Updated: Jan 25, 2020
Have you ever traveled to another country where English wasn't the main language? Or been in a situation where the people around you were speaking a language you didn't understand? How did it make you feel?
For me, when I'm in a place where the people around me are communicating in a language I don't understand (which has happened a lot over the course of my life) it makes we wish I'd bothered to learn that language. I want to know what they're saying. I want to feel included in the jokes, and know why everybody's laughing. (And I hope it isn't at me.)
It makes me feel slightly regretful about not paying as much attention as I could have all those years ago in German class. Or for letting my Duolingo Spanish lessons fall by the wayside. But honestly, other than a twinge of guilt at my language-learning 'slackerness', it's not a bad feeling. It doesn't leave me feeling emotionally drained, or exhausted, or frustrated enough to want to crawl into my bed and cry.
And that's because my inability to understand the languages being spoken around me hasn't ever been something that's affected my life in any meaningful way. Having to repeat your order to the Spanish-speaking waitress in your beach resort restaurant in the Dominican Republic isn't exactly a hardship. But that's not the case for most refugee foster kids.
Being surrounded by people who don't understand you is mentally and emotionally exhausting!
Refugees show up in this country with a small bag of assorted belongings, which represents everything they own in the world, and about enough English to fill the palm of your hand.
Imagine starting your period in a stranger's home, and not knowing the words to explain that you need a sanitary towel. Or worse - that you're bleeding and you don't know why, and you're terrified that you're sick or dying, but you don't know any of the words to explain what's happening to you.
Or on a bad day, when all you want is that one comfort food that reminds you of your homeland, or your lost mother who used to rock you to sleep all those years ago before you lost her to the bombs, or the ravages of disease in a camp somewhere in the jungle. But you don't know the names of any of the ingredients in English, or the words to explain how to cook it. So you eat pizza and smile, and on the inside, your heart is breaking.
Imagine someone hugging you because they mean well, but the experience of being touched by a stranger is so triggering, causing PTSD flashbacks to that time you were assaulted on a dark street. But you don't know how to explain that it's not personal, and you're not angry or ungrateful, you just need time and space to develop a comfort level with these people before you're ready to be touched so intimately by them.
Not being able to express yourself, or talk about the most basic emotions and experiences is exhausting. And it's something these kids deal with all day, every day. They don't have the vocabulary to share what's happening in their heads and hearts, so they carry their trauma and their loss around with them like stones, unable to share the weight of that grief. Unable to ask for help, or to tell you what they need during a particularly scary or painful moment.
It must be so hard.
Language, and the ability to be understood, is fundamental to being able to function as a mentally healthy human being.
We take for granted, as native English speakers, the ability to share our thoughts and feelings and opinions with the people around us. We do it all day long - at home, at work, through social media. But try to picture what it would be like to lose that. To suddenly be unable to talk to others about how you feel, or what you need, or why you want something.
When you think about it, the times when you've needed to get something off your chest or share something that upsets you, it's usually to do with emotions, which are abstract concepts from a linguistic standpoint.
When a child learns to speak, they start with words for objects they can see and touch and hold. Ball, dog, milk, bed. They don't learn about anxiety and concern and exhaustion and homesickness until later. When a person learns a second language, they tend to follow a similar track - starting with basic objects, and eventually moving into more abstract concepts only after they've mastered the basics. It can take years. (It usually does!) And for little kids who are learning their mother tongue, that's perfect. Because little kids need to know how to identify a bed and a ball and a dog, and hopefully not anxiety or grief or depression.
But a teenage refugee who's already experienced a great deal of trauma and emotional agony needs that vocabulary. And when they arrive here at the airport, dragging all their worldly possessions and pain with them, they need a way to communicate that burden, and they don't have it.
So I guess, if there's a piece of advice in all of these ramblings, it would be this:
Be patient. Be kind. Listen with your heart as well as your ears when they're trying to talk to you about what they're feeling. They may not have the right words, but you can have the right responses nonetheless. You can give them space when they need it, be available to listen when they need to talk, even if you don't understand everything they're saying to you. You can be ready with a hug or a shoulder to cry on if that's what they need. Or maybe a bowl of rice if that's the only thing from their home country you know how to make. Because every little bit counts, until they learn the right words.
And when they do, be prepared to hear what they have to say. Even if it hurts, or makes you uncomfortable, or sad. Because everyone deserves to be heard.
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