Working to remove language barriers

Jul 20, 2015

Jewish Family Services held a special training session to help break language barriers occurring for immigrants and refugees living and working in Buffalo. That training session provided best practices for those who don't speak English.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"At the beginning of the event, you are asked to find your name and your name is in a different language," said Apple Domingo, New American Director at Jewish Family Services in Buffalo.  

The recent training event was designed to allow attendees to gain a better understanding of what it feels like when you don't understand a language.

"The idea is for the participants to experience being a refugee, so that you are now more interested in learning about it," said Domingo.    

Attendees included government staffers, nonprofit organizations, medical providers and educators.

"It's really the only part of the population that's growing and it's growing rapidly," said Sam Magavern with the Partnership for the Public Good, who helped sponsor the event. "It's very important for Buffalo's future that the refugees, in particular, who arrive here with nothing, fleeing persecution and civil war, that they make a good transition."

Later, the guests were served lunch, but it was conducted through a language simulation exercise. Other languages were spoken to describe the items prepared. If you didn't understand, you had to ask for an English interpreter. 

Jewish Family Services held a recent language barrier training session.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"So if you said you wanted vegetable, they would point to the chicken, because typically if you don't understand -- the refugees are saying 'no, no, no, this is what I want' and nobody is understanding," said Domingo as they demonstrated the food line.

Husham Salih is a Resettlement Case manager at Jewish Family Services. He speaks Arabic.

"85 percent I say, of the refugees -- when they come here to the United States for the first time, they don't know the language -- the English language," noted Salih.

Jewish Family Services Intern Robert Ywumukiza is from from Rwanda. He came to Buffalo almost 4-years ago. He said he had to learn English the hard way.

"It was hard for me, because when I came here the first time I couldn't speak English at all," said Ywumukiza. "I was going to school and it was hard for me to learn in school, too."

At the Jewish Family Services language barriers session, Said Ahmed & Somalia Robert Ywumukiza assisted in the event.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Said Ahmed is from Somalia. He has been in Buffalo five years, and has already learned English while attending college. As he participated in the language event, he explained that it is difficult to translate and help others understand languages.

"You have to take what he says and translate everything in the right tone, right expression," said Ahemd. "Sometimes you try and even doing a face expression."

At some Buffalo schools, about 70 different languages are spoken.  There are about 10,000 people now living in the city from Burma, but they represent 20 or more different languages and dialects. That is another reason why there are so many language barriers for the new immigrant and refugee populations.