The global response to displacement and language barriers – three reasons for hope

United Nations (UN) member states will soon have a critical opportunity to make systematic improvements to how the world assists and protects refugees and migrants. Three promising developments — on language data, multilingual information provision, and translation and interpreting support — show momentum is building towards ensuring all migrants, including those facing language barriers, can access assistance and protection, and claim their rights.

This fall, the 193 members of the UN will adopt the Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees. Many remain understandably skeptical that these two compacts will ultimately lead to the kind of change demanded by the global displacement crisis.

However, there are cautious signs that the process is headed in the right direction. The Global Compacts identify the need to uphold the right to information, a goal in itself and a vital means for allowing all migrants to claim their rights.  

In September 2016, the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants was adopted to improve planning for and response to large movements of refugees and migrants. The declaration triggered over a year of negotiations and consultations between governments, international organizations, and civil society (see TWB’s main recommendations here).

The final draft focused on migrants, entitled the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), includes commitments to ensure that migrants get information in a language they understand. This will help them know their rights and obligations, access appropriate support and counselling services, and realize full social inclusion. Unfortunately, similar commitments are not made in the final draft focused on refugees, entitled the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). However, information in the right language is needed to support other GCR commitments to ensure free and informed consent, protection, participation and empowerment of refugees.

The current lack of language services has severe consequences

At the same time, since the adoption of the New York Declaration, the total number of people displaced from their homes due to conflict, disaster, poverty or hunger has continued to grow. Reports continue to highlight the risks when refugees and migrants lack information and support in a language they understand. They make high-risk choices, including dropping out of the formal reception system. The lack of interpreting and translation support compounds situations of distress. Without access to language support, they are often unable to access medical, educational and other services, or denied appropriate care in violation of their rights.

Ensuring people have access to information they need and are able to communicate in a language they understand should be a priority for well-planned and managed migration policies and refugee responses.

There are three promising developments – if taken forward effectively

With that in mind, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Three key developments emerged from the Global Compacts process so far. If taken forward effectively, these can make a real, positive difference in people’s capacity to receive information and communicate their needs in the right language.

First, both compacts emphasize the importance of collecting and using better data, calling for a comprehensive data set on migration. Language data — information on the languages people speak and understand, and on their communication needs (channels and formats) — should be included in this initiative. This data gap can be filled through existing processes such as needs assessments and registration. For example, the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix has been collecting language data in northeast Nigeria as a basis for improved communication strategies with internally displaced people. The language-related questions they are asking can easily be adapted and included in other data efforts, including the newly established UNHCR-World Bank Group Joint Data Center. This would ensure a strong evidence base for all communications with refugees and migrants.

Second, policies about providing multilingual information for refugees and migrants appear to be gaining traction in practice, which reflects commitments in the Compacts. Since 2016, many governments and humanitarian organizations have developed websites and other materials to facilitate access to information in several languages and for different audiences, including children. The GCM echoes this with a strong commitment to people’s right to information at all stages of migration. In practice, the implementation of both Compacts must result in careful consideration of language barriers. This will help reduce the incidence of irregular migration and enable people to make informed decisions about their journeys and claim protection when needed.

Third, there is a growing recognition of the need for national institutions and service providers to give translation and interpreting support for those who need it. This recognition is seen both in the Compacts and in practice. Often humanitarian organizations fill in the gaps in language services, not without challenges. But some countries, such as Greece and Turkey, have stepped up their efforts to provide language support in hospitals, schools and other social services. This has allowed existing national structures to extend essential services to cater to the needs of migrants and refugees. Implementing the Global Compacts is an opportunity to solidify commitments to reduce the language barriers to effective access to services for all migrants.

The Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees are not going to fix the global displacement crisis by remaining on paper. Resources — including language resources — will have to be mobilized to achieve the aims of the Global Compacts. Effective communication with affected people must be the default position of migration policies and refugee responses.

Language should not be a barrier for refugees and migrants to realize their rights, and make free and informed choices about their future.

