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Joanne & H: More than words can tell

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*To respect the privacy and ensure the safety of one of the refugees in our community, she will be referred to as “H.”

Joanne, a dedicated volunteer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City shares her story with a refugee from North Korea.
Despite their language differences, Joanne and H have become close and speak through more than words. Photo: Joanne Steveson

“Open, close.” Joanne would tell her. English, distilled to its very basics, turned into a game of comparison. Using the fridge door in the young refugee’s new apartment, Joanne would repeat: “Open. Close.” Joanne, a family mentor volunteer at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City, met H and her daughter within the first few months of their arrival to the United States.

H, a survivor of oppression, escaped from North Korea and lived through trafficking in China. When she and her daughter were free, they made the decision to build their lives in America, working through the rigorous refugee vetting process to finally arrive in Utah.

According to Joanne, it seemed like miracles followed H after her arrival, particularly for her health. She had several teeth that needed to be tended to after arriving. For every tooth that needed attention, a dentist sprung up offering their services. First, Joanne’s neighbor offered to pull a tooth for free. After, the University of Utah hospital offered discounted rates for a necessary procedure. Before they could even lend their services, though, Joanne called a friend in the city to ask if he knew anyone who could drive H to the dentist. “She needs a dentist?” he asked. “Cancel all her appointments. I’m a dentist.” He offered to help for free, too.

“Everything fell into place,” Joanne said.

Though many were quick to offer support, the fundamentals of building a relationship—namely communication—took longer for Joanne and H.

“I feel like we do a lot more communication than we think we do.”

Joanne had a hunch that even though H was attending English classes and could read the paragraphs given to her, she wasn’t comprehending the words yet. Joanne looked at a paragraph H was reading and translated the word “breakfast” to Korean in Google translate. H let out a sound of recognition, suddenly understanding what she had read. After that, Joanne went to the library to find ESL books specific to Korean. “She’s the most determined woman I’ve ever met,” Joanne said of her. Exhibit A: when H first came to the U.S. with her three-year-old, she unraveled an afghan and knitted her daughter a sweater using only chopsticks.

H’s daughter is six now, precocious and sharp. When they first settled in America, she learned English quickly and became a miniature interpreter for Joanne and H. Three-year-old interpreters have full plates, though, and often have more to do than translate for family. Even with her help, most of the communication between H and Joanne became a game of charades.

H knew some English, like the word “mother,” as she affectionately called Joanne. Thinking about interactions where language barriers had been a factor for her, Joanne remarked, “I feel like we do a lot more communication than we think we do.”

Once, when Joanne came to visit, she realized that H had been crying. “Mother, come,” H had invited her. She pulled up two buckets for them to sit on, then buried her head in Joanne’s shoulder and wept. Joanne sat with her. “She felt comfortable enough to sit and cry with me,” she reflected on the significance of the moment. Later, when they were with someone who could interpret for them, he translated for H. “Even though I can’t communicate with you,” H had said. “I understand your heart and know that you love me.”

H doesn’t call Joanne mother anymore, they’re a lot more casual. She calls her mom.

Even during pandemic, volunteers can still offer their support. Let’s work together while apart. Learn more by visiting Rescue.org/VolunteerSLC​.