The Refugee's Dating Coach : Rough Translation A Syrian refugee in Berlin hopes to find love but is stumped by German dating codes and is terrified of crossing the line between flirting and harassing. A professional 'flirt coach' steps in to be his guide. (For photos of Sophia and Aktham:

The Refugee's Dating Coach

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So talk to me about dating. Have you tried to date in Germany, in...

AKTHAM ABULHUSN: Have I tried to date in Germany?

WARNER: This is Aktham Abulhusn. He's a Syrian refugee living in Berlin.

ABULHUSN: It happened once last year. I met a nice girl. And - yeah.

WARNER: And our story begins with this one chance encounter. This was a year ago. He was chasing down a room for rent.

ABULHUSN: It's always difficult to find a room here in Berlin.

WARNER: This one was in a flat with four German guys.

ABULHUSN: They have some sort of team. Their common hobby is sword fighting. Well...

WARNER: The rent was cheap.


WARNER: Anyway, while he was there staring at the swords made of foam - mind you, he'd only recently arrived from the Syrian war - he started chatting with a woman who was there with a friend who was also looking at the place. She was in med school. Her name was Stine (ph). They liked the same football club, and she had a ton of questions about Syria. And she was so friendly and nice that when she asked him about his life, he told her the truth.

ABULHUSN: I kind of went through talking about I don't have any friends yet, I'm new in Berlin and so on. And she was just, OK, then just give me your number and we can do other things. So I was - OK, that's really nice.

WARNER: Unlike most refugees who recently arrived in Germany, Aktham is highly educated. He came on a plane legally. He enrolled in a master's program for electrical engineering. And he's also not Muslim. He's Druze. It's a minority religious group in Syria.

ABULHUSN: In our community, it's a little bit open-minded. I mean, we had girls as friends. We used to go to cafes together and we used to go partying and so on.

WARNER: Though it was always very chaste. Even kissing on the cheek, that was for...

ABULHUSN: After engagement. Not the mouth, the cheek. And - yeah.

WARNER: So what shocked him about his encounter with this German med student was not the fact of talking to a woman. It was that she seemed so trusting and open.

ABULHUSN: Actually, she was the one to make the first move and ask me for my number. And it was, like, a few months after what happened in Cologne.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The news of what happened in the city of Cologne on New Year's Eve has electrified Germans.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: On that mass assault...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: More than a thousand men...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The vast majority of the suspects are believed to be migrants or refugees.

ABULHUSN: People had ideas about refugees.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) I was touched from behind my back and I was touched under my skirt.

WARNER: A few days later, this German med student, she surprised him again. She texted him an invitation to go swimming.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Public swimming baths closed its doors on men from the local refugee center.

WARNER: Swimming pools have become a kind of symbol of a space in Germany where refugee men are seen as intruders.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Five schoolgirls complained that they had been groped by a group of...

ABULHUSN: I just responded with a really dumb response. I just said I would love to go, but I actually can't swim. And that is always embarrassing for me, to be 36 and not able to swim. Yeah. But then...

WARNER: She doesn't respond for days, and Aktham's beating himself up. But finally she does invite him out to a bar to watch a soccer game.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. There were a couple of friends of her as well. We watched the game.

WARNER: They talked about her studies. They talked more about the war. They stayed for hours, even after the game had ended.

ABULHUSN: We had few drinks.

WARNER: Aktham drinks beer. They had several.

ABULHUSN: And until the last moment, everything - we were talking and laughing and so normal. And, I mean, we hugged each other...

WARNER: Just a safe, culturally appropriate hug. He was sure of that.

ABULHUSN: ...As the usual goodbye saying here in Germany. And we'll see each other. Yeah, we'll see each other and so on.

WARNER: Except they never did. He'd write her texts.

ABULHUSN: And she just didn't respond.

WARNER: A few weeks later, he texted again.

ABULHUSN: Yeah, I tried later, but no response. So, yeah, it's obviously - she doesn't want to. That's it.

WARNER: And that was a year ago, his only date since he arrived in Germany. And really, he has been deconstructing it ever since.

ABULHUSN: What did I do wrong? What went wrong? What's the reason?

WARNER: Was it that stupid text about the swimming?

ABULHUSN: Does it have to do with refugees thing? Is it - does it have to do with being an electrical engineer? Sometimes that can be scary. I don't know why.

