Today’s episode is dedicated this episode to World Refugee Day on June 20th, and we have a very special guest for you, Debora Kayembe.
Debora grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
She earned her law degree in Kinshasa and began her career as a human rights activist. After interning at the UN, she was called to the Congolese Bar Association in Matadi and became a lawyer with a specialty in international law in 2000. She arrived in the UK as a refugee in 2005 in England, and moved to Edinburgh in 2011, where she qualified as a barrister.
In addition to her work as a human rights lawyer, she also has extensive experience in working as a translator for Refugees at the National Health Service in Scotland. She also set up her own language services company in 2009 with an international client base in the US and the UK.
In 2012, she joined the Scottish Refugee Council, where she served as a board member. That same year, she was added to the list of assistants to counsel for the victim support section of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2016, she joined the language service of the office of the Procecutor as well. Shortly after, she became the first African woman to join the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where she holds a seat on the Working Group for Africa.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Debora created the Freedom Walk Campaign, which aims to lobby, campaign on behalf of citizens by promoting social reforms, racial justice and community harmony.
In February 2021, Debora became the third woman, first black woman, and the first African immigrant to be named rector of the University of Edinburgh. She speaks French, Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, English, Luba, Portuguese and is learning Turkish at the moment.
[Eva-Maria] Welcome back to another episode of Much Language Such Talk. It’s me again, Eva-Maria, and my co-host for today is Bérengère. Welcome back!
[Eva-Maria] Hi, good to have you! Before we dive in, I’m going to remind everyone again to head over to our website mlstpodcast.com for the transcript, and we would appreciate if you would share the podcast on social media as well with your friends and family because the more the merrier. For today’s episode, this is actually the last episode before our summer break, but we’re ending our first season with a bang before returning in September, because we have dedicated this episode to World Refugee Day on June 20. And we have a very special guest for you to Debora Kayembe. Deborah grew up in Kinshasa at the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She earned her law degree in Kinshasa and began her career as a human rights activist. After interning at the UN, she was called to the Congolese Bar Association in Matadi, and became a lawyer with a specialty in international law in the year 2000. She arrived in the UK as a refugee in 2005 and lived in England for a while. However, her law degree was only recognised in Scotland, which is why she moved to Edinburgh in 2011 with her two young children, and qualified as a barrister. In addition to her work as a human rights lawyer, she also has extensive experience in working as a translator for refugees at the National Health Service in Scotland. She also set up her own language services company in 2009, with an international client base in the US and in the UK. In 2012, she joined the Scottish Refugee Council where she served as a board member, and in that same year, she was added to the list of assistance to counsel for the victim support section of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ICC. In 2016, she joined the language service of the Office of the Prosecutor as well. And shortly after, she became the first African woman to join the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where she holds a seat on the working group for Africa. In February 2021, just recently, Debora became the third woman, the first black woman and the first African immigrant to be named rector of the University of Edinburgh. She speaks French, Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, English, Luba, Portuguese, and is currently learning Turkish. So we are very excited to have her on the podcast! Thank you so much. Welcome, Debora!
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[Debora] (laughs) Thank you for having me, ladies. Hello [Bérengère], Hello Eva! It’s a pleasure being here. C’est un plaisir d’être parmi vous, merci. (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] Well, merci for joining us, my French is not great. (laughs) Maybe [Bérengère] wants to say that… (laughs)
[Bérengère] Merci beaucoup! (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] Merci beaucoup! Yeah, thank you so much for taking the time. Do we just want to dive right in?
[Bérengère] Yeah, yeah, let’s! So, you have such an impressive resume. I think we can definitely say that. And we can start with the fact for example, that you speak currently, seven languages, and you’re learning your eighth. And I think you already have your goal for your ninth language as well that you would like to learn. So just how did you become so multilingual? Was it the environment you grew up in? Or was it a particular interest in languages? What was it?
[Debora] I will say it was the environment in which I grew up with, because at the time I was born, 1975, it was then Zaire, and the president of Zaire was Mobutu Sésé Seko, who was a dictator. In order to control people in the country, he wanted to move people from the east to the west, from the north to the south. But the Congo already has 350 tribes in general, but four national languages, so those four national languages are separated within the north, south, east and west. So if you’re from the eastern part, you speak Swahili, but when Mobutu decided to move your parents, all of you in the West, you end up learning Kikongo. So for a child brought up in the Swahili family, I learned Kikongo first, at school, learning and writing, then on the street with everybody else, it was imposed to us to speak Lingala because it was the language of Mobutu. So with the contact in the shopping centre, you have to speak Lingala. Then at home, our parents, being conscious of the fact that my booty wanted to control them, will impose us to speak Swahili. So I was brought up trilingual already. And with the wealth that my parents had, I attended what we call International School, Lycée Français, École Belge. So those are the schools where I went, I didn’t go to the normal national curriculum, I went to international curriculum. So this is where I learned French and I learned English so quickly. So that was the… This is the environment in which I was brought up. I have brothers and sisters who probably stopped on four languages or three languages. I guess I have a special gift for picking up languages
[Eva-Maria] I think that’s obvious. Yeah. (laughs)
[Debora] That’s why I’m on my eighth language now. (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] That’s so impressive.
[Bérengère] And so yeah, basically, already, as a child, you had five languages on a pretty much daily basis.
