Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meeting Neighbors, by May blogger of the month Sarah Meyers

The children crowded near us, curious about the strange foreigners in their village.  I decided it was time to practice my arabic.  “Kif Halak?” (How are you?)  I asked one of the girls.  She just stared at me, and I realized along with my atrocious American accent, I had botched the grammar and used a masculine construct to address the girl.

More children gathered around and I tried again, asking one of two sisters in matching neon pink shirts “shu ismik?” (what is your name), and this time at least had the grammar right.  She too stared and did not answer, but I finally got a response from an older girl.  She told me her name was  “Shams.”  That sounded a lot like the Hebrew word for “sun” (shemesh) so I pointed to the setting sun and asked “shams?” That brought out a wave of laughter from the children, but also broke the ice a little.  One of them asked me my name, and repeated it back, trilling the ‘“r” beautifully as I have failed to do in multiple languages.  Emboldened, I used my basic Arabic to introduce my friends as well, although that was as far as the conversation got.

About a dozen of my classmates were spending an hour in an unrecognized Bedouin village about 12 kilometers from Beer Sheva.  Over the years, MSIH students have built up a few connections in the region, and one of those connections is a man named J, who works with one of our student groups to arrange English tutoring for the children in his village of Umm-Batim.  But during the day, J directs the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages (RCUV,http://www.rcuv.net/online/en/), an NGO that represents the Bedouin villages in the Negev, or southern Israel, that lack government recognition of their land rights, and therefore do not have paved roads, running water, or connections to the electric grid.  J was interested in creating a partnership between MSIH students and the RCUV, and invited us to come visit a village to brainstorm on how we could be involved.

When we first arrived in Beer Sheva, many of us were startled by the dustiness, the bare and battered concrete buildings, and plumbing of a lower quality than we were used to.  Now, Beer Sheva has become normal to us, and we sat in the sitting room of a villages, with walls made of sheet metal and tarps, with water from tanks and trunks, and realized how lucky we were in Beer Sheva.  
We also realized just how hard it is to help.  Multiple languages were flying around, and only A, my Arabic teacher who had come as a translator, understood the Hebrew, English, and Arabic in which conversations were taking place.  I myself was humbled that after a year of weekly Arabic classes, I could communicate so little.  A third year student who had come along remarked on her regret that she had not learned Arabic while she was here, and I regretted missed homework, forgotten vocabulary, and poor skills at understanding spoken Arabic.  

I do believe that despite our lack of language skills, and lack of medical skills, this meeting with grow into a fascinating project.  

This meeting was one of many experiences that has underscored for me the importance of language skills in cross-cultural and international work.  That, while English is spoken widely around the world, the people we can both help and learn from the most are unlikely to speak it, that the more Hebrew and Arabic we learn here, the more we can learn from hundreds of small encounters.  
One time, at a hospital here in Israel, I watched a nurse try to communicate with a Arab woman who spoke no Hebrew.  “Woujya? Woujya?” the nurse asked, in very basic Arabic. (Pain? Pain?).  “Woujya ktir? Woujya Shwey?” (Big pain? Pain a little?) I respected the nurse’s attempts to communicate, yet realized that I wanted to one day be able to communicate better than that in Arabic, and that would take some serious study.  At the best, such communication can drastically improve diagnosis and care, and at the very least, I think it will bring out from the patient a smile.  - May blogger of the month, Sarah Meyers