In Their Own Words: The Importance of Native Language Literacy for Refugees

In Their Own Words: The Importance of Native Language Literacy for Refugees

by Alexandra Leveillee

Millions of Syrian and Iraqi citizens are now refugees due to the current war fueled by ISIS aggression. ISIS’ attempts to build a caliphate, or holy country limited only to people who practice an extremist form of Islam, drives them to persecute other religious groups. Among these groups are the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority, who face violence and persecution by ISIS in their home region of Northern Iraq. Many Yazidi refugees form communities in Canada, Germany, and the United States—specifically in Nebraska—where they must learn the local language as part of refugee resettlement programs.

Refugees, however, especially women and girls, face a massive disservice when they do not also receive literacy training in their native languages. For Yazidis, that language is Kurmanji, which many Yazidi women and girls speak but in which they are not literate.

Any individual who has tried to learn a second or third language knows the frustration of trying to convey thoughts and feelings with a limited vocabulary. If you are such a person, imagine trying to express the most difficult experiences of your life with a language in which you have only basic proficiency. You may be able to state facts, but you may be unable to articulate the lasting impacts and emotions surrounding that experience. Accounts written by survivors in their native languages are critical for others to comprehend the extent of conflict and genocide, and thus develop means of bringing perpetrators to justice and reconciling societies.

The most accurate possible documentation of personal trauma is best conveyed in one’s own language. Translated directly into other languages, these accounts allow others to better understand the experiences of refugees. When recounted by Yazidi survivors in Kurmanji, these stories provide context for outsiders to help them comprehend the trials of starvation, enslavement, and mass rape. With education in their native language, Yazidis can create literature and primary documentation to share their traumas about world-changing historical events.

The concept of rape as a tool of genocide is relatively new, having been introduced in the 90s after the conflict in former Yugoslavia. ISIS has especially persecuted Yazidi women by selling them into sexual slavery in open markets and passing them among ISIS members as property, often after forcing them to watch the murder of family members. As firsthand victims of this brand of persecution, there is a dire need for these women to accurately document their experiences in order for the world to understand and prevent such methods of genocide in the future.

Traditional resettlement programs focus on the success of each individual in the economy and society in which they have been resettled and include local occupational and language training. These programs are worth a significant amount of time and resources, but such programs are not focused on the success of the refugee community, nor are they focused on helping refugees heal from the traumas they have endured within that community. While mental health care is often made accessible in resettlement programs, treatment typically falls within in the constraints of Western individual therapy. Allotting time to native language learning within resettlement programs will assist in communal healing for refugee communities.

According to psychological studies, writing about traumatic experiences helps alleviate the symptoms of trauma, reducing the likelihood of suffering from depression.  Even in the hectic and overwhelming lives of refugees, it is crucial to make space and time for this writing. Writing is especially useful in processing sexual violence, a deeply personal affront to the individual who may not wish to begin processing it verbally. Opening the options for an effective form of therapy in writing—without the stress of doing it in a newly learned language—would help individuals to heal and to more effectively integrate into society.

Healing at the broader community level also helps an individual’s mental health and their ability to seek resources, making them more likely to become productive members of society in a stimulating way. As seen by the study of Hmong refugees, a persecuted ethnic minority from Laos, fostering mutual learning and cultural exchange increased the well-being of the entire refugee population.

While native literacy education differs from this method, the benefits are similar. For women who cannot write in their native language, literacy education would enable another type of structured social bonding, which can otherwise be lost as they try to secure livelihoods and care for families. Yazidis already literate in Kurmanji can develop valuable social roles in education, something that refugees often struggle to obtain. Further, fostering women’s confidence in literacy serves as a tool to embolden them to seek employment and social roles in their new countries.

Yazidis face a particularly persecuted past, and all refugees have experienced some form of trauma, first at home and then in the process of fleeing their home countries. For women and girls who have faced extreme violence, literacy training opens opportunities to reconnect with their cultures and to support each other. Developing native language literacy needs to be applied widely to any community in need of collective healing. Civil society and governments accepting refugees need to make the effort to fund, form, and promote native language literacy.

Image: Working Together to Help Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon

Courtesy of DFID - UK Department for International Development / Wikimedia Commons

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Alexandra Leveillee holds a double B.A in Sociology and Human Rights from the University of Connecticut. At Uconn she conducted independent research through UConn Health on the impacts of the South African universal healthcare system on rural women and was an involved member of UNESCO Student Ambassadors. After UConn, Alexandra served as an AmeriCorps volunteer tutoring in a Boston public charter school. Her focus studying at Fletcher is in Conflict Resolution and Human Security, with a narrowed focus on access to education and sports for women and girls. 

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