It was the ancient Greeks who gave us the word diaspora, meaning “to scatter or disperse.” Since the time of Alexander the Great, Greeks have been spreading themselves throughout the world. Today, the Greek diaspora spans the globe, its people having integrated themselves into numerous countries, most notably the USA, Australia and Canada. The concept of migration is therefore deeply entrenched in Greek culture. Modern Greeks, whether they live at home or abroad, have an acute sense of what it means to be a migrant. Perhaps that is why the Greek people responded so positively to the European migration crisis. Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in Greece seeking safety, security and a new start.
Breaking down barriers
Anastasia Petyka was one of many Greeks who tried to make the refugees’ journey easier. With a degree in Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting from the Ionian University on Corfu, she set about breaking down communication barriers between the new migrant populations and the local Greeks. The Translators without Borders Rapid Response Translation (RRT) team gave her the opportunity to do that in a structured way.
“It’s important for refugees and locals to have access to the same information in their native languages. That cultivates trust and allows the locals to support the refugees”
Anastasia typically spends one or two hours per day translating and editing different kinds of texts into Greek. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers like Anastasia, the local population can access the same news articles, regulations or instructions as the aid agencies and the refugees themselves.
She is proud of her country’s efforts to welcome and support refugees, and she thinks this is due to Greek people having such a deep understanding of migration.
At the same time, she is scathing in her criticism of the wider international response to Europe’s refugee crisis. “Refugees have been faced with indifference and abandonment,” she insists. “Europe has shown a cruel face to people in need.” Anastasia is particularly frustrated that her native Greece has been expected to respond while struggling with an economic crisis of its own. “Greeks have experienced migration firsthand, and they know what it means,” she feels. “Unfortunately Greece cannot provide the refugees with the support they need to build their lives again. Ultimately we’ve been left alone to cope with the influx of migrants.”
A memorable experience
Despite the political challenges, Anastasia has channeled her strong sense of justice and her belief in basic human rights to ensure that she contributes as positively as possible to the situation. One of her most memorable experiences was translating a Syrian refugee’s experience traveling to Europe. Anastasia was shocked to learn that this man’s experience had left him feeling that death would have been preferable to making the journey to Europe. “It illustrated reality, but made me feel deeply sad and ashamed of the way the refugee crisis has been handled,” she admits. “To me, facilitating communication to make a difference is what I regard as a ‘high goal,’ and gives me a great sense of satisfaction and achievement.”
Want to volunteer?
Click here to apply to be a volunteer with the TWB Rapid Response Teams.
By Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer
Eleni Gayraud uses the term modern migrants to describe her family. Her parents, her three siblings and she are spread around the world. They have migrated to various countries, to follow different dreams and to respond to different opportunities. “My family didn’t experience anything close to what refugees and migrants in the Greek islands and mainland currently do, but they do know what it’s like to leave everything behind.”
Helping other modern migrants
Eleni had been looking for an opportunity to help people in need. She found Translators without Borders (TWB), and since October 2016 has been one of a dedicated group of Rapid Response Team (RRT) volunteers. “I can help people in a very important way – not only the displaced people but also those working hard to deal with one of the worst migration crises ever. I can put my [translation] skills into practice and be of real help.”
Of course, language is important in any situation, but Eleni is adamant that in situations where people speak many different languages, such as the current refugee crisis, it is key.
“Being able to communicate and understand, helps keep everything from falling apart”
“It helps people cooperate towards the same goal: a harmonic cohabitation and a functional solution to a vital problem. Translators and interpreters contribute and fill in the gaps.”
For personal reasons, Eleni became well-acquainted with the Greek island of Lesvos during the past year. She saw the refugee camps and how local people’s lives changed because of the crisis. She believes that everybody has a story to tell. “Refugee stories all have a face; sometimes it’s a father’s face, other times it’s an unaccompanied minor’s face, a single mother’s face, a teenager’s face or a young woman’s face. And those faces have names, be it Maria, Abdullah, Fatima or David.”
Joining Translators without borders
Eleni is enthusiastic about her role with TWB and wants to encourage other translators to get involved. She appreciates the recognition, understanding, and gratitude that is shown to volunteers. The experience, according to Eleni is personally rewarding and provides much more than simply an improved resumé. “The RRT volunteers are contributing to solving a real problem in a real world. But the best thing about being an RRT volunteer is that you are constantly reminded of what not giving up on your dreams looks like.”
“If you have language skills and want to help people in need, you’re most welcome in our team. TWB’s goal is to provide refugees with up-to-date information in their native language. We aim to close the language gaps. So, do not hesitate to join us and help people for whom your skills are vital. You’ll know that you’re helping people, while at the same time challenging yourself to give a good quality translation.”