Written by Mia Marzotto, TWB's Senior Advocacy Officer. 

 

Hefazot transforms to nirapotta; janela becomes kirkiri

One year into the Rohingya refugee response, a language evolves with its people.

Language is fluid. It is subject to environment, culture, and the whims of communities. It’s been one year since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. And it is here in these cramped refugee camps that a language is shifting and evolving right in front of us.

The early days

In the early days of the response, the language challenges for the refugee community were immense. First responders struggled to communicate where and how to access lifesaving services, and to document individual accounts of trauma. The community struggled to explain its essential needs (According to one report, more than 60% of refugees said they could not communicate with aid workers), and dozens of untrained interpreters emerged overnight to fill the need for linguistic middlemen. Many of these amateur interpreters spoke the local Chittagonian; while somewhat similar, there are very distinct differences in the languages that create confusion, misinformation and miscommunication. Rohingya speakers estimate that there is around a 70% similarity between Chittagonian and Rohingya (Rohingya Zuban report). That might sound pretty good – but keep in mind that there is more than 80 percent similarity between Spanish and Italian, and no one would ever hire an Italian interpreter for a Spanish refugee!

“Only a few of our men knew Bangla or English. The locals were helping, but even they couldn’t fully understand us. We couldn’t explain to them why we were fleeing, what was being done to us across the river.”  

Woman in her mid-30s, living in Nayapara, an informal camp in the region.

For example, early in the response, the phrase ‘violence against women’ was frequently misinterpreted as ‘violent women’. Certain kinship terms, like husband (beda / zamai / shwami) and daughter (zer-fua / maya-fua / mela-fua), led to some families being separated when shelters were assigned. Then there was gaa lamani — in Rohingya it means diarrhea, but in Chittagonian, it literally translates as ‘body falling down.’ This certainly led to some confusing sessions with health workers.

Signs directing the community to health centers, food distribution sites and other essential services were written mostly in English (although less than 5 percent of the population is literate in English). The main avenue to complain or give feedback was the complaints box – a concept that not only requires a level of literacy, but is also culturally alien to the community.

Help desk sign

A new way forward

A year on, many organizations are creating innovative ways to communicate. For example, many are working with the community to develop image-based signage.The challenges in developing images that represent such seemingly simple concepts as ‘caution’ or ‘hospital’ give an insight into the complexities of communicating symbols amongst different languages and cultures.

“A white hand means clean hand. If you want to stay ‘stop’ or ‘caution’, use red. A red hand will stand out. It will tell us to stop.”

Middle-aged man, testing shelter signage

More than a million Rohingya refugees now live in camps spread across the southernmost tip of Bangladesh. Here, older refugee communities that arrived over the last 30 years live side by side with new arrivals and the host community. Throw into the language ecosystem the institutionalized jargon spoken by English speaking aid workers and you have a fascinating interplay of language and culture.

Language is influenced by its surroundings. For example, the Rohingya dialect spoken by the older arrivals now differs from the Rohingya spoken by the newer arrivals. Decades of living amongst a Bangladeshi host community has seen their mother tongue adopt a number of Bangla words. For example, a newly arrived refugee might use the word hefazot, to refer to ‘security’ or ‘safety’ while the more established refugee community now borrows from Bangla nirapotta. Older refugees might use the word janela (actually borrowed from the former Portuguese colonizers) meaning window, while newer refugees use kirkiri.

“When I go to the clinic, the doctor can’t understand when I explain what’s wrong using Rohingya language. The health interpreter sometimes teaches me the word for my condition in Bangla. This is helping me communicate better with the doctor.”

Woman, 54

When speaking to a newly arrived Rohingya refugee, you will notice the influence of Burmese, Arabic, and Farsi in their terminology. Serama (from siyama in Burmese, meaning ‘female teacher’), serang (‘to make a list’) and atwarta (‘documents’) show the Burmese and Rakhine influence on the language. While mosiboth (‘danger’) and izzot (‘honor’) come from Arabic, aramiyoth (‘health’), moroth (‘male’), and rong (‘color’) are Farsi words either borrowed directly or via Urdu.

