Crossing the language barrier

It felt a little bit like going on a first date as we waited nervously at Dublin airport for our friends to arrive from Ukraine. Although we had never met in person, we had been exchanging messages over some months as we waited for visas to be processed and to get all the documentation in order to travel.

Just the day before travelling, we discovered that the connecting flight from Amsterdam to Dublin was cancelled, so the family had to rearrange flights and come in from Warsaw to Paris and then Paris to Dublin.

As we waited at Dublin airport arrivals hall we had a call from the Department of Agriculture who had an official to meet us to take the family cat into quarantine for 3 months. He was incredibly kind and respectful of the situation and sent through some photos of the cat settling into its new accommodation in the early hours of the morning.

My colleague, Andy, and I had been rehearsing our one Ukrainian phrase as we waited, the word for ‘Welcome’ but, as the family came across the arrivals hall, it was good to exchange hugs and greetings after a very long day’s travelling. Trevor and Gillian Mcintyre accompanied us in another car and we loaded everyone into the cars to begin our journey back to Belfast. Katya and her 2 children travelled with Trevor and Gillian and Evgen and his mum, Inna, travelled with Andy and I.

It was incredible as I drove to hear technology coming to the rescue as Evgen and Andy chatted all the way home using the Google Translate App. With the press of a button and a slight delay your words are translated into the other person’s language.

As the App picks up surrounding conversation, sometimes the translation comes out with very peculiar things, but it’s an amazing tool and has helped us enormously over the past few days. The family joined us for the jubilee service on Sunday and so many people have responded so generously in helping to furnish the house and make financial provision for the rent.

We had a very inspiring experience at the Ukraine Welcome Centre, operated by the Belfast City Council, on Monday. As our friends were assessed after a visit to the Home Office, we had appointments to see officials from health, education, welfare and benefits, and the charity Bryson House. We were assigned a translator and all these officials helped to do important things like register for a medical card, apply for universal credit, organise an appointment with a local school, arrange appointments in other places. The translators were amazing. I noticed at one of our appointments Katya was getting very upset, probably because for the first time she could share something of her experiences in her own language. The translator was so compassionate and kind, taking her by the hand and slipping away to get her tissues. It was beautiful to see that level of empathy and compassion in action from government services.

As the adults went through all these important appointments, Alina, who is 9, was able to play with some other children in a supervised Creche. It was so good to see children playing together and having fun in a very challenging environment, and the staff watching over them all were so kind and caring. As they left, Alina and her baby sister Arina, who is just 4 months old were given their choice of hand knitted dolls by one of the volunteers running the welcome centre.

Sometimes it’s the small things that say a lot and cross the language barriers. It might be a look,  a smile or a hug. It might be the trouble and the patience people take as they try to make themselves understood either with the help of a translator or an App. At church on Sunday, there were hugs and handshakes and nods and smiles – the universal language of kindness and acceptance.

Sadly, the language barrier can be crossed in the opposite direction as the news reported at the weekend. Vile and disgusting sectarian songs were sung at a gathering, mocking the death of Michaela McAreavey who was murdered on honeymoon in Mauritius in 2011. Michaela is the daughter of Mickey Harte, who was the coach of the All Ireland Gaelic football winning team from Tyrone before taking on a new role as coach of County Louth. 

I have had the pleasure of meeting Mickey on a few occasions. He is a man of the utmost integrity, deep faith and a remarkable coach. Knowing how much I admire him, Vicky bought me his memoir last Christmas. It was nauseating to hear how people were capable of such barbaric behaviour and I felt so awful for him and his family after all the grief and heartache they have been through. I dropped him and his wife a card, but no words can express the hurt they must feel at being treated in this way.

As the ‘church without walls’ we have important choices to make. Can we use words to hurt or to heal? If we can’t understand what others are saying can we try to communicate using the best means at our disposal – sign language, apps, translators, if they are available? Sometimes it’s the unspoken things, the hand on the shoulder, the offering of a tissue, a bit of time spent that communicates the heart of the matter.

We have much to learn from the Ukraine Welcome Centre. As we think of ways to help our family settle, and others who might be in the same position, we are holding an exploratory meeting with other churches in the area at 8pm on Thursday 16th June. We are looking to see if we can offer conversational English lessons in our hall over the summer and maybe using some other local church halls, too. If you’d be interested in getting involved why not come along at 8pm on 16th June.

Looking at the happy picture of Andy with Evgan and Katya outside their new home last Sunday it seemed to me as if language barriers are beginning to be overcome and, while we don’t always have each others words, there is a connection of hearts.

In the powerful words of John McAreavey in response to the vile abuse heaped upon his late wife and their respective families he said, ‘Michaela was a vessel of love, courage and dignity. Hate can hurt, but never win.’ 

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,


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