The Silver Lining – Education brings hope during a refugee crisis

There is a lot of despair and pain radiating from the refugee camps in and around the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. Physical pain from disease and injury, coupled with a lack of food, are constant issues for the Rohingya refugees in the camps. The mental anguish is much greater. Loss of family to violence, loss of homes and crops, and an ongoing feeling of degradation and violation of rights – this anguish lives with every refugee, every day.

And yet, while walking through camps, meeting with responders and activists throughout Cox’s Bazar, there was also a thin yet constant thread of hope. Would it be possible, now that the refugees are relatively safe, in camps run by Bangladesh and the international community, to truly educate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children, giving them a future they could not have previously imagined?

Educating an illiterate population

The new influx of more than 600,000 refugees to Bangladesh includes a large number of school-age children. According to Save the Children over 60 percent of the new refugees are children. These numbers could increase as even more refugees are expected to cross the border by the end of the year. UNICEF estimates that more than 450,000 Rohingya children aged 4-18 years old are in need of education services. That includes those who have been in the camps for longer periods [source: Reliefweb].

Evidence indicates that a very large number of the children, as well as the adults, are illiterate. In fact, in a rapid survey conducted by the TWB team in October with Rohingya refugees, 73 percent of respondents self-reported to be illiterate. This illiteracy is limiting the children’s ability to be further educated and to demand their human rights.

Evidence also indicates that when education is made available, literacy rates increase. In fact, in the study TWB completed last month, it was clear that refugees who have been in Bangladesh longer show higher levels of literacy than those who had more recently-arrived.  While not easy to obtain, education is more readily available in the established camps than it was in Myanmar where twin restrictions against movement between villages and education above primary level severely limited access to education. When our team tested populations who have been in Cox’s Bazar since prior to August 2017, comprehension rates improved across the board.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of children together in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, is this an opportunity to offer them education and a future?

Unfortunately, though, the language of instruction will be unfamiliar to the Rohingya children. Currently, a number of organizations are looking to set up learning centers in the camps. The goal is to give the refugee children at least two hours of education a day, beginning in January. Yet the official curriculum that the government of Bangladesh has approved does not include mother tongue education, and the teachers who are being hired will teach in Bangla and Burmese, two languages that the children do not read or speak.

Why mother tongue education matters

A wealth of experience and evidence over the last 50 years has proven that children learn better when they are taught in their mother tongue language. We also know that countries do better when their children are educated well. Evidence from a project that Save the Children has implemented in Thailand focusing on mother tongue education for Rohingya children, shows that learning a second language, English or Thai, is difficult when children do not understand the language of instruction. This undermines children’s ability to participate and invest in their education, despite their motivation [source: Save the Children].

But the issues with mother tongue education for the Rohingya children are deeper, because their mother tongue, Rohingya Zuban, is largely oral. The illiterate community speaks it fluently but does not generally have a means for written communication, through their mother tongue. Interesting work is already being done to establish a written form of Rohingya Zuban. A script was developed decades ago, and has been taught within the established camps and throughout areas of Bangladesh and Malaysia. The teaching is generally ‘under the radar’ of even informal education centers, and the materials used are handwritten, as unicoding of the language, is not complete. But even so, there is a major desire among the children and adults in the established camps to learn the written form; estimates put the number who have learned some of it at 10,000. Even more encouraging is the excitement generated among the students when they do have the opportunity to learn it – there is a true sense of the empowerment and identity that learning to read their own language gives them.

This initial mother tongue education work is unknown to most international agencies setting up learning centers, and its potential is unexplored. TWB is working with these agencies, as well as local organizations, international organizations specializing in mother tongue education and hopefully, the Bangladesh government, to include mother tongue tools in the curriculum. Teaching aids in Rohingya Zuban, mobile and online tools in unicoded Rohingya Zuban, and printed Rohingya Zuban early readers would all make a difference.