“Sometimes it’s even difficult for us to understand the new Rohingyas, especially if they come from fuk-kool” (literally, ‘the east side’ of the mountain range). “Their accent is distinct, and they use words that many other Rohingyas don’t use. Maybe they use more Rakhine words.” 

Salim, Rohingya interpreter from Teknaf.

In the last year it has become clear that humanitarian responders are giving more than aid to the community. New English words are creeping into Rohingya dialogue every day.  For example, the Rohingya word for ‘toilet’, tatti is now commonly replaced by the word lettin (fromlatrine’) and modotgoroya, the word for ‘aid worker’, has become bolontiyar (fromvolunteer’) in everyday Rohingya vocabulary. While the registered Rohingya community uses the Bangla word shoronati, the newer arrivals have replaced the Burmese dokasi with the English word ‘refugee’ (pronounced rifuzi). Interestingly, even English words that they picked up while in Myanmar are now being replaced with “newer” English words, like the word for intravenous saline (deep from ‘drip’ in Myanmar; selain from ‘saline’ in Bangladesh).

“Most of us now say ‘hosfital’ for medical centers, but the older women still prefer to ‘dattahana.’”

Young woman, focus group discussion

The camp is full of different languages; Burmese rhymes compete with Arabic hymns and Hindi pop songs. The community is eager to learn new languages. Burmese is regularly cited as the most desirable language to learn, closely followed by English and Bangla (in that order). And while the teaching of Bangla is officially banned by the government, some Rohingya men – particularly the youth – study informally at night among themselves and with the older, registered Rohingya refugees.

This is what makes our work here so fascinating. It’s riveting watching language twist and turn to fit into its new environment like you would squeeze into a pair of new jeans. That’s why resources like our glossary, resources, and the training we provide to field workers in this response is so crucial. This ensures important information is delivered in the right language and that as their language needs shift and evolve, we are able to move with them. Over the next year we’re sure to see more change, as more children have access to learning centers that teach English and Burmese, and interactions between the community and aid workers from around the world increase. Listen carefully; language matters.

This blog post is based on dozens of conversations and focus groups held by TWB with the community over the last year.

Written by Irene Scott, TWB Program Director, Bangladesh, and AK Rahim, TWB Sociolinguistic Researcher.

Report from the Field

Our Board Chair visits Bangladesh, sees progress and challenges first hand

I recently visited Bangladesh with Ellie Kemp, our Head of Crisis Response, to see first hand the work of Translators without Borders (TWB) around the Rohingya crisis. Our trip included a visit to the “megacamp” at Kutupalong, the biggest refugee camp in the world, and meetings with our partner humanitarian response teams based in Cox’s Bazar. We also spent a few days in Dhaka meeting with donors and partner organizations.  

The crisis is an incredibly challenging one. One year ago this month, the Myanmar army escalated a long-standing campaign of persecution against the largely Muslim Rohingya to what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has characterized as ethnic cleansing. Thousands were killed in Myanmar, and over 700,000 fled over the Naf river to Bangladesh; at the peak, 20,000 refugees arrived per day. The Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, claiming they are Bangladeshi migrants. The Bangladeshi government, although generously offering them sanctuary, is facing its own political challenges and does not recognize them as refugees either.

The Rohingya people therefore are denied the right to work and not allowed to register as residents, and cannot build more permanent homes than the bamboo and tarpaulin shelters they have been in for the last 12 months. Formal schooling is not allowed in the camps;  people in camps are even officially forbidden from owning mobile phones. On top of this the humanitarian response has been suffering from poor coordination due to unclear division of responsibilities. Unfortunately these challenges have been acutely felt in the way the responding organizations have communicated with the communities they are trying to help.

This response was supposed to be different.

