At Translators without Borders (TWB), we believe that language is an important demonstration of culture. As an organization, we encourage and celebrate cultural diversity. In fact, the TWB team comes from 17 different countries and speaks a total of 24 languages.* That is an average of 3.5 languages per person!(3.5 each on average).
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
Alaa Amro is Palestinian. She has grown up among Palestinian refugees and the aid workers that support and help them.* Alaa has a deep empathy for people displaced by conflict and is strongly driven to support them.
In 2016, Alaa came across the Translators without Borders (TWB) website, where she learned that she could develop her skills through volunteering. So she became a member of TWB’s European refugee crisis Rapid Response Team (RRT), translating and editing articles from English into Arabic.
As a linguist, Alaa understands that communication barriers add to the chaos faced by displaced people. “Most of the refugees who are coming from Syria speak Arabic language and [few of them] know English.” Alaa believes that having information in a language they understand is essential to refugees, empowering them to feel more in control of their own future.
“At any time of day there are a lot of articles that need to be translated,” says Alaa, “and I have free time to help.” She has translated articles about the refugee crisis from international media outlets, in addition to practical information such as weather reports and directions to key locations.
remote translation platform
TWB’s remote translation platform is a useful tool for her as a translator. “It is easy to work with the RRT because I can do the translations directly [online].” So although Alaa lives far from the European refugees she is helping, she can still support them. The most satisfying translations, she says, have been the Rumors” responses which TWB translates on behalf of partner Internews. This involves translating objective, informed responses to rumors that aid workers hear during their daily activities on the migration route. Internews publishes and distributes responses in several languages. Correcting misconceptions and providing accurate information for refugees is an important part of reassuring them and reducing the stress that they suffer. Alaa also translates local, European and international media articles into Arabic, giving refugees access to a wider range of news and opinions.
“A lot of refugees panic because they have been displaced so it is very important for them to understand directions to places they need to go for help, the weather forecast and other practical information”
I have to help
Alaa hopes that the translations she contributes can help to reduce that sense of panic by providing practical information in a language familiar to the refugees.
“I know that many people are helping refugees, and Translator without Borders gives me the chance to help too. Moreover, I am a Palestinian girl who is familiar with refugee suffering. I believe that… I have to help.”
Currently a sociology student at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, Alaa is trying to improve her language and translation skills so that she can participate in more youth activities promoting peace, human rights and tolerance of difference.
* Some five million Palestinians are registered to receive support from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which operates 58 camps in the region.
By Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer
Today Zahlé is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. They have fled the violence of civil war, and now they live in refugee camps and squalid accommodation throughout the city. For many refugees, the written word can be the difference between life and death, hope, and despair. They are desperate for information that will help them understand their options for creating a better future for themselves and their families.
Providing vital information
Zahlé is also home to Alain Alameddine, a volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB). As a translator, Alain understands, perhaps more than most people, that the written word can be particularly powerful and beautiful for refugees. As a member of the TWB Rapid Response Team, he works with aid agencies to translate content from English into Arabic on a weekly (and sometimes even daily) basis, to provide vital information to refugees in languages they can understand.
“Most Syrian refugees only speak Arabic, and so they are often at a loss as to what to do with the information that is available to them, for the simple reason that it is in a language they do not understand,” he explains.
“A quick translation can make a huge difference”
In addition to Alain’s work as a translator, he is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Through his voluntary ministry, he has brought a listening ear and words of comfort to refugees since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. “We’ve noticed first-hand that a listening ear is no less important than food and shelter,” Alain says. He often shares the Old Testament words of Isaiah with refugees he visits, Alain quotes ’we are pained, God is pained’.
One of Alain’s most frequently shared Bible quotes is one written on the Isaiah Wall near the United Nations in New York. It refers to a day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. We can only begin to imagine what those words mean to people who have fled violent conflict and persecution.
Giving new hope
In his work with refugees, Alain sees that words like these give refugees hope that things will change for the better. He has also gained new insights into himself and the world. “I am now more aware of the trials refugees face, the doubts and fears they might have, and the ways they can react to them,” he tells us. “As a translator, I am also now more aware of the importance of talking, writing and translating in a style that is easy to understand rather than using technical or pompous language.”
It seems that in Alain Alameddine, the city of Zahlé has produced yet another man who understands the power and beauty of the written word, and who is willing to use it to help people in need.