WARNER: Was it that hug, that last goodbye hug? Did he just do it wrong?

ABULHUSN: Why am I single?


WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. We're a show from NPR where we look at how a conversation playing out in one place is sounding very different somewhere else. The conversation around sex and dating when it comes to Syrian refugees - we've all heard a version of that story. Refugee men arrive in Europe with incompatible views of women and sex and social norms.

But in the shadow of that story, there are, of course, people like Akthem, desperate not to seem like the refugee stereotype, not to come off as predators but still trying to figure out a way to fall in love and date. The reason we're focusing on Akfem is because he got a rare opportunity. He got someone who would scroll through his texts, watch his hugs, break down his flirt from start to finish and tell him exactly where he'd gone wrong and how to fix it. He got a flirt coach.

ABULHUSN: Yeah, flirt coaching. Yes, why not?



WARNER: We're back with a ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Aktham lives in a neat little single room in a shabby dormitory in former East Berlin.


WARNER: That's Luisa Beck. She's a journalist based in Berlin. We reported this story together.

LUISA BECK, BYLINE: Is that a metal poster? No. WOA - what is that?

ABULHUSN: Wacken Open Air.

WARNER: Aktham is a major heavy metal fan.

ABULHUSN: Have you ever heard of Wacken?


ABULHUSN: You never heard of Wacken?


ABULHUSN: Oh my god.

BECK: (Laughter).

ABULHUSN: Aktham's love of heavy metal began in high school. In Syria, the heavy metal music scene was targeted by the regime, and bands got arrested. Aktham hated the government for that. He hated them for a lot of things, so he was excited when the revolution came.



WARNER: Afkem's region called As-Suywada is mostly Druze, the minority group that at the time was very loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. So these small anti-government demonstrations that were happening in his region, they were big deal. But he noticed something, that the government wasn't just paying attention to the protesters.

ABULHUSN: They were so much focusing on who was broadcasting them to the world.

WARNER: So Syrians from the diaspora started sending them...

ABULHUSN: ...Cameras.

WARNER: ...Hidden cameras.

ABULHUSN: Hidden cameras....

WARNER: ...Inside pens and watches.

ABULHUSN: Not only in the watch, like, we had - like, the car keys...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...The thing on the car keys - beep, beep.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. We had one as well with a camera.

WARNER: And among these revolutionary circles, Aktham got a nickname.

ABULHUSN: Abu Techno.

WARNER: Abu Techno.

ABULHUSN: Techno comes from technology.

WARNER: The guy would secretly film rallies and then set up proxy servers to upload the photos.

WARNER: This was dangerous work. Aktham had several close calls. He was searched, detained. He says if they'd found the camera hidden inside his car keys...

ABULHUSN: ...I wouldn't be alive now. Of course, but - yeah.

WARNER: And so during this time, Aktham says he made a decision about his love life.

ABULHUSN: I just refused to have any real relationship.

WARNER: He'd seen his friends arrested while their families suffered. Then the reverse, families arrested to pressure someone to turn himself in. And even if that person did surrender...

ABULHUSN: ...Most of the times, they kept both.

WARNER: Both revolutionary and his family.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. They didn't release the family.

WARNER: So staying single - back then, it seemed the right thing to do.

ABULHUSN: It was so horrible seeing their families getting this torture.

WARNER: You mean the torture of separation?

ABULHUSN: The torture of separation. Yeah. Yeah.

WARNER: Now he's in Germany and feeling lonelier than ever. Now he's got no one. And every time he Skypes with his parents back in Syria...

ABULHUSN: ...And every and each call, my mom and my father as well - they have to bring up the, come on, get a girlfriend. Go engage. You should get married. We want to see your kids and - yeah.

WARNER: So what do you say?

ABULHUSN: I say that I - I'm trying to.


WARNER: Aktham is trying. He bartends at the dorm each Friday night. He's downloaded all the dating apps. He's done meetups on this Facebook group meant to introduce refugees and locals. And it was actually on that group that Aktham saw a note for something called Improv Without Borders.


WARNER: So that Thursday afternoon, he found himself in a hipster rent-a-studio sort of place, which is where reporter Luisa Beck first met him.

BECK: Aktham starts his arms crossed, but you can't do that from in improv theater. People play icebreaker games with a lot of yelling and then skits.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking made-up language).

