What’s keeping me awake?

For two weeks, starting from the 17th of November, we will post four short stories – coming out respectively on Tuesday and on Thursday – taken from the collection of short stories Istantanee – Snapshots, written by Alessia Marinoni. They will be available both in their original version in Italian and in the translated version in English.

Thoughts of a mediator

Last night I couldn’t sleep. Something was worrying me and my thoughts kept me up. This morning, when I woke up, I was still a little tired and I was thinking about work. Now, you might think that I deal with financial reports or very complicated calculations that may determine the economic fate of a business. I would have thought the same thing: when I was a young boy and I imagined my future, I’ve never seen myself inside an office with a calculator as my best friend. All my life, I’ve always tried looking for a “mission”. And here I am. I’ve been working as a mediator for nine years now (or eight years, if I have to be precise, because I spent my first year as a mediator learning how to do the job). Actually, you do need a lot of practice on the field for a job like mine. Only studying theory wouldn’t be enough. 

I never studied to become a mediator, it all happened by chance. 

I was born in Ivory Coast and that’s where I got my degree in pedagogy and infant psychology. Then, I moved to Burkina Faso for work and that’s where my “mission” began: I worked as a teacher for a few years. I taught children that were between six and fourteen years old. I taught the basics of every discipline to the younger children while I specialized in French and natural sciences with the ones who were a little older. I liked seeing them grow with me. It might be a bit of an egoistic thought on my side, but I used to see their success as my personal victory. This behavior is a bit of a dangerous one because, when I thought that I couldn’t teach the way I wanted, I got very upset. From this point of view, I’ve always been very demanding with myself. I can tell from my current job too.

When I first moved to Italy, I found a house in Naples. In the beginning, I couldn’t find any language courses for foreign people. That’s why I decided to try and adapt those methods of teaching that had been so dear to my heart in the past and I tried using them on myself. I bought some Italian grammar books and I started learning how to speak and how to write. When I moved to Bologna, my Italian was still a bit shaky but, little by little, I started getting better and I added a new language to the ones I already knew. Actually, aside from French (which is the official language of the Ivory Coast) I also know a few other dialects that are used between the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali (that’s where my wife comes from). They are, in fact, real languages more than dialects, because of their complexity: even though some words may seem similar to each other to an untrained ear, just one little difference could change the meaning of the whole sentence. That’s where most of the difficulties linked to my job reside, in small differences. 

As I was saying, I started working as a handyman in Bologna, for Arca di Noè, which is a social cooperative. I used to take care of the most diverse chores. As years passed by, though, I started not being able to work like I used to: I started having vertigos so, many of my chores that I used to carry out with ease started becoming almost impossible. In the beginning I saw that situation as misfortune. I mean, nobody would be happy to risk their job. This whole situation, though, brought me to a new turn: many of my colleagues, members of the cooperative, had already noticed my linguistic skills thanks to which I was able to speak with the people who passed by our offices and that couldn’t speak Italian yet. You can actually meet a lot of different cultures in the offices of Arca di Noè: many migrants who come to Italy for the first time, get in touch with the cooperative during the initial reception phase. Some of them, though, keep on asking for help to our legal helpdesk in order to be able to manage all the paperwork that comes with the request of a residency permit or of political asylum, for example.

This is how, little by little, I started mediating for these boys. In the beginning, I rarely did it while, as time went by, it became a real full-time job, so that now I also take care of finding mediators for other cooperatives. 