There has been increasing awareness over the last few years of the need to improve programs for communicating with communities (CwC) and to build these programs into every response. This was one of the first major responses since the World Humanitarian Summit “Grand Bargain” signed two years ago in Istanbul, where the humanitarian community committed itself to doing this better. Unfortunately it has not quite played out that way. Too often, key roles in CwC are left vacant or not given the resources they need. Key initiatives, such as refugee registration (a sensitive topic for a systematically persecuted population), have been handled without proper planning of how to communicate. And while some major donors, such as the UK’s DFID and the EU’s ECHO now recognize the problem with inadequate funding for CwC, the funding provision still remains far below the need. Our task on advocacy around the need for mainstreaming CwC continues…

Andrew B,
Andrew Bredenkamp at Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

From a linguistic perspective the situation is complex too. Rohingya is not a written language, and the thousands of Rohingya in the camps who have received an education were taught in Burmese. Rohingya is related to Chittagonian, the local language spoken in Cox’s Bazar and more distantly Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh. Unfortunately this has sometimes led to responders assuming that Chittagonian and Rohingya are basically the same language. We heard the statement repeatedly that “Chittagonian and Rohingya are 70 percent the same, so we’re using Chittagonian speakers”. Bearing in mind Spanish and Italian are 80 percent similar and that no one would consider using Italian to communicate with a Spanish community, this highlights the need for continued awareness about language issues among responders.

This is not an academic discussion.

The words for “help,” “pain,” “pregnant,” and “menstruation,” even the phrase for the common cold, are all unrecognizably different in Rohingya and Chittagonian. There seem even to be differences between language used by male and female Rohingya speakers.    

Despite these difficulties TWB and our consortium partners, BBC Media Action and Internews, have been able to make a huge difference. Here are some of the highlights:

  • We have been providing language services across the response into both Bangla and Rohingya.
  • We have been providing training for staff and volunteers working for the response organizations, focusing on the differences between Chittagonian and Rohingya and developing glossaries around key topics for critical sectors, such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health, and protection, including work around gender-based violence.
  • We have been supporting the listening programs of our partner Internews and the content programs of BBC Media Action, helping to make the response more accountable to the refugees and host communities.
  • We have been continuing to advocate for all aspects of the response to take into account the need to communicate with the Rohingya community and the local host population.

Enormous credit has to go to the team, led by Ben Noble, our Country Director, and Irene Scott, Program Director. I have to also mention the amazing efforts of AK Rahim, our South Asian linguistic expert. AK is an amazing source of knowledge about the languages and cultures of the region and how they interact. He has been our secret weapon in winning the trust of the host Chittagonian population as well as the Rohingya community, and has led the research that enables us to provide practical advice for humanitarians on communicating more effectively with both.

We heard time and again from our humanitarian partners that our work was indispensable and extremely effective.

Our donor meetings were extremely encouraging, not just in terms of the desire to support our work in Cox’s Bazar, but also more strategically. There was explicit confirmation at the highest level that “the humanitarian community is still not doing enough on CwC.”

Overall another great testimony to the importance of our mission. There is a lot we can learn about this response for others we are and will be involved in. The need remains immense.

Donate to the Rohingya refugee response

Written by Andrew Bredenkamp, Chairman of Translators without Borders Board of Directors.

Bangladesh Program Update

Bridging language gaps empowers people to communicate in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps

Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox’s Bazar.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, once famed for its beautiful 120km long beach, is now home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Between 900,000 and one million Rohingya women, men and children, depending on the estimates, now live in the area. Since August 2017, more than 670,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar and settled in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.

Translators without Borders (TWB) first came to Cox’s Bazar in October to assess the communication and information needs of the affected population.

Our team rapidly discovered that language was making communication between the affected communities, humanitarian organizations, and the host population extremely difficult. As reported by our partner organization Internews, more than 70 percent of the refugee population identified themselves as being totally illiterate in any language and more than 60 percent said they were unable to speak to humanitarian providers.

In Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya is often the only language spoken by those most in need. It is an oral language, with no commonly accepted written script.