BECK: Tell a childhood story...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking made-up language).

BECK: in a made-up up language called gramalo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking made-up language).

BECK: It's awkward, especially awkward because this group is half Europeans, half refugees.

BECK: There are these cultural differences that everyone is trying to feel out.

SOPHIA LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

WARNER: Sophia Lierenfeld is the workshop teacher.

LIERENFELD: And I wasn't sure how I would be able to deal with it.

BECK: She's tall with long hair, black eyeglasses.

LIERENFELD: I like to look sexy.

BECK: She loves wearing low-cut tops and dresses. But on the first day of class...

LIERENFELD: Honestly, I was wearing the most unattractive outfit that I was wearing this whole year (laughter).

WARNER: Was that on purpose?

LIERENFELD: Yes, definitely. I was wearing a - just a black shirt, which didn't show any part of my boobs. And I was wearing, like, black, loose jeans.

I wasn't really sure how men from Arabic countries would react on me because there's this whole idea that was spread by media that Arabic men see women who are dressed in a dress, for example, as whores. It was just the whole different culture, and I didn't know it yet.

The next week I was like, oh, come on. Seriously, I'm just going to wear what I like. And it didn't change a thing.


BECK: When people walk into improv, Sophia hugs everyone. She dances around. And if someone hesitates for too long, they have to run around the circle shouting...

LIERENFELD: I'm so sexy.

BECK: Some people are yelling it out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'm so sexy.

BECK: Others kind of whisper it.


WARNER: And Aktham - Aktham loves improv.

ABULHUSN: In a workshop about theater, you just can go wild.

WARNER: He says he's here to be less shy. And you can hear him trying out this new self. At one point, he's doing a scene with one of the women in the workshop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking German).

BECK: So she's playing a hairdresser, and she's upset because Aktham's got a shaved head. And how is she supposed to style a shaved head? So Aktham says...

ABULHUSN: (Speaking German).

BECK: To tell you the truth, I'm not here for the hair. I'm here for you. Could we - no, she says. I'm just a hairdresser. Oh, but you're a woman, too, he says. He's being really playful and charming. Not for you, she says. Not for me? No. OK - so no chance? Just one coffee with me? - he asks. No. Beer? No. Food? No. It's almost painful to watch. And Sophia ends the scene.

WARNER: When Aktham lets wild, when he lets his hair down so to speak, he verges right up close to that stereotype that he's trying so hard to avoid - that obnoxiously persistent flirter who can't take a hint. But Aktham is not doing this in real life hair salons or bars. And for him, he says just getting to test out this new self, it is kind of helpful because this is what he's trying to figure out in Germany. What is the line between flirting and hassling? Aktham is not the only one trying on a different version of himself. While Luisa Beck was coming here week after week to report, she started noticing another Syrian refugee, 19-year-old Raghd Hadid.

RAGHD HADID: (Speaking German).

BECK: She's been in the country for two years but doesn't have any German friends her age.

WARNER: Raghd's got a lot on her plate since she and her dad left Damascus. Her mom is still in Syria. She's got to help her dad deal with all these bureaucratic things in her limited German. Unlike Aktham, Raghd doesn't come to this improv class to learn to flirt. But she does find herself facing a similar dilemma in Germany which is, how do you express yourself in a new country when your status is so uncertain and the stakes for being misunderstood are so high?

BECK: The first few times, she comes she's shy. She's got those polite little chuckle. When I ask her why she chose improv theater, she says...

HADID: (Speaking German).

BECK: She imagines a future where she's a strong person, not weak, not shy.

HADID: (Speaking German).

BECK: Raghd speaks German reluctantly. She often slips back into Arabic and lets her friends translate.

HADID: (Speaking Arabic).

BECK: She's afraid that when she's in public places that she says something wrong and that people will laugh - says she's afraid of being seen as a stranger, that they'll think that she doesn't know what her rights are.

WARNER: Someone they can take advantage of.

BECK: Or that she she knows nothing about about this place.


BECK: There are all these moments an improv theater in which the world's awkwardness and language barriers, all that stuff just falls away. But then there's this one day when Raghd doesn't show up. It's weird. And then in the last 10 minutes of class, the door opens, and it's Raghd. But instead of jumping into the circle, she sits in a chair off by the side of the room. I go over and talk to her after class. And it's clear by her face that she's really upset. Her polite chuckle is back. I ask if everything is OK. Yeah, she says and kisses me on the cheek. I ask her again. And she looks off to the side, takes a breath and then tells me she's shaken up.