Now, back home and separated from the daily grind of the response by miles and time, I have reflected on that seed of hope that is education, and started to figure out how TWB can contribute to its growth. I believe TWB can make the greatest impact, by including mother tongue teaching and learning aids into the education programs being developed for Rohingya children.

The Rohingya refugee crisis offers the potential to educate hundreds of thousands of illiterate children, eager to learn, in their mother tongue. I hope we can make it happen.

Please follow this link to support TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Deputy Director and Head of Innovation at Translators without Borders.

Putting language on the map in Nigeria

Without data on the languages of affected people, humanitarian organizations are ill-equipped to communicate with them effectively. In May of this year, Translators without Borders (TWB) started trying to better understand what data is available regarding the language preferences of populations affected by humanitarian crises. The short answer is that there isn’t much. In September 2017 we published a report highlighting the major gaps in data regarding what languages migrants and refugees arriving in Europe speak. The report also describes the difficulties organizations have in providing information in the appropriate languages. Around the same time, we began a similar research initiative in Nigeria.

In June 2017, TWB worked with the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix team to add language -related questions to their ongoing data collection efforts with internally displaced people in four conflict-affected states in north east Nigeria: Yobe, Gombe, Adamawa, and Borno. This was the first time any routine language data collection had been done in the current response. There are over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. For humanitarian organizations working in the north east, this diversity of language is an incredible challenge. Organizations report difficulties in knowing what language pairs they should recruit interpreters in, in designing communication materials that use the most appropriate languages, or in understanding what formats are most effective. One of the main reasons for these difficulties is that they do not know what languages their intended audience speaks, or to what extent they understand various lingua francas such as Hausa. As one NGO staff member in Maiduguri explained, “In a focus group discussion, we may hear that somebody only speaks Marghi, but then we have no way to respond to them.”

IOM’s DTM team gathered input from key community members to identify sites where language was a major barrier to effective aid delivery.

Following this, we worked with a team at Map Action who designed a web map to help visualize some of these geospatial patterns and trends. We combined this map with qualitative and quantitative comprehension research that we conducted in partnership with Oxfam and Girl Effect. The combined findings gave a clearer picture of the language landscape for humanitarian responders. We have summarized the findings in an interactive storymap - see below or click here for a full-screen version

By Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager at Translators without Borders.

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

When crisis hits – communication is key

Deployed for the first time in 2015 to respond to the refugee crisis in Greece, the Translators without Borders Arabic Rapid Response Team (RRT) counts over 80 volunteers. From their homes around the world, equipped with an internet connection and a Skype account, the will to help others and language skills, these volunteers bring vital information to thousands of refugees and migrants in Greece, in a language they understand.

‘If people cannot understand each other, there will be a barrier that not only makes it difficult to communicate but also makes it difficult to trust each other’

Muhannad Al-Bayk, a graduate of and now teacher at the University of Aleppo, joined the Arabic RRT in early 2017. Since then, he has been lending his valuable translation skills to TWB partners such as RefuComm, Internews, and the British Red Cross, while juggling his studies and teaching responsibilities.

Having volunteered over 50 translation hours as part of TWB’s response to the refugee crisis in Greece, we were keen to catch up with Muhannad to find out why he decided to join TWB and what motivates him to be involved in this response. Muhannad starts by telling us, ‘I wanted to find a way to give to others who hadn’t been as lucky in life as I have. While researching how to help, I stumbled upon TWB which seemed like a perfect match for my skill set.’

Muhannad’s tasks as an Arabic RRT translator are varied. In addition to translating and editing files using TWB’s translation platform Kató, he also helps develop glossaries, format documents, and other technical tasks. His translation content has also been quite diverse – from translating articles for “News that Moves,” an online information source for refugees and migrants in Greece, to flyers to direct people affected by the Grenfell fires in London, to a helpline. Muhannad believes that these projects are truly helpful ‘because they are timely for the target audience. Being able to read about things as they happen helps people understand what is going on and makes them feel less lost and more involved in their situation.’