[Debora] On a daily basis, three languages, definitely three languages on a daily basis. Speaking with mom and dad, Swahili, and on the streets Lingala, at a school French. You know that that was the basic. And Kikongo that was the basic it was four languages as a child, grow up with that, and then the others just came.
[Bérengère] That’s impressive. And so now you live in Scotland, and you have children here. And so, may I ask, at home what languages do you speak with your children?
[Debora] Oh! That was a dilemma for me. But I have to say right now, at birth, I was speaking them French, but I wanted English to dominate in their lives because they were born in Britain. And I wanted… I didn’t want them to suffer on the issue of accent, because I wanted them to pick up the accent from where they are born. You know, the issue with racism does not start years after… It starts the minute you go contacting with the public, you know, and people can identify you differently because of your accent. So I didn’t want to impose anything to them. I was speaking to them in French, but I let English dominate, because I wanted them to understand English very well. Today, my children want to learn Swahili, because they have suffered with this crisis of identity, and the racism that they have faced, now they want to find their own identity and to be proud of it. So now they speak French, they speak English, but also Swahili is coming now for them. (laughs)
[Bérengère] That’s impressive.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that’s fantastic. And also that they, that they have made the decision just also watching you and your identity.
[Debora] Yes, I think they watch the way that I have survived with them, because we have hard times, and my language skills have been something very predominant in our lives, how we have survived everything. And they find that it was very rich to have multilingual in life, and it was very rich to know many other languages in order to embrace everybody. So that’s why my children now they quite very determined. You know, “what is this word in Swahili mum and that? What is?” Oh, okay, so they know “God” in Swahili, they know “Thank you” in Swahili, they know “Goodbye” in Swahili. So it’s coming slowly, slowly until we get there. (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, and I mean, you live by example, right? They see you and know that it’s possible, and how beautiful it is. I think that’s, that’s also the message we, with the podcast, and at Bilingualism Matters, want to give, right?
[Debora] yes, absolutely.
[Eva-Maria] I mean, yes, there are challenges that come with it, but it’s just so beneficial in so many ways.
[Debora] It’s so beneficial in so many ways, it interacts people, it gives people, it gives people some kind of identity to embrace with the others. And then you find some richness to the others, just like that. So it’s really something that the whole world needs to see. And when they talk about economic globalization, we need to look at multinational globalization to multicultural globalization, because they are, it’s very important in our lives.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah. And there’s no way back from where we are now anyway, right? (laughs) So you might as well embrace it. (laughs) Yeah. So um, speaking of multilingualism, as I mentioned, in the introduction, you have worked as a translator for refugees in Scotland. So what languages did you translate?
[Debora] Mainly, in the United States, the most language use it was Swahili, because in the whole United States, the biggest community of refugees are from the Congo. That’s the biggest community so far. And then I think comes the Syrian, and the others. But the Congolese is the biggest for all times, it’s the Congolese. And then secondly, in the UK, I’ve been working for Lingala, Swahili, and French, in the UK. In Scotland, mainly it’s French and Lingala. I don’t know why. I think they the variant of the French that the Africans speak is a very rare one in Scotland. So that’s why they always refer to me to use this French, and to interpret with. And Lingala is very rare, we don’t have many people translating Lingala Scotland, but we do have a strong community of Swahili speaking in Glasgow. So there we have enough, we have enough Swahili speaking and doing interpreting session. So that’s the diversity of it. That’s the way the immigration has dispatched people. The UK Immigration decided to dispatch all Swahili speaking in the north of Glasgow. I don’t know why, strategically. But when you look all Lingala speaking they all brought to a new Kinshasa in the north of England, in town called Bury. You can go in the city of Bury, everybody’s speaking Lingala like in Kinshasa. That’s the work of the UK Immigration. So this is how it’s dispatched around the world. So in Belgium, for example, you have Matongé. In Matongé you go to the street to find even white Belgians speaking Lingala to sell the merchandise because everybody coming is Lingala-speaking. So they’re all speaking Lingala. Then in Bury, in Bury Manchester, it’s all Kinshasa, you can see someone screaming (Lingala) in the UK. So… (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] Well, that’s beautiful, though! (laughs) Wow! I didn’t know it was so strategic as well.
[Debora] It is very strategic. Many people don’t know that. It’s very strategic. And the UK Immigration, they are very conscious of that. They town where I gave birth to my children Sophie and Ian, in Blackburn, it was predominantly Pakistani and Indian, because of the tension was raising there in order to reduce the tension between the Pakistani and Indian in Blackburn, the UK Government brought all the Congolese up there. So then you find the balance between the communities, the Congolese are there, and the Sudanese. Congo and Sudan, in Blackburn with the Pakistani and the Indian. So just looking to make a, you know, a sort of balance into the community. But don’t get yourself wrong, the UK Immigration when they’re dispatching people within the country, they know exactly what they’re doing. And they know, they know why they’re doing it.
[Eva-Maria] Now, you just mentioned that, you know, the variation of French that is spoken throughout Africa, and that you have the experience of translating. What’s the most challenging aspect of translating for refugees, because it’s not just their circumstances, but I’m guessing that a lot of things do get lost in translation, right. So what is the most challenging aspect?
