Stories from the field

Author Claire Horwood

Claire Horwood – Blog 7: The Complexity of Language

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience — to appreciate the fact that life is complex.” – Scott Peck

As I navigate through this twisted web that we call life, I have learned that complex problems require comprehensive solutions, to address the network of relationships that connect people to each other, and to their surrounding environments. Social ecology, which is a framework for understanding the dynamic interrelations among various personal and environmental factors, informs this understanding, that all aspects of the social system (society, community, interpersonal and individual), are tied up in each other, each one affecting all others to an extraordinary degree, like a tangled ball of string.

When I consider the impacts of language (or lack of language) on MSRI’s beneficiary population, I consider them to be caught up in this web, nearly impossible to unravel, especially when you combine the concept of social ecology with the fact that language is tied to abstract notions like belonging, space, access and identity; defined by a multiplicity of expressions (ie. accents, dialects, jargon, terminology, articulations and idioms), the infiniteness of meaning, and the complex interactions that take place among people and words in the forum of language. 

“Try to visualize all the streams of human interaction, of communication. All those linking streams flowing in and between people, through text, pictures, spoken words and TV commentaries, streams through shared memories, casual relations, witnessed events, touching pasts and futures, cause and effect. Try to see this immense latticework of lakes and flowing streams, see the size and awesome complexity of it. This huge rich environment. This waterway paradise of all information and identities and societies and selves.” ― Steven Hall

This labyrinth, this tangled ball of string that I have been trying to unravel growing larger every day is looming over me, an indomitable figure that I can’t even begin to undo. But I have come to appreciate this notion of never-endingness, that even though I might not be able to separate the strings, and make the system linear, simple and straight, I can discover the enormous complexity beneath its quiet surface. I can put a microscope to the rage of atoms in each individual strand, wonder at the method in which each fiber was twisted and wrought, whose gnarled fingers plucked the fiber, in plant form, from the ground. 

And through this internship, I have been afforded an opportunity to engage in this deep mystery of unraveling with many different ideas, learning through my experience that there is a complexity to life, to language, to freedom, to movement, that I will never be able to fully understand. But I am curious, forever curious.

In my final podcast, attached to this blog, I am interviewed by Kim Copeland, fellow CAPI intern, friend, co-worker and roommate extraordinaire, to delve into some of what I have learned about the entangledness of language, as it applies to refugees and asylum seekers in the Malaysian context, in my short time here at MSRI.

I am eternally grateful to the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives, in partnership with the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships program, for allowing me an opportunity to explore my curiosity surrounding language, among many other things, to learn and to grow and to hopefully do my part in making the world a more tolerable and tolerant place. 

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” – Albert Einstein


Claire Horwood – Blog 6: Working with Community Interpreters

My flight lands around 7:50 p.m. at the Don Mueng airport in Bangkok, Thailand. I hoist my bag onto my back and navigate through customs, emerging into the muggy night air, my eyes scanning the horizon for the bus which will shuttle me to Nana Station. I discover that language is a significant barrier for me in Thailand, and I find myself gesturing madly, with big swooping motions – “BUS? NANA STATION?” I say, over-pronouncing the words, my voice set to megaphone.  Finally, a young woman who understands English, directs me to the A1, and just like that, I am on my way to the LRT, which, upon arrival, presents a whole new set of dialectal challenges.

After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to pay for my ticket, and then hovering in front of the map showcasing the colorful LRT lines that zig zag across the city, I jump onto a train cart and cross my fingers, hoping that I am headed towards the Ambassador Hotel, where I will attend an Asia-Pacific conference on refugee rights over the course of the next 4 days.

This regional conference supports an open and growing network consisting of more than 300 civil society organizations and individuals from 28 countries committed to advancing the rights of refugees in the Asia Pacific region. Its members are diverse, and include service providers,human rights advocacy groups, research institutions, law firms providing pro-bono legal aid, refugee community-based organizations and refugees themselves. The conference itself is held once every 2 years, and involves a series of member-led workshops and a number of geographical and thematic working groups, aimed to address specific issues that members are encountering in the work that they do, while promoting an atmosphere of information sharing, mutual capacity building, and joint advocacy.

Since my blog revolves around language, I will only discuss one of the sessions that I attended at the conference, entitled “Working with Community Interpreters”, but feel it is also necessary to highlight the tremendous amount of good work that the organization affiliated with this conference is doing, in collaboration with members around the Asia Pacific region. I was so fortunate to be able to participate in this conference, to engage in discussions around capacity building, refugee protection, mental health, youth, advocacy, post-deportation, legal aid and immigration detention.