‘Working as a volunteer has been an invaluable experience. I’m constantly tackling new issues and learning new things. Meeting a lovely new group of professional people is a bonus. It also taught me to be more committed to timelines, since RRT work relies on fast turnaround times.’

Why language matters in a crisis

The dedicated volunteer wraps up our interview telling us, ‘It is hard to put one’s life in the hands of someone you do not even understand. Therefore, language is key during times of crisis. [Language] connects hearts and minds, it is the primary means of communication’.


Click here to read the stories of other TWB Rapid Response translators.

By Angela Eldering, TWB Volunteer 

 

Bringing down the language barriers in Nigeria

In November 2014, when Boko Haram forces occupied the north-eastern Nigerian border town of Damasak, in Borno State, the population fled north into Niger. Two years later, after the Nigerian army retook much of Damasak, thousands of people returned. They found homes destroyed and the hospital stripped of beds and supplies. Many had lost family members; many had witnessed or been subjected to physical and sexual violence by armed men on all sides of the conflict.

Earlier this year, an inter-agency team went to Damasak to assess humanitarian needs. One aim was to find out whether women and girls were experiencing violence or exploitation, but with no one on the team who spoke the women’s language, Kanuri, they could find only a male soldier from the local barracks to help them communicate. Unsurprisingly, the women claimed to have no protection concerns.[1]

It was a stark example of what can happen when humanitarians cannot communicate in the language of the people they are trying to help. Yet a recent assessment by Translators without Borders (TWB) suggests such challenges are common in north-eastern Nigeria.

All the operational organizations interviewed by TWB in Borno State said language barriers hamper their efforts to understand and respond to the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) and others affected by conflict and hunger. With 28 first languages spoken in Borno alone and low levels of education and literacy across the wider area affected, aid organizations struggle to recruit staff with the right combination of language skills and technical ability. Professional translators and interpreters are in short supply, particularly for languages other than the regional lingua franca, Hausa, so communication materials and program documentation tend to be available only in English, often in Hausa, and sometimes Kanuri.

As a result, humanitarians interviewed from six program sectors feared they lacked a full picture of needs and priorities across the target population, as speakers of minority languages risked going unheard. Without the right languages, ‘We can talk to the host communities, but not the IDPs.’

They also described challenges with providing assistance: Was information about the services available getting through? Were mine awareness communications understood, or were the various explosive remnants of war all being translated as ‘bomb,’ without the distinctions that determine how to stay safe? In short, how much was being lost in translation?

Despite lacking even basic data on the languages of affected people, organizations find ways around the language barriers. Some work through three informal interpreters in succession to communicate with affected people. Some have documents laboriously translated back into English to check their accuracy. Some provide non-professional interpreters for minority-language speakers so they can take part in training sessions.

All those we spoke to knew it was not enough.

Happily, solutions are available. Simple means of mapping the languages of affected people can provide humanitarians with a basis for planning communication. TWB has the expertise to work with subject specialists and language professionals to develop a library of multilingual humanitarian materials everyone can use and train translators and interpreters for minority languages. A protection glossary app designed by TWB’s Head of Technology, Mirko Plitt, has already proved popular and expansion is planned.

Together we can bring down the language barriers that impede recovery for affected people in Nigeria, now and for future emergencies.

Glossary
An example of the TWB Protection Glossary App
By Ellie Kemp, Translators without Borders Head of Crisis Response

We can be heroes!

“It is very nice being a small part of TWB’s humanitarian efforts worldwide.”

The skills that Jacek Sierakowski, MD,  brings to Translators without Borders (TWB) are invaluable. Since he first became involved with TWB in 2010 as an English to French translator, he has contributed over 500,000 words of translation – an extraordinary achievement and a significant contribution to TWB’s mission to increase access to information to more vulnerable people in the world. In the true spirit of volunteerism, Jacek has generously and freely lent his medical and language expertise to TWB since 2010. In early 2017, he was awarded the TWB Access to Knowledge ‘Empowerment’ Award in recognition of his significant contribution to training new translators in Guinea.

