“Do you know the difference between a banana and a crescent moon? A banana has skin!”
The two-year-old boy, tall for his age and solidly built, laughed with delight as his mother shared his clever insight. The boy spoke to her in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect; the mother repeated it in Arabic; and our Arabic-speaking companion translated into English. A full minute behind the beat, we all laughed with little Yourko.
We were delivering holiday gifts to Yourko’s family, Iraqui refugees recently arrived in Phoenix by way of Turkey. Without a translator, we’d have relied on smiles and basic English words — Thank you! Sit, please! Water? Tea? — to communicate. With Lama’s help, we were able to understand more about this resilient family.
The banana conversation started when Yourko chose a yellow crayon from the box we gave him. He frowned in concentration as he drew in his new sketch-pad. I remembered my excitement many years ago at finding a Crayola box with 16 sharp, new crayons in my Christmas stocking.
When communication is hard, it helps to watch for and jump on shared experiences. It worked when my husband and I, monolingual English-speakers, spent an afternoon with a family whose dialect dates back 2,500 years. We all could relate to the fascination of watching a growing child master new skills – Yourko’s focus on the task at hand was so similar to my toddler grandson’s.
Finding shared experiences also works when I talk about with others in my community about contentious issues: immigration policies, unemployment benefits, extending the temporary sales tax to support human services.
“How is your mother doing?” I asked a colleague over lunch. Her political stance is very different than mine. She vented a long list of frustrations about transportation to medical appointments and finding someone reliable to help out at home. I told her about a program that helps older adults remain in their homes as long as possible. “I remember how hard it was for our family during my mother’s last years,” I said. It’s a starting point for sharing my perspectives about the ways we support vulnerable people in our community.
Because Yourko’s parents hadn’t started English-language classes, on our second trip to their small apartment we brought a TV to help them become more familiar with the sounds of American English. We gave Yourko a DVD about the Sesame Street monster Elmo exploring the world of bananas, flowers, and hair. One scene includes a talking saguaro cactus, a nice touch for newcomers to the Sonoran desert, we thought.
Yourko giggled as Mr. Noodle tried to write with a banana, as a monkey ate a banana, and as children demonstrated various techniques for peeling a banana. He ran to the kitchen, returned with a banana, and expertly bit and twisted the stem end with his back teeth to get the peeling process started. “Banana,” I said, pointing to his fruit. “Banana,” I repeated, pointing to the TV. “Banana,” his mother said, with only the barest trace of an accent. She will learn English quickly.
On some days, I wonder if it’s possible for Arizonans to heal the deep hurt, distrust, and hatred in our state, or for the peoples of the Fertile Crescent to find a way to reduce and end hundreds of years of sectarian violence.
On most days, I have faith that there are enough people of good will to create the safe communities we all want for our loved ones. An essential first step is finding common ground. This might be as random as shared memories of childhood crayons, as ordinary as peeling a banana, or as universal as breaking bread together.
As we move into 2012, I invite you to join me in being alert for those moments when we can connect with one another through our shared experiences, and then move on to talking about the hard stuff. Each good conversation makes a difference.