Inspired by the pain and suffering prevailing in many parts of the world, Ali Bai looked for an opportunity to help others. He had the feeling that he should do something – anything – to help the refugees he saw every day on television. However, he also felt that government assistance in emergency situations was too often bureaucratic and political, so he wanted to be part of a non-governmental humanitarian response. As a full-time translator and proofreader, Ali decided that Translators without Borders (TWB) was an obvious way for him to help people in need. So he joined our Rapid Response Team.
Joining the TWB Rapid Response Team
Ali has a BA in English Translation and an MA in General Linguistics, so he puts his training and translation experience to good use in TWB’s Rapid Response Translation Team (RRT). He now has the sense that he is making a timely contribution.
“Translators have to work very fast in the RRT, while also maintaining a high level of quality and accuracy,” he explains. “I am lucky to have great co-workers and the environment is really welcoming. We all are dedicated to the purpose and we help each other in translating and editing.”
Ali’s tasks include translating texts from English to his native Farsi. The volunteer work is satisfying for Ali because he knows that every translation can make a positive difference in the lives of other humans. Of course, translating good news that gives promise to refugees is his favorite type of job and always gives him the greatest satisfaction.
putting yourself In their shoes
Like many of TWB’s volunteers, Ali fits his RRT work around his full-time job and other commitments. He often imagines life as a refugee who has lost loved ones in a war, and he thinks about how it must feel to decide to then risk traveling by sea to a safer country. He imagines the devastation that refugees must feel when they finally arrive on a foreign beach, only to realize that the food and shelter they desperately need is not immediately accessible due to language barriers.
“I think providing refugees with material in their own languages not only helps them address their immediate challenges, but also makes them feel safe and that someone cares about them,” Ali says. He points out that refugees who have already experienced much pain and suffering are exposed to a kind of “second victimization” when they arrive in Europe. He asks,
“How can they make reasonable decisions without access to a familiar language?”
Ali, an Iranian, points out that his country has hosted millions of Afghan refugees over the past few decades. He is conscious of the positive impact they have had on his country’s economy.
“These fellow human beings shouldn’t be seen as a threat to the integrity of European communities,” Ali insists. “I think by accepting and welcoming refugees, Europe can make an economic opportunity out of this crisis, while making life safer for refugees. Furthermore, we should always remember that any one of us might lose our home or family; freedom and safety shouldn’t be taken for granted in our world.”
Want to volunteer?
You can apply to become a part of the TWB Rapid Response team here.
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.
“I think the world has a lot more to offer to refugees than it is currently giving them”
With a deep personal interest in human rights, politics and foreign languages, Selima ben Chagra is a freelance translator and interpreter (French-English and Arabic-English) focused on translating and transcreating advertisements and commercials.
When she heard about TWB’s European Refugee Crisis RESPONSE project…
… Selina signed up straight away. “I didn’t really think it through,” she confesses. “I just wanted to help.”“Being a refugee is disorienting enough, but when you add in the feeling of helplessness that comes from an inability to communicate, facilitating understanding becomes even more important,” she told us.
Selina earned an MA in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2015. Her experience as a translator and interpreter with the United Nations Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States inspired Selima to work in the humanitarian field. Since then her career has reflected her strong interest in international development and cooperation, and a passion for communication. Selina has spent the past fourteen years studying and working in the corporate, non-profit and inter-governmental sectors, including as a teacher of English, French and Arabic.
“Language offers both the charm of communication and the curse of ambiguity”
On an almost-daily basis, from her home in Giza in Egypt, Rawan translates media coverage of the European refugee crisis and its consequences into her native Arabic. She also provides people affected by the crisis with information on issues of more immediate relevance. In addition to things like weather forecasts, she translates information sheets that aim to clearly distinguish between truth and hearsay, and helps raise awareness of the risks of abuse by people smugglers, detention, or forced repatriation.
Rawan Gharib is a freelance translator and a creative writer, with a self-described “obsessive” hobby of music archiving. In addition to TWB, she also volunteers with Global Voices’ Lingua Project. While studying Hispanic Language and Literature at Cairo University, Rawan developed a passion for translation, and literature analysis and criticism. Her decision to get involved with TWB was intuitive, and her rationale is simple. “I’m a native Arabic speaker, a translator and a human; I felt it was my role to play.”
Rawan notes, “Language tends to be even more tricky and confusing in situations of fear or pressure. …Successful communication in such situations provides additional security, understanding and acceptance; which any refugee or immigrant needs.”
Selima and Rawan have dedicated over 50 hours each of volunteering time to Translators without Borders. If you would like to apply to become a Rapid Response translator, click here.
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