Today was a pretty stressful day at work. I was given the task of organizing the translators/interpreters at the support centre clinic a few weeks ago, and today was the deadline. I’m still quite unsure of myself – knowing how to efficiently and accurately ensure that all the doctors, counselors, and other health-practitioners will have access to a translator that speaks the right language (Farsi/Arabic/Urdu/Somali) while they are working at the clinic is not something I am familiar with. I also have to take into consideration that the staff have the perfect amount of hours to get a decent salary, all the while staying within the limited budget. I won’t get into the details, but after eight hours on Excel, I did finish creating some sort of schedule, and my supervisor seemed happy with it (we will see tomorrow when the clinic staff get a copy), but I digress.
Interpreters are immensely important to MSRI (the organization I am interning with). I don’t know the exact percentage, but from my observation I estimate that at least 85% of the refugees and asylum seekers I’ve encountered do not speak even the most basic English, the primary language used at MSRI. Without the help of an interpreter, many refugees would not be able to communicate that they require food support, need to see a doctor, or inquire about enrolling their children in school. In the clinic, translators are absolutely essential to ensure that the health practitioners (who are either Malaysians or ‘expats’) are able to comprehend the medical issues plaguing the patients. The counselors and their interpreters probably have the most difficult task. As a result of translating for refugees that have gone through severe trauma, the interpreters, who are mostly refugees themselves, often have to go through counselling sessions at the end of the day. The issue of language barriers that my organization faces on a daily basis made me think of how refugees that had been relocated to a third country would cope if they had very limited language skills.
At MSRI, one of my jobs is to facilitate an English Conversation Class with unaccompanied minor refugees once a week. Without doubt I am very unqualified for this task, considering I have not had any teacher training or even completed an undergraduate degree; however, I have been doing my best and hoping that the students are improving their English skills. In my class, some of the students are quite proficient – some of the others however are finding it very difficult to participate. In fact, some of my students can communicate with me better in Malay as compared English. The reality of being an unaccompanied minor refugee means that it is absolutely essential that the students are able to communicate in the target language (language of the receiving country), if and when they are resettled. Unaccompanied minor refugees are highly vulnerable individuals – they have escaped their place of origin alone and have lost communication with their families. Upon transfer to their destination country, the students in my class will have to learn to cope with the language barrier without support from close relatives.
For my Capstone project, I would like to focus on and investigate the topic of ‘resettlement’ of refugees, which is why I feel that the issue of language and interpreters to be relevant. According to the UNHCR, “Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement.”Specifically, I would like to learn more about the processes that asylum seekers and refugees undergo in order to be resettled, and the difficulties that they may face in both the asylum and receiving country. This is why my first two podcasts were concerning perceptions of Canada (a receiving country) – I wondered what information and what perceptions the refugee/asylum seekers had about a country they could potentially be resettled to. Four out of the five refugees I interviewed for the first podcast were interpreters, and for them, the language barrier when undertaking resettlement wouldn’t be too much of an issue (as long as they were destined for an English speaking country). But those proficient in target languages appear to be very few.
The language barrier that newly resettled refugees and asylum seekers could potentially create significant trepidations. 28 countries have ‘signed up’ with the UNHCR to become resettlement countries, and they are diverse in terms of languages spoken. From the Czech Republic, to Italy, Sweden, and Australia, refugees may have a difficult time adjusting to and learning these foreign languages in order to gain employment or access higher education. The UNHCR is facilitating language assistance programs in receiving countries in ways such as providing interpreter services and recruiting bilingual settlement support workers. I do wonder though how effective these programs are – I am hoping that when I return to Canada, I will be able to gain some valuable perspectives about this issue from refugees who live in my community or those who work with them to gain a better understanding of the resettlement processes.