[Debora] What you have, for example, let’s talk about Swahili. You have a variant of Swahili, okay? In the Congo, we have two variants of Swahili. My aunt was married to another Swahili speaking, Swahili from Kivou, and my aunt, who was the youngest sister to my father was Swahili from Katanga. So that, this is two ways of Swahili speaking. The Swahili speaking by my father-in-law, my stepfather, my uncle was the Swahili spoken in Tanzania and Kenya, but the Swahili spoken by my aunt was spoken in Katanga, Zambia, and other Swahili speaking countries. So, being brought up, I had those three variants on me, I learned them. So that’s why when I’m going to translation, I’m always asking “okay, where dies this person come from?”, because you do have Somali people speaking Swahili, but someone who speaks Swahili from the Congo never understands a Somali speaking Swahili. That’s a challenge for interpreter for refugees. Now you go to French. You’ve got the French spoken in the Ivory Coast. Okay? You’ve got the French spoken in the Congo, which are very different. The French spoken in the Ivory Coast: “ “Quatre-vingt-dix”, that is 90. The French spoken in the Congo? “Nonante”!
[Debora] That’s still 90!
[Eva-Maria] That’s easier for me! (laughs)
[Debora] You understand that. So that’s the diversity of the way the language is spoken. You don’t even take the cultural differences yet. But now let’s go to cultural differences. I’m running an interview for a young man who spent 27 years in a refugee camp. He’s never seen a TV. It’s the first time he’s been picked up by the American National Immigration to Washington DC. And this is the first time he’s meeting the nurse for screening on, on her. And then the nurse is very, she’s very aware about cultural differences, and she is very good. This one was one of the best nurses I’ve ever worked with. And this is what the nurse is gonna tell me: “Debora, can you tell him to forgive me, really forgive me? I’m going to ask him a question which might shock” him? And I’m telling the young man, “what is gonna…?”, “she’s gonna ask you now, it doesn’t mean you’ve done that, but we asked this question to everybody. But you have to forgive her for telling you that. Have you ever had sex with a man?” The young boy jumped and went “HAAA! Can you have sex with a man! Can you have sex with a man! Can you have sex with a man! You cannot do that! It’s a sin! It’s a sin! It’s a sin!” So that is the culture differences, because in the environment he was raised in, he knows sex about men and women. And the nurse is very well aware of that she’s trying, maybe she has gone there before, and she’s trying to make him understand it’s something that you can find here in America, you know? And that, the young boy until I made him understand, “listen, we never said that you’ve done that, and we know where you come from you have never seen that. It’s a reality of this country and we ask everybody this question to help you how to be screened”. But the poor young man left the room he was completely gutted. Completely gutted. So you have those kind of culture differences. And you have the difficulty that people… I remember a man Mr. Sahidi. Mr. Sahidi lived in the Congo for 17 years, he survived two wars, lost his wife and all his children. Then he married a second young woman, they came to America. All his life, he is worked the farm. In Washington DC, there is no farm! And he’s struggling with that! He can’t survive that. I remember the doctor waking me up at three o’clock in the morning, “Debora, you need to help me to translate with Mr. Sahidi because you know more on Medicine than any other interpreter I have here, from the United Kingdom!” Because of the reality of differences in our work that we’re doing. So being a translator with a refugee, rule number one: Humanity. Rule number two: Compassion. Rule number three: if you don’t understand anything, asked to give it to someone who understands it better, because it could be fatal. The information is crucial for the refugees.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, and those examples that you gave, I mean, those are probably things that people don’t even consider. They might think that it’s only about the language and you translate word by word, but there’s so much more that comes into play.
[Debora] So much, much more than that.
[Bérengère] And also, because at the time where you intervene for the translation, it can be critical steps, like, for example, for this young man, it was… You had to translate something, as he was… It was his first experience of the new country. So it’s not just translating a complex information for somebody who has a complex story, it’s during just a shock moment for them.
[Debora] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s always a shock. It always a shock, one way or another it’s always a shock. One of the stories that made me very sad, this young woman came also from the refugee camp. She went to see the doctor begging the doctor that she wants, she found a man, and she wanted to have children because their family was exterminated during the war. Only for the doctor to inform her that she was terminal in cervical cancer. And I didn’t know how to explain that to her! You know, it was so difficult! The doctor said “I want to tell her Debora, she’s terminal for cervical cancer”. And I asked her, and she’s telling me “my family were exterminated. Now I find a man just, can I have… Can you tell me if I can conceive a baby and I have a child?” But she’s dying! And how do you? How do you get around that? It’s another… I mean, there were there were nights that I go to sleep, I’m happy people lives has been getting better. But other nights I go to sleep I’m completely shattered. Completely broken.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, I can imagine like, how do you just how do you just shake that off? That’s not possible.
[Bérengère] Yeah. It must be so draining.
[Debora] It’s draining. It is draining. Absolutely. It’s draining. Yeah.
[Eva-Maria] Whoa, but good for you that you did that. That is such an important role that you played in their lives.
[Debora] Yes, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it’s true. Well, I had babies called by my name, Debora, so lucky me! (laughs)
[Bérengère] It’s beautiful though, to be thanked that way. So all of these things are things that you’ve done with your language services company, right? All of these translations, many of them?
[Bérengère] You’ve set up this language service translation company. Can you tell us more about that as like, maybe how you came to create this?
[Debora] Initially, when I started, it was voluntarily, I was doing voluntary work for refugees for local refugees in Blackburn when I was used to working there. Then when I found the job with the National Health Service as an outreach worker, then I realize the gap on interpreting for people. And I saw it was very hard for people to get the story true, it was very hard for people to get their story with the immigration. So then I stepped down from the National Health Service to dedicate myself throughout my company, to look after the refugees this way. My initial thought, initially was only to help. Then one client discovered me: “Debora, can I have your service by paying you?” I said yes. Three months later: “Debora I’ve got a phone call from America, they’re looking for a Swahili interpreter”. The following day, I had 16 states of United States of America. My new client, the business started.
