Bridging Cultural Distances

Katharine and translator Ali working with a student infront of the entire class Our volunteers act as the vital link in the chain to forge relationships with our students.  Recently watching this TED talk, it quickly re-affirmed how fundamental relationships are in teaching. In London I would find it highly offensive if a child was tutting at me, but here the same gesture is harmless! I can say and recognize a few Arabic words, and the kids can say quite a few more English words. However in general, what I say is lost to the children. Teaching English as a foreign language through a volunteer means that all verbal communication is passed through a third party, due to the lack of a common language. Thus it is the volunteers that are able to transfer more than a literal meaning to the students. This necessary cultural and verbal translation via the volunteers ensures that a foundation of mutual respect is established in our classes.

Luckily our experience with volunteers isn’t exclusive to the classroom. Just today my volunteers took me for a tour of Nablus to sights never listed in any guidebook. Building this relationship with volunteers at TYO helps us interns to feel and connect with Palestinian society, not just important for us on a personal level, but key to making sure the work we do is making an impact, understanding the women and children we work with.

Also, the volunteers are an integral part of us adjusting to life in a foreign country. I didn’t anticipate how much I would struggle to communicate, until I was on a bus leaving Jerusalem for Nablus. After several failed attempts to properly pronounce the bus stop closest to the TYO center, I called the volunteer that translates for me in class. Very sympathetic to my duress, as I must have sounded a bit like a lost child, he gladly spoke to another passenger to help me communicate exactly where my bus stop was to the driver.

After, I realized that everyday in the classroom a similar story plays out. I can say and recognize a few Arabic words, and the kids, I’m not ashamed to say, can recognize quite a few more English words. But often, when I speak in English, the students don’t follow. And it is the volunteers that are able to hold the meaning of the words I speak and bring them to life for the students. They are the ones truly capable of teaching the children and assuring that the meaning is not lost from English to Arabic.

The interns and the volunteers work as a team to bridge cultural distances with knowledge, respect, patience and encouragement. We learn about each other’s cultures, our individual goals and dreams, our favorite songs and movies. As we learn about one another, we strengthen our ability to teach the kids and be positive role models for them.

-TYO interns, Katherine & Mariella

This program - as part of Student Training and Employment Program (STEP!) - is sponsored in part by the Abdul Hamid Shoman Foundation.