A special affection for Africa

Jacek explains that he grew up in Africa and had always intended to return to work there when he finished his medical training. This didn’t happen, but he maintained his deep interest in the continent and has been able to contribute his medical expertise through his translation work with TWB, which has been remarkably varied.  

One significant project was during the Ebola crisis in West Africa (2014 – 15). Dr. Sierakowski’s work translating research about the Ebola vaccine, and educational material about the virus for the World Health Organization, was a crucial contribution to the response. Given the dearth of information in local languages in West Africa at the time of the outbreak when more than 11,000 people died, and nearly 29,000 were infected, getting information translated into French which could then be translated into local languages, was very important to the response. Jacek has also translated information on yellow fever, the plague, and other diseases, in addition to presentations about medical care in Haiti, and medical advice for African health workers and parents.  

The mentoring work Jacek did for the training of translators in Guinea was particularly significant for him. The new translators were mentored by professional translators as they translated valuable health information for frontline health care workers in Guinea. Jacek found it very satisfying to be able to share his experiences with younger generations.  Jacek explains, “I am approaching the end of my career, but I want to stay active and involved. Working with TWB seems like a good, stress-free, and useful option. I’m impressed by the organization’s rapid responses to humanitarian emergencies. The project managers are friendly and helpful, and there is no competition. It is a pleasant change from my day job.

Meaningful work

Living in Belgium and holding a medical license, Jacek started translating in 1975 as a young doctor when he had ‘few patients and a lot of free time.’ He says that he progressively self-proclaimed himself a medical translator-writer (translating into and writing in French), and has been doing this full-time since 2002.

When I asked Jacek about how, as a translator, he thinks language plays a role in humanitarian response, he answered thoughtfully: “Thinking about it, translators play a not insignificant role in humanitarian aid, whether it is translating into a traditionally more well-resourced  language, like French, to foster wider understanding, or into a local language to reach out to the vast majority of patients and care providers. Unfortunately, my Swahili, Kikongo, and Lingala are rusty, but I can pass the baton to my French-speaking colleagues on the ground in countries where they speak those languages.”

On being a volunteer

By any measure, the amount of volunteering Jacek has provided to TWB is enormous and it sets him as one of the highest-performing TWB translators in terms of words translated. On that note, he had some advice for other volunteers: “If I were to offer advice to other volunteers on how to balance a day job and volunteer work so as to make volunteering sustainable and successful, I would say that, except in urgent situations, TWB deadlines are reasonable, comfortable and flexible; it is not a problem to combine the two.” And, of course, there are the lighter moments: “It may sound silly; one of my fondest memories came at a TWB video conference on the HEAT Guinea project when I could hear roosters crowing in the background. It vividly reminded me of my youth in Africa!

Thanks, Jacek, for your dedication to the TWB mission; your work has benefitted countless people.


Click here to become a TWB volunteer translator.

Blog AuthorBy Sarah Powell, Translators without Borders volunteer

This is no ordinary translation; this can save lives.

FOLLOW US ON OUR JOURNEY TO SCALE UP REMOTE CRISIS RESPONSE LANGUAGE SERVICES. 

Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe need clear information they can understand at every point in their journey. They need it in order to move, to find their way through complex asylum procedures, and to keep themselves and their families safe. However, in the ever-changing, often chaotic situation that many of them endure, information can come in many forms. It can be unreliable, incomplete, in the wrong language, or just plain untrue. Crisis responders for their part face the challenge of operating in an environment where people are often mobile, under intense pressure, and unlikely to be able to communicate their needs effectively.   

As one of three teams selected by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) for support to scale up a humanitarian innovation, the TWB Words of Relief team is using this opportunity to improve how we provide remote language services to vulnerable people affected by a crisis. Join the team as they document their challenging and exciting journey to tackle the communication challenges that hinder relief efforts, by developing new tools and approaches. 

