Asylum Welcome is currently supporting a number of Afghan families in hotels across Oxfordshire. At the core of our work is our team of dedicated and versatile interpreters. Most of our interpreters are young students, including Wasi, Florence, Merzia and Fuchsia, who took some time out to chat to us about their experiences translating in the hotels.
Two languages are spoken predominantly in Afghanistan: Pashto and Dari. Speakers of Dari can also understand Farsi or Persian (predominantly spoken in Iran). Wasi, a native Pashto speaker, has lived in the UK for 10 years and is a student of engineering. Both Florence and Merzia are native Dari speakers. Florence is a Canadian-Afghan doctoral student of modern Afghan history at SOAS, and Merzia is a fashion design student at Bucks New University. Fuchsia, a PhD student at the University of Oxford studying Islamic Art and Architecture learnt Persian as an undergraduate and studied in Tehran and Kabul.
Asylum Welcome’s interpreters have a challenging job, translating everything from medical appointments to meetings with the Home Office to primary school classes to everyday conversations. These interpreters are the first port of call for hotel guests, and often their link between life in Afghanistan and life in the UK. Find out more about what they do here…
1. Why did you decide to become an interpreter at Asylum Welcome?
Wasi: When I came to the UK from Afghanistan as a teenager, I didn’t speak any English, so I know what it’s like and I know what they are feeling. I wanted to help my people because I know the problems they face.
Florence: I saw Asylum Welcome mentioned in someone’s post, read an article about their programmes, and reached out.
Merzia: I just felt a sense of duty, or rather felt the need to do something, even if it is the smallest thing, so that I can have a calm/good conscious and ease at heart.
Fuchsia: I wanted to do whatever I can to support the Afghans recently arrived in Oxfordshire.
2. What’s something surprising or interesting about working in the hotels?
Wasi: For me, the surprising thing about this role was visiting a British primary school with the children. I didn’t go to primary school in the UK, so it was the first time I have been inside one. It was interesting that the children learn and play at the same time.
Florence: I have had the opportunity to meet Afghan people from many different regions and hear dialects that I hadn’t encountered before.
Merzia: I was not sure what to expect from the hotels!
Fuchsia: I perhaps shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised about how many small children there are. They bring a lot of joy to the hotel corridors!
3. What’s been challenging about interpreting in the hotels?
Wasi: The most challenging thing is translating for a group. For example, when visitors come to do presentations, like the police and the fire department, it is hard to translate for everyone at the same time.
Florence: Having to wear masks as a Covid safety measure makes it a bit more difficult to understand and be understood sometimes.
Merzia: I feel like translating for other people apart from my family (parents) is awkward for me. The fact that I tend to change my accent/dialect when speaking to other Dar/Farsi speakers unintentionally seems different.
Fuchsia: I really wish I could speak Pashto!
4. Have you learned anything new about English, Pashto or Dari while working in the hotels?
Wasi: It has helped me to learn more English, because at home I speak Pashto and at my retail job I don’t speak a lot.
Florence: I’ve learned many new expressions from fellow interpreters and translators, some of whom were once asylum seekers and refugees themselves. Having coming from Afghanistan through all kinds of routes and settled in the UK, they have many insights about life in this country.
Merzia: Sometimes I struggle to convey the right emotions and I think it is important to deliver the right message/content, but professionally as much as possible, because it is to make two different speakers understand each other’s situations.
Fuchsia: Definitely! I have felt my Persian becoming less Farsi and more Dari again.
5. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn these languages, or who wants to support refugees through interpreting work?
Wasi: Find out how your skills can be used! Come and volunteer. If you want to learn Pashto, just start with a few words and phrases first, and go from there.
Florence: In my experience, most clients will meet you halfway if you are working on improving your language skills, so do not let that hold you back.
Merzia: Working as an interpreter is great because it’s an opportunity to use one’s language skills which helps with building confidence and self-esteem, as well as making connections. However, it can be challenging because one has to be confident enough to relay/translate the right content of speech.
Fuchsia: Persian is actually a relatively simple language to learn, especially if you compare it to Arabic, for example.
6. From your work in the hotels, what’s one thing you’d like people to know or understand about the clients you’re working with?
Wasi: Afghans are respectful people. People often think Afghans are extreme or violent people, but we’re not. People think women aren’t respected in Afghan households but they are highly respected.
Florence: For the most part, clients are very eager to learn more about life and culture in the United Kingdom. It must be comforting to know that, despite some differences, we have much in common.
Merzia: It is very different for the clients, the place they’re at, whether it is emotionally or physically they feel everything. Most people might not understand what being a refugee is like but there are some people who know exactly what it feels like. Waking up every morning in a completely different world, meeting different people, culture shocks, society itself, and everything else that would seem different. I think that our clients are adjusting to the different life here pretty well given their circumstances.
Fuchsia: They are all individuals, coming from a wide variety of different circumstances and backgrounds.
7. Is there anything you would like to add?
Wasi: To be an interpreter, people need to trust you. The clients trust you with private and personal information that they wouldn’t normally tell anybody else.
Florence: These clients are doing their best to manage feelings of homesickness and worry about relatives left behind in Afghanistan. A listening ear can be very helpful at this time.
Merzia: Translators have to understand why they are doing what they are doing, especially when it comes to refugees, because people don’t become refugees for nothing. They go through a lot suffering and are forced to become refugees.
Fuchsia: A huge thank you to everybody at Asylum Welcome for all the critical work you do!
Would you like to join our team of interpreters? Asylum Welcome are currently looking for Pashto, Dari and Farsi speakers (particularly female Pashto speakers) to join our wonderful team. Contact volunteer@asylum-welcome,org to find out more.