Hear My Voice, Know My Words.

Translator provides a lifeline to refugees in transit

When people are lost or displaced from the world they know, what they need first is someone who speaks their language.

Thank God for Kemal El Shairy who, in 2015, was in the right place at the right time to help thousands of people, mostly women and children who were arriving in Serbia from their war-ravaged homes in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the time, Kemal was a Ph.D. student studying international relations at the University of Belgrade. But when the need to assist the influx of refugees grew to a new height he became the chief translator for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). CRS along with local church partners were providing medical and legal support, temporary shelter, food, water and hygiene items to refugees. Kemal decided to leave the classroom and spend his days in a new learning environment meeting new people every day and trying to help them understand their legal circumstances and potential next steps along their journey.
“We were on call nonstop,” Kemal explained. “People coming through need information. Many times, they don’t know where they are, or they’re not sure if they’re going to be arrested, or registered, or whether they’ll be allowed to leave. So, our main job is to explain things to them.”


In those years, Kemal says people came off the bus entering the unknown from one area to another. “The unknown factor is omnipotent; it’s ubiquitous … The information that we provide them, at least the information that we’re allowed to convey, is absolutely crucial. We’re explaining to them even the most basic things like the name of the city they’re in. For example, most refugees don’t even know how to pronounce the next city they’re going to.”

Today, the flow of refugees across Serbia has slowed and the make-up of refugees is different. Those who left early had the means. Those who arrive today either left with nothing or finally had scraped together enough money to take their families out and away from the devastation.

Still working on his Ph. D., Kemal El Shairy also continues to work for CRS helping refugees on their journey. But the needs and interactions are different. His role to translate words has evolved into a translator of cultures. Here’s what Kemal El Shairy says about what it’s like for refugees arriving on the border of Serbia today.

Q: What’s changed since you began translating in 2015?

A: Earlier, the people that were coming were professors, musicians, chemistry teachers, highly educated people. Nowadays we have people who have just managed after three years to save enough money to leave their countries. In the beginning people needed a blanket, water, a couple of bandages and food and they are good to go. Now people need psychologists. In the beginning we were translators-interpreters. Now we are cultural mediators. They need wider help.

Q: The borders to Western Europe are now closed, but do people still try to move on from Serbia?

A: People sometimes use smugglers. That’s the un-safest way to get somewhere. We try wholeheartedly to convince them not to do that. He’s just going to leave them somewhere. He will honor his deal, but he will not go beyond that. He doesn’t care what’s going to happen. But people are like waters. They will always find a way to leave or to enter. You can’t stop them. You can create a dam or send an army, but they will find a way.

Q: What do you hope for?

A: I hope they will regain at least a fraction of what their lives were like before, whether it means education or financial means, I hope they regain part of that because that’s a start. At the moment, they don’t even have that. They are waiting for someone to help them.

Q: What advice do you have for people who might be unsure of welcoming refugees into their community?

A: You have to try to put yourself in their shoes. You can be neutral, you can be negative, or you can be human. The Christian and Muslim thing to do is to behave towards other people as you would like them to behave towards you. Because at the end, you would be really surprised how exactly the same people are all over the place.

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Your neighbors live across the street and the country, across oceans and hemispheres. As millions of God’s children flee war, persecution and poverty, Pope Francis, Caritas Internationalis, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, and Catholic Relief Services invite you to share their journey by walking with them in prayer and support.