A bridge between two cultures

Rima Kilani

Rima Kilani is the first cultural mediator in Serbia, working on behalf of Atina at the border with Croatia. To be able to work in this position, a person has to be open-minded, honest and perceptive, all qualities embodied in Rima's positive personality that shines with confidence and trust. We are bringing her perspective of this position and refugee crisis in general.

Can you clarify what is cultural mediation?

Cultural mediation is different than translation. It is a way of making a bridge between two cultures, not only two languages. It is important for a cultural mediator to understand both cultures, and to be familiar with both of them, because while translating to anyone, or while  interpreting on any subject, one has to switch it, not only the idea, but the whole concept, to this culture that s/he is translating to. Of course, there are important criteria for cultural mediators - and some of them I find personally challenging - you have to be completely sincere and honest in conveying the idea. You have to be loyal to the culture, but not to your own perspective, otherwise it would be very hard. You have to translate it and convert it, but not impose your own personality.

In the situation of refugee crisis, the position of cultural mediator is important and sometimes crucial in establishing the trust between the people working in the field and people in need. What are the most striking moments when you are in the field?

Sometimes the most difficult thing is the fact that we are doing everything fast, we don't always have enough time. In order to make an idea clear, you need some time to build small communication of trust in a relationship between three persons -  me, the person I am translating from, and the person I am translating to. Translating the words is not enough; in this short time you have to facilitate between the body language, the eye contact and the concept, and sometimes you don't have the conditions to do that, either you are in a hurry, or the person you are talking to is frustrated, angry, the person from the organization might have some other concerns, so within this atmosphere, taking and retransmitting the idea could be a little bit sensitive. It is nothing like sitting at home and transferring everything, no, it is work under pressure. You have to be accurate and you have to be understanding. In the field, there is a high tension, not all the time, but when the crisis is on the peak. Even if the people we work with know that this tension will pass, it is not personal, but at certain moments no one is thinking about it.

How does this position affect your own personal life?

Actually, I get the reflection from this position because it teaches me how not to re-judge. I notice how people judge each other when there is a misunderstanding, and it is happening even with the people who speak the same language. So it teaches me how to rethink, try to interpret in a different way, try to take as many aspects as possible, not to re-judge.

When Atina started working in the field, it turned out that sometimes it was more difficult to reach women, as they were always in the back and the men are always in the front. What is your experience?

This does not apply to all the people that I work with. I am translating for many cultures and there is a vast variety. For me personally, it is easier to talk to women, as woman-to-woman, women will come and they will speak. Women coming from villages, suburbs, they prefer not to be at the front, they prefer to let the men talk. But if we speak about Afghanis, it was really hard to reach women. It is also important to add that refugees are coming from different cultures, they are not coming from one place, if you count cultures that produce refugees, it is more than 80 million people. For me it is easy to reach women, being a woman myself, and my age also contributes to relationship of trust.

Do you notice - is this journey people are going through changing relationships between them? Is this changing the relationship within cultures? Do you have that impression?

During the first year it wasn't the case, but starting approximately from the second year of the war crisis, things have been changing. Most of the men have been kidnapped or recruited to the army or died, so women have a bigger role now. They have to work, they have to lead, they have to make more decisions. Especially in the last year and a half, we saw a lot of women on the road by themselves, trying to save their children or to save themselves. Before, women were more submissive within certain cultures, more closed-up, but now they need her to be strong, as now they can not be guaranteed support. So, yes, I think this has been changing, especially since this is now lasting for a long period of five years, so you have to be strong. Even for me personally, I was depending on my father, on my ex, but now everything has changed, I have to be strong, there are no more options.
When there are thousands and thousands of examples like this, that will make impact on the environment and the culture.

What are your hopes for this situation?

Personally, I think it could be solved by a miracle, nothing else. I don't see any quick solution, it is a problem that is becoming bigger and bigger, countries that could interfere to stop it are not doing anything. Unfortunately, it will take a long time. I am expecting more people to come. They make it so hard for them to leave, but they will find a way to get out, because staying is becoming harder and harder. I still have family, relatives and friends there. A lot of people had a lot of hopes, that's why people are still coming even now. People spent five years in the war, they had hope, but now they don't have it any more. Even my closest family, my close friends, hope they can get out now. They had refused to leave the country, they strongly wanted to stay, but now they are saying that is not an option any more.

What are the hopes for the people who have reached their country of destination?

There are two sides of this issue. Some people are managing to continue studies, they are young, they can start over again, but there are a big number of people who are really fighting to go back for many reasons - cultural shock, bad experiences, they have had really high expectations. Some people thought it would be easier, they would be safe, they would survive, but I know many people who suffer discrimination. So, my conclusion would be that people had bad experience. They had high expectations and it did not happen. Now, I know a lot of people who would like to work and earn some money, so they could go back to pay to escape obligatory recruitment, and not go to the army. If people knew that there was a safe place back home, you would see that more than 70 percent of them would go back home.