Volunteer Prep: Burmese and Iraqi Etiquette

When we moved to OKC, I knew I had to get involved. I’m too social of a person to sit at home all day. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading a good book and writing this blog, but a whole day without talking to someone is a long day for me. Taking the advice of my friend who did a guest post for me on volunteering with the refugee community, I started researching different organizations in Oklahoma City that assist refugees. And that’s when I found Spero Project. The Spero Project is a local non-profit organization that partners with local churches to serve under-resources communities. Their programming extends to single mothers, children in the foster care system, and families who are refugees in OKC.

I will be serving in their Learning Center where children from the refugee community can come and get help with homework, English, and just play. Adults can also come work on English and study for the TOEFL, their GED, or the citizenship exam. I had my first training on Tuesday and will have my first hours in the Learning Center this evening. Most of the children that I’ll be working with come from either Iraq or Myanmar. While I feel ready to help with fractions, I realized that I am not very familiar with the Iraqi or Burmese cultures. I know I will learn a lot while I’m with the kids, but I thought it might be good to know some basic etiquette to get me started.

Burmese Basic Etiquette:

  • As a female, a smile or nod is the most appropriate ways to greet men.
  • Never touch a person’s hair, head or cheek, even if you consider it as a friendly gesture.
  • The upper part is considered sacred while lower part is considered inferior to the upper part, even considered dirty. Never mix the things you use for your upper part with that of the lower part.
  • Do not use your feet to point at anything or anyone.
  • Don’t cough, sneeze or blow your nose in the dining table.
  • Present gifts (even a business card) with both hands.

Iraqi Basic Etiquette:

  • The most common greeting is the handshake coupled with eye contact and a smile.
  • Use your right hand to make contact with others and to eat.
  • Do not point with a finger but rather with the entire hand.
  • Always keep your word. Do not make a promise or guarantee unless you can keep it. If you want to show a commitment to something but do not want to make caste iron assurances then employ terms such as “I will do my best,” or “We will see.”
  • Do not make the thumbs up or “ok” sign. They are considered obscene.
  • Present gifts (even a business card) with both hands.


7 thoughts on “Volunteer Prep: Burmese and Iraqi Etiquette

  1. letizia

    What a fascinating organization – that’s great that you’ll be involved with them!

    And the list of etiquette rules is fascinating. I’m a very tactile person and I know when I moved here to America from France, I had to consciously make it a point to be less tactile at my workplace.

    1. eliseblalock Post author

      I know what you mean about consciously making a point to be less tactile. I am generally a person who likes to hug and comfort with physical touch. I’ve been saying to myself all day, “Don’t ruffle the kids’ hair, don’t ruffle the kids’ hair.” Hopefully I get it right!

  2. Elise

    I worked with with Atlanta refugee community for two years, and I am embarrassed to say you know much more than I do. Thank you for sharing!

      1. Elise

        As with everyone else in life, approach refugee’s with a willingness to learn and connect. I found the children I worked with (mostly Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese and Somali) to be VERY affectionate. There is a good chance you will enjoy yourself so much that you feel you gain much more than you give. Enjoy!

  3. Loving Language

    This is a great way to an adventure at home. I volunteered with IRC, a great organization. I used to visit a family from Eritrea weekly. I know all about foreign etiquette and all, but I found the best thing was to be myself and to be humble. I can’t do all the etiquette right, but I can be quick to apologize and laugh at myself. As long as I’m not a bull in a china shop, slights of etiquette can be quickly excused.

    Overall, volunteering was a great experience. I developed such a deep interest in East Africa as a result.


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