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Interpreting in refugee camps

Maha El-Metwally gave an account of her interpreting experience in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos – the largest one in Greece, where refugees originate from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, West Africa and Sri Lanka.

Among the main difficulties are the long hours, lack of client privacy, security issues, lack of running water and toilet facilities, no availability of food for interpreters on-site, and the frustration of refugees. Interpreters have to organise their own transport to the camp and accommodation.

Refugees will sometimes ask interpreters for help, not realising they are not in a position to provide that kind of assistance. She described ‘The Gate’ as a volatile place separating those working at the camp from the refugees – there’s a feeling of helplessness when people are telling their stories at the Gate.

Maha also stressed the importance of interpreters and case workers being appropriately qualified and having the right level of language skills – misinterpreting or failing to get across an important point made by refugee could lead to the wrong decision being made about that person by the authorities.

She also mentioned the risk of secondary trauma arising from being involved in a number of harrowing interviews each day, and said it was important to monitor the way it was affecting you. For reasons of professionalism and self-protection, it was important to develop strategies for not becoming emotionally connected with interviewees.


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