One of the major communication problems in this humanitarian crisis is the lack of a common language. The humanitarian workers mostly speak English, local NGOs and government officials speak Bengali, many interpreters speak Chittagonian, and the refugees speak Rohingya.

The reality

Take a moment to imagine this in the context of a refugee camp. Signs are erected to identify health facilities and safe spaces for women in a language they do not understand. Information can become distorted as it is passed from person to person and humanitarian organizations rely on untrained interpreters to communicate life-saving information as part of their support to the refugees. As summarized by TWB’s sociologist,

Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders
Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

“There’s just a lot of crucial information lost in this crisis.”

One of the most urgent needs is to find ways for the refugee population to fully express their needs to humanitarian responders.

With thorough research and community interaction, we are developing a professional training program and tools to help interpreters and humanitarian organizations understand some of the cultural and linguistic specificities of the refugee population.

Shades of meaning

TWB is developing a freely downloadable glossary of key humanitarian terms. This translates technical terminology in English into simple and clear Bengali, Rohingya, Chittagonian, and Burmese terms. The aim is to cover concepts relevant to a range of sectors, making the glossary useful across the humanitarian response.

‘We really deliberated on the meanings and context of the translations,’ says TWB’s sociolinguist. ‘Words can have shades of meaning, so the social and cultural context is important.’

Working as a consortium with Internews and BBC Media Action, TWB is contributing to a regular newsletter distributed to all humanitarian organizations in Cox’s Bazar. This newsletter, entitled What Matters? The Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, specifically addresses communication and language issues. The first newsletter, distributed in February this year, highlighted the important differences in weather terms between Chittagonian, Bengali, and Rohingya. This is vital when distinguishing between a warning for strong winds or a cyclone, for instance. 

Ultimately, bridging these gaps is empowering people to communicate. When people can communicate they can assert their rights and humanitarians can deliver life-saving information.

With the cyclone and monsoon season starting soon, the need for simple and actionable information, in plain and clear language that the refugees can understand, is becoming even more acute. The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger when the rains begin in April. These are likely to cause major flooding and landslides in the steep hills and unstable terrain where the camps are located and contribute to the spread of disease.

‘This is where translating key Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) messages are critical,’ says our sociolinguist. ‘Community workers need to be able to explain the differences in severe weather systems between here and Myanmar, what services are there to help in a disaster, even how to help prevent the spread of disease. These are not messages you can afford to miscommunicate.’

Follow the progress of our work in Cox’s Bazar and consider a donation to support our work around the globe.

Written by TWB’s Program Director for Bangladesh

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.

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 

 

How To: Use your personal experience for a good cause

Majed Abo dan knows what life is like as a refugee. His story is the story of how personal experience can be used for a good cause.
Majed and his family arrived on Chios island in Greece on 20 March 2016, a day after the EU-Turkey deal took effect. They had traveled as refugees from their home in Aleppo, Syria, seeking safety and security in Europe.

Majed‘s arrival in Greece was chaotic and confusing, especially as people tried to interpret and apply the conditions of the new deal. “The Greek authorities detained us in Vial Camp. There was little information available for us about our legal rights; everything was a total mess,” he recalls.

While on Chios island, Majed showed his compassion for fellow-refugees. He worked with the Norwegian Refugee Council as a food security assistant. “It was the most perfect experience in my life, and it was an honor for me to work with such a respectable NGO.”

In total, Majed and his family lived in Greece for nine months, on the islands of Chios and Leros and later in Athens. He and his family recently arrived in Mainz, Germany, where they plan to settle. He is very happy to be living in Germany, a country that has fascinated him since he was a little boy, describing it as “a dream come true.”

from experience to a good cause

Throughout their time as refugees, Majed was frustrated by the lack of clear information and the abundance of unreliable rumors. He decided to find some answers for himself. “I found a website called News That Moves, which seemed to provide good and true news. I decided to be a part of that team, to help myself and other refugees to find some facts.”