She took the subway here, the U-Bahn. And while inside, a man with a small dog stood behind her. And, suddenly, he yelled at her, and he shoved her from behind. And she didn't know why. She didn't know what was happening. She was worried that he'd hit her, so she got out. And that's why she's late. Raghd tells me she wants to know what went wrong. Her friends Judy and Kinna (ph) come over.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking in German).

BECK: And we try to figure it out. Does she have any idea why he did it? No. Did she accidentally step on his dog? No. Maybe because of the headscarf. She's not sure. She tells me she wants to talk to Sophia. She'll know what to do. And so we find Sophia. And Sophia listens to the story of the guy on the U-Bahn. She asks none of the why questions that we did. Instead, she tells Raghd to push her like the guy just pushed her away. And then...

LIERENFELD: (Through interpreter) Hello? Are you crazy or what? Don't touch me.

BECK: Sophia tells Raghd, your turn to try it.


BECK: Raghd looks at her with these big eyes.

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: Sophia says, "yes, yes. Turn around."


LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: "Defend yourself. Do it. Do it again." And Sophia tells her, you can even yell at him in Arabic.

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: Raghd looks shocked at this. She's come to Sophia the German coach to give her the right German response to this confusing German situation. And Sophia is telling her it doesn't matter what language she says it in.

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: She can even answer in grommelo, the nonsense language.

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: She tells Raghd to repeat after her.

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: (Speaking German). "Leave me alone."

HADID: (Speaking German).

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: Sophia tells Raghd, "when I push you again, that's your cue."

HADID: (Speaking German).

LIERENFELD: (Speaking German).

BECK: "Very good," Sophia tells her. "We can sit down now."


WARNER: Sophia's actually had a lot of practice helping people express their feelings. She's worked in theater. She's taught acting to kids. And five years ago...

LIERENFELD: I kind of coincidentally became a flirt coach.

WARNER: A flirt coach.

LIERENFELD: Or I think in English, you would more say dating coach.

WARNER: Now, when Aktham, through Facebook, learned about this other job of his improv teacher, his first thought was, what?

ABULHUSN: Because I felt that it's silly. How can you teach someone to go flirting with anyone else?

WARNER: The answer...

LIERENFELD: Let me show you around.

WARNER: We're in Sophia's apartment. On her bookshelf are manuals on flirting.

LIERENFELD: The perfect seducteror (ph). Yes. I don't know.

WARNER: To explain how Sophia ended up with this particular library, we have to go back to her childhood.

LIERENFELD: We traveled a lot.

WARNER: Her parents were traveling musicians.

LIERENFELD: I got to know all those different cultures.

WARNER: She grew up the kind of kid who traveled places and studied other people.

LIERENFELD: And the connections between people. But...

WARNER: But her stepdad was pretty abusive.

LIERENFELD: We were fighting a lot. And he would tell me on a daily basis that I was a loser, that I was too fat, that I was ugly.

WARNER: And then she was 17.

LIERENFELD: Sitting there thinking, OK, that's enough. Like, this cannot be how life is supposed to be.

WARNER: She wasn't just going to watch life from the sidelines. And for her, that meant being more bold.

LIERENFELD: I started to dress more beautifully, and...

WARNER: Started loving her body.

LIERENFELD: ...Men were hitting on me on the street.

WARNER: And then she met a guy.

LIERENFELD: Let's call him Max.

WARNER: Max is blond. He's tall.

LIERENFELD: And I madly fell in love with him.

WARNER: They were both people watchers, people studiers. And that's when Max told her about pickup.

LIERENFELD: Also, we had like...

WARNER: He said he did something called pickup? What do you mean?

LIERENFELD: Well, I mean he was like, hey, I have those two friends. And, you know, pickup - it's like...

WARNER: But did pickup - would that word have meant anything to you at that time?

LIERENFELD: No, not at all. And we would go out with his friends and seduce women and have threesomes and crazy orgy parties. And it was so great. Like, to me, that was finally - I was good at it. You know, I was so good in seducing women and, like, making them come with us. And I was having so much fun.

WARNER: So when that relationship ended...

LIERENFELD: It wasn't only my big love who was gone. Also, this lifestyle was gone.