This first vlog gives a behind-the-scenes look at how remote crisis translation works, and includes demos of TWB’s translation platform and glossary app. The app, which was developed specifically with humanitarian responders and field workers in Greece in mind, is a collection of open-source glossaries in the languages of the refugee and migrant populations in Greece. The translation platform uses language technology to lend speed and consistency to efforts to relay vital information to those groups in their own language. These innovative tools open up new opportunities for communication in a crisis that is unique for the linguistic and demographic mix that exists within the host community, the responders and the people directly affected.

This video is available with subtitles in Spanish, French, Greek, German and Italian (just click the ‘CC’ button bottom right of the screen to choose your language). The video was realized with the support of Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), with the financing of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is the first TWB vlog. Follow us on our #JourneyToScale.

Translators without Borders has developed more tools and services to support responders to communicate better in difficult crisis settings. Click here to see the TWB language fact sheets, interpreter toolkit, and more.


About Words of Relief

The Translators without Borders Words of Relief program is the first rapid response translation service aimed at improving communication between crisis-affected communities and humanitarian responders, so that life-saving and life-changing information is not lost in translation. By training translators and interpreters, translating and disseminating critical messages in crisis-inclined countries, building a spider network of translators to assist in time of need, and developing new language technology tools, TWB intends to close the language gaps that hinder critical humanitarian efforts.

The Words of Relief program has been deployed to help victims of several crises worldwide, including the Ebola emergency in West Africa and the Nepal earthquake. Rapid Response Teams in Arabic, Farsi, Greek, Kurdish and Urdu are currently providing immediate, high-quality translations for aid organizations along the refugee route in Europe.

What you didn’t know about languages that matter in the European refugee crisis

In April 2017, Translators without Borders carried out a study to analyze what might be causing the language and communication barriers that exist in the context of the ongoing humanitarian migration crisis in Greece. A striking feature of this crisis is the wide range of languages and ethnicities involved. Approximately 95 percent of the refugees and migrants who arrived in Greece in 2015 and 2016 came from seven countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Algeria. They represent the diversity of ethnic groups in those countries and speak an array of languages and dialects.

Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Kurmanji, and Sorani speaking migrants were interviewed about how they access important information such as where to access medical care and asylum procedures. 88 per cent of respondents said that they preferred to receive information in their mother tongue. However, humanitarian aid workers are not always fully equipped to deal with the language complexities that characterize this crisis. Following the research, it was clear that humanitarian workers didn’t always know what languages they were serving, and didn’t always know which languages could be understood by whom. Knowledge of the languages spoken by migrants from different countries can present a major obstacle to the effectiveness of their work and hence, the effectiveness of the response.

Translators without Borders has created detailed language fact sheets to be used as a resource by aid workers in Greece with information on Arabic, Dari and Farsi, and Kurdish dialects – the languages spoken by the majority of refugees and migrants in Greece.  

Thanks to the help of TWB translators, the language sheets are now available as free resources in English, Greek, and Italian on the TWB website.

Cover image by Karim Kai Ani.

test your knowledge

How much do you know about the languages spoken by the refugee population in Greece? 

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What is the written form of Arabic called?

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What is the official language of Iran?

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Dari and Farsi are very different when written down, but very similar when spoken

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Amiyya, or spoken Arabic, is the same in every country where it is used

Correct! Wrong!

Where is Sorani spoken?

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Know the languages of refugees and migrants in Greece
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Take a look at the TWB language factsheets to learn more about Arabic, Farsi, Dari and the Kurdish dialects.

