By Lali Foster, Communications Manager European refugee crisis response
One of the things I love about my job here in Greece is that I get to meet the dedicated people who are deployed to TWB’s Humanitarian Interpreter Roster. Since TWB started deploying interpreters to work with our partner organizations in Greece in July, I have had the opportunity to meet them before, during and after their assignments. They tell me about their experiences on the ground and how they feel their work meets, or falls short of meeting, the needs of refugees.
I first meet Ada in Athens in August, newly arrived and very eager to start her deployment with Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World). Having first learned Farsi as a second language at university in her native Poland, Ada’s many years of work in Afghanistan developed her fluency in Dari – the dialect of Farsi spoken there. Female Dari-English interpreters have been difficult to recruit throughout this crisis response, but they are crucial for partners delivering medical services. Like female patients all over the world, many refugee women only feel comfortable with females in the consulting room.
After a brief orientation in Athens, Médecins du Monde sent Ada where they needed her most – to a mobile clinic servicing camps of Afghan refugees in western Greece. Ada tells me that the absence of a Dari speaker had created a backlog of patients at the camps: “As soon as refugees heard that a Dari interpreter was here, they came to the doctor.” Many of the patients Ada interprets for are children – not surprising given UNHCR estimates that 28% of refugees currently in Greece are children. Earlier this month she told me: “Today I was called to the hospital by another organization. The childhad a very rare disease, and they wanted me there because I knew this child’s case.” Unlike earlier in the crisis, when the refugee population was largely transitory, working with static communities means that interpreters have the chance to build trust and bring individual case knowledge to their work: “I told them that, of course, I could go.”
Refugee camps in Greece often occupy abandoned factories and military sites. Vasilika camp in northern Greece sits within a gloomy old warehouse. Photo by Fotomovimiento, reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Ada is not the only interpreter working to break down language barriers to public service provision here. Among the most challenging language barriers for refugees in Greece nowadays – be they stranded or struggling to integrate in Greece – are those faced when accessing public services. Health and asylum services present obvious challenges, but social services, such as the tax office (where refugees must go to obtain a tax number in order to work legally), are also operated entirely in Greek. Anyone who has tried to access and make sense of tax paperwork in their own language can only guess how impossible it must seem to someone struggling in a foreign language. And yet these steps are necessary to access essential services and enjoy basic rights as a refugee here in Greece. The fact that the Greek public sector is simply not equipped to place an interpreter at key points of access, means that humanitarian interpreters are needed to fill the gap.
I catch Rahim on Skype a few days after his return home to Cardiff, Wales. He’s already back at university after a month-long deployment with Médecins du Monde in central Greece. An Arabic-English interpreter, Rahim joined the TWB roster to do humanitarian work during his university breaks. I ask him if he’s exhausted: “Not really” he says with that calm, unflappable manner I’ve come to associate with interpreters, “I didn’t go for a holiday”. Knowing he spent most of his deployment at a camp with notoriously bad conditions, I ask how he felt when he saw it for the first time: “I’d seen refugee camps before so it didn’t surprise me, it was just sad.” Like Ada, Rahim also worked as part of a mobile medical team, splitting his time between two camps of Syrian refugees: “Patients were all ages and with a range of conditions: children, older people, pregnant women…people with chronic diseases, or problems stemming from the bad diet here. There were some really rough cases”.
In one such case, which sadly demonstrates the absolute necessity of having interpreters at hospitals, Rahim was called to a local hospital to urgently assist a Syrian woman in her sixties with a serious heart condition. Totally alone in Greece, she had been taken to the hospital before, but with no interpreters present, she could not, and would not, sign the consent form that would allow a cardiac catheterization. Once there, Rahim interpreted the doctor’s explanation of the procedure and read the consent form to her in Arabic. Now, understanding the need for the operation, the woman signed the form and agreed to return for the procedure on the scheduled day. She did turn up for her appointment but, just one hour before the operation, refused the procedure. “She told me later that the room didn’t look familiar, it didn’t feel familiar – she freaked out”, Rahim explains. On duty at the camp at the time, Rahim could not be at the hospital to reassure her by interpreting for the doctors or nurses. Tragically for this woman, hospitals here don’t do second chances, so her only opportunity to undergo a crucial operation had passed. Rahim is, as ever, very clear: “There were no interpreters at the hospital” he says.
Translators without Borders started recruiting, testing and training interpreters in July 2016. They are then independently contracted by our trusted partner organizations in Greece. Since the establishment of the Humanitarian Interpreter Roster, 5 people have been deployed.