Right, because the job of a mediator is a very delicate one and needs to be calibrated in the right way. Many people mistake the job of a mediator with that of an interpreter: while the interpreter mostly deals with simultaneous translation, a mediator also needs to fulfill another task which is that of putting two different cultures in contact in a way that their misunderstandings can be easily overcome. Mediating, that is. Knowing the grammar of a language perfectly is not enough in order to be able to fully understand that language: the most important teacher of a language is culture. For example, let’s take French: French spoken in France is not going to be the same as French spoken in the Ivory Coast. You should never make the mistake of judging a language that superficially. I remember an episode in particular: during a hearing, the judge told me that he didn’t need my constant mediation because he could speak very good French. He said that he would ask me if he happened to need my help. Nevertheless, every once in a while, I tried to intervene because I knew that the judge wasn’t catching on every little word that the boy was saying and the meaning he was giving to them. The judge kept on saying that there was no need for me to speak and, at the end of the hearing, I felt a little defeated because I knew that, if I had been able to mediate, the judge would have had a different idea of the whole situation. All I could do was telling the judge, once more, that what he’d drawn from the boy’s words was not what the boy had meant. The future of a person was at stake and I wanted to take my responsibilities about it, just like I wanted the judge to do so. I was able to steal him a promise: he said he would look for more pieces of information about the boy’s culture by the next hearing, coming the following week. As I was saying, I’ve always been very demanding towards myself and I wondered if, maybe, I could have been more assertive in order to guarantee that the judge would understand the boy’s every word. It was seven long days. When the time of the second hearing came, before it started, the judge came to talk to me privately and he told me (that) I was right. While he was reading about the boy’s culture, he had noticed that, in fact, he hadn’t been able to deeply understand what the boy was saying. He asked me to mediate, this time. At the end of the hearing, the verdict was that the boy had obtained the right to have political asylum. While I was going back home, I felt so light, as if I were walking on a cloud. This time I had the certainty that I had done my job in the right way, I was proud of myself.

My job has a lot to give and a lot to take: it’s true that I’m often satisfied with my job but it’s also true that I found myself worrying too much for problems that weren’t under my control. I was bringing home a lot of difficult situations which weren’t my own. A mediator is a bit like a psychologist: we always need to try and keep a certain emotive distance between us and our clients so as not to be overwhelmed by our own emotions. This might be the part of mediation with which I struggle the most. Sometimes I notice that I identify myself too much with the guys who come by Arca di Noè, with their misfortunes,  their problems, their pain and their frustration, which comes from the fear of not being understood. Many of them don’t trust social workers: because of the colonial history of their country of origin, they grew up thinking that Caucasian men are malicious, that they want to fool them. This kind of suspicion is very difficult to eradicate because it has its roots in a pasrt that still burns even though it’s not that recent anymore. Personally, though, I feel pretty good at reassuring people and putting them at ease. The guys I work with, often don’t feel like looking directly at the social worker while he/she is speaking, they only listen to my translation, which means they trust me as a mediator but even this isn’t ideal. So as to make the mediation work, the client needs to trust both the mediator and the social worker the same way. I think (that) this is the first problem that needs to be overcome: once the guys are convinced that the social workers can be trusted, everything goes more smoothly. Sometimes, clients get attached to the social workers and, sometimes, they fall in love with them. I remember a very sweet story that took place some time ago: a boy had fallen for a girl who was his social worker. Without any slyness (but with a little bit of naivety, maybe) the girl had told her colleagues about the boy’s feelings and they had summoned him and tried to explain him that that situation must not be repeated. I remember the boy calling me. He was disappointed, angry and embarrassed, he felt offended and humiliated. Actually, his culture dictates that love affairs must remain private. If a refusal were to be revealed to other people, it would have been a great dishonor for the person who had received it and that wasn’t because of the refusal itself but because of public shame coming along with it. The boy closed himself off, he had no more intention to speak with me or with the girl. So, I tried to tell the girl what had happened in the boy’s mind: I told her that, if she wanted to solve the problem, she could have brought the boy out for a coffee and explain her motivations, so as to reassure him. That’s what she did. The night of their meeting, the boy called me: he told me that he was happy she had invited him out to explain him why she had said that she wasn’t interested in him. Of course, I acted as if I knew nothing of that business. HeE said that, in the beginning, he had gotten sad not because she had said no but because she had told her colleagues about it and he was afraid (that) she wanted to make fun of him. From that moment on, though, he said he would leave any misunderstanding behind him and, at work, everything was much easier, just like it was before the boy’s crush. 