The conference session that I will highlight, “Working with Community Interpreters”, was led an expert from the Cairo Community Interpreter Project (CCIP), and took the shape of an interactive circle discussion about positive practices in community interpreting in refugee NGOs. The facilitator led us into a dialogue about interpreter system coordination issues such as interpreter recruitment, vetting, ongoing assessment and oversight, as well as ethics, standards of conduct, and interpreter training and linguistic resource development for both interpreters and other organizational staff.

Language can be a significant barrier for refugees and asylum seekers to access services, as highlighted in my previous blog posts, and oftentimes, organizations cannot sustain a formalized interpreting program, due to lack of funding and capacity. Community-based organizations working with refugees often source their interpreters from the refugee population, which means their primary languages can range from Arabic to Farsi to French to Urdu to Somali (to name a few). Interpreters working with refugee-centered organization provide a variety of language services to registered beneficiaries, through activities such as doctors’ appointments, counselling sessions, legal interventions, case conferences and emergency support requests.

In many organizations, interpreters can be an after-thought, assigned to case work on an ad-hoc basis, and it can sometimes be difficult to secure an interpreter who meets the needs of the beneficiary accessing language support. While many organizations would benefit from a formalized interpreter program, the reality is that many organizations working in a multi-language setting simply do not have the capacity to introduce these types of programs, because they require intensive inputs of time and resources, both in limited supply, in order to flourish.

That being said, since arriving at my CAPI organization, I have been involved in many aspects of program development and delivery – SMART goals, and funding applications, objectives and indicators, risk assessments and community consultations. I have learned that asking hard questions – questions that might mean more time, more money, more concentrated thought – is a good way to jump-start the intensive planning process that this type of programming requires.

As participants of the interpreting workshop began to assess their own strengths and challenges in their organization’s current interpreting systems, many questions came to the surface surrounding program design and intended impact. Although I was trying to participate in the conversation, I also managed to jot a few of these questions down. While they in no way encompass all of the interrogations that an organization should make in the initial stages of introducing a formalized interpreting program, I felt they would help to demonstrate what kinds of discussions need to take place priorto unrolling an effective and sustainable interpreting service.

What role do interpreters play in the organization – are they integrated into the organization or are they transient?

Oftentimes, interpreters are registered as refugees or asylum seekers with the organization in question. Most refugees and asylum seekers are not transient, since the UNHCR process can take years from point of entry to re-settlement. It is likely that in a context where refugees are providing most of the interpreting services, organizations would likely benefit from consulting regularly with interpreters, to determine ongoing challenges and durable solutions, as they relate to program implementation.

Are interpreters being trained in HOW to interpret properly? What does this training look like? Are there organizations dedicated to providing interpreter training? How do you offset the costs of this kind of training?

It can be difficult to access reputable training for interpreters, and when it can be found, it is oftentimes too expensive for an organization to pursue. In order to provide a well-rounded interpreter training program, it is essential for each organization to develop its own (context-specific) training program in collaboration with a professional OR access funding for interpreters to be trained through online platforms or external service providers (non-context specific).

How are interpreters booked or scheduled for activities? Is it on an ad-hoc basis? Is there an online booking system?

When a staff member needs language support, how do they book interpreting services? Oftentimes, interpreters are an after-thought, and their services will not be requested until a beneficiary comes to the office for a scheduled meeting and can only speak Arabic, or Farsi, or Dari.  If an organization wants to operate a formalized interpreter program, it will likely need a dedicated staff person, tasked with scheduling interpreters, and tracking the number of interpreter hours dedicated, by language, to each program per month. This would help to streamline interpreting services, as well as to ensure adequate tracking for reporting purposes while contributing to baseline data for future funding proposals.

Is there a system of accountability for interpreters who break the rules (ie. leak confidential information)? Is there a company policy on minimum standards for interpreting?

It is essential for any organization working with interpreters to have an organizational policy on minimum standards for interpreting. As an organization continues to grow, these minimum standards need to be continuously updated, and implemented, along with more effective tools for monitoring and evaluation, through the process of hiring to service delivery.

Is there a method for interpreters to access technical terms, jargon, etc. so that they can be prepared to navigate that language immediately in their given context (ie. health, legal, etc.)?

