By Silvia Mingarelli
The role of the mediator is complex because it is not only to translate and interpret; There are many other issues at stake. Intercultural competence is needed. I worked for a long time in Italy, Perugia as intercultural mediator in schools. Our interventions relate mostly socio-economically disadvantaged migrants and applicants for international protection. In addition to good language skills, an ability to listen to what people want to tell and participate in situatuion analysis, the mediator must have some additional skills: knowledge of cultural differences, communication skills, the fineness of perception, intuition to intervene adequately and at the right time. In our work we must continually evaluate when we talk, when we must keep silent, how we can approach people from different backgrounds, and how to ask for and give information. We clearly need a lot of empathy.
Our approach to language is of fundamental importance, not so much to the pragmatic meaning as to the semantic meaning of the words. A term does not necessarily have the same social value in a different culture, therefore we must master the different aspects of language: meaning, context, communication, cultural background. It is only when we become familiar with the two civilizations (the domestic and the foreigner) that we can become a means of communication for both.
Yet the intervention of cultural mediation is delicate, sometimes risky. It needs a lot of intercultural competence. It must be cautious, and avoid generalizing cultural aspects. We must keep in mind the differences in the various regions of a country, and take into account the educational, religious, class and personal characteristics that have a considerable weight.
Although aware of possible misunderstandings, we try in some way to increase the opportunities for understanding; tension or frustration can be turned into opportunities to create change and to build trust. Sometimes, even if it is painful, we have to project ourselves as migrants to understand the experience of the other. A certain complicity with users is sometimes necessary: in fact, we create a mutual understanding and facilitate communication.
As a Mediator, I have experienced that many operators, in the health, educational, social and judicial fields, are not inclined to seek the intervention of the mediator for fear of not being able to establish a relationship with you in the presence of a third person. The resistances are due to the fear that some parts of the message will be transmitted by omission or by transformation of the message. It can happen that not everyone can grasp the meaning of a speech, but a well-trained mediator always express the parties, because, paradoxically, we facilitate the establishment of the relationship of trust with the parties.
Managing emotions is one of the major difficulties we encounter. Sometimes the translation of stories is extremely painful, in pronouncing words that arouse strong emotions. We have the feeling of being a “filter” through which these words and emotions pass unbearable. We are at the same time the “bridge” that allows the passage of information and the “screen” that reflected the non-verbal aspect of intentions: the tone of voice, the speed, the facial expressions, gestures are fundamental. In some cases the words are implied but not clearly pronounced: as for example in the case of victims of torture who are ashamed to say what they have suffered, especially when violence touches the sexual aspects.That often happens with people who have a dialectic and a chaotic flow.
It is essential to understand the actual expectations of the interventions. It is useful to create a brief moment of preliminary exchange with the operator and where possible with the user, also in order to understand the context of the intervention and to clarify reciprocal expectations. Through this process we can clarify our role and make explicit our professional skills, especially when the parties do not know us. This approach also facilitates the establishment of trust between professionals. Sometimes we have to intervene in different services for the same person, and consequently it may happen that we are also confidants. In these cases, the imperative is to respect strictly the confidentiality while remaining transparent: we can inform the operator that we have mediated for the user before, providing no other information.
But the job of mediator is also linked to the economic logic of financing and working on small projects. The Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati, Italian Council for Refugees, is the biggest nonprofit and nongovernmental organization formed in 1990 with the support of UNHCR. It is also the Italian member of ECRE – the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. Amongst its activities there is the financial support to refugees and to activities linked to improving the conditions for refugees on the entire continent.