In September 2015, millions of people around the world were appalled at the image of a police officer carrying the body of two-year-old Alan Kurdi across a Turkish beach. The boy, originally from Syria, had drowned when a boat his family was travelling in from Turkey to Greece overturned, only minutes into their journey. A distraught father’s attempt to move his family from an untenable situation highlighted the urgent reality of the refugee crisis.
For many people, that photograph and the story behind it represented a turning point in their attitude to the emerging refugee crisis.
language opens doors
It was certainly a turning point for Roya Khoshnevis, who related strongly to the image. At the time, her son was a similar age to Alan and she was deeply distressed by the image and the tragic situation that it represented.
“The death of that baby boy was a big shock for me and I couldn’t stop crying when I heard the news. So I tried to find a way to help these people and their children. I wanted to help the refugees, and I found no better way than Translators without Borders, which let me support through their (Rapid Response Translation) team.”
As part of our RRT team of volunteers, Roya spends up to two hours a day translating material from English to her native Farsi. The translations are then made available to refugees after they arrive in Europe. Roya believes that language opens doors for refugees.
“Many of these refugees are ordinary people who are not able to speak any other language except their mother tongue,” she says. As translators we must help them to see the world through their language,”
“As translators we must help them to see the world through their language. Language can open doors to exhausted and hopeless people”
Asked about her most satisfying translation experiences, Roya notes that any translation that does not carry bad news is satisfying. She loves helping people receive the news that their families were rescued at sea, or reunited with loved ones.
Roya has lived her whole life in Mashhad, Iran. She studied English translation and works as an English teacher and freelance translator. She works a lot with children and young adults, and has a particular interest in translating children’s stories.
volunteering from a distance
As well as working as a teacher, translator and RRT volunteer, Roya is kept extra busy as the mother of a three-year-old boy. Because the RRT work is done via an online platform, volunteers contribute remotely, and at a time that best suits them. With a life as full as Roya’s, this gives important flexibility. Somehow, Roya still finds time to travel, watch movies and read books that help her to learn about different cultures and countries. Fascinated by languages, Roya studies a new one whenever she has a chance.
Do you want to help open doors? Apply to join the TWB Rapid Response Team on the TWB website.
By Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer
“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.
More than 1 million migrants came to Europe in 2015, mostly from Syria but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea, amongst other countries. The majority arrived by sea with many experiencing traumatic journeys. Reception centers struggled to cope with the linguistic barriers, complicating efforts to help those seeking a safe haven. To help address this problem, Translators without Borders (TWB) is playing a significant role in the provision of translators and interpreters one of whom is Farideh Colthart, a native Farsi speaker with a professional background as an osteopath. Farideh’s medical expertise and legal knowledge mean that she has an invaluable skillset and can act as a link between asylum seekers and aid workers.
Helping refugees understand
Farideh is a regular visitor to Greece’s refugee camps in and around Athens. She explains, “Asylum seekers can be disorientated by an alien environment. They don’t understand the local language and are confused about how things work. Many cannot read or write, which makes things even more difficult. This can also be said for communication with people who speak dialects that Farsi- and Dari- speakers cannot understand. In these cases we have to seek help from others to interpret for us.”
“My work is with asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iran,” she says, “aiding them to understand the asylum-seeking process. This work is immensely satisfying – particularly when I can see how I am helping make a difference. One initiative in which I was involved has proven particularly successful. This involved the design of a leaflet with a map of Athens on one side and key links on the other such as food or clothing points, showers, and medical services. The map had used words but also symbols for those who cannot read. On a subsequent visit to Athens I was able to see how helpful this was to new arrivals. It was so rewarding!“
A voice for both sides
Born in Tehran and educated in the UK, Farideh empathizes with those parachuted into a very different cultural environment. Since qualifying as an interpreter she has devoted more and more time to helping asylum seekers. She has worked for TWB since 2015 when she was introduced to the organization through a colleague. Meanwhile, regular work for the UK Home Office, local councils and other agencies means that she travels around the country to support Afghans and Iranians who already have refugee status.
“This work is immensely satisfying – particularly when I can see how I am helping to make a difference.”
Through her work, Farideh has noticed many Afghan women struggling with bringing up their children in a westernized society when their lives at home still reflect a patriarchal culture. She said it can lead to family conflicts, feelings of loss of control and social alienation. Farideh explains that she seeks to help them with their day-to-day needs, whether related to housing, children’s education or health. “I also help to run a support group for women for the Refugee Council. This encourages integration through social activities. Through my work with councils and especially with TWB, every day I see the crucially important role of communication in improving people’s lives and life chances. Language matters and I can be a voice for both sides: those who need help and those who seek to help them.”
By Sarah Powell, Translators without Borders volunteer
“The sense that people are genuinely helped by my translation makes me happy”
For more than 11 years, Bashir Baqi has translated a wide variety of texts between English and his native Farsi — from home appliance operating manuals, technical texts on philosophy, architecture, and psychology, to user interfaces, games, and Wikipedia pages. Bashir is also a freelance proof-reader and loves walking – whether by the ocean or through remote jungles.
A desire to help others
For the last few months, Bashir has donated up to twenty hours each week to the TWB European Refugee Crisis response project. He is driven by a desire to help other humans in the best way he can: giving them information in a language they understand. “The sense that people are genuinely helped by my translations makes me happy, and I wish I could do more,” he said. “Being able to do it as a volunteer, without egotism or obligation, gives me a positive feeling, and I would surely encourage other translators to try it too.”
Bashir holds a Masters of Arts in Translation Studies from Iran’s Birjand University and a diploma in English from the Iran Language Institute. His clients have included the Iranian Ministry of Science, the Iranian police department, and various publishing companies.
“I could see the pain of those who couldn’t communicate”
Omid Xadem, a Farsi-Dari-Tajik Persian linguist and researcher, is a member of the TWB Rapid Response Team in Europe. The current refugee situation is particularly personal for him. Omid traveled across Turkey for two months and kept seeing the same picture: refugee children working in shops, but unable to communicate. “In Konya, a city that is hosting a great number of Syrian refugees, I saw a little girl selling some handkerchiefs and other trinkets. She had nowhere to go, she didn’t seem to belong to anyone and she only spoke Arabic. I could see that she wanted help and to keep her dignity by working. And it really moved me,” relates Omid.
Omid joined TWB when the organization started looking for Farsi speakers for its Words of Relief program. With rich experience in translating and interpreting, Omid is working with the team on voice-over recordings, radio messages, written texts, reviews, and quality assurance. Materials that the team produces have very practical uses: updating refugees on the situation at the borders or about any impending complications, such as ferry strikes, informing them how to register and directing them to the right people – if they need a doctor or have lost their luggage, for example. Omid explains his work very simply: “lots of people on the ground are also volunteers. We are trying to make it easier for them to communicate with the refugees.”
INTERESTED IN VolunteerING
Bashir and Omid 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.
Since November 2015, as part of our response to the European refugee crisis, Translators without Borders has translated over 100,000 words of critical information into main refugee languages. We have reached tens of thousands of refugees on their journey from the Greek islands and along the ‘Balkan route’ and we have engaged over 100 professionals and volunteer translators for our Words of Relief European refugee response program.
Meet Translators without Borders at the following upcoming events:
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