked toward the car together, she shook my hand and then hugged me. Contrary to my knee jerk reaction to be uncomfortable hugging a woman I had spent a total of 5 hours with, I hugged her back. This was the first time I have cried on this trip. Not out of discomfort (although that would be most people’s first guess) but because this woman that does not know me broke her cultural norms to express to me that she appreciated the care and respect that I had shown her. We both let go of reservations, whether cultural or personal, and were, for a second, two non-hungers embracing.