WARNER: So that's when she thought back to pickup. And so she googled it a bit. She found a pickup meetup in her neighborhood.

LIERENFELD: With the belief that I would meet a bunch of guys who know how to seduce women.

WARNER: That is not what she found at all.

LIERENFELD: They were mostly shy guys who tried to get better with women. But they didn't meet because they were already great with women. No, they met because they had a real pain there. They didn't know how to deal with it.

WARNER: The pickup scene - it calls itself a community. And they have their own jargon. Women are called targets. The neg (ph) - that's a backhanded compliment meant to make her feel insecure and thus more open to sleeping with you. There's a sub-school of pickup that talks about hypnosis techniques. It gets really manipulative. Sophia looked at this scene and saw men who just didn't know how to connect. And she discovered she was pretty good at helping them.

LIERENFELD: And they started to ask me for advice. And, slowly, it happened that someone just believed I was a coach and asked me if I could give him a coaching. And then I got invited to this conference as a speaker. And I started to travel around. I developed my own seminar, which was called Seduction on the Dance Floor.

WARNER: She'd go on to develop other workshops with titles like Authentic Dating and How to Flirt with Her, Not Against Her. In improv class, Sophia had noticed that Aktham was loosening up and becoming more confident. And she and Aktham had talked about his trouble applying this new workshop self to his real life.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. I mean, this shouldn't be just in the improv or in the theater. This should be something that I can get in life.

WARNER: So Sophia made him an offer. She'd give him a flirt coaching session.


WARNER: And after the break, things are going to get blunt.

LIERENFELD: I'm going to say that in a little bit of a mean way. Are you aware of your arrogance here?


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Luisa Beck and I are in a cab with Aktham, heading downtown.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. We're in the cab on our way to this flirt coaching thing.

WARNER: So what's on your mind as you're heading into this?

ABULHUSN: Well, if it's beneficial, then by the end of this year, I should be with a girlfriend.

WARNER: You've given yourself six months.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. And it's, like...

WARNER: His big fear, it turns out, is that the flirt coaching session will work, that he'll learn what's wrong with him and still not actually be able to act on it.

ABULHUSN: And still didn't work out.

WARNER: That'll prove he's a hopeless case.

ABULHUSN: It's not magic. I know.

WARNER: Do you think there's any cultural difference between you and the girls you want to date that is getting in the way - do you think?

ABULHUSN: No. I wouldn't think so because a lot of things.

WARNER: Aktham says the longer he stays in Germany the closer he feels culturally.

ABULHUSN: I think - I do believe that I'm so much closer to the cultural thinking of relationships and openness and stuff like that here - more than what I used to have there.

WARNER: I think that's surprising because I kind of went into this story thinking this was about cultural - trying to cross a cultural divide. You're saying that's not the problem.

ABULHUSN: I believe no.

WARNER: Aktham talks about cultural differences - like, the ones they talk about on German TV. And he says he doesn't have any of those.

ABULHUSN: I actually come from a community that also respects women's rights. Our community...

BECK: As equals.

ABULHUSN: Yeah. And I'm raised this way, actually, thanks to mom and my father.

BECK: Let's go meet Sophia.



WARNER: We get to the coffee shop that Sophia has chosen.

BECK: A really tiny cafe. This is Sophia's, like, neighborhood cafe. She always comes here. She takes Aktham there.

WARNER: Sophia says that she likes to keep her flirt sessions as close to real-life dates as possible.

BECK: They sit in these kind of, like, loungey (ph) chairs.


LIERENFELD: All right. Now tell me more about this person that you met.

WARNER: Aktham tell her about, really, his only semi-romantic experience in Germany, that date with the German med student Stina (ph).

LIERENFELD: Do you still have the texts?

ABULHUSN: I still have the texts, yes.

LIERENFELD: Can I see them?


LIERENFELD: He pulls out his phone, starts scrolling through the texts. OK. While you're looking for that, this is an interesting question for me because I think there could be some cultural difference. How about the whole sex stuff? Like, I mean, do you have some one-night stands here in Berlin? Do you have...

ABULHUSN: I never had.

LIERENFELD: You never had one-night stands. You never had sex?

ABULHUSN: Never no one-night stands, no sex, no...

LIERENFELD: So you're still a virgin.



ABULHUSN: Also by kissing.

