Lost in translation | North Hill refugees facing challenges due to language barriers

By Noorulbari Mal

Utility bills, parking tickets, correspondence from his kids’ school and plenty of junk mail. These all go together in Juma Momand’s mail bag. The mail remains untouched in a big blue reusable grocery bag, waiting for a volunteer who visits Momand once a week. 

“If the volunteer does not show up for some reason, I will be paying late fees,” Momand says.

The 52-year-old refugee from Afghanistan speaks three languages but struggles with spelling his name in English. From making a phone call to his doctor’s office to writing a check to his utility company, Momand counts on his friends and community organizations to interpret for him.

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Alamgeer Watak, another Afghan refugee, was involved in a car accident a year ago, and he believes that it wasn’t his fault. Because he could not properly explain the situation to the police officer with his broken English, the other party did not accept the blame.

Momand and Watak are not alone. The most recently available data from the United States Census Bureau estimates that almost 6,000 citizens 18 years and older living in Summit County speak English less than “very well.”

According to research by the International Institute of Akron, the North Hill neighborhood in Summit County is home to residents from more than 14 nations. The research indicates that refugees are facing challenges due to language barriers. This includes difficulty forming social bonds, mental health problems, cross-cultural issues and misconceptions and challenges in accessing services.

“I have had people who have collected many, many, many parking tickets,” says Linda Goeke, a volunteer at Crossings Akron, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants in Akron. “They found a piece of paper, and they did not know what the paper said. They didn’t know they were supposed to send in $2, so they didn’t. Well, now they have raised it to $4. Now they got a warrant out for their arrest because they never paid all those parking tickets.”

To integrate, immigrants and refugees need to know the language of their new home. According to Immigration Policy Report cited by The York Review, the need for English as a Second Language (ESL) Programs for adults is greater than the need for such programs for school children. 

The Akron Public School district provides ESL services and ESL certified teachers in all 47 schools.

None of the 47 schools, however, have an English language learning program for adults or parents. 

Although there are organizations in Akron that offer ESL classes, the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted them. 

“Because of COVID, our class is no longer providing childcare services,” Zahida Baryalai, an English language learner at Crossings says. “So a lot of my classmates who have kids can no longer attend.” 

Other organizations like the International Institute of Akron have moved their ESL classes to online only. This has made it harder for the refugees with limited computer literacy and limited access to the internet and computer to participate.

To bridge the gap, the International Institute of Akron acquired some local funding to provide their students with Chromebooks. However, the students still needed to know how to use the Chromebook and navigate through the video calls. “We then kind of shifted to being a tech support department and making sure that everybody was able to get connected,” Adam Laliberte, Education Manager at the International Institute of Akron, says. “Whether that meant helping [students] get hooked up with the internet or helping them navigate how to use the Chromebook and get on a video call.”

In addition, many of the teachers are volunteers and the programs have limited resources to fulfill all the needs. “My class is only two days a week. The next week I return to the class, I do not remember anything from the last week,” Baryalai says. “They do not assign enough homework to keep me engaged in learning throughout the week.” 

The International Institute of Akron does have a full time ESL instructor. Nevertheless, Laliberte also acknowledges the high demand and limited resources. “The demand is high… we have great community partners that do a great job also teaching English,” he says. “I think the resources will never be fully enough [and] we have ways to go for addressing the need in the community regarding language learning.”

While people like Momand and Watak might be able to glean some conversational English from living in an English-dominant environment, without proper adult ESL and literacy programs in the community, they may always struggle to read and respond to their mail and face everyday challenges that English dominant speakers may take for granted.

Noorulbari Mal is a freelance journalist in Akron. Mal worked as a writer and reporter for various newsrooms in Afghanistan before he immigrated to the United States, in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @MalNoorulbari

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