In many cases, interpreters collaborating with organizations are working in a specific sector (i.e. health, legal, etc.) which requires an understanding of process, as well as acronyms, glossary of terms, relevant policies and applicable legislation. It’s like a whole other subset of language, embedded within language itself. Developing a context-specific training tool, surrounding urban refugee health and UNHCR process, for example, would be a helpful addition to any organization’s interpreter training toolkit.

Is there any emotional/mental health support available through the organization for interpreters?

After my interview with one of MSRI’s community interpreters, in CAPI Blog 4, I realized the emotional toll that interpreting can take on a person, in particular a refugee, who must navigate their own trauma in tandem with providing language support. It is integral for organizations working with interpreters to determine how they will offer mental health/trauma support to staff members working on the front lines with refugees but again, this requires additional resources for planning, design, implementation: resources that many organizations simply do not have.

Are staff trained on how to work most effectively with interpreters?

There are certainly best practices when it comes to working with interpreters. Officers are meant to speak slowly, at an even pace, in relatively short segments, directly to the beneficiary, not to the interpreter, and the list goes on and on. It would be in any organizations best interest to formalize these best practices into a policy or standard operating procedure, and to communicate this to interpreters as well as to administrative staff, so that everyone is on the same page.

Competing interests and competing roles – should organizations prioritize livelihoods for refugees or promote access to a more professionalized talent pool?

Since many organizations work directly with beneficiaries from their refugee populations, the pool of talent can be limited, and further training and support is necessary. Most refugees who begin interpreting do not have a formal, academic or professional background. There are also issues surrounding confidentiality and community integration which come up, as a result of interpreter access to sensitive organizational and community information. Organizations encountering this challenge would benefit from conducting a risk assessment, to determine how to mitigate some of the issues that may arise as a result of working with community based interpreters.

During the course of my CAPI internship, I have realized that designing an effective and sustainable program is a long-term process, which involves a great deal of careful consideration, in addition to a healthy dose of trial and error. I have also learned that language is infinitely complex, riddled with subtle differences and distinctions in expression, meaning and response. When you combine the two – taking the complexity of language, and attempting to address its nuances as part of a comprehensive program – you are bound to encounter a mountain of difficulties. 

That being said, refugees depend on interpreters to access services, to participate in livelihood programs, to schedule class times to attend English classes, to advocate for themselves. For this reason, it is exceedingly important for organizations working with refugees and asylum seekers to provide a high-quality interpreting program, grounded in the unique contexts and challenges of refugee and migration fieldwork, in order to open up an accurate and meaningful dialogue with affected communities, to ensure, first and foremost, that their collective needs are being met.


Claire Horwood – Blog 5: Interview with Hadi (Student at MSRI’s school)

As I have mentioned in each of my previous blog posts, one my goals during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.

I chose to do an interview with a young man named Hadi, because he is (a) a wonderfully special human being and (b) a student at the MSRI school and an unaccompanied minor (which means he represents two youth-focused programs operating at MSRI).

I thought Hadi was an excellent candidate for this podcast because when he arrived in Kuala Lumpur two years ago, he didn’t speak any English or any of Malaysia’s local languages. After one year at MSRI’s school, he is fluent in English, and can therefore provide some insight into how difficult it is to arrive in a country without knowing the language, how challenging it is to learn a new language, and how much language really matters in the refugee context.

At one point, as we spoke about his experiences getting around the city without any English, Hadi said, “it was so difficult… If you don’t know English, you are like… blind.” I think this really speaks to the hardships that refugees have to endure as a result of being thrust into a country with another language, where they cannot get around, cannot advocate for themselves, and cannot participate fully in society until they are able to acquire the appropriate language skills.

I loved every minute of this interview, and am so thankful that Hadi was able to participate.


Claire Horwood – Blog 4: Interview with Naghme (Interpreter at MSRI)

As discussed in my first blog post, one of my goals during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.

At MSRI, interpreters are a necessary part of almost all aspects of service provision. From legal services, to case management, to emergency assistance, and mental health services, interpreters act as the bridge between refugees/asylum seekers and MSRI staff. In this podcast, I sit down with Naghme, an interpreter from the Malaysian Social Research Institute, to discuss how language impacts refugees when it comes to counselling, doctor’s visits, and appointments with the United Nations Refugee Agency. 



Claire Horwood – Blog 3: Interview with Andrea Fernandez (School Manager at MSRI)

As discussed in my previous blog post, one of my goals during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.

