Translation Can Change Lives
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I am a freelance English-French translator, born in Canada but currently living in Tel-Aviv, Israel. I have been working in the translation industry for 7 years now, and I thoroughly enjoy it. When I was writing this article about the translation and interpreting work I provide on a voluntary basis, I was wondering how to approach it all. Not every day do I get the chance to tell the stories I hear and the way I try to help.
I think the work of translators and interpreters is crucial in all contexts and situations. However, I can say that personally, it was not until I worked in contexts where my translation work was nearly a matter of life or death that I truly saw the importance of our work as language connectors.
I am the co-director of a small grass-roots NGO (nongovernmental organization) that assists orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in impoverished nations. When I returned from working in Africa for the first time in 2007, I heard about the sensitive issue of African asylum seekers in Israel, and their daily struggles. This new phenomenon was unknown to most people at the time and I was about to find out that I could be of great use to improve their migration challenges.
At that time in 2007, there were an estimated number of 5,000 African migrants in Israel. These asylum seekers, mostly men aged between 18 and 35 years old, but also many women, entered Israel illegally by crossing the Sinai border with Egypt. Most of them were from Eritrea and Sudan (South and Darfur), as well as from other sub-Saharan African nations (Ivory Coast, Congo, Burundi, Cameroun, Chad). As one can imagine, the journey from Africa to Israel is hazardous to say the least. Most actually walked from the African continent to Israel and many spent some time in Sudan, Libya and Egypt, where they were sometimes imprisoned or faced local discrimination and hostility. At this very second, there are hundreds of African migrants being held hostage by Bedouins smugglers in the Sinai (operating from both sides), where they experience torture, rape and organ trafficking. (*1) Asylum seekers often have to pay large ransoms – sometimes up to 25,000 USD – to the smugglers who traffic them through the desert, in order not to be killed. In a border characterized by an active trade of drugs, tobacco, weapons and women, the asylum seekers have become another valuable commodity in the border's thriving political economy. (*2)
At the time of writing this article, Israel counts an estimated number of 60,000 asylum seekers, and there is a heated debate about the issue, both at the government and the local population levels. (*3) Indeed, the authorities have repeatedly expressed the idea that African "infiltrators" threaten the Jewish character of Israel, and racist protests against immigrants have been organized in the surrounding areas where Africans often live. (*4) Although it is quite understandable that immigration is a sensitive issue all over the world today, especially for a country of small scale and which is trying to preserve its own right to exist among nations that dislike it, the unfortunate thing is that the fate of these asylum seekers is strikingly similar to that of the forefathers of Israel during the Shoah. This is precisely what fuels the urge of the few Israeli and international volunteers and organizations to assist this marginalized community.
Israel just completed the building of a fence protecting the border from smugglers and keeping illegal migrants away. (*5) Ironically, the contractors employed "African asylum seekers to build the very fence designed to keep them out. (*6) Along the length of the entire border, Egyptian guards can be seen at close range, waiting for any suspicious movement, gun in hand and "shoot-to-kill policy in mind. (*7)
With this gruesome context in mind, and while learning more about this issue, a few years ago, I found out that some of the Africans were coming from as far as West Africa, and that they often spoke only French, in addition to their mother tongue. This is when I decided to get involved and do something. I met several French-speaking asylum seekers randomly, who were quick to share their life stories and difficult situations, thus furthering my awareness of the gravity of the phenomenon. Many people believe that Africans in Israel are not “refugees” per say, but rather “economic migrants” looking for ways to enrich themselves. While some indeed were motivated by economic endeavors, the local UNHCR offices have stated in the past that most African asylum seekers are indeed refugees (approximately 80%) and not just immigrants.
The fact that I was able to communicate with a portion of the Africans in Israel, in a language they mastered well, allowed me to better understand their concerns and needs. I have served as a translator of French / English / Hebrew for French-speaking Africans in many different situations in recent years (in immigration prisons, hospitals, lawyer offices, police stations, courts, with apartment owners, employers, etc.). However, there are two particular initiatives assisting this vulnerable group which is of interest here; interpreting for a trained psychotherapist dealing with refugees having survived genocide and torture, and interpreting and translating for prominent human rights lawyers assisting refugees with legal matters.
Both of these experiences are quite different, but equally vital to the rebuilding of the life of a refugee. When I was interpreting in the setting of psychotherapy sessions, of course, I had to deal with hearing and translating (impartially) horrible stories of despair and sadness. I would say that anyone helping and assisting refugees anywhere in the world will agree that he/she hears such stories on a daily basis, because this is part of the any refugee story and for some, the best way to cope with their difficult past is to share it with others. Having lost basic concepts of home, family, love, culture, and national identity, many refugees suffer from insomnia, amnesia, post-traumatic disorder or suicidal thoughts. I found myself as the bridge with a broken soul and a therapist wanting to understand the struggles and release some pain from this person. It was a blessing that I had been to the African continent a few times, because I was aware of some cultural differences that might affect the way individuals express themselves or the therapy itself. For example, in many African settings, there is no such concept as psychologists or psychotherapists. In small communities, when people go to seek "therapy”, it is either a medical doctor or a witch doctor using traditional medicine or voodoo techniques. So, I had to explain on many occasions what a psychologist is, because I knew they might wonder if the therapist was a witch doctor who could read their minds and feelings. One great anecdote is when a patient had an earache and the therapist asked her to describe the pain. Seeing that she was unable to do so, he asked her, "If your ear could speak, what would it say?" The patient looked at me, puzzled, and said, "But, doesn't he know that ears can't speak?"
The other assistance I provide is with some of the best human rights lawyers in Israel, who assist refugees from all over the world. I accompany them to immigration prisons where we visit and speak to their French-speaking clients. This experience is always moving, because it is not easy to meet young and bright individuals in detention centers, completely out of context from their cultural settings, on the premises that they crossed the border illegally. They, men, women and children alike, are often imprisoned for an indefinite amount of time (several years in many cases), without certainty that they will not be deported, even when they feel great fear of returning. I translate articles and reports vouching for the veracity of the refugees' stories (i.e. genocide, political events), and letters, all of which helped to release several African asylum seekers from prison. When they have been released, I continue to help with interpreting at their meetings with the lawyers, and guide them through their newly gained freedom and adjust in a new reality (finding work, clothes, and an apartment).
In short, I believe that when one does not have money to donate to a good cause, perhaps donating some of his/her time is a wonderful alternative. In a world where suffering is so sadly prevalent, I feel happy that I can contribute to easing the difficult existence of some individuals. The issue of African asylum seekers in Israel is quite sensitive and I unfortunately have no tangible solution to offer the nation. The truth is that many people are unaware of their difficult situation and there are very few channels of institutional assistance within. So, personally, I feel a sense of duty to share my professional services for a good cause. From this experience, I gained the hands-on understanding that the translation world is not solely about changing content from a language to another, but it is a powerful tool that can greatly benefit those in need.
*2 Ordered disorder: African asylum seekers in Israel and discursive challenges to an emerging refugee regime, Yonathan Paz, UNHCR – Research Paper N°205, March 2011. http://www.unhcr.org/4d7a26ba9.pdf