On the ground in Bangladesh. So – how do we communicate?

A second report from Rebecca Petras who is heading up TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The language complexity in the current Rohingya refugee crisis is deep. I had only a faint understanding of it when I landed a few days ago; I have a slightly better sense now. The Rohingya refugees come from Rakhine in Myanmar. They are Muslim; the other dominant population in Rakhine is Buddhist. The political issues between the two groups and the Rakhine as a whole and the government of Myanmar are extremely complicated, and not for my humble explanation. Suffice it to say, on 25 August 2017, a massive and violent event forced thousands of Rohingya to abandon their villages and flee to Bangladesh, through hills, unfriendly areas, and across water. There are still many thousands waiting to cross the river; in total, there are well over 700,000 new arrivals.

In and around Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town (with the world’s longest contiguous beach) in Chittagong division of Bangladesh, there are now official and unofficial camps, sprawling across hills. Because of decades of unrest in Rakhine, there were already approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees living in either one of two official camps or within the host community, and many have lived there for two decades. They are now witnessing a massive and very uncertain influx from Myanmar, including thousands of orphans, thousands of traumatized and abused women, and many more who need medical attention.

'There really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it'

All of this makes for a very complicated language situation, with an amalgamation of spoken Rohingya from long-term refugees and new arrivals, spoken Chittagong from locals, written Bengali (or Bangla), and, possibly, written Burmese. Add layers of what is allowed by the government (still unclear which languages are being allowed), as well as how to translate complicated English terms into Rohingya, and we have a tricky communications issue. One of the main goals of Translators without Borders’ initial work here is to assess the language needs and then direct the numerous responding aid organizations, with accurate information on language. We will be testing assumptions and testing actual comprehension of material that is given to refugees.

We are beginning that assessment now – I will be working with community health workers and youth this coming week, and our research lead (Eric DeLuca) will be joining me in one week to test agency communications tools with new arrivals. But, at the same time, responding aid organizations want to start communicating right now. The community engagement leader of one of our main international partners said when I first met with him that there really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it. So while we try to put standards in place, train new interpreters, support interpreters with resources, and address the various language needs, we also need to just start communicating now. With seemingly endless rains and very little infrastructure in the camps, there is a very real danger of water-borne diseases, making communications urgent. What I need most at this time is more time in the day to get it all done.

Below are some suggestions of how you can support this response. Stay tuned for more updates this week.

Rebecca PetrasRebecca Petras, TWB Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

Taking action in the Rohingya crisis: TWB’s biggest language challenge yet

It is somewhere between 9pm and midnight, depending on where exactly my flight is right now. My rubber boots, rain gear, and TWB T-shirts are stowed in the hold; I am enjoying my second film. In a few short hours, we will arrive in Bangladesh, and the work will begin.

39,000 feet above the Earth, language is not an issue. International flight attendants and travelers basically speak the same language. We all understand ‘chicken with rice’ or ‘coffee or tea’ in the few international languages needed…English, German, French, maybe some occasional Arabic. And it is easy, seat back, chatting with seat mates with wildly different backgrounds, to feel comforted by the connection those few common languages bring us.

It is exactly that feeling – that connection and comfort – that language often gives us. I have lived for years in places where the native tongue was not my own: I know the sense of warmth when someone makes the effort to speak my language. Nelson Mandela had it right when he commented on the power of language: “Speak to a man in his language, and it goes to his heart.”

When in crisis, language does even more...

It helps on a very fundamental level, giving people in crisis the basic information they need to be safe, warm and fed. Yet millions of people, especially those who are refugees in foreign lands, must cross a language barrier every time they need basic information. They rely on others for the information they need, hoping that it is accurate and true, because they simply do not understand the language of those trying to help, or they are illiterate and cannot read whatever directive is provided.

How often I wonder how I would handle such a situation. I know that when I get important information in the language of the country where I currently live, the time to understand and then respond is at least doubled – the effort required is so much more. And that is when I’m sitting at my desk, well fed and not fearful for my life or that of my children.

The clear inequity of information that holds billions of people back is what motivates me. It is why I work hard with my colleagues every day to build an organization that uses language to jump over barriers. And it is what has motivated me to go to Bangladesh to set up language provision for the aid organizations trying to help the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who have arrived in the past six weeks.

Tomorrow I will be in Cox’s Bazar, a place I didn’t know existed until a few short weeks ago. I have a singular goal: To use language to bring a bit of comfort and help to those who have suffered too much already.

Language matters: I hope you will share this journey with me.


why TWB is responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Over 700,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh (in and around the beach town of Cox’s Bazar) in the past two months, many of them entire families - families broken by violence. This is a complex political and humanitarian crisis, and one of the most difficult language contexts TWB has ever experienced.

The Rohingya population is highly vulnerable, having fled conflict and living in extremely difficult conditions. When we launched this response remotely in September, the goal was to find Rohingya translators to translate urgent materials that would help give practical but vital information to the thousands of refugees flooding across the border into a land where they did not speak the language. However, it became immediately apparent that there was very little translation capacity in Rohingya and, furthermore, that we would need to get audio and spoken Rohingya support because very few people write this language, and illiteracy levels are high. It was also too challenging to try to do this work remotely. Yet no situation we have encountered is more in need of our resources.

So we took a chance without solid funding and decided to activate Plan B, sending Rebecca to Bangladesh to try to get something set up to respond to the Rohingya refugee crisis. She will be in the country for four weeks, bringing together a community of translators and figuring out how best to enable them to provide the language link between responders and vulnerable people. She will also be working with aid organizations to ensure that language solutions are funded.  She will be joined by Eric DeLuca, TWB's Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, who will conduct a comprehension study in some of the numerous camps, to assess the best ways to communicate with those who are affected by this crisis.

We will be following the team as they document their journey in Cox’s Bazar to set up this response for Communicating with Communities, and we'll be providing regular updates on how they are progressing over the coming weeks.

Rebecca PetrasRebecca Petras, TWB Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

Changing the world while sitting on your sofa

Changing the world through language

Listen to Translator without Borders Executive Director, Aimee Ansari talk about changing the world through language at [email protected] in November 2016.