Refugee Crisis Means More Demand for Pashto, Dari Interpreters

Organizations providing aid to Afghan refugees across the United States are struggling to keep up with the demand for language services for the recent influx of Afghans fleeing their home country for the U.S.

Experts estimate that there will be 50,000 — if not more — refugees entering the U.S. from Afghanistan over the next few weeks, following the U.S.’ withdrawal from the war there. The increasing number of Afghan refugees seeking out a safe environment in the U.S. has presented a challenge for the organizations aiding them, as there’s now a significantly increased demand for translators and interpreters who are familiar with Afghanistan’s two predominant languages, Pashto and Dari, both of which have relatively small speaker populations in the U.S.


“A case manager that speaks the language, understands the language, that’s skilled in the cultural nuances, is really key,” Arbazz Nizami, president of the Sahaba Initiative, told Fox News earlier this week. “But alongside that, which is really important, is our counselors and therapists and people that really understand how to address some of the mental health issues that also speak the language, understand the culture.”

The Sahaba Initiative is just one of many non-profit organizations across the U.S. looking to work with interpreters or translators who can aid in facilitating communications for Afghan refugees who have recently entered the country and often speak very little English. Many of the recent refugees formerly worked as interpreters with the U.S. military, however it’s unclear exactly how many newly arrived (or soon-to-arrive) refugees have a high level of English proficiency. 

According to a recent report from Fox News, some states are more well-prepared than others, with some states even turning away prospective interpreters, claiming they have more than enough. Still, it’s evident that there’s an increased strain on the nation’s asylum infrastructure.

Dari and Pashto both have relatively small populations of speakers in the U.S. — for example, census data suggests that there are about 22,000 Pashto speakers in the country, but nearly half of them have a low level of English proficiency. Of the remainder who speak English at an intermediate to advanced proficiency level, the number of individuals who are well-qualified to interpret and translate is likely much lower. This, coupled with an increasing number of refugees, is likely to make language access services in higher demand than ever before.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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