LIERENFELD: What by kissing? You never kissed a girl?

ABULHUSN: Never kissed a girl on the mouth.

LIERENFELD: OK. Yeah, we can, like...

ABULHUSN: On the lips.

WARNER: At this point, Aktham has now found the texts, the text exchange that he has been trying to figure out himself for a whole year. He hands it over to Sophia so she can try to decode it for him. And as she stares at the phone, Aktham is watching her face.

LIERENFELD: (Laughter) It's so charming and cute. Wow, she's, like, straightforward. She wants to cook together. She wanted to. That's very nice.

WARNER: Sophia turns to Aktham's texts and actually reads one of his texts out loud, which totally mortifies him.

LIERENFELD: (Reading) But I'm in for the game. Smiley. Also, I'm ready for other plans. Smiley. Tell me when and where and I'm going to be there. Smiley.

That's so cute. That was really cute. It's - look at your face. You look embarrassed, but it's really - it's charming.

WARNER: Aktham's arms are now crossed and he's saying, you can punch me. But Sophia's leaning toward him. She's about to tell him something about this interaction that he totally missed.

LIERENFELD: So from her messages she seems to be really interested or she she seemed to be really interested in sex with you. Like, that's obvious to me because - wait a second - oh, no, no, that's another message. Here, Stine. She's writing, we can cook together, which means you're already at the place, you know? And she seems to be interested in sex. And the change happens after you met the second time, after this date at the game. So my guess is that at this date you probably did nothing wrong, but maybe you just didn't do a move. You know what I mean?

ABULHUSN: But truthfully, I would feel scared to suggest such a thing if she doesn't want to and if she sees that, oh, God, he's trying to get me to bed, and I'm just trying to be nice because - maybe because he's a refugee. Or because he's a nice guy and I'm trying to know him. Or I'm trying - I'm just trying to be friends with him and he just thinks - this is one of the ideas that...

LIERENFELD: But there's - OK, I'm going to say it in a little bit of a mean way. Are you aware of your arrogance here? I get the whole thing. I understand your feelings.


LIERENFELD: But there's also one part in it that's really arrogant. And that's the part where you think that you have to think and decide for her. She's a grown-up person. When you tell her that you're interested in her, she is totally fine with saying, no, I'm not because she's grown-up too. You're not a dating 15-year-old kid. You're dating a grown-up or you're seeing a grown-up woman. And if she doesn't want something, she's capable of saying it. And you should give her that choice. You know what I mean?

ABULHUSN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

LIERENFELD: You get I'm talking about?

ABULHUSN: Yeah, but (unintelligible).

LIERENFELD: Yeah, that's why I said it so - in such a strange way.

WARNER: Sometimes when you're in a foreign country, it is hard to know how to read other people's signals or how to respond to them without crossing a line. And for that reason, there are workshops now for refugees across Europe focusing on countering aggressive behavior, teaching that no means no and miniskirts are not an invitation. But for Aktham, the problem is different. He's being too protective.

ABULHUSN: I'm really now surprised how I never think about it this way. It's a two-side story. It's accepting what's coming from the other side and interacting with it and...

LIERENFELD: Oh, yeah, because...

WARNER: We move to another spot because some kids sat nearby. Sophia doesn't like to talk about sex next to kids. Also, she's got an exercise for Aktham.

LIERENFELD: OK, so let us practice the sexual tension for a moment.

WARNER: She gets up, scoots her chair close to his.

LIERENFELD: All I'm going to do now is sit beside you and create, like, a really intense sexual tension with the one goal that you try to bear it.


LIERENFELD: Because as we already said or as I already said, tension can sometimes feel unbearable and uncomfortable and weird. So when you start to, like, just let it happen and be OK with it, it will be so much easier for you to actually have the sexual stuff and to flirt as well. OK, let's go.

BECK: And then all of a sudden she gets quiet.

LIERENFELD: All right.

BECK: And she starts putting her fingers through her hair and leaning back. And she takes off her glasses and just looks at him.

ABULHUSN: It started with taking off the...

LIERENFELD: Yes, that's actually what I always do in my coachings. I put off the glasses when I do a bit of role play so there's a separation between role play and did you just - do you realize that you just looked away?


LIERENFELD: Yes. And this is exactly what I mean. It's getting more complicated to keep the eye contact, right?

ABULHUSN: Yeah, once again (laughter).