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Arabic Factsheet           Dari and Farsi Factsheet           Kurdish Factsheet

 


 

About TWB Words of Relief

Translators without Borders started responding to the European refugee crisis in 2015, providing much-needed language services such as the rapid translation of content for partners working in the response; training for humanitarians, translators and interpreters (professional and aspiring); setting up a language working group; establishing a humanitarian interpreter roster; and, conducting research on language and comprehension. TWB’s Words of Relief service continues to operate in Greece today. For more information and to volunteer or donate, please visit the TWB website or follow us on Twitter at @TranslatorsWB and Facebook

The voice of the vulnerable: A special kind of courage

Celebrating the humanitarian interpreter on World Refugee Day

Imagine it is your sole responsibility to ensure that a vulnerable person’s voice is heard and understood. A refugee who has seen more than you can imagine. A refugee who may need to go to the hospital or an asylum interview, or a therapy session. You are not a doctor, a lawyer or a psychologist. You are the voice. You are the interpreter!

Interpreters for refugees are taught to be the invisible voice – accurately portray the meaning of each person’s words to the other party without interpretation or added commentary.

Simple, right? Not at all.

I had finished interpreting half of an especially intense therapy session with a Syrian refugee mother of three. It was probably the third session of the day – a very long day of concentration and sorrow. I was sitting in the bathroom wiping my tears, trying to find the strength to go back inside and finish the session.

refugee day mother daughter
Refugee Processing Center. Image by Karim Kai Ani @karimkai

She was a Syrian mother of two girls and a boy, who had managed to reach Greece with the help of a smuggler.  I will call her Amal, which means hope in Arabic (her real name is protected). She entered the clinic very stressed, asking to see a psychologist right away. In her arms, she carried one of her daughters, burns covering her face and head. Amal frantically explained in Arabic that a missile fell right on top of their house, destroying her little daughter’s room, burning her entire face and hair. I interpreted as quickly as I could, my eyes fixed on the little girl’s sad face. I struggled to focus on her mother’s words.

Amal continued. Shortly after the bomb hit their home, Amal and her husband felt they needed to act. Their daughter’s pain broke their hearts. “I just wanted to brush her hair again. It had all been burnt away,” Amal explained to me.

Her husband decided to smuggle himself into Europe to find a country that could offer his daughter surgery. Amal was left with three kids all on her own. She spoke of her fear, worrying every day that another missile would hit their home and kill them. She told me that she did not sleep for days, wondering what she would do if it happened again. She wept and shouted.

“I have only two arms….I can run and save only two. Which one would I have to leave behind?”

I paused. I tried to interpret her sentence, but the words would not come out. As a mother of two myself, I suddenly couldn’t be the invisible interpreter just relaying the story. My eyes welled up;  I felt I needed to hug her, tell her how sorry I was that she had to go through this, but, of course, that is not allowed. I didn’t want her to see me cry – and I must maintain my professionalism. I asked to be excused by the psychologist; she nodded right away. And then there I was, in that bathroom bursting with tears. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to go back in again. But I thought of Amal, desperate to feel relieved from her pain. I thought to myself that I had to find a way to make myself invisible or to imagine myself as a machine that merely translates words, not traumas or feelings. So I entered the room and returned to my work.

A few months later Amal was reunited with her husband in Germany. I still wonder what happened to Amal and her family. Were they finally able to do that surgery? How is their life there? I will never find out, I guess….


refugee day
Ferry, Lesvos to Athens. Image by Karim Kai Ani. @karimkai

Today on World Refugee Day we recognize and remember that refugees need more than just food and shelter. In a world where, every day, people are forced to leave their homes behind, we must remember that they need support at the right time, in the right language and from someone they feel they can trust. The importance of professional interpreting must not be overlooked. Interpreters need strong language skills, to convey meaning between very different languages. But, just as importantly, they must also be trained to work in highly stressful and emotional settings. They must be the voice for refugees while remaining detached and professional. They will encounter harrowing stories of death, sickness, and assault – and then go back the next day and hear more. They must avoid ethical breaches and protect the vulnerable. I am proud to be a humanitarian interpreter and to be part of the TWB team who developed this important Guide to Humanitarian Interpreting to support humanitarian field managers, interpreters and cultural mediators in their daily interactions and responsibilities. Language Matters!

