It is late Friday afternoon when I climb the stairs in the medical services and community support building for the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC).The building itself is unmarked, with a run of the mill business underneath which diverts attention away from what happens on the 2nd and 3rd floors. My feet are heavy in the narrow stairwell, as beads of sweat congregate at my temples, along my hairline, streaking salt into my eyes. Sunlight dapples in, through grimy windows, and voices carry into the echo of the vast space.
I am nervous.
“I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to throw you right into the deep end”, says Gloria, the operating manager of the SSC.
She is conducting an “open day”, where refugees book appointments to discuss medical claims, appeal for support (monetary and in kind) and pursue claims with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
When we enter the small and stuffy room on the top floor, the first candidate, an old man, his face heavily etched with dark creases, is hunched over an unsturdy looking table, surrounded by metal fold out chairs. Gloria motions for Danae and I to sit down, and a young Afghan man joins us, quite unexpectedly.
“Hello. My name is Gloria,” says Gloria, “do you mind if my interns sit in with us today?”
The young Afghan man begins to speak to the elderly man in what I assume to be Farsi. I understand, then, that he is an interpreter. And that interpreters are the lifeblood of this organization.
An excerpt from my personal blog – Caught in the Deluge – “Open House Friday at the Sahabat”
As the passage above suggests, one of the things that has become blaringly apparent to me in the few short weeks that I have spent at the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI) is the importance of language when it comes to meaningful service provision for urban refugees. While I intend to introduce a narrative, much like the excerpt from my personal blog, to explore the themes of language, belonging and identity in my future blog posts, this first post will be a little bit more technical, because I feel it is important to outline the basic program infrastructure and language demographic at the centre.
Currently, at MSRI, there are a number of programs being offered to minority refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. These are broken down by major activity below.
The number of people (and populations) accessing these services fluctuates, but the average demographic is outlined below, in a very professional looking graph.
When it comes to language, the diversity of the people coming through the doors at MSRI can make things a little bit sticky! Oftentimes, individuals hailing from the countries listed above not only speak different languages, but different dialects of the same language (for example, many refugees from Afghanistan speak Dari, while those from Iran speak Farsi, which are both variations of the same language).
And then you add in the written components.
Symbols for consonants. Graphemes that represent phonemes (or basic units of sound). Back vowels. Linear alphabets. And the list goes on and on.
Add all of this to the fact that language is also tied to largely non-concrete concepts like identity and belonging. We use language to connect to one another – to express our inner thoughts and emotions, to make sense of complex and abstract thought, to fulfill our wants and needs, to establish rules and to maintain our culture.
So what happens, when all of a sudden, we are thrown into a new context, where our language is not understood, and we do not understand the language? Simply put, we cannot communicate effectively, which has implications across the board.
From a personal standpoint, language has already impacted my own ability to order food, arrange transportation and access affordable housing in KL. I don’t speak Malay, and this makes me an outsider in many contexts. I also don’t speak Arabic, Persian, Somali, Urdu or Uzbek, among other languages, makingit difficult to communicate with refugees when an interpreter is not present, which is most of the time, since interpreters cost money and there is not enough of that to go around by any means.
According to the “Ethnologue”, the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, there are 7097 distinct languages being spoken in the world as of 2016. Currently, in the office and the refugee community at large, there are over 20 different languages spoken regularly.
I am a ____________ (insert one word from the table below to complete the sentence).
Where are you from?
Palestine. Pyālēsṭā’inamā. Bālèsītǎn. Palestyna. Phalasatīna. Palleseutain.
I don’t know what my country is called in your language.
What brought you here?
War. Famine. Violence. Drought.
There are hundreds of different words for these things too.
What I’m getting at, with all of this, is that language is complicated.
And language, in turn, complicates.
My goal during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.