A Smile is Worth a Thousand Words

The power of non-verbal communication in the context of humanitarian aid, from Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow Aliza Lauter.

It is a sunny, humid morning and I am in a high school classroom in the center of Escuintla, Guatemala, sitting in a circle along with the principal and eighteen female student leaders all dressed in school uniforms of red plaid skirts and white collared shirts. The classroom is bare except for the lime-green paint streaked on the walls and the towering stacks of plastic chairs in the corner. As the only room in the school with air conditioning, it serves as a refuge from the hot and sticky air outside. The girls are debriefing and speak rapidly, often over one another, about the emergency drill they’ve just conducted. Unfortunately, the only words I have been able to fully make out throughout this entire exchange are, “Ella es Aliza, ella no habla español”, announced by one of our IsraAID team members at the beginning of the session to explain my subsequent silence and oft-puzzled expression.

Students debrief after the emergency drill.

This summer is not my first time living abroad, but it is my first extended period of time in a place where I cannot speak the local language. Growing up, my school report cards chided year after year that I was “far too talkative”; yet here in Guatemala, hours can go by without a single word escaping my mouth. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed by my inability to communicate. I yearned to dive deeply into my work but felt inhibited and frustrated, believing I was unable to cultivate connections due to the palpable language barrier.

When IsraAID first arrived in Guatemala in 2018, two days after the Fuego volcano erupted, the team was focused on immediate emergency response and care. Over time, the organization’s focus shifted to long-term recovery, with the hope of improving the capacity of these communities to respond to future disasters. Prior to my arrival in Guatemala, IsraAID’s team had been hard at work training a small group of high school teachers and administrators across the city in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Equipped with a better capacity for response and knowledge of emergency drills, these representatives could train additional teachers and student leaders at their own schools. Currently, our IsraAID team is visiting all nineteen schools to assist with and evaluate the new emergency drills in place.

Prior to our morning meeting in the lime-green classroom, these eighteen student leaders led their fellow classmates out of the classrooms and onto the basketball courts as the sound of a siren blared and bounced off the school walls. As I watched the drill, not understanding a single word, what struck me most were not the quiet uniformed lines of students or handful of leaders bravely standing up to speak in front of their peers — it was what happened at the end of the drill. Once every student was safely accounted for and clearly eager to go back inside, everyone broke into a collective dance! With the drills and blaring siren reminiscent of disaster and upheaval, the joining of hands in dance served as a welcome comfort, acting as a transition from the drill back to class. While the instructions given throughout the drill are crucial to keeping the kids safe, the dance afterwards — a universal act that does not require knowledge of Spanish, or of any language — helps make us all feel safe.

After eighteen smiles and kisses on the cheek, our IsraAID team departed the school and made its way across the city to the next. Here, the drill and the words spoken were the exact same (as far as I could tell). And once again, at the end of the drill, the kids joined hands and danced. A few of the students come up to me afterwards, smiling and speaking in rapid Spanish. Again, I hear that phrase uttered by my fellow team member, “Ella es Aliza, ella no habla español”; however, this time I do not blush or retreat. Instead, I smile broadly and make use of one of the few words in my repertoire: “Hola!” Amidst peals of laughter, the students reply, “Good Morning!” — at four o’clock in the afternoon. At this point our limited knowledge of each other’s languages is clear. Instead, we communicate for hours with hand gestures, facial expressions, and a whole lot of laughter, conveying far more than our words ever could. I have come to learn that actions and non-verbal communication, and the special vulnerability and authenticity that often follow, play an incredibly powerful role in human connection and in the community-strengthening work of IsraAID.

Students dance together following the emergency drill.

— Aliza Lauter, Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Guatemala

On June 3, 2018, Volcan de Fuego erupted in Guatemala for the second time that year, devastating the surrounding areas. With almost 200 killed and 2 million affected, it was the largest and most violent eruption in over four decades. IsraAID’s Emergency Response Team arrived in Guatemala on June 5 to distribute urgent relief items and assess further needs. Local schools were especially affected by the disaster, leading the IsraAID team to partner with the Ministry of Education to support teachers and children. Educational projects have included Disaster Risk Reduction training in schools and the construction of a Child Friendly Space in Escuintla.

Aliza is currently attending the University of California, Davis. She is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Guatemala for summer 2019.

We need your help to bring relief to the communities of Guatemala. Please donate to IsraAID’s fund to support our response.

Thank you for your support!



Stories from IsraAID's work providing life-saving emergency relief and durable solutions for populations affected by crisis. http://www.israaid.org

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Stories from IsraAID's work providing life-saving emergency relief and durable solutions for populations affected by crisis. http://www.israaid.org