Sometimes, a mediator might find himself working in a place that’s out of his comfort-zone. For example, it happened quite a few times that I had to work at the hospital and that’s not easy because one always has to keep his cool, even when the situation won’t allow for it. I always try to take something good home from my mediations. I especially remember one episode that has as its main character a Malian boy who was suffering from a cancer at a pretty advanced stage. The doctor told me that the situation was very dangerous and he asked me to tell the boy that if he hadn’t accepted to have surgery, he would have surely died. In my experience, I know that, following the boy’s culture, one cannot talk about death in such a direct manner. Moreover, I was convinced that if I had done what the doctor had said, the boy wouldn’t have accepted his offer and, on the other hand, he would have gone back to Mali in order to try to find a solution to his disease in the local folklore. If I had reported the doctor’s every word, I would have sentenced the boy to death. So, I tried to make things easier for him, letting him know that it was bad but also telling him that, in order to feel better, he had to accept surgery. This way, the boy decided to accept and he told me that, after he’d wake up from surgery, the first thing he would have done was calling me on the phone. The day of his surgery comes and I always keep my phone close, I don’t want to miss any calls. Finally, the phone rings. It’s him: his voice is still sleepy because of the anesthesia but the surgery went well and, jokingly, he says that he knows how to keep a promise and, even in those conditions, he remembered that he had to call me. In that moment, all of the tension I was feeling during the past few weeks disappeared. Sometimes, even a small acknowledgement that lets me know that I’m going in the right direction is enough to free me from the burden of such a difficult task. At least for a while. 

Sometimes, though, mediations don’t go as planned. Many sessions leave me feeling powerless and with a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t explain. That’s how I recently felt and it’s these feelings and these thoughts that kept me up tonight. Just a few weeks ago, I was assigned a new boy who had just arrived in the cooperative. Everything seemed fine: I tried to introduce myself in a reassuring way, just like I always do, and that’s how we got to know each other. Nevertheless, something went wrong. During the mediation, the boy started getting nervous and attacking me, saying that he knew that I wanted to fool him and that he understood what the social worker was saying, and it was nothing like the translation I was doing. I tried to reassure him, telling him that what I was saying was correct. My every word only made him angrier and angrier so, at one point, he decided to leave the room in which the mediation was being carried out. The social worker and I both tried to talk sense into him but there was no way. He was still very mad at me and started insulting me and threatening me. I tried to keep calm and to be rational telling him that he had no right to behave like that and, most of all, he couldn’t threaten me or else I’d report him to the police. All of this situation ruined my work with the mediation which, obviously, couldn’t be carried out anymore. After a while, it was discovered that this boy was prone to uincontrollable violent outbursts, which scared me because I happened to meet him quite a few times during my everyday life, outside the cooperative. It was scary to me because, every time that happened, I was left with a lot of insults and threats. All of this situation disturbed the quiet life I tried to live before. Before this happened, I used to go to work with a peaceful state of mind. But I can’t do it anymore: I’m always afraid that I will have to face another similar situation. Moreover, there’s thoughts vexing me all day and night. I think about what I might have done wrong during that mediation. I think that, maybe, if I had used different words, he wouldn’t have gotten upset. Or, maybe, I should have been stronger so as not to let him scare me with his words and his actions that, in that moment, definitely seemed too aggressive to me.

For this boy’s second session of mediation, another mediator was chosen instead of me. Nevertheless, my colleagues informed me that he specifically asked to have me as his mediator. At first, I said no. I didn’t feel like being his mediator anymore. But then my colleagues convinced me to go on: they say that he’s just acting up, that I have to try not getting upset and that I need to remain calm so as to get over these misunderstandings. Even now, I’m not sure that it will work. We have our second appointment today. Or, actually, it must be our fourth or fifth meeting if we consider those that happened outside my working hours. 

I don’t know how it will go but, even though I can’t say (that) I’m quiet now, I feel like this is the right path for the “mission” I so dreamt about when I graduated: I wanted to be helpful to other people as far as possible, even when this help wasn’t received with open arms. That’s where many of my joys and satisfactions come from. And it’s also where many of my worries are created. This is why, the most important quality for being a mediator, is dedication. 

A special thanks to the team of Arca di Noè, a social cooperative from Bologna, for giving us the possibility to write this article.

My name is Alessia, I was born on a summer morning twenty-five years ago in a little town near Milan and I’m a linguistic mediation student. A few years ago, the city of Bologna became my second home because that’s where I’ve been studying. Living away from home gave me the opportunity to make new experiences such as sharing a house with five other students my age and dedicating myself to the activities I love: writing and translating. I like to listen to what other people want to share and I like pondering all the different little details of words which change according to the context in which they’re used, even on a cultural level. That’s why, in the near future, I would like to mix my listening skills with my translation and writing skills as much as possible in order to make it my job.

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