Donate now and help us train humanitarian interpreters


This blog post is also available in the following languages: 

Italiano   Ελληνικά   Français   Español   العربية

Blog author refugee dayJulie Jalloul, Translators without Borders Project Officer, is a humanitarian interpreter. Currently, she works with the TWB Words of Relief crisis response team, focused on the European refugee crisis response, developing open source tools to guide and train interpreters on working in humanitarian settings. 

The TWB translator community survey results are out!

Translators without Borders (TWB) recently carried out a survey of our translator community. The survey received 168 responses, and it gave some valuable insights into the experiences of volunteer translators and what motivates them as a community.

We have highlighted here five of the most interesting findings from the survey.

1. our translators are mostly motivated by helping others.

An overwhelming majority (97%) of translators said they volunteer because they like helping others and contributing to a good cause.

While career development, increased professional visibility, and interesting projects were also mentioned as some of the benefits of volunteering with TWB, our volunteer community is primarily driven by the desire to help people in need and work for humanitarian causes.

“Recognition is always nice. However, I really don’t need any more incentives. I’m motivated by something which has nothing to do with rewards.”

2. our translators are embracing technology.

Nearly 40% of respondents have had the opportunity to work on Kató, the new and improved  TWB translation platform that enables online collaboration and allows translators to use translation memory and glossary tools.

Most of our translators are familiar with Computer-Assisted Translation tools and use them in their work. This has produced some discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of translation technology.

According to our translators, the top advantages of doing work on an online platform are:

  • better quality and consistency
  • easier collaboration and sharing
  • the use of translation memory and glossaries
  • better translation workflow
survey of translator community
The advantages of Computer-Assisted Translation tools according to TWB volunteers

Some of the downsides include translators’ preference to use their own tools while working, specific technical requirements (such as using a particular browser for translation), and the need to have online connectivity to do work.

Generally TWB translators are open to trying new tools and approaches in their work and have also been very generous with providing suggestions and feedback on these tools.

3. our translators are open to collaboration on projects.

Translation is often seen as a solitary endeavor, although modern technology may be changing that. In fact, many of our volunteers expressed interest in online collaboration, citing the following reasons as the top advantages of working together as translators:

survey of translator community
The top advantages of online collaboration

4. TWB volunteers care DEEPLY about translation quality.

Many of the responses from our translators focused on ensuring good translation quality, whether through proofreading, feedback, or consistency checks.

This shows that our translators care a lot about the quality of their work and are proactively looking to improve it. In fact, over half of our translators said that receiving translation feedback and corrections from colleagues is important to them.

We recognize that comments from colleagues are particularly valuable to translators. Not only can this be a good source of specific, positive feedback (“Please keep doing what you’re doing, it’s great!”), but it also provides opportunities for growth and improvement (“Here is what you can do even better”).

We are looking for ways to provide regular feedback to our translators and will be sure to incorporate the suggestions of our volunteers about quality and collaboration into our new initiatives.

5. We heard your feedback!

Many of our translators said they appreciate recognition for their work, be it a word of thanks from the partners, visibility of how their translations are benefiting others, or, occasionally, acknowledgment in the form of recommendations or endorsements.

Recognizing this, we encourage our non-profit partners to leave feedback for translators as much as possible, and we are also looking for other ways to recognize the efforts of our volunteer translators, such as through translator appreciation initiatives and by featuring translators in our Volunteer Profiles on the TWB website.

We will continue using the feedback from this survey as we develop our translator community initiatives. It is important to us that our translators feel engaged and appreciated, and that they see Translators without Borders as a source of meaningful, interesting work.

Please stay tuned for more updates about our volunteer translator community. If you are a translator, we would encourage you to join our TWB Translator Volunteers Facebook private group, and if you would like to give us specific feedback or ask a question, you can always write to [email protected]

Until next time!


Apply here to become a TWB volunteer

Marina KhoninaBy Marina Khonina, Translation Quality and Community Manager