As a graduate from the Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies department at the University of Macedonia, and with French and Greek heritage, Eleni loves learning new languages. She now lives in Thessaloniki, Greece, where she is soon to complete her Masters in Translation. Not surprisingly for someone fascinated by language, Eleni describes herself as an avid reader and someone who is thrilled by foreign cultures. She loves to travel, and concludes that “Each travel experience leaves a mark on my path.”
Want to volunteer?
By joining TWB, you can help modern migrants just like Eleni. Click here to apply to be a volunteer with the TWB Rapid Response Teams.
By Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer
In 2016 we worked with some wonderful partners to change people’s lives through access to vital information in the right language. We believe that no person should suffer because they cannot access or understand the information that they need.
So lets celebrate TWB with a recap of our year:
In JANUARY we were providing translations in six languages to humanitarian aid agencies responding to the European refugee crisis.
In FEBRUARY we worked with the American Red Cross to translate their First Aid and Hazard Universal apps. These apps help enhance individual disaster preparedness and response to emergencies.
It has often been said that a picture paints a thousand words. For Maria Bountali, a single photograph not only painted a thousand words; it changed her life. The photograph, which accompanied an online article entitled “The Horrors of the Sea,” showed a desperate, exhausted refugee, and touched Maria instantly. She didn’t read the article. She didn’t need to because the photograph told her everything she needed to know. That is the beginning of her Rapid Response Team story.
“His head was just above the water; it felt like his eyes were looking at me. He was helpless. He was truly exhausted”
At the time, Maria was struggling with her own personal issues, but she says that that the image, taken by a Spanish photographer named Juan Medina, gave her a new perspective and changed her way of thinking. That’s when she decided to look for a new volunteering opportunity. Maria comes from a family that advocates community service. Her grandmother and great grandmother were recognized for their generosity and philanthropic work, and she has observed her father, a paediatrician, offer his services for free to those in need since the 1980s. She discovered Translators without Borders (TWB), which gave her the opportunity to help people like the man in Juan Medina’s photograph.
Joining the TWB Rapid Response Team
Maria is now a member of TWB’s Greek Rapid Response Team, translating news articles from the international and Greek media for our crisis response work. She also translates the regular Rumours factsheet on behalf of one of TWB’s key partners, Internews.
Maria says that this work is very satisfying for her. She understands how important it is to provide people with the right information in a language they can understand.
“Many violent outbreaks, and the fire at the refugee settlement in Moria, Greece, reportedly started because people there were very agitated due to the spread of false rumours.”
Giving more people access to accurate information, by translating it into languages they easily understand, is a critical part of the work of TWB.
Maria lives in Brussels and in her spare time she maintains a blog called Great Places to Read a Book, which combines her love of travel, reading and photography. She still hopes to one day meet Juan Medina so she can let him know how a single photograph changed her life.
By Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders Volunteer
Here on Lesbos, I tend to disappoint people at first meeting, when they hear about the TWB translation support. My introductory conversations go something like this:
Me: “Hi, I’m Lali, Communications Manager for Translators without Borders’ European Refugee Response.”
Them: “Hi!” (very excited) “A translator! That’s great! We desperately need Arabic…”
Me: “No, I’m not a translator…”
Them: “But I thought you said you worked for…?” (perplexed)
Me: “I’m coordinating partnerships and communicating about our work…”
Them: “Oh.” (profoundly disappointed)
The immediate need of translation support
In this crisis response, everyone needs translation support – and needs it immediately. The demand for translation and interpretation is so urgent and so widespread that I’ve had that introductory conversation (or one very similar to it) with refugees, aid workers and volunteers alike. At registration centres, in meetings, outside tents, in cafes and on the beaches: I’ve disappointed people all over the island of Lesbos.
Spend a day (or an hour) working as part of any international humanitarian response, and you’ll understand the disappointment. There are obvious life-saving moments (understanding that someone needs a doctor, telling a child that the water is not safe to drink) when a common language is key. And then there are more complex situations (explaining rules and regulations, mediating between parties) which are extremely difficult even without a language barrier. All this is true of any humanitarian crisis.
But everyone working on the ground here agrees that communication needs during this, the European refugee crisis response, are special. What’s more, communication is central to this crisis response in a way that is entirely new to the international humanitarian community. I’d been told this, I’d read about this, but for me, it took actually seeing (and hearing) the crisis myself to understand why exactly this is the case. I’m still feeling out the dimensions of the enormous communication challenges we all face here and, as part of my role within TWB’s Words of Relief project, I’ll continue doing so. Right now though, to me, the challenges look something like this:
The refugee population is linguistically diverse
As an independent volunteer working at a clothing distribution point, I was trying to help a newly arrived Iraqi woman, shivering with cold, to find the clothes she needed. The woman was miming what looked to me to be a pair of trousers, so off I went to get trousers. Wrong. She tried again…now it looked like underwear. I went to get underwear. Wrong again. There was an Arabic interpreter nearby so I dragged him over to help, but he soon found out the woman didn’t speak Arabic. “She only speaks Kurdish,” he said.
