Disoriented and anxious after a long journey from Beirut to Montreal, a Syrian refugee suddenly began running through the airport welcome centre, speaking frantically in his mother tongue. Staffers tasked with distributing winter care packages looked on apprehensively, unsure of how to approach the man.
What could have escalated into a tense situation was defused by two on-site interpreters who were able to calm the refugee down, says Jack Xu, project manager at Multilingual Community Interpretation Services (MCIS), a non-profit enterprise that is exclusively providing interpreters for flights carrying Syrian refugees to Toronto and Montreal.
“They didn’t know he had special needs,” explains Yasmine Mousa, one of the supervising interpreters in Toronto. “They didn’t know he was repeating himself on and on.”
It’s circumstances like these where interpreters step in, despite their orders to remain impartial. They’re only meant to assist refugees by lending their voices, not their advice.
“When these situations arise, it’s almost a call for humanitarian assistance,” says Xu.
The importance and challenge of impartiality
Impartiality is sacrosanct for professional interpreters who are bound to confidentiality and barred from offering their opinions when doing their work. Even simply correcting misinformation one refugee had about Calgary being warmer than Toronto isn’t allowed, says Mousa.
“The only role of an interpreter is to be a conduit of information, to translate back and forth,” says Xu. “We’re not allowed to give additional information or advice.”
Mousa and Hadeel Abu-Gharbieh lead a team of 54 interpreters who greet planeloads of 150 to 300 Syrian refugees each week as part of the Trudeau government’s commitment to resettle 25,000 by February 29 this year.
“We’re not allowed to give additional information or advice.”
As the first point of contact for refugees in their new home, interpreters are peppered with questions meant for settlement agencies on housing, schooling and medical services.
There’s a disconnect between their expectations and how much information is given beforehand, say Abu-Gharbieh and Mousa. Many are “clueless” about the next steps, and are anxiously awaiting word on which city is prepared to welcome them and how long they will have to stay in the hotel they’re currently billeted in.
“There’s an impulse to help and do more, but the thing professional interpreters understand is that we’re just interpreters,” says Xu. “We don’t want them to become too invested, because you lose your impartiality.”
And so they bring these concerns to government staff.
Stepping up to meet the influx
Just as the pace of the refugees’ arrival has overwhelmed settlement agencies’ efforts to find lodging, MCIS scrambles daily to attend to last-minute requests for interpreters in Montreal.
Transition flights are tricky for Xu, who explains that he’s often given less than 24 hours’ notice about when they’re departing because it’s dependent on which provinces are ready to accept them.
In Montreal, where Red Cross oversees their settlement, there’s a shortage of Arabic-speaking staff, whereas in Toronto, there’s a network of neighbourhood agencies to rely on. This has put a strain on MCIS’ operations in Montreal, whose interpreters are dispatched beyond airports to hospitals, hotels and other government agencies.
Xu says it’s beyond Red Cross control, given the looming deadline. What has helped alleviate the pressure of keeping up with demands has been the interpreters’ tireless enthusiasm for the project, he says.
Interpreters are peppered with questions meant for settlement agencies on housing, schooling and medical services.
“There’s something magical about this project,” says Abu-Gharbieh. “People try to be there all the time. They don’t want to miss out.”
For one interpreter, says Xu, it was a way for him to make “halal money,” or to work for a good cause. He says that many are prepared to work 12- or 14-hour days.
Spirits were incredibly high on Dec. 31 even when everyone had to pull a 36-hour shift as they waited for five flights to arrive, say Mousa and Abu-Gharbieh.
“It was a meaningful way to spend New Year’s Eve,” says Abu-Gharbieh.
Increased demand for translators moving forward
Xu projects that Arabic will overtake Mandarin as the most-requested language to interpret in 2016 — without factoring in the refugee project — because agencies like Toronto Public Health have their own need for interpreters.
Right now, MCIS has a database of 820 Arabic interpreters across the country, most either in Toronto or Montreal, to mobilize.
Their interpreters take a six-week, 100-hour program and are given terms to familiarize themselves with in order to work alongside government agents.
He anticipates the demand will only grow as they settle down, especially if the government decides to open interim lodging centres at military bases in Kingston, Ontario and Val Cartier, Quebec. That would mean finding the right interpreters nearby who can speak in the same dialect as the new arrivals.
Mousa says she felt a sense of pride as an Iraqi immigrant to belong to a country that’s eager to welcome refugees, particularly when her native country chose to align with the Assad regime. “It means something to me to help them in one very small way.”
An interpreter’s work is often solitary, but with this project, many have formed strong bonds, says Xu. He’s looking for ways they can continue to work together.
“I’m hoping we can help with resettlement […] acting as cultural experts,” he says. “We’re looking at that down the road. I don’t want to break apart the team.”