N.B. groups fill gap by translating pandemic information into dozens of languages

·4 min read

When Mohamed Bagha offers health advice to a newcomer to Canada in their first language, he said it helps relieve the stress of a big adjustment amid a pandemic.

The managing director of the Saint John Newcomers Centre said there has been a need for updates about COVID-19, particularly for those experiencing language barriers.

"Just having that small tidbit of information is very comforting," Bagha said.

Settlement organizations and cultural associations across New Brunswick have partnered to translate health announcements into dozens of languages spoken by newcomers to Canada.

Their largely volunteer-backed effort has helped fill in the gap in COVID-19 information available in languages other than English and French.

Details on health measures including physical distancing, mask use, testing and self-isolation have been made available in about 30 languages, including Arabic, Punjabi, Mandarin, Somali, Spanish and Swahili.

Regional collaboration

When the pandemic began, the New Brunswick Multicultural Council reached out to member settlement organizations in communities across the province to launch a communications task force.

Justin Ryan, the organization's training and development manager, said the restrictions of the pandemic forced his team to find new ways to reach newcomers.

"Historically, they could rely on dropping in, visiting and talking to the people at the local settlement agencies, who had given them a lot of advice and guidance," he said.

Submitted by Multicultural Association of Fredericton
Submitted by Multicultural Association of Fredericton

Ryan said settlement workers and volunteers have worked to sift through and find the most relevant information for newcomers on financial benefits, health measures and virtual medical visits.

More recently, the Atlantic Region Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies partnered with New Brunswick groups to create a vaccine information flyer in more than a dozen languages.

"You get this amplification effect that's happened to newcomers." - Justin Ryan, New Brunswick Multicultural Council

Ryan said getting accessible information across has been essential to ease the already difficult experience of arriving in a new country amid a global pandemic.

"You get this amplification effect that's happened to newcomers, that everything that was already badly impacting people who had strong roots here, was even more difficult for the people who had just arrived or were still in the process of arrival," he said.

From group chats to phone calls

The Multicultural Association of Fredericton has tried multilingual outreach on its website, social media, phone calls, Whatsapp group chats, daily emails sent to more than 900 clients, and through community partners.

Ljiljana Kalaba, the organization's director of settlement services, said pandemic information and orientation sessions are offered for immigrants in a variety of languages beyond French and English.

The experience for new arrivals to Canada has changed greatly with the pandemic.

Trained staff from the association, who speak the same language as newcomers, pick them up from the airport wearing masks in a vehicle divided by Plexiglas. They are briefed about restrictions and health measures from the start in their mother tongue.

Lauren Bird/CBC
Lauren Bird/CBC

Kalaba said association staff work closely with Public Health to provide certified interpreters over the phone for isolation and testing information.

"What we hear from immigrants is that generally they are very pleased with federal and provincial governments' response to the COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "Many immigrants came to Canada seeking stability, opportunities and support we did not find in our countries of origin."

'A source that they trust'

One challenge some newcomers face is the high language level of government announcements released by the provincial and federal governments about COVID-19.

Many documents contain complex medical terms outside of common vocabulary in English or French, requiring a high literacy rate.

"Not only does English have to be your first language, but you need to know how to communicate in English really well for you to be able to understand," Bagha said.

The Saint John Newcomers Centre has focused on making information easy to read, understand and access to prevent misinformation on COVID-19.

Kirk Pennell/CBC
Kirk Pennell/CBC

It has a program called "Helping Hands" which offers grocery delivery, particularly for those in quarantine after first arriving in New Brunswick. It also offers interpretation services in more than 15 languages to help clients communicate with Public Health.

Saint John has a concentration of Arabic and Mandarin speakers. Somali, Spanish and Portuguese are also commonly found in the city.

Bagha said newcomers trust information from the centre because they have established connections with staff and can easily verify it or ask questions, with the help of an interpreter if needed.

"Having the information in your mother tongue is the best and easiest way to understand and read through," he said.