THE LANGUAGE OF FRIENDSHIP

BY DEBORAH NOBES

I have a new family. They happen to be from Syria. They landed in New Brunswick four weeks ago, on a dark midnight in the dead of winter, greeted by me and my friend Marie, a driver sent by the local multicultural association, and an Arabic/English interpreter. The Fredericton airport was mostly empty. Marie and I held embarrassingly large hand-lettered signs (in English), a gift bag of warm socks and some stuffed animals for the youngest. Exhausted and disoriented, they humoured us with weak smiles and eye contact. All seven told us their names.

Then, my family spoke next to no English. The second to smallest daughter, one of five kids, speaks French she learned at school in Lebanon, where they lived after escaping the war. She can say the days of the week, numbers and letters, and the names of some household objects. Marie, whose first language is French, encourages her.

We are volunteers with the local multi-cultural association. This is our first experience as settlement workers and what we have learned is this: Communication is more than language. Our family has a lot to tell us, and we want to listen. The actual words seem not to matter so much.

At first, we talked through gestures and language apps on our phones. This can be hilarious and poignant. Their settlement team couldn’t find a suitable apartment. They rejected a small basement unit. Frowning, the eldest daughter typed a tiny scribble of Arabic on my phone. “Darkness,” it said.

My husband found an empty, light-filled, house on kijiji. My phone erupted: “Glorious. Please lady inform of your recent Victory.” Triumphant, we helped them move the next day.

Shared experiences also help. The local Islamic Association sponsored a pot luck dinner. The assembled crowd was twice what was expected. Wonderful-smelling food waited on long tables in the back while local officials spoke at length into microphones at the front. Everyone was hungry. Our children, including my 12-year-old daughter, wilted in their chairs. The mom and I traded looks and migrated to the food, grabbing plates and chatting up the servers in Arabic and English. We were first in line when the speeches ended, filling plates and handing them off to a daughter who ferried them back to the table.

My husband says we speak the language of friendship. He may be right. Understanding begins when we acknowledge and respect one another, and deepens when we are willing to listen hard and look for ways we are the same. And laughter helps too. Our family is filled with crack wits. Especially the Dad, who joked at the Mom’s birthday party that I might burn down the kitchen if I put 40 candles on the cake. He then gave her a cauliflower as a gift. The kids howled with laughter. That part we didn’t get, but whatever.

I know the teenaged son likes music and soccer. He is strong, kind and independent. He went alone to school on the first day. The oldest daughter was afraid about learning English but has felt much better since starting high school. The second daughter is a free and independent spirit who likes to draw. The second to youngest daughter is quick, logical and giving. She is a leader. The youngest is the family clown. She is well-loved and affectionate, and calls my husband Baba, or Arabic for Daddy. This is encouraged by everyone, especially her actual Baba.

Now the phone apps don’t come out as often. They are learning English and teaching us Arabic words. When the mom walks in the door, yells at her teen daughters and turns down the heat, no translation is required. When she shows me pictures of their home town before the war and the tears stream down her face, I acknowledge her grief. When we drive together along the river and they tell me it’s beautiful, I offer to take them fishing. They understand immediately, chatting between the front and back seats and teach me the Arabic word for fish. It’s sammack, by the way. Kind of like salmon. Not really so different after all.

Deborah Nobes is the Manager of Communications and Public Engagement at NB Power.

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS:

People in New Brunswick are welcoming hundreds of Syrian refugees. It’s the latest wave of newcomers in the province’s long history of immigration.

The St. Thomas Journalism program’s graduating class is working on an online project called Tides of Change: New Beginnings in New Brunswick. We will be exploring the experiences of immigrants and the people helping them.

We need your help. We want your stories. Have you or your family immigrated to New Brunswick? Are you involved in helping the Syrian refugees? We want to hear from you.

Tell us about your experience. What do others need to know about welcoming newcomers and helping them settle here?

If you’d like to share your story,  send up to 500 words and a photograph to plee@stu.ca. Please include a phone number where we can reach you.

Your stories are important and we want to share them with the province.