[Debora] And since then, I’ve just been everywhere. (laughs)
[Bérengère] That’s such an amazing story!
[Eva-Maria] That is super impressive! And clearly you were needed!
[Debora] Yes. Yeah, clearly, clearly. I mean, the first three years, oh my God, I couldn’t breathe. I just couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t… It was just the need everyday, everyday, everyday. I say we went on for 15 years! (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] So you have experience in working with the UK and with the US and with an international client base with your language service company, but as I mentioned in the introduction, you’re also a human rights lawyer with expertise in international law, international law experience and working with international bodies such as the ICC and the UN. What can you tell us about language as a human right? Because we know that language is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act of 2010, but is that actually the case? Like, it’s good on paper, but what does that look like in real life?
[Debora] What I would like to mention here is the experience that I had, I have on the war on language, the war one language, which this clearly means “which language prevails to the other one”. Up there in this market of language, that is the fight of one language wants to surpass the other one. It’s a reality. And we live with it every day. When I become rector of Edinburgh University… You know, since I became Rector, I have to say, I’ve received letters from all around the world for people writing to me, some want me to change the world in just like this (snaps fingers), like a change, like I become Rector of Edinburgh University (laughs). And some of them come to me and say “Oh, Debora, would you not fight for the Congo to become an Anglophone country, and then to leave the Francophone country?” People don’t realize the danger for those things. There is no need to exclude one language to another. Language is a human right. It’s every single person’s right to express on his mother tongue, or the language of his birth. No one can take that away from you. And those governments that we have, instead of encouraging multi-language on their populations or their government, they seem to always praise on one language being on the top of the other one, and that doesn’t help, you know. If one day I become president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I would say we have four national languages, and we have from now on two official languages or three official languages, English, Spanish, and French. Why? Because you need to encourage all other languages to be part of your life. Because, you know, the more you have languages the more you have options, the more you understand languages the more you navigate around the world easily without a problem. But when you stick with one single language, there is no advantage for that. So what I’m saying is, yes, there is an issue with languages around the word, language speaking for every human being is a basic human rights. No one has the right to take the language of the other away from him. No one has the right to take the Gaelic from the Scots. You know, you have the Scots, they don’t have their own language! It’s a shame! No one has the right to take that away from them. So every language for me is welcome to be spoken. If you can speak as much, like you can speak as much as me, it’s a good thing! Be careful with your brain, but you could just find and continue with your life (laughs). So in real life, yes, there is a war on language. And I think, in real life, human rights allow every single people to have their own language, and to use them as they wish.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, I think that’s a very important message. I… for my PhD, I’m actually working on Afrikaans. And I had a questionnaire where speakers of Afrikaans were asked about, like, the language in relation to apartheid, for example, because Afrikaans was used as the language of the oppressor, right? And there were some people that were quite ignorant about that fact. And that said, like, Afrikaans has nothing to do with apartheid. Language doesn’t hurt anybody, people hurt people.
[Debora] Let’s say Afrikaans was the language of the apartheid. So what is the language of colonization? Do you know anything worse than colonization? Or slave trade? It’s English! So why is apartheid supposed to be put aside? Honestly, you know, as you said, language does not hurt anybody. People hurt people.
[Eva-Maria] But like in the in the case of, well, in this case, Afrikaans the language was used.
[Eva-Maria] Right? Like the language was used as a tool. And I think people tend to forget that.
[Debora] It’s a tool. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, it was used as a tool. If you don’t speak Afrikaans, you know… But I don’t believe it was really that, because there were some blacks then speaking Afrikaans, too. But there was still subject to apartheid. You know, that’s why it’s very important to say a system is created by people. Not the language. No.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that’s… That’s a very good point. But language… That just, that just kind of emphasizes that language is very political, right?
[Debora] Yeah, it’s very political. It’s political. (laughs)
[Bérengère] So this conversation, like slightly different, but like of languages as a human right. So as we’ve discussed, my field is on autism research. And what I find very sad is that… I mean, many countries, like the UK, are now really starting to embrace the fact that people who live in the UK can have other languages. And they started to really promote that, slowly but surely. But what I find very sad is that if the person needs anything else than just, than the bare minimum, then they have to, like set their own language aside. If, for example with autism, if the child needs, or the autistic person needs any sort of support, then they can’t get that in their own language, they have to surrender their own language for English. It’s like, it’s a human, languages as a human right, that they can keep their own language, except if they need any sort of support, for anything, for any condition.
[Debora] I think the UK, in terms of autism, the UK is very behind because I have an autistic son, but who get who maybe is one of the luckiest child for getting treated in America at John Hopkins. And my son didn’t have any problem with English when he got to America for treatment, but we came across some Spanish children who the parents brought there. And there were translators in the room to help these children with their communication with the therapist, and so on. I think it’s a problem of choice. If the UK does not want to do it, because they don’t want to spend money on autistic children. That’s the problem. Because it costs, it costs the interpreter, it costs the time, it costs the material. And that’s sometimes they just say “we want the children to do it in English”, because it’s easier for them, or maybe for their own need of research. But they don’t really look at the interest of the child. That’s, that’s has to be said. You know, it has to have a context of language, because it’s not only for the English, you know, the French have autistic children, the Germans have autistic children, the Africans have autistic children. So what are you gonna do? You know, it’s just a context of the UK.
