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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Social justice demands not just proper aptitude, but attitude

Published: August 24, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

I don’t speak Kinyarwandan, and the Congolese family I tutored speak very little English, yet I feel as if I am a part of their family. You don’t have to speak someone’s language to know and respect them.

This summer, I taught English to a Congolese refugee family. They came to the United States just three months ago, with no material possessions or understanding of English. During the course of the summer I watched them learn basic conversational phrases, and begin to integrate into American culture, navigating grocery stores and hospital appointments. I am continually amazed at their determination, strength, and ability to find humor in daily struggles. Their story shows the challenges many face in a country that prides itself on helping the less-fortunate find freedom, and allows us to understand what we as a community can do to improve theirs and others’ lives.

I only came to understand the Congolese family’s background with the help of interpreters. The family consists of a mother, father and seven children, aged one to 20. The parents are originally from Rwanda, but consider themselves Congolese. I believe that their eldest children were born there, and that they lived there for a long time. In 1998, because of the war that started in 1994, they moved to Burundi. They moved again, but ended up in Burundi in 2008 as refugees. They lived in a refugee camp for four years until they came to the United States in June 2012.

Despite having faced unimaginable fear and horrific circumstances, they greeted me with huge smiles and hugs, and were eager to learn. They can speak a little English now, including names of different foods, the names of the languages they speak (Kinyarwandan, Kiswahili, Kirundi and a little French), their address, colors and the alphabet.

Each person learns a little differently; the older children can pick up English grammar more easily because they know French language construction. To the mother and the younger children, however, understanding sentence construction is completely foreign. The mother’s learning is further complicated by her one-year-old baby, whom she cares for during our lessons.

Most weeks I only tutored them for two hours in their home, and they gave every appearance of being well-adjusted. Yet, when I went with the oldest boy to the hospital, I realized just how difficult their lives are made by the people with whom they interact and the limitations of their language.

I took the oldest boy, his mother and a 16-year-old friend of theirs, who could interpret, to the doctor. I was shocked at how unkindly the staff treated the family, for no other reason than that communication was difficult. The receptionist did not even ask if they had an interpreter, so they unknowingly spent half an hour waiting for an interpreter over the phone. When she finally realized we had someone who could interpret, she led the boy to a room. The nurse came in and tried to ask general questions about whether or not he had allergies or was experiencing pain. Although most patients who speak English can easily understand these questions, it is unlikely that a 16-year-old girl, who has only been in the United States herself for two years, can efficiently translate “allergies” into Kinyarwandan.

The nurse was visibly annoyed at the difficulty in communication, and even rolled her eyes when she did not get the answer she wanted. When verbal communication is impossible, a person relies solely on body language. The nurse’s physical language was noticeably unkind. Finally frustrated, the nurse asked for the interpreter’s age and flippantly said, “We have to get another interpreter anyway because you’re not 18.”

When the doctor finally came in and saw we were using an interpreter, his own body language was immediately defensive and impatient. The interpreter on the phone only spoke Swahili, and while the mother spoke some Swahili, it is not her primary language.

The doctor tried to ask about a specific year, and being annoyed that he had not received a straight answer, said in English, “Just tell her to make up her mind.” Clearly, in her head she was not debating which year was more preferable; she simply did not understand the question. After performing some tests and returning the boy to the room, the doctor did not come back. Instead, he stood in the room next door, talking through the phone, not even looking at or standing in the same room as his patient. Even without verbal understanding, it would have given his mother some peace of mind to see him actively helping her son.

Brandeis is full of pre-med students, but we are unique in that we come from a university devoted to “social justice.” While the buzzword is frequently thrown around, what does it actually mean? Many of us want to “help people” and “change the world,” but, when we reach our professional goals, we need to remember just how people need help, and what kind of “change” is most important.

Social justice means providing people of all backgrounds with an equal opportunity and access to service. It means paying attention to how a person lives and learns, and understanding where she comes from. To be an effective professional of any kind you must treat a person, even one you cannot speak to, with respect and kindness.

Perhaps the doctor thought he was doing a great service to a family that had gone a very long time without treatment. But without the proper attitude, he cannot expect their trust and confidence in his care. Doctors pledge to “do no harm.” I think, however, that treating a person as if they are worth less because they do not speak English is a cause for harm.

The doctor was about to tell the family to come back another day, when I finally spoke up to take care of the paperwork. It is exceedingly difficult to receive and manage medical treatment if one does not speak English. After having scheduled a few further appointments, I accompanied the family to the doctor again. This time, the staff had completely different attitudes.

Maybe the previous visit happened on a bad day, but I think they were instead responding to my presence. I represented another person in the room who they knew could speak English, and who would understand their snide remarks and brusque manner.

It is wrong to discriminate against someone based on what language he or she speaks. Verbal language is not the only aspect of communication. Although I cannot speak with the Congolese family fluently, I am able to communicate with them through a mix of English, French and hand gestures. With just a few words, we can attempt to understand each other. When a refugee comes to the United States, they are provided with basic food, clothing and shelter, and eased into the social service and medical systems. But having a real life here depends on the interactions they have with other people. If we, as a community of neighbors, friends and providers, cannot be patient and respectful, we are making a negative impact on someone’s new start on life. It is only fair for us to treat them as we would like them to treat us.