Starting conversations with refugees can be difficult, especially when talking to someone whose first language is not English. Eventually, communication can flow more easily as volunteers develop a good system of communication. You can always use Google Translate or a phone app to help you along. Here are a few possible conversation starters:

  • Basic info: names, ages, grades
  • How did you come to be in America?
  • How long have you been in High Point/North Carolina?
  • What was it like when you first came to America?
    •  Remember, some families have only been here for a few days.
  • Do you like America, school, jobs, etc.?
  • How is your home country different from America? What are some of the challenges of having to move here?
  • What do you miss about your home country? Do you want to go back some day?
  • What do you like to do for fun?
  • Remember that many have just come from very difficult circumstances
  • Can you teach me some words in your language?
  • What is your job? What did you do in your home country?
  • What kind of food do you like?
  • How can people help refugees in America?

When talking to kids:

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
    • Remember that some may have never had a chance to hope and dream like we do here.
    • Now’s the time to give them a chance to do just this. Dream with them.
  • What is your favorite subject in school?
  • What do you like to do for fun?

Tell them about yourself:

  • Your interests, what you do for a living, where you live, etc.
  • Share your favorite activities and things you would like to show them.

Any ideas for breaking the ice as we eat, keeping in mind the language barrier? When refugees arrive, they have usually traveled for several days without resting, so do not take it personally if they do not want to socialize immediately. For later encounters, here are some helpful mealtime ice breakers:

  • Bring a translation dictionary to learn some words in their language and begin teaching them some English. Teach/learn words for the food being served and begin teaching some daily phrases.
  • Pictures are universal! Bring some paper and pens to communicate via drawings.
  • If their alphabet has different characters, ask how to write their name(s) in their native language and show them how to write yours. Ask them to teach about their alphabet (if literate) and show them the English alphabet.

Overcoming language barriers

  • Volunteers are to understand that language barriers will occur between them and the refugees whom they are befriending. This is okay! Language barriers are awkward, and volunteers are to embrace this. Refugees who do not speak English understand that they cannot understand you and you cannot understand them. Be patient, use hand motions and have fun with Google Translate and dictionaries. 
  • Exposure to the English language and persistence on a refugee's part are key to learning. 
  • As volunteers expose themselves to the accent of the refugees whom they are befriending, they will be able to understand their English better.
  • Do not be afraid to use broken English. Sometimes this can help refugees.
    • For example: say "You go, grocery store, bread" instead of, "You should go to the grocery store to buy more bread." Or say, "Tomorrow, three, I come" instead of "Tomorrow at 3 p.m. I will come to your house to visit you." 

Listening to refugees

  • Oftentimes, many refugees have not had the opportunity to be listened to. Volunteers have the honor of providing this type of empowerment for them. Take time to listen and learn about their culture.
  • Take time to ask intentional, specific questions that show you genuinely care about building a relationship and knowing the refugee.
  • Understand that refugees may not understand things that you would consider common sense. Be patient and work with them.
  • When refugees make mistakes (either in their English or in actions) be sure to find a balance between when its healthy to correct them and when it is hurtful
  • Sometimes it is more beneficial to observe refugees rather than ask questions.