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Tiffany Byers

  • A Smile, a Sandwich and some Arabic

    by Lauren Hughes | Jan 15, 2019

             Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. I decided to study none of these. I was in the hub of Europe - Brussels, after all, is one of the three locations of the European Parliament - yet, I picked one of the only languages that Vesalius College offered that was not European. I understand why people were questioning my choice. I even questioned it myself; nevertheless, I was very optimistic and excited about the choice that I made. I wanted to study Arabic.  

             I chose this language because of the internship I was doing in Brussels. The organization that I worked for was a very small non-governmental organization (NGO)  called Serve the City. This organization works very closely with large groups of refugees and asylum seekers. In Brussels, the majority of these people speak Arabic.

             I understood that I wouldn’t be able to fully communicate with Arabic speakers at our projects, but I knew that by understanding the basics I would be able to do my job a bit better.

             One of the key projects we did was the Sandwich Project. Serve the City’s philosophy is that a sandwich can serve as a universal language. The idea is that no matter what language you speak, giving someone a sandwich conveys a special feeling of giving and welcoming. We would walk around Brussels and give sandwiches to those who are on the streets. Brussels, as a city of one million, has the same  homeless population as London, a city of eight million.  It was beautiful what a small gesture of kindness can do. With the sandwich,  I added a friendly, , “sabah al-khair,” which means “good morning” in Arabic; They then responded, “sabah an-nuurn,” which means, “morning of the light.” Who knew that a smile, a simple phrase and a sandwich was all it took to connect us.

             However, Arabic presented a challenge. French and Dutch would have been easier, as they are both Indo-European languages and my knowledge of Spanish and English would have helped me. Instead, I had to learn a new alphabet, the Arabic script and I had to train my brain to write and read from left to right. It was a challenge but I’m happy with my decision! Speaking to others with a different native tongue can be tough. But I think we can all learn something from the Sandwich Project -  there is always an ability to connect, learn and give to one another: even if it’s only between two slices of bread.