[Bérengère] I feel like the UK is very good for many… I mean, it’s good for autism, for many things, and for neurodiversity in general. But there’s just this, there’s a big difference. It’s… They don’t merge. It’s not… It doesn’t include language. Language doesn’t go that far.
[Debora] It’s very sad.
[Bérengère] In terms of the policies implemented in the UK, they are happy to support languages, but not everywhere. Anyhow, that’s a different conversation, but it is also something that policymakers should definitely consider: making it language as a human right, regardless of who you are.
[Debora] Absolutely. Yes. Yeah, I do agree. Yeah,
[Eva-Maria] that’s, that’s probably a podcast episode on its own. Yeah. (laughs) I think that a lot of people will be able to relate to that.
[Bérengère] Exactly. Um, anyhow, we’ve been discussing a lot of your work as translation for refugees, so in the US, mostly, but in the UK, as well. And you have also worked on the border of the Scottish Refugee Council. So can you tell us a bit more about your work there? Like how much for example, hum… How much does language you think play a role in working with refugees? As we said, not just for communication, but also in their lives. So I mean, you’ve started to talk about that a bit, but like mostly, now, if you could tell us in the domain of just the Scottish Refugee Council.
[Debora] The Scottish Refugee Council as only the responsibility of reinsertion of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland. That is also a devolved power from the Scottish Government. Who comes to Scotland to settle as a refugee is not the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government to decide, it’s the UK Government in London. So once they arrive here, there is a Serco, this horrible, horrible organisation which treats people so badly, is supposed to insert them here. So what the Scottish Refugee Council do is to make their life easier, give them the network, where to go to ask for some more assistance on their social lives, and make sure that they get access to education, but education that are just reserved for asylum seeker, like learning English. Because all the refugees that can come with their different languages, and then they have to learn English in order to insert in the country because it’s the language spoken in the country. So that is one. And secondly, what the Refugee Council do is to give the refugee to celebrate their life as a refugee, to feel that as a refugee, they have a big role to play in the society, by using their skills. There’s something that we have for, the three years that I sat at the Board of Scottish Refugee Council, we have worked more, it was to prepare the asylum seeker to get ready once they become refugee, it was to get the status to stay in the country. That means the education for a language, to develop their own skills, to get ready once they’re able to do something, to be able to get into the society, to insert easily. So that is what the Refugee Council play as a role, really, to make sure that life as a refugee, life of asylum seekers, is getting ready to become refugee. And when you become refugee, they accompany you throughout the process. But also, it’s a human rights organization that push for policy change. You know, we write to the UK Government, we know it’s not the Scottish Government, we always write to the UK Government about the tension, about removal of people… All this the Scottish Refugee Council does, is to make sure that the life of the refugee or asylum seeker is celebrated, you know, we have celebration days during the year, was also celebrated as a contributor into our society. That’s what they do.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that’s a very wonderful message. And that really leads into my next question. So… (laughs)
[Debora] Okay (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] We at Bilingualism Matters, we have actually held events during the Refugee Festival. And that is obviously organized by the Scottish Refugee Council. And especially in the face of trauma for refugees, you know, leaving everything behind moving to a new country where you don’t know anyone, you left everything behind, you might not speak the language. Language is their home language, right? Their mother tongue is often the only thing they get to keep, right? The only thing they actually bring from home, and we already mentioned that language…
[Debora] Yes, it’s their identity, it’s their identity.
[Eva-Maria] Exactly, exactly. Yeah, I was about to say that we already talked about that language plays such a big role in one’s identity. So how important is maintaining their home languages, for the refugees? And how important was it for you? Because we already know that keeping your native language does not hinder integration, right? It doesn’t hinder the acquisition of, well in Scotland, it would be English, right? The majority language of the society. It doesn’t hinder language development. So like, how important is it to maintain your home language?
[Debora] It is very important because my language is my identity. My language gives a signal to the person in front of me from where I was born, and from where I’m from. And then from that the person can know who is this person, from which part of the world he came… My language is my history. Okay? So no one can take away who I am. No one can take away my identity. Yes, we must integrate. Integration does not mean giving up on your own language. Integration, that does not mean you have to change your surname. No, that’s not integration. Integration is the respect of the law of the country, and carry on being living in harmony within our community. That’s integration. Integration does not mean speaking English and forgetting about all your language, that’s just the wrong way of seeing it. You know, so for many refugees who come here, first, you call them refugee because they’re here temporarily. One day, they might return to their homes, you know. Some of them, like me, I’ve been here for 18 years, I’ve never put my foot back to the Congo for 18 years, and I’m hoping with the inaugural ceremony, my parents are going to be here for the first time. I’m going to see them after 18 years. Gosh, they’re gonna be very old. I haven’t seen them for 18 years, you know that. So… (laughs) So I always still have their face young… My sister told me “if you see them now, they’re very old!” (laughs) So that is, you know, for the refugees who come in this country, they settle they choose to stay here, fine. Some of them probably end up by returning to their home. There is a proverb in Swahili, it says “you can go all over the place, but one day you return in this old, same, old place”. You know?
