Risk and Sensitivity in International Work

An interview with a cross-cultural worker by Erica Fehr.

Thank you very much for joining us today to talk about one aspect of your workthat of risk.

Where would you place your country of service between the range of “slight caution” to “dangerous”?

Closer to “dangerous.” While it’s not an active warzone, and the streets are fine to use, there are pockets of places that are not safe to move through.

How did you prepare to work there? Did the organization you serve have specialized training for working in a restricted country?

Our organization does some coaching for making sure we speak well of our hosts, in an informationally sensitive way. When I joined they gave us guidelines about sensitivity and publicity and stuff like that—they have a clear document about what to share at what level so, you know I’m not to post anything besides completely personal stuff on social media. Otherwise in country we kind of learn from each other I’d say. The people who’ve been there earlier than us have a good handle on where and what is reactionary at that time and so you avoid those places. I feel like you’re kind of working it out as you go.

Did you need to do any kind of psych evaluation?

They do stuff just for cross cultural transition—like what kind of personality are you? What kind of listener are you? How do you deal with stress? What are some of the stresses you already have in your life that you could diminish before you go? Stuff like that.

And I would kind of qualify the answer to the first questions of dangerous. That’s talking from the current situation. Previous to the upheaval of the last week or so, there’s often large areas where you can just act in ways that are not very different than your assumption going in so there wasn’t a lot of specialized training needed.

What is the risk for the country’s citizens you interact with? What is the risk for you as a worker?

The risk is primarily with the people we work with—they are the ones who are actually going to be jailed. They’re the ones who are going to be persecuted. This risk is why we act sensitively.

What is the risk to you? Is the worst-case scenario mainly that you’re going to get expelled from the country?

Well, it’s not maybe the worst case, like if you’re talking about really trying to be a counter-voice in a controversial situation I think there’s the possibility of being jailed as well.

Was that something that you worried about?

No, I guess because of my stance of how I act in country.

How do you act in country?

I value the people around me by learning about their ways and what matters to them. Be respectful to authority and living within the limits that that allows for. So, like sometimes there’s been parts of the country that I want to travel to but at that time I’m refused entrance, well then I don’t enter at that time.

You said earlier you need to speak well of your hosts in an internationally sensitive way. When you say this, are you saying you would never talk about any of the human rights abuses that are happening in this country? Would you feel that you could comment on those things?

I wouldn’t do that in a public way. You’re trying to hold all the relationships well. They really are our host—they’ve allowed us to come live in their country by granting us the permission of a visa. I was reading in Daniel just this week about his interaction with Nebuchadnezzar, who is a terrible king that God sent a dream to about how he was going to destroy his kingdom. Daniel says “Oh King, live forever, if only the interpretation of this dream applied to your enemies.” He doesn’t go confrontational about it, you know? And then at the end he gave the interpretation and then he said, “You know, it’s not really my place and stuff but if you want I could give you some advice—change your ways and maybe this won’t happen because I really don’t want it to happen to you,” even though this is a really oppressive kingdom so that’s something that struck me this week.

That’s pretty countercultural to North American way of thinking where we say if somebody’s doing something terrible—you need to talk about it, you need to address it. So, you’ve got a bit of a disconnect there. How do you work with that?

There are always disconnects. Oh man, I guess one standard that I probably have for myself is not to speak negatively or take a confrontational approach in a situation where it could damage our relationship but not necessarily cause a change to the item that I want changed anyway.

So, the common phrase—that whole concept of speaking truth to power—you wouldn’t make opportunity?

I wouldn’t seek for it, not at this point. That’s not a blanket statement necessarily but at this time I understand my calling there to be a channel that can help bring transformation through the translation work that we’re doing. and that kind of speaking against would definitely undermine that calling. That’s not to say that that it shouldn’t be done, or that nobody should do it, or it’s the wrong thing.

Have your actions or the actions of someone in your Canadian support network ever put a national person at risk?

That’s not a question that’s easily answered. It’s very intricate, you know. There’s nothing that I can see that shows this action, by this person, caused that result. There’s a lot of things that are inter-connected with each other. It’s usually a bigger lifestyle thing, like the individual’s own choices. They might say that they’re Christians on their registration card or whatever. If there’s fall-out it’s not solely from a connection with a foreigner.

In your experience is the fact that you’re a westerner or that you’re Christian more likely to cause issues?

Ah, immediately foreigner because it’s on your skin so that has an impact right away. Often it has a positive impact. A lot of people are interested in foreigners. They want to learn from them, learn from other perspectives, and often their first position is somebody who has something to give, or has come with a benevolent reason or is a specialist or something. That’s often a first impression and so you get a lot of respect.

Does that ever concern you?

Oh, it’s uncomfortable often. It’s like a tension between understanding and receiving their cultural response, and saying this response is that you think I’m more valuable or something—I don’t believe that.

Were any of your expectations particularly wrong or did something catch you off guard when you started working in country?

There’s these little things all the time and they can go either way. When I first went, there were soldiers on the streets and they’re kind of scary and you think they’re big and mean and stuff. Then when you’re not quite as intimidated maybe you sort of look in their faces and you realize this is a young boy (I was 22 at the time) and he looks either kind or kind of scared. And you just realize again that people are individuals and not to look at it with over-generalization.

I got used to the country that way and then things that surprised me in the future were like there are Google maps here. What does it take for there to be a Google map? What did they all take pictures of? Something outside the country knows stuff about this country and is that okay? What will the map tell the world through the internet about my travels if I’m using it?

What was your most difficult experience?

I’m happily allowed to travel to a certain area and suddenly, the next time, I traveled for a day and a night and a day I think, to get part way to where I was going and then struggled with immigration in that place the whole day long. I find out at the end that actually the superior of this guy that’s talking to me never wanted to let me in the whole time, but this guy just feels sort of bad so he’s talking to me nicely as if maybe he’ll let me yet. And then I was turned back and I couldn’t stay there another night. I had to return to where I came from, which was a day and a night and a day and the night journey. That was really hard emotionally after having been allowed before and then not being allowed and just the exhaustion of the journey.

Do you ever get comfortable dealing with the risk or the constant “Can I say this?” “Can I not say this in public?”

I’d say I feel it in waves. Like sometimes I’m kind of in a rhythm and, I just, I’m used to it. And then it’ll build up. It’ll be something where I don’t feel confident that I know how I want to interact or something.

Does it get easier with time?

It does, but the situation also doesn’t remain stable.

In terms of security specifically, what was the biggest adjustment when you returned to Canada?

Remembering to treat the topics and location with appropriate caution, even in Canada. Most folk are just excited about their work—so they want to share freely. This can lead to some awkward or inappropriate habits when discussing our work.

What would you tell someone who wanted to work where you work? Somebody new.

Invest in the long-term. Far too often we are pretty superficial in our planning, and in our life-choices. Being more focused on long-term plans helps us to serve well, and that vision is easily seen by our local friends.

God is good and he’s big enough, whatever you face. Pretty basic, but easy to lose sight of.

The EMC cross-cultural worker works in places involving risk. We are withholding their name to protect them and the people they work with.

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