WARNER: Second try - again. Deep eye contact. And this time, he is holding her gaze. He's not looking away.

LIERENFELD: So as I said, I tried to get rid of this class separation for all place. Try to stay with me because now you keep the eye contact. But I can see that you are leaning back inside. Do you feel that?


LIERENFELD: Try to still stay with me...


LIERENFELD: ...Because you can have eye contact and actually look into each other's eyes. And you can also have eye contact but actually not being really there.

ABULHUSN: You're right.

LIERENFELD: Don't go away.

ABULHUSN: You're right. OK.

WARNER: Tip number three, she literally tells him make yourself comfortable.

LIERENFELD: Look at how you sit. You're, like, so closed up. Hello.


WARNER: And Aktham is doing better. His arms aren't crossed. And he's smiling back at her.

ABULHUSN: How you doing?


WARNER: In that last bit, Aktham is imitating Joey from the TV show "Friends." But Sophia tells him, you're not supposed to get goofy at this moment. Stay with me.

LIERENFELD: OK. Can you feel the tension now?


LIERENFELD: Nice. What wow (laughter)? That was actually quite nice right now.

ABULHUSN: It's kind of - yeah. When I get heated up just...

LIERENFELD: Now you have it. Do you see it? Do you feel it? Yeah. OK. Well, I think for now, I'm going to put my glasses on (laughter). For now, it was a good start.

WARNER: Sophia tells Aktham just try to follow your gut in these kind of situations. Of course, in a new place with new rules, your gut could be wrong. So Aktham is trying to change at least how he comes across in these kinds of situations. Just recently, he went to a party. He told himself the whole time, don't cross your arms. Don't cross your arms.

ABULHUSN: I try. I try. Yeah. Yesterday, I did cross my arms lots of the time. But...


BECK: Raghd, the Syrian woman, has been coming to improv class less often. Her mom just joined the family from Syria. They've been busy trying to extend their visa. But Sophia told me that when Raghd did come to class a few weeks ago, she gave her first monologue in front of the group. She gave it while Sophia was crouched between her legs, growling with rage, playing her anger translator.

WARNER: Aktham is now two months into his six-month deadline. He's not yet asked out anyone on a date. But he told us he has this particular fantasy where, one day, he'll be riding his bike, and a girl will pass on her bike.

ABULHUSN: Because I drive with hands free side. So just go and do this.

WARNER: He forms his two hands into a heart shape against his chest.

ABULHUSN: But I never do it - the hard thing. I mean, why not? Just, like, a flirt passing by.


WARNER: That was episode 7 of ROUGH TRANSLATION. And it's a wrap on our first season. We are now hitting the field, booking flights, looking into some of the story ideas that you have sent us. Thank you for those. Please keep them coming. If there's anywhere you think we should go next, reach us on Twitter at @Roughly. I'm @radiogrego. Or send us an email -

If this is your first episode, welcome. We've got a lot more for you in the feed at And if you have heard our whole season, and you are thinking to yourself, hey, you know, I want me some more ROUGH TRANSLATION. I want more of these global perspectives on familiar conversations. There is something that you can do. It only takes a minute. Write us a review or give us a rating on Apple Podcasts. We actually have a link on our Facebook page and Twitter to walk you through the steps. It does make a huge difference to the show.

I want to thank a few people who've made this podcast possible - Mike Oreskes, an early champion of the show, Neal Carruth, our humble and fearless shepherd, and my wife, the novelist Sana Krasikov. She helped conceive of this podcast idea and has made every episode better. Thank you.

This episode of ROUGH TRANSLATION was produced by Jess Jiang and edited by Marianne McCune. I am incredibly lucky to work with this team. Thanks to NPR correspondents Ruth Sherlock and Deb Amos and to interpreter Dina Salah ElDin. Thanks to the Improv Without Borders workshop for letting us record week after week. And we should add that Sophia says that, despite her rocky childhood, she has patched things up with her stepdad and has the best relationship with him now.

Today's episode was fact-checked by Greta Pettinger and Mary Glendinning. They're part of the research archives and data strategy team. We are so lucky to have them on board. Mastering by Andy Huether. ROUGH TRANSLATION theme music as always by John Ellis. Check out his music either live or on his website. Additional music for this episode by the German band Holzig and from Blue Dot Sessions.

I'm Gregory Warner. See you on the road.


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