How did you go about learning the local language?
“We completed full-time courses of language study over a period of about two years, using several strategies.”
- Private tutor: Adam, Penny, and Erin completed basic, intermediate and advanced grammar studies with a private tutor, using a thematic approach incorporating both practical grammar and spiritual language.
- Language school: Joel completed an accredited course at a language school and graduated with a certificate in advanced grammar.
- Language helper: Both couples also had one to two days each week with a language helper.
- Rosetta Stone: Penny also completed the Rosetta Stone Arabic program.
- Informal practice: In addition to these structured activities, Adam, Penny, Joel and Erin spent several hours each week in informal practice with neighbours and friends.
Does that mean you’re fluent now?
“Not quite! The four of us have developed sufficient facility in the local language to be able to participate in everyday life. This includes conversing and socialising with neighbours, interacting with schools for our children’s education, and participating in a local church.
“We can now take part in activities at the refugee centre, such as the monthly distribution of food and clothing to Iraqi and Syrian families. While the local language is not the refugees’ mother tongue, it functions as a common language. Having some capability in it has enabled us to engage with refugees about their basic needs.”
Joel and Erin intend to start learning Arabic in 2018 as this is the mother tongue of the vast majority of refugees in West Asia. They have already purchased resources to this end: the Rosetta Stone Arabic program and Mary-Jane Liddicoat’s Syrian Colloquial Arabic: A Functional Course.
Now that you’ve finished full-time language learning, what are you involved in?
“Our families have been settling in a West Asian city that is hosting approximately 60,000 refugees. Our involvement with these refugees is concentrated on a centre run by a group of churches. It is located in a property the group rents cooperatively. From there, around 5,000 individuals are given regular assistance with basic food and material goods (blankets, clothing, etc.).
“These refugees are primarily Iraqi and Syrian, and often come from large families. Their situations are complex and danger prevents them from returning to the home countries from which they fled. They find themselves waiting years or potentially decades for resettlement in a third country through the UNHCR. They are generally not permitted to work legally but many support themselves through taking menial jobs.
“The refugee centre has so far primarily focused on meeting food security needs. We have been able to work alongside local Christians to distribute between 250 and 350 boxes of food to refugees each week.”
By the end of their formal language learning, Joel had taken on coordination of his church’s refugee ministry. This presently involves being part of the refugee centre steering committee.
Do refugees have needs other than practical needs?
“Yes. There is a growing need to move beyond material needs and to support refugees in more focused ways. This includes building community as they settle in West Asia for years to come. Two specific ways we have started doing this is through facilitating small groups for building relationships and establishing rapport with refugees.”
Joel and Adam started an English conversation club for refugees who are interested in developing their spoken English skills. This club hosts around 15 participants per week from Iraqi and Syrian backgrounds. The participants are male and female, and vary in age from mid-teens to mid-50s. There is presently a waiting list of another 15–20 individuals for this group.
Erin began an art therapy group specifically for refugee women, operating in the local language and Arabic. Each week she hosts three to five women from mainly Syrian backgrounds. Many of these women are mothers in their late 20s or early 30s. Read Nour’s story in Finding love without strings.
As Adam, Penny, Joel and Erin engage with refugees, space is given for refugees to self-identify their practical and relational needs. The small groups emerged by way of listening to the refugees’ needs and identifying the unique contributions these Interservers can make. These new roles would not have been possible without first dedicating time to language and cultural learning and discerning God’s leading among the many needs.