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!

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This blog post is also available in the following languages: 

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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. 

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