In this podcast, I sit down with Andrea Fernandez, MSRI’s school manager, to discuss the impact of language on the provision of primary and secondary education for refugees registered with MSRI. 

Claire Horwood – Blog 2: Lost in Translation: An Introduction to the Malaysian Social Research Institute

It is late Friday afternoon when I climb the stairs in the medical services and community support building for the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC).The building itself is unmarked, with a run of the mill business underneath which diverts attention away from what happens on the 2nd and 3rd floors. My feet are heavy in the narrow stairwell, as beads of sweat congregate at my temples, along my hairline, streaking salt into my eyes. Sunlight dapples in, through grimy windows, and voices carry into the echo of the vast space.

I am nervous. 

“I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to throw you right into the deep end”, says Gloria, the operating manager of the SSC.

She is conducting an “open day”, where refugees book appointments to discuss medical claims, appeal for support (monetary and in kind) and pursue claims with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

When we enter the small and stuffy room on the top floor, the first candidate, an old man, his face heavily etched with dark creases, is hunched over an unsturdy looking table, surrounded by metal fold out chairs. Gloria motions for Danae and I to sit down, and a young Afghan man joins us, quite unexpectedly.

“Hello. My name is Gloria,” says Gloria, “do you mind if my interns sit in with us today?”

The young Afghan man begins to speak to the elderly man in what I assume to be Farsi. I understand, then, that he is an interpreter. And that interpreters are the lifeblood of this organization.

An excerpt from my personal blog – Caught in the Deluge – “Open House Friday at the Sahabat”

As the passage above suggests, one of the things that has become blaringly apparent to me in the few short weeks that I have spent at the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI) is the importance of language when it comes to meaningful service provision for urban refugees. While I intend to introduce a narrative, much like the excerpt from my personal blog, to explore the themes of language, belonging and identity in my future blog posts, this first post will be a little bit more technical, because I feel it is important to outline the basic program infrastructure and language demographic at the centre.

Currently, at MSRI, there are a number of programs being offered to minority refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. These are broken down by major activity below.

The number of people (and populations) accessing these services fluctuates, but the average demographic is outlined below, in a very professional looking graph.


When it comes to language, the diversity of the people coming through the doors at MSRI can make things a little bit sticky! Oftentimes, individuals hailing from the countries listed above not only speak different languages, but different dialects of the same language (for example, many refugees from Afghanistan speak Dari, while those from Iran speak Farsi, which are both variations of the same language).

And then you add in the written components.

Symbols for consonants. Graphemes that represent phonemes (or basic units of sound). Back vowels. Linear alphabets. And the list goes on and on.

Add all of this to the fact that language is also tied to largely non-concrete concepts like identity and belonging. We use language to connect to one another – to express our inner thoughts and emotions, to make sense of complex and abstract thought, to fulfill our wants and needs, to establish rules and to maintain our culture.

So what happens, when all of a sudden, we are thrown into a new context, where our language is not understood, and we do not understand the language? Simply put, we cannot communicate effectively, which has implications across the board.

From a personal standpoint, language has already impacted my own ability to order food, arrange transportation and access affordable housing in KL. I don’t speak Malay, and this makes me an outsider in many contexts. I also don’t speak Arabic, Persian, Somali, Urdu or Uzbek, among other languages, makingit difficult to communicate with refugees when an interpreter is not present, which is most of the time, since interpreters cost money and there is not enough of that to go around by any means.

According to the “Ethnologue”, the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, there are 7097 distinct languages being spoken in the world as of 2016. Currently, in the office and the refugee community at large, there are over 20 different languages spoken regularly.

I am a ____________ (insert one word from the table below to complete the sentence).


Where are you from?

Palestine. Pyālēsṭā’inamā. Bālèsītǎn. Palestyna. Phalasatīna. Palleseutain.

I don’t know what my country is called in your language.

What brought you here?

War. Famine. Violence. Drought.

There are hundreds of different words for these things too.

What I’m getting at, with all of this, is that language is complicated.

And language, in turn, complicates. 

My goal during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.

Claire Horwood – Blog 1: Kenda Chang-Swanson Interview with Claire Horwood

Claire Horwood

April 29, 2016

Victoria, BC

Malaysian Social Research Institute

Kenda Chang-Swanson Interview with Claire Horwood

Kenda interviews Claire about her upcoming Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives internship at the Malaysian Social Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 


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