Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Stories

Fluency and Empathy

community-centre

The refugee Community Centre, Athens. ©djnorwood 2017

Part two of  three part post…

The following day I met up with Sophie again after she invited me to an Arabic film at a community centre. I made my way across the city just in time only to be told it was a women’s only screening. No problem, I thought, I’ll sit in on an Arabic class instead.

One of the volunteers stood in while we waited for the usual teacher, Raman to arrive. We were all there for our different reasons, and not all because we had nothing better to do. Olga’s Iranian husband always spoke to her in Russian, but she’d never been able to reciprocate in his native tongue, so this was her big chance. She seemed touchingly determined to change this discrepancy in one go.

Our three British classmates were there in various capacities to fill the void for aid and services – English language classes, community aid and social work – each providing a link between charity groups and displaced peoples. I was beginning to get a sense of the roles carved out by the arrival of migrants and, equally, the diversity of those who choose to respond to their calls.

Raman helped us wrap our mouths round unfamiliar words and phrases, laughing with every failed vowel and mispronounced glottal stop…

Kefak/Kefek – How are you? (Male/female)

Alhamdulillah – Praise (be to God)

Taman – Good

Sho ho Esmak/Esmek – What is your name?

Ismi – My name is…

Sophie’s interactions in Arabic had impressed me, but also reinforced how fluency builds trust between the displaced people Safe Passage was here to help. This brief Arabic lesson only reinforced the sense that a language barrier can lead to antipathy, then perhaps inexorably on to more obvious physical borders, boundaries and ill conceived walls. An obvious question now seemed to hang in the air: would we in the west be so xenophobic if we shared the ability, or even the desire, to communicate on equal terms? I left the centre with a new sense of empathy wondering how long it would last.

Tonight was the night I had promised to hook up with Ahmed and Akram and I couldn’t help wishing I’d postponed the meeting till later in the week. It was now 5, so I had to kick around until they surfaced at 10. I wandered back towards Exarchia, pausing to stare in through bookshop windows, admiring the exotic beauty of the Greek alphabet. I had no real desire to decipher the many titles on offer, my eyes just luxuriated in their foreignness: aesthetically accessible but resolutely incomprehensible – like some kind of enigmatic code.

Eight O’clock came round and I was beginning to flag. My gut, now full of greasy Gyros said this was voyeuristic, given that I had no real reason to be at the squat full of asylum seekers, yet the toothbrush in my bag told a different story and weighed more heavily on my mind than its diminutive size might suggest. The whole escapade now felt vaguely surreal. Everything was set apart from my conviction that this was a good idea. I wandered back across town, back to the apartment and spent a couple of hours with my host and his friends playing snakes and ladders of all things, feeling guilty about my lack of commitment. Were they really expecting me to spend the night with them?

In the morning I logged in to the house wifi and picked up the WhatsApp messages from Ahmed.

‘Where are you?’ hit me like a punch in the side. I apologized, then hurriedly arranged to meet them the following night. I promised I wouldn’t let them down again.

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