News That Moves is a source of verified information for refugees. It is produced by Internews and translated into three languages by Translators without Borders’ Rapid Response Team (RRT). Majed is now a productive member of the RRT, translating and editing articles almost daily. He is particularly proud to have translated an article on how refugees can obtain a passport or a travel document in Greece. He knows from his own experience how valuable the information in that article is to refugees, and how essential it is to translate it into languages they understand.

“You have to know that information comes from trusted sources, to avoid inaccurate information and rumors”

There have been times when Majed has heard someone relaying information that he or an RRT colleague has translated. When that happens, he confesses, “I feel proud from the deepest part of my heart.” He is convinced that non-governmental organizations, volunteers, and local citizens make a tangible difference in refugees’ lives, noting that “Without them, we would not survive.”

want to volunteer?

Do you want to use your skills for a good cause? Click here to apply to be a volunteer with the TWB Rapid Response Teams.

Majed has some expert advice for anyone thinking of joining the RRT. “Anyone who would like to join us should feel the crisis in their heart and understand the circumstances that led to it. Put yourself in the same position as the victims – then you can translate with your heart not just your words.”

Blog AuthorBy Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer 

Migration is nothing new. The Greeks will tell you that.

The beginning of greek migration

It was the ancient Greeks who gave us the word diaspora, meaning “to scatter or disperse.” Since the time of Alexander the Great, Greeks have been spreading themselves throughout the world. Today, the Greek diaspora spans the globe, its people having integrated themselves into numerous countries, most notably the USA, Australia and Canada. The concept of migration is therefore deeply entrenched in Greek culture. Modern Greeks, whether they live at home or abroad, have an acute sense of what it means to be a migrant. Perhaps that is why the Greek people responded so positively to the European migration crisis. Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in Greece seeking safety, security and a new start.

Breaking down barriers

Anastasia Petyka was one of many Greeks who tried to make the refugees’ journey easier. With a degree in Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting from the Ionian University on Corfu, she set about breaking down communication barriers between the new migrant populations and the local Greeks. The Translators without Borders Rapid Response Translation (RRT) team gave her the opportunity to do that in a structured way.

“It’s important for refugees and locals to have access to the same information in their native languages. That cultivates trust and allows the locals to support the refugees”

Anastasia typically spends one or two hours per day translating and editing different kinds of texts into Greek. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers like Anastasia, the local population can access the same news articles, regulations or instructions as the aid agencies and the refugees themselves.

She is proud of her country’s efforts to welcome and support refugees, and she thinks this is due to Greek people having such a deep understanding of migration.

At the same time, she is scathing in her criticism of the wider international response to Europe’s refugee crisis. “Refugees have been faced with indifference and abandonment,” she insists. “Europe has shown a cruel face to people in need.” Anastasia is particularly frustrated that her native Greece has been expected to respond while struggling with an economic crisis of its own. “Greeks have experienced migration firsthand, and they know what it means,” she feels. “Unfortunately Greece cannot provide the refugees with the support they need to build their lives again. Ultimately we’ve been left alone to cope with the influx of migrants.”

A memorable experience

Despite the political challenges, Anastasia has channeled her strong sense of justice and her belief in basic human rights to ensure that she contributes as positively as possible to the situation. One of her most memorable experiences was translating a Syrian refugee’s experience traveling to Europe. Anastasia was shocked to learn that this man’s experience had left him feeling that death would have been preferable to making the journey to Europe. “It illustrated reality, but made me feel deeply sad and ashamed of the way the refugee crisis has been handled,” she admits. “To me, facilitating communication to make a difference is what I regard as a ‘high goal,’ and gives me a great sense of satisfaction and achievement.”

Want to volunteer?

Click here to apply to be a volunteer with the TWB Rapid Response Teams.

Blog AuthorBy Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer 

“I believe that… I have to help”

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.

Joining TWB

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.

Blog AuthorBy Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer 

The written word can be the difference between hope and despair

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.

Are you a translator? Sign up to volunteer for the Translators without Borders Rapid Response team today.

Blog AuthorBy Kate Murphy, Translators without Borders volunteer