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Lesbos: Online Volunteers Bridge Language Gap

How do you help someone if you can’t communicate with them? Translators without Borders, a remote network of volunteer translators, is helping NGOs in the Western Balkans translate vital information to help newly arrived migrants on the island of Lesbos.

Written by Paul Raymond Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Imagine for a moment you are a refugee fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq and picture your joy at finally landing on the famed Greek island of Lesbos after a perilous and harrowing sea journey. And then imagine your bewilderment when you realize you don’t understand Greek and don’t know how you’ll get by when it comes to urgent things like food, shelter and medical attention.

On the other side, imagine for a moment you are one of the scores of local and foreign volunteers on Lesbos, such as Rose Foran, who works on the NGO Internews’ humanitarian response in Lesbos. Helping requires communication. But how do you communicate with so many refugees speaking so many different languages?

That’s where one NGO – Translators without Borders (TWB) – is making a difference. It operates an online network of nearly 120 Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Greek-speaking volunteers who provide a rapid-response translation service to help NGOs keep migrants informed. With a remotely based staff member coordinating its work via Skype, TWB can quickly turn around professional translations of news reports, health warnings, weather bulletins, information on applying for asylum or instructions on using cash machines.

“What Translators without Borders is doing is relieving the pressure on aid workers who speak multiple languages but are used only for those skills rather than their actual work. That is a huge issue,” said Foran. Internews, she said, uses the service every single day to translate its weekly newsletter into Arabic, Farsi, Greek and English, which debunks rumors spreading among the refugees.

TWB translators also work on News That Moves, an Internews project, that provides a daily news service in the same four languages to inform migrants on the West Balkans route about border closures, registration centers and asylum rights.

“It’s because of Translators without Borders that we can have a website in multiple languages and keep refugees at the heart of our work,” said Foran.

TWB is an American offshoot of Traducteurs sans Frontieres, which was founded in 1993 to link volunteer translators to NGOs focusing on health, nutrition and education. Today, TWB helps translate over 2 million words per year for NGOs including Action Against Hunger, Doctors without Borders and Oxfam.

As the number of migrants arriving in Greece peaked in 2015, it soon became obvious that something similar was needed in the Balkans. Backed by funding from the British government’s development arm, DfID, a project was launched to translate documents from English into Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, with other languages added as necessary. Since November, volunteers have translated over 100,000 words. The service is a lifeline to the local, underfunded aid networks that sprang up to help as migrant arrivals surged.

Even a translation of a ferry cancellation notice can make a huge difference, says Lali Foster, who coordinates TWB’s “Words of Relief” project on the ground in the Balkans.

Words of Relief focuses on crisis situations. Following a pilot project in Kenya in 2014, it set up a rapid-response effort to help NGOs dealing with Ebola patients in West Africa. Its success was a model for a similar program during the aid effort that followed last year’s earthquake in Nepal.

“It sounds so basic, but you could have thousands of people waiting in the cold, rain or snow,” Foster said. “To be able to tell people ‘don’t go to port, stay in the registration center,’ despite the fact travel agents are saying something different, seeing that is really impressive.”

The model is simple. An agency with a document that needs translating sends it to Foster, who puts out a request via Skype to translators with the right language match. The first available translator picks it up, writes the translation on a Google Doc, then sends the link to an editor, who reviews it. Soon, it’s heading back to the relevant NGO. The whole process can take as little as 15 minutes.

Volunteer translator Selima Ben Chagra says she’s highly motivated to help out, despite receiving no payment for her work. A recent master’s graduate in translation from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, she’s now back home in Tunisia working as a freelance translator. When her former professor emailed her to say TWB was looking for translators, she immediately signed up. Selima stays logged in on Skype for six to eight hours a day in case there are urgent requests. She says she spends about 15 hours a week translating for TWB.

Unlike volunteers working directly with the arriving refugees, Selima never meets the people she helps. Often, she does not know whom and how many lives her translation could have impacted. There is just no room for self-gratification. But, despite the distance, she loves what she does.

“I wish I could do more,” she said. “Today I was doing laundry when I got a Skype message, so I just left my laundry, did the translation, then went back to the housework. I believe our work should be treated as a priority. What if I were in their shoes, waiting for that information?”

The West Balkans team translates 2,000–3,000 words a day, including signs, short news articles, details of specific reception centers and up-to-date information on asylum laws.

It’s an initiative that quickly gained interest from NGOs working in Lesbos. Its clients include the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, Norwegian Refugee Council and Internews, which uses the service every day for projects that help keep migrants informed of developments and dangers on the West Balkans route.

Given the demand on the ground, any volunteer who speaks Arabic and English could become a translator. While their skills are useful, the quality of the translation is vital.

For example, there are several words in Arabic for “boat.” News of a ferry strike could easily be mistranslated to imply that the craft carrying migrants from Turkey to the Greek coast had stopped running. One word seems like a small issue, but in context, poor translation could create enormous confusion. Selima might not meet those she helps face-to-face, but timely translations by her and her fellow translators have aided as many as tens of thousands of stranded refugees at a time.

“They have made it so there’s less panic among refugees: they know what’s going on and what’s the next step. That mitigates a lot of anxiety,” explained Foran.

This story is part of our series on citizen- and community-driven initiatives that are setting the standard for governments to follow.

Top image: Life jackets of recently arrived refugees are seen on the shores of Lesbos Island, Greece. (Translators Without Borders)

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