[Debora] That’s the Swahili speaking. It says life is a journey. Your journey can take you to Asia, the journey can take you to Peru, the journey can take you to Australia, to New Zealand. And when the journey is ended, I’m going home. And I’m home. So that’s why I think language is important, and no one has the right to take away somebody’s language. Language is a human right. It’s a basic human right, like any other right, and people should use their language as much as they want them, particularly the refugees because it’s their history, it’s their mother tongue, it’s the language from where they saw the sun for the first time, so why not keep them?
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, yeah, that’s a very powerful message. Very beautiful. Yeah. (laughs) Yeah, very, very nicely put. So like how do you maintain your seven dash eight languages? How do you have the dedicated tim? Like how do you do that?
[Bérengère] Practically. Because I’m struggling with three.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, me too! Like I’m… My English is so dominant that my Dutch is just out the window basically. But how do you do that?
[Bérengère] My Spanish is so, so bad now that I feel the shame from all of my ancestors. So how do you do that?
[Debora] I think right now I’m struggling a bit with my English because I’m learning Turkish, so I to seem to forget some words in English, so I call my son “Come here, come here! What is this in English?” and then he tells me. (laughs) Or I check something, I tell my daughter “Can you check this? Did I write it correctly?” Because I’m learning something very different. It’s not French, it’s not, you know, when you learn Portuguese, French or Spanish, it’s very similar and it’s easy for you. But with English, which is very different, it’s not easy. How I maintain that, I mean the media, they play with me since I became Rector, they’ll come to me “Debora, we’re gonna do the interview in French and in English”. And then when we finish the interview in French “I say wait a minute” (mimic clicking sounds). Now it’s French, and they’re going to French. So you know, I think I am gifted. I have to say that. It’s not easy to carry on in life with different languages like this. I am… I have to recognize the gift that I have that my father, months before he passed away, told me “you know, you’re my daughter, but you don’t belong to me, you belong to the world. In this word, some parents give birth to children, but God means not to have them next to them. So you’re my daughter, but you don’t belong to me”. He did not raise me, my aunt raised me. So he said “you are a gift to the world. One day you’ll understand what I told you”. And today, it looks like I live it every day!
[Eva-Maria] Very much so.
[Bérengère] He was right.
[Debora] I live that every day. He said “you are a gift to the world”.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, he predicted that.
[Debora] My siblings all have so far, three to four languages. They can go that far. Even my auntie keeps saying that “How can you pick up languages like this?” You know, it’s a gift. And when you get a gift, you give the gift back too, because it’s the gift. As simple as that.
[Eva-Maria] That’s beautiful! And I think we can agree that you’re definitely a gift to the world. Very much so. (laughs) So your dad was very right. Last year, in July of 2020, in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, you launched the Freedom Walk campaign, a civil rights movement. What are your main aims and future plans? Like can you tell us more about that?
[Debora] The Freedom Walk campaign is just a campaign of dialogue and tolerance within community and race. And I know the Black Lives Matter came with a strong fist. Like saying “You hit me, I hit you back”. That is really what the Black Lives Matter meant. And what I wanted to share with the Freedom Walk campaign was that I wanted to set up a new way of fighting for civil rights peacefully. Okay? Initially, I said, you know, the Black Lives Matter say “no justice, no peace”, but with the Freedom Walk campaign we say “peace on the left, justice on the right”. That means that we come to you at peace, but if you have hurt us, we will ask for justice. We’re not going to fight you back. That is the vision of the Freedom Walk campaign. So a civil rights movement, which is aimed to lobby to Parliament, about changing policies that are not equal, also creating community harmony within us as people living, as citizen living in a community. Because the thing that happened to me here in Scotland was unbelievable. Someone come to the street and get into my property, take the nail, put on my tires, because I’m black, and walk away. When I woke up in the morning, I get in my car, (shout of surprise) my car almost, you know, turns over, and I look, my tire full of nails. How can you imagine that? But that was not the first time, it was the third time they did that to me. Why? Because someone, somebody was angry, and it was three days after the death of George Floyd that they did that to me. You know, it looks like something happened somewhere, all the blacks have to pay for that. That is something that, you know, it’s unacceptable, because I have to pull up a 367 pound bill to pay two brand new tires for my car. And no one has ever been held accountable for what they’ve done. You know, you have neighbours coming to the front door, they took their stuff trying to pass it into your garden. What kind of behaviour is that? You know, it actually looks like being black in Scotland, it’s trash. It’s sabotage. It’s humiliation. I ended up having interactions with some people saying that I am a lawyer, they say “since when a black person is a lawyer”. Can you believe this kind of language? You know, I, here in Scotland, I’ve been through a lot of humiliation that no one can bear with. And then again, people keep telling me “why are you still smiling after all the horrible people, the horrible things people did to you?” Because if I’m crying, I give them an audience. I have to smile out there, because I have to tell them “I’m stronger than you”. You know, you’re giving me the audience, I am stronger than you. Because I’m not fighting back to you. I’m coming to you, I want you to come to tell me what you think is wrong with me being living in Scotland. And you’re gonna… I’m gonna tell you why I am in Scotland. That is the dialogue and tolerance because I can tolerate you enough to sit at the table with me to have a discussion. That’s the first exercise of tolerance. And then when we have a discussion, a dialogue, we see what’s happening between us. You see? So that is the vision of the Freedom Walk campaign. The Freedom Walk campaign, it was walking, we couldn’t march on the street because of the lockdown, so people left their home to come into that meeting, I said “You are all of the first Freedom Walk campaign, because you walked from home, to come to listen what I have to tell you and my message to you, it’s simple: tolerance and dialogue”. Okay? Don’t come to my house to destroy something I worked so hard to earn, and you think you have the right to do that because you’re white and I’m black? Honestly?
