It has been three weeks since I began learning Roja*, an Indo-Iranian language spoken by the approximately 1 million Roja people scattered across the world. Learning has been slow but steady as my ears and brain adjust to hearing and making sense of new words and sounds. It is hard work and mentally exhausting, but the reward is a relationship with my Roja friends.
My closest friend is also my language teacher, Abdullah*. As Abdullah and I talk about his language, we also talk about life. We talk about his dreams for the Roja people. During one lesson, I decided to bring up the possibility of language development: “Wouldn’t it be great to have some Roja stories written in your language?”
I’m not sure what I expected him to say, but I definitely did not anticipate Abdullah’s reaction. His eyes immediately filled with tears. Did I say something wrong? Something offensive? I waited for him to respond. “We Roja people have always been down here,” he said, gesturing to the floor. “If we had books in our language, then we would be something.”
You see, there is a reason that the Roja are scattered across the world. They are refugees. I’d say they were treated as second-class citizens in their home country, but they weren’t even granted the honor of citizenship. They were treated as nothing.
It is my privilege, as a representative of International Literacy and Development, to empower the Roja people with a greater sense of their worth and of the unique contribution that their culture has to give to this world. This empowerment has already begun through the simple act of learning their language, but there is much more work to be done.
I ask you, wouldn’t it be great if the Roja had books in their language? Even without these books, I know that Abdullah and his people are already “something.” Nobody could tell me otherwise. But maybe seeing real stories written in their own mother tongue, they would know it for themselves.
*Names and languages have been changed for security purposes.
This article was written by an ILAD field worker working among a refugee language group.