Interpreting with an Impact
How a remote interpreting taskforce gave a new life to asylum seekers

by cameron rasmusson

Some of the most important work any interpreter can perform is for refugees and asylum seekers living through one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. And in that department, Acolad has racked up substantial experience through its Remote Interpreting Task Force. First established in 2015 to assist the Dutch government, the task force has gone on to employ former refugees and asylum seekers as interpreters themselves.

Overseen by Nancy Hahnel, Acolad’s general manager of the Netherlands, the Remote Interpreting Task Force was reintroduced this year to continue the work started in 2015.

“What’s so different about our program is the fact that our taskforce works daily with a reality and context they all know far too well: Many of the linguists that make up the taskforce were former asylum seekers themselves and now focus on supporting fellow nationals to navigate the culture, language, and legal proceedings as they settle in a new life in central Europe,” Hahnel told MultiLingual.

But re-establishing the task force was easier said than done. As detailed in her LocWorld49 presentation, Hahnel discussed the process of setting up a task force in record time, aided in no small part by former asylum seekers who entered the linguistic profession after undergoing the program’s learning and development opportunities.

“In peak years of migrant inflow, there was great shortage of language professionals,” said Hahnel. “The legal proceedings for asylum requests got significantly delayed as well as being extremely complex and burdensome for the government, especially since the majority of migrants have no knowledge of a second language other than their mother tongue.”

And the need is enormous, with the Netherlands expected to receive 70,000 asylum seekers by the end of the year.

“Our landlines were flooding with incoming requests for support in several languages, and we found capacity for response was not there,” Hahnel said. “It wasn’t anywhere. That’s when we decided we had to do something about it, and this problem would not be solved with out-of-pocket solutions. We had to think this through differently.”

That meant finding a solution to the interpreter shortage that afflicted the Netherlands’ efforts. There were two reasons for the problem, according to Hahnel.

“On the one hand, interpreters working side by side with government entities need to respect and abide by certain protocols, be part of a common register with the Dutch government, and become a sworn interpreter,” she said. “This entails not only a lot of investment from the side of the interpreter, but also means a more restricted access to this job.”

“In addition, the migrant waves that have largely marked the turn of the 21st century, have shown Europe an entirely different scenario: Historically, there has not been much previous contacts with idioms such as Syrian, Farsi or Tigrinya, so the people who fluently speak and know the language were rather few to start with,” Hahnel added.

By training and supplying new interpreters themselves, Hahnel and her team successfully managed the Netherlands’ language needs with exceptional efficiency. They found that former migrants were eager and enthusiastic, excelling in their new roles. After all, not only did they bring with them a knowledge of the languages and cultures (primarily Arabic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Spanish, and Polish) at the center of the migrant influx — they also harbored a deep empathy for the asylum seekers’ plight, having experienced the profound challenge for themselves.

“We plan to add 20 interpreters to our in-home interpreting team in 2023 and double this number in 2024,” Hahnel said. “Our objective is to strengthen internal capacity by bringing in more resources and making more landlines available.”

The program works by first selecting candidates based on background and education, as well as a desire to enter a new career. Then comes the in-house training covering topics like interpreting techniques, codes of conduct, and specialized terminology. From there, the trainee is added to the emergency list where they can log work hours and take Acolad-funded interpreter training course to become a B2 or C1 interpreter.

“After an interpreter has been with us for some years, we encourage him to enter the market as a freelancer,” Hahnel said. “In recent years, for example, we have guided dozens of Rbtv interpreters to their self-employment and solved the interpreter shortage for COA in 2015.”

One such interpreter is Basel Someh, who took the time to answer some questions about his experience.

How did you end up joining this interpreting task force?

BS: I arrived in the Netherlands in 1996 seeking asylum. Back in 2015, I was the owner of a café in Amsterdam when the migrant crisis peaked in Europe — there was a very large inflow of migrants coming from my home country too. The context in Syria was devastating, and the reports I was seeing in the news and the information that reached me prompted me to action. I felt the need to help in any way I could, but I didn’t manage to understand just how I could help. I had already seen so much in my life and understand very well how those migrants would feel upon arrival to a new and strange country that bears very little resemblance to their own reality. That’s when I got to know of the program — I met Marco Sens from Acolad in 2016 — and we hit it off right there.

I did all the necessary tests in real-life scenarios and language tests and passed all of them.
So far, I’ve managed a total of 20,000 assignments as an interpreter, and 2023 will be an exciting year as I just started my own business as a freelancer too.

What do you feel the role of language services in support in crisis relief is?

I feel proud of the work that I do — I never imagined I would become an interpreter for a living, not in a million years — but I am rather happy I became an interpreter. I feel I can contribute to overcoming the first culture clashes migrants experience, and the fact that I’ve been through a similar situation to many of them builds trust and gives them comfort.

The work of language professionals in crisis relief scenarios is central to social work. I believe what we do is true public service. We don’t just convert conversations and make them clear to both parties, we give context, depth, and we solve problems.

More than language, cultural clashes are hard to solve — these can generate many misunderstandings and even harm the full proceeding. Misunderstandings in these situations can have profound impacts. That is why I often label interpreters as culture mediators.

And several culture clashes emerge every single day. The Dutch culture values certain signs and manners, while for Muslim individuals, it can be entirely different. We get asked often: “Why didn’t you shake my hand? Why don’t you look me in the eye?”

And it is often my job to explain that what in one culture seems inappropriate, in another culture, it might be the ultimate sign of respect. For the Muslim culture, for instance, looking someone directly in the eyes can be a sign of disrespect, unlike what a Dutch person might assume.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

When you work in scenarios like ours, you come by the most diverse personal stories, backgrounds, and contexts — some of them can be quite devastating. There is an emotional toll that comes with the job — you listen in and convert conversations into all sorts of topics, and some stories are harder to deal with. At the end of the day, it’s not just a job. Being a linguist is a mission — one that can solve many problems.

The interpreter really needs to be motivated and feel strongly about helping those who may need it most. You are oftentimes the only bridge between two very different realities, sometimes even antagonistic views on reality.

Cameron Rasmusson is editor-in-chief of MultiLingual Media.



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