I know what it’s like to be new in an area, to feel like a stranger, like you certainly do not belong. The odd looks because of how different you look, the whispers because of your accent. I am no stranger to all that. Even then, I have been very fortunate. Having grown up in Kenya where English was the main language of instruction in schools, my move to the United States was not as challenging, at least not linguistically.
Yet every day, thousands of refugee immigrants have to navigate their new worlds without the benefit of the local language. It breaks my heart every time I go to the supermarket or a public office and see an immigrant struggling to express themselves, or being conscious of how much they stand out, as they struggle with the delicate balance of choosing to blend in and maintaining their identity.
Before COVID I was an informal volunteer within the Saint Louis, Missouri, East African refugee community. I spent time helping with language, going to the store, finding government offices, etc. As rewarding as that experience was, it was also just as heartbreaking. I have seen first-hand how debilitating and humiliating the language barrier can be. The blank looks on their faces when they do not understand what the person serving them is saying or that very important phone call they just received. Or the embarrassment they feel as the other person says,” could you please repeat that,” for the fourth time.
When refugees arrive in Saint Louis The International Institute of St. Louis does a fantastic job to facilitate their resettlement. They help them find work, housing, show them how to catch buses, and even go as far as teaching them basic English to enable them to navigate their new life. (By the way, if you are looking for a fantastic organization to donate to, this is one. Please visit https://www.iistl.org/ to do so).
Nonetheless, when real life starts, and social workers are no longer at their beck and call, when they get to their areas of employment, or begin taking their children to school and have to read reports or letters sent to them, the challenge begins. Without the help of a trusted friend to help them traverse the maze of documents and reports, they resort to depending on their children. As we all know, if the report is not good, very few children will own up to what is going on. More than that, no parent wants to feel like they are dependent on their children.
Despite these humiliating challenges, most refugee immigrants that I have met and worked with, do not complain, rather they simply express gratitude for the opportunity to be in a safer place, to have a roof over their heads and food on the table. For most of them, these challenges are nothing compared to what they have been through. Living in the camps for decades under deplorable conditions not even counting the horrors of wars that they experienced was no walk in the park. Yet they ask for nothing but to have the opportunity to start a new life in a safer world.
It is this attitude that pushes me to want to do more. Working as a language service provider has given me first-hand experience with how powerful language is. To see the deep emotions in their eyes as they realize for the first time in a long time, that someone understands what they are saying and that, they can finally understand that letter they just received from their employer and aid agency.
As an East African who lives in the US, who has had the privilege of knowing the language beforehand, it is my honor to assist those who have not been so fortunate. I hope that more employers and government agencies continue to think about the linguistic needs of their immigrant employees. That said, you do not have to be an employer or a government agency to make a difference. You can begin by increasing awareness of the refugees and their countries of origin, learn a greeting, or how to say your name. Believe me, that hello in their language will make someone's day better. At the end of the day, we are all human and what we seek most is to belong.
If you would like to provide translated your employees in any East African language or would like to learn Swahili, KWS language services is happy to help. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can simply visit us at www.kwslanguageservices.com