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The Importance of Service and Language in a Syrian Refugee Kitchen

In January of 2019 I decided to go abroad and study for a semester in Rome. Before going, a topic I was very passionate about getting involved in was the refugee crisis. Yet, living in New York where there are no refugees, I found it difficult to contribute. I arrived in Italy armed with the knowledge that Italy has accepted refugees from North Africa and Syria, if not begrudgingly, and I immediately began to search for an opportunity to volunteer.

A few weeks into my semester, the opportunity finally came when another boarding student invited me to volunteer with her at a kitchen across Rome. The kitchen is primarily staffed by Syrian refugees and the income the kitchen generates by selling home-cooked Syrian cuisine is used to help the refugee community in the neighborhood.

At first, the language barrier between the Syrian employees and I limited our ability to communicate, as they spoke Italian and Arabic, and I originally could not understand either of those languages. The first few Saturdays I went to volunteer, we stood side by side chopping vegetables and listening to Syrian music in silence. When they wanted me to begin working on another dish, they would motion and demonstrate how I would prepare it, and I would copy.

This mode of communication was enough to get the job done and effectively prepare the food, but it was not enough for me. I wanted to talk to them, get to know them, and learn how they had gotten to Rome from Syria. I took it upon myself to take two Italian classes a week, one in conversation and one in grammar to finally be able to communicate with them. Instead of arriving and only saying a cordial, "Ciao," I began to ask them how they were in Italian and try out other phrases I had learned. As the weeks passed, communication became easier, and activity in the kitchen became more streamlined.

Each Saturday, I would reorganize their supplies in the back, neatly stacking aprons and other supplies on top of each other. When I had finished they would peer in and exclaim, "Quanto è pulito" or, "Ma che bello!" Roughly meaning, "How clean!" or, "It looks great!" The language barrier was slowly coming down.

Yet, Italian was not their native tongue, and I realized if we were going to truly connect, I would have to learn Arabic. Through my school, I was able to meet an amazing Arabic tutor from Egypt named Sara. Every Wednesday we would meet in the basement of the school for two hours. Throughout these lessons, she taught me how to read and write the alphabet in standard Arabic, and a few useful phrases in Jordanian Arabic, one of the most commonly understood forms.

At first, we spoke English, but I realized speaking Italian in our lessons was more important to her, as it was her first language. As a result, I began to use it as often as possible. After my first lesson, I had learned to introduce myself and write my name in Arabic, and I couldn't wait to try it out at the kitchen. I hurriedly rushed in that Saturday and tried it out, and it was clear that the effort had made a difference.

As a result of my lessons, I was able to pronounce everyone's name in the kitchen much better, and use a few phrases while volunteering. Although I did not speak much Arabic, the effort I had put in meant a lot to them.

On the last day of school, I thanked my tutor for all she had taught me, and she said, "It means a lot when a westerner like you tries to learn our language, as we are usually the ones learning yours. Don't forget it, and keep studying!" I had learned an important lesson that day that I will never forget. The language barrier may seem intimidating, but surmounting it allows you to connect with people, learn their stories, and help in a more meaningful way. I encourage everyone to get involved with a local organization and volunteer, and help refugees in any way that you can.

Don't fall for the populist rhetoric that refugees are coming to steal your jobs and commit crimes, because often it isn't true. Every Saturday I saw how kind and compassionate they are, and I will never forget it.

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