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, I don’t even know what to say to that. I just, I can just say that I admire your strength.
[Bérengère] It requires so much energy to educate these people. It shouldn’t have to be you who has to do that. Like, I don’t know where to start to stop this. And it’s shocking that in Scotland, that is a country that is rather welcoming compared to many, and still, these things happen today.
[Debora] In my case it becomes worse, because I was black. It looks like I was asking to the American “go to the street! Fight for Black Lives Matter”.
[Bérengère] People don’t realize that having people choose to stay and live in the place where they live, they shouldn’t be chased away.
[Bérengère] So on top of your work with the Freedom Walk campaign, that is absolutely impressive. On top of your work with the Scottish Refugee Council, that is also impressive. On top of your work as a human rights lawyer, that is also impressive. (laughs) And on top of your language company, that is also impressive. There is a theme going on here, clearly
[Eva-Maria] Yeah, it’s your entire resume. It’s just very impressive.
[Bérengère] Exactly. On top of all of that, because I guess that otherwise, you might get bored. You also recently got elected as Rector of the University of Edinburgh, as we’ve mentioned earlier.
[Debora] So I’ve been, I’ve been elected the Rector for one of the most impressive University in Scotland. So that’s equal. (laughs)
[Bérengère] It’s one of the best universities in the UK, so, on top of all of these things, I really wonder how you find the time to be so amazing at all of these things, (laughs) but you somehow are. And so what are your goals as rector of the University, for the next three years? What are your goals? And how are you planning to reach these goals?
[Debora] One of my top priority is anti-racism. You have no idea the way this Edinburgh is turning into a nightmare for racism. People are attacking one another, first because of the colour of their skin. Secondly, because of their gender. Thirdly, because just they can’t get along at all. I know the effect of lockdown can have certain effect to people but I have to say something has gone terribly wrong in Edinburgh. I have to say. And the University has a big role to play in it. That’s why I want the University to take on board the issue of anti-racism, the issue of inequality, and the issue of community harmony. So in the few days to come, with the Edinburgh Global Office, we hope, with me, together, to get to share this vision of a peaceful Edinburgh where the community are living one side to another, understanding our past not forgetting our past. We know that in the past horrible things happened in Europe. We have the Second World War. We had so many things happen. And taking lessons from that, and then trying to push together for something that I call a community exercise. Back in the 1960s, when the school in America was segregated, there was a program called the Charrette. The program was to take people from extreme white and from sin black, who can never sit together and discuss, have a day where they’re accusing each other. And then by the end of the day, they will take the most difficult one, sitting in a same table, and have just the time, looking each other, if they can talk to each other. And it has worked on 15 states in America. So I think it’s about time we’ll have this exercise in Edinburgh. So this is something that I am already working on it and preparing it, I’m going to introduce it very soon. And I want to really… The people in Edinburgh to understand that these are dark times. Not only we have the pandemic of racism, we have the pandemic of a disease. And if we don’t pay attention of what is going on around us with a government who does not care about human, but care about the economic greed, things are gonna get bad here, really bad. We have an emergency in climate change, who’s listening to them, nobody’s listening. So there are a lot of danger here in which that as a human being, we have to forgot that difference and come together to save ourself for the danger that is about to come. Because if you have a pandemic, just a contact with a human can kill you, you have the weather, when it’s cold it’s colder, when it’s hot it’s hotter, you might not have the courage to ask your neighbour, if you have water, not to share water. That’s a danger. Because there’s so many differences between us and we don’t look at our humanity to live at peace with one another. So the exercise I’m planning to do within the University on the top that I am really pushing for equality and diversity within the structure of the University. As I said that, I want to see more of a community exercise happening more and more, so we can get off of this bigotry. You know, the bigotry which exists here, you have people looking the same skin colour, not loving each other. Brexit is here, all the European out. Where are we going? If you can’t tolerate someone who looks white like you, can you tell them that a black person? Tell me. What kind of love is that? Tell me.
[Eva-Maria] It’s so dangerous.
[Debora] These are dark times. They are really dark.
[Bérengère] That builds on, I can’t remember which Simone said this, if it was Simone Weil or Simone de Beauvoir, I would have to check. But she said this for women, but it’s applicable to all minorities or is not the, well in the UK, the British white cisgender heterosexual man, as soon as there’s any sort of crisis, and we are currently having several all at once. The first ones who are going to pay for that are any minority, any gender minority, any cultural minority, any ethnic minority, it’s always the first ones to pay. And at the moment between global warming between the pandemics, there’s so many added together. But of course, it just all falls back to the minorities.
[Debora] These are dark times. I keep saying these are dark times. That’s all I say to the University Bulletin when they asked me the questions, what they expect that my legacy will be. And I told them “Listen, there will be a story about this University. On the darkest time of the history of this University, a person was not born in this land, not from this colour, the same colour of skin from the people of this land, came out to install peace and justice and make sure that we survive, what is about to come. That’s why I’m here. So I’m here to do my part, and I will do everything in my power to do it.
[Eva-Maria] And we need you, we clearly need you. We need your input. We need your expertise. We need your experience. And the ideas you just put forward. There’s so, so needed. So yeah, thank you for doing that. And good luck with the plans.