This is not unusual: almost 80 percent of the refugees coming across the waters are Arabic or Farsi speaking. The Arabic speakers from Syria tend to be more educated with someone in their group able to communicate in English, whereas the Farsi (or Dari) speakers from Afghanistan often do not understand English at all. The other 20 percent of refugees do not speak or read in either of these languages. TWB has had requests from our partners for translation support in languages as various as Kurdish, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Tigrinya and French. Time- consuming and disempowering interaction is all too common in this crisis because those working on the ground simply don’t have access to these languages.
Host community and refugee population don’t share a common language
A group of local volunteers express shyness in communicating with refugees; an NGO partner in Serbia finds it incredibly difficult to recruit local Arabic speakers; TWB can’t draw on the local community for interpretation and translation support; partners request the most basic traveller’s information for refugees (such as how to use an ATM). These and many other communication challenges arise from the unusual geography of this crisis: refugees do not typically speak the languages of the host communities they encounter on their route.
It is further testament to the enormously hospitable response of the Lesbos’ local population that they rarely understand the languages of the refugees they assist. But when it comes to more complex interactions, between government officials and refugees, for instance, language barriers can exacerbate or generate tensions. The fact that the many international volunteers and aid workers speak neither the language of the hosts nor the refugees, is another complicating factor.
TWB is currently working with partners to include communication with host communities in all their programmes. This means (on Lesbos, for example), that every sign, pamphlet or website disseminated in Arabic, Farsi or English, has a Greek translation. This should be replicated in Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia. We do this in the hope that equally informing communities leads to greater trust between them.
Refugees are mobile
Late one night, a man arrives at Moria registration centre soaked to the bone. It’s dark, cold and raining and we volunteers want to get him to the clothes distribution point urgently. He shakes his head: “No clothes, no clothes. Where do I register? How do I get to the port?” he asks. At that moment, getting the papers that will allow him to transit through Greece, and finding out how to get the ferry to Athens, are much more necessary than dry clothes, warmth or food. The urgent need to move on is typical of all refugees here. No one comes to Lesbos, or any other transit point, to stay.
The fact that refugees are on the move (and moving very fast in many cases) presents a major communication challenge. Unlike in other refugee crises where time is spent building trust and establishing routines at temporary resettlement sites, this crisis only allows for brief interactions with aid workers and fleeting opportunities to disseminate information. Then, with the next boatload of refugee arrivals, the information needs to be disseminated all over again. For this reason, high-quality concise translation and interpretation is even more crucial in this crisis to ensure refugees keep themselves and their families safe.
Refugees need constantly changing information
Most people know an anxious traveller. Maybe you are one yourself! Now just imagine that you actually have a reason to be seriously anxious (rather than just missing your train): you’re seeking asylum. On top of this, you’re in a country where you can’t read transport timetables, you’ve heard there’s a ferry strike but you’re not sure, you know that there are some countries who have closed their borders to people from your country, and you’ve heard there are people stranded in freezing temperatures further up the route. Oh and you have four children travelling with you. All is rumour, nothing is confirmed: now that’s anxious travelling.
Crisis-affected and displaced populations typically need information about health, shelter and emergency facilities. They also need information on their families and what is happening back home. In this crisis, information on travel (When is the next ferry? How much does it cost to take the bus? What is the weather forecast tomorrow?), or information on asylum procedures (Can I apply for asylum in Sweden? Can I register for a transit visa in Macedonia? Where should I say I’m heading on my registration paper?) is desperately needed by refugees. But this information is constantly changing – often by the minute. TWB is working closely with our partners to make sure information disseminated online and throughout humanitarian networks is rapidly translated so that refugees can make informed choices.
Fortunately, my conversations on Lesbos don’t end in disappointment. The immediate need for language skills that makes both me and the person I’m talking to wish I was indeed a translator, is only the most obvious manifestation of the communication challenges of this crisis. When I explain what Translators without Borders is doing to take the pressure off interpreters on the ground, to supply diverse language skills, to communicate with host communities, to produce professional, high-quality content, and provide rapid translation in a constantly changing environment – the disappointment invariably turns to comprehension and then, cooperation. In this crisis, the immediate demand will remain, but a more context-specific and sustainable response will best meet the communication challenges of a crisis that shows no sign of ending any time soon. And that’s how we provide the best possible translation support.
By Lali Foster, former Communications Manger for the European refugee crisis response