[Debora] Thank you.
[Bérengère] In a way you’re joining as a Rector at the most difficult time you’re gonna have the hardest challenges of the previous Rectors.
[Bérengère] In a way, I think that you are the person that is needed.
[Debora] Thank you. Thank you. (laughs)
[Bérengère] You’re welcome.
[Eva-Maria]Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. Yeah. (laughs)
[Bérengère] So, in all of your goals as Rector that we’ve discussed, how can we as students and staff at the University of Edinburgh, but also individuals, what can we do to help you reach these goals?
[Debora] I need to have the word spread out there. You know, like you guys with the podcast. I need the word the message to get across the country. Because I’m not only working with Edinburgh, I’m working with the whole Scotland. I know that in July. I’m going to spend a weekend with the youth of Dundee. They invited me to spend the weekend with them. And already I’ve started program with the Edinburgh Equality School. So I need the words to be spread there. What I find extraordinary with me being appointed as Rector, is this need for all the staff to be in touch with me. And each one of them trying to reach out to me: “Hello, Deborah, my name is this, I do this, this, this, this, this, if you have an idea, call me or come, I’ll help you to get there”. Every single of them. And that is extraordinary. Edinburgh is a country, you know, Edinburgh is… it is a country, it’s too big, It’s too… The Student Association, the Student Association for Sports, all of them. They’ve all been in touch with me. And I told them “Listen, I have a calendar, I will arrange, I want to be in touch with each one of you. But I’ll make sure that my calendar is well organized at least three or two interactions with one of you throughout the year is possible”. Because you know me when I get to you, 45 minutes is enough your life changed. That’s it. (laughs)
[Eva-Maria] I can… I can definitely… Yeah.
[Bérengère] Yes, absolutely. (laughs)
[Debora] So that’s what I’m looking really… I have to say, all of them, all this stuff, everybody, everyone, just looking forward… You know, someone sent me a message this morning. “Did they have the department contact here already, because they say I’m number 15. I’m just counting, counting, because I’m the number 15!” So they’ve organised themselves, who was gonna contact me first, and he’s gonna contact me after, so they’re waiting.
[Eva-Maria] Oh, wow. So Wow. I actually, I think I told you before that we had this idea to have you on the podcast. And we were like “well, she’s probably just very busy. But we’re going to try anyway”. (laughs) And we were so thrilled when you when you said that you were interested in joining us. So yeah…
[Debora] I think spreading the message is very important to me. I want people to hear exactly what I tend to do. Because I’m not looking only on my idea. I’m looking for the receptive idea in the other side, someone who can receive or can have an idea to reach me up and say “Debora, you talk about this on the podcast. I’m interested. I have something here”. And I’m ready to go on with it. That’s so this is how we work this. You know, this is how we getting there.
[Bérengère] We’re delighted to help you in doing this. (laughs) It’s our pleasure, really.
[Eva-Maria] Yes, of course. But also like what you just mentioned, you know, having the discussion and having conversations. That’s how ideas evolve. And that’s how we all learn from each other. Right, that things can only get better through the discourse.
[Eva-Maria] So it’s very, very important. Yeah.
[Debora] Yeah, definitely.
[Eva-Maria] Yeah. Well, perfect. Well, this has been this has been fantastic. Just to wrap this up as the last question. Do you have any project or plans that you would like to spread the word for, you know, to let the world know?
[Debora] I just want the word up there to know that I want to run some community harmony exercise, and I have my own ideas already. But if people up there know some community here are struggling to live one another, that are struggling to get along one another, do not hesitate to reach out to me. And we’ll try to get to help you, to make peace around your community. This is what I’m looking for. I want the University to play a big role in this on peace and interaction between communities, exchange between communities. Because this is what I really wanted to do. To have a harmony in our society because the consequences of lockdowns, and the way that we see the girls and women getting killed up there, the domestic violence the way it has raised. We have so many pandemics right now. So volunteering, it’s something very important to me too, any idea about volunteering, very important to me. So up there really anyone, an idea for community exercise, community harmony exercise, please just reach out to me. That’s all I have to say.
[Eva-Maria] Perfect. That’s a perfect ending to a great and very educational episode. So thank you very much.
[Debora] Thank you.
[Eva-Maria] Fantastic. Thanks so much for joining us today, Debora. We really appreciate that you took the time for this interview, and for answering all of our questions, and for going so in depth in your explanations and your own experiences, and sharing all these, like, personal anecdotes. That was really, really educational, and very inspirational as well. As I said, we learned a lot and I’m sure our listeners will agree that we got some thought-provoking impulses. So thank you so much Debora, I think you do deserve a round of applause. (applause and laughs)
[Debora] Thank you.
[Eva-Maria] As I said in the beginning, this was our last episode for this academic year. We will be taking a break over the summer and will return in early September. If you don’t want to miss our return, please subscribe to our newsletter. You can do that on the website MLSTpodcast.com, and we have a lot of brilliant topics and wonderful guests for the next season as well, so stay tuned. Until then we hope everybody has a great relaxing summer with lots of sunshine and fewer restrictions. Please stay safe, stay healthy, and…
[Bérengère] Botikala malamu! (Lingala for ‘Stay well!’)
[Debora] Kwaheri mbakie mzuri (Swahili for ‘Goodbye and stay well!)
[Eva-Maria] À la prochaine! (French for ‘until next time!’)