Translating Compassion

Translating compassion

Publication info

Vangi Dora

A social worker and a translator make treatment possible

One of the most important obstacles that refugees and asylum seekers struggle with in their daily life in Greece is the language barrier. Not being able to communicate with locals causes major problems to their integration and interaction with authorities and public services.

Can you imagine how it feels to be in a hospital and listen to doctors talking in a language that you don’t understand? On the other hand, can you imagine how it feels to be a doctor who cannot get across a simple but essential question: “What is the problem?”

Andrianna and Haji, a social worker and an interpreter working for CARE’s local partner PRAKSIS, are playing the essential role of the mediator in order to facilitate the communication between refugees and doctors in such cases. Every day they accompany approximately three patients to different hospitals, but on some days, they might have to escort more than eight people who need immediate help. Each appointment takes a minimum of two hours, depending always on the case. They visit every kind of hospital, from pregnancy clinics to general hospitals for tests of routine or specialized departments for cancer, HIV and other severe cases.

“One time we had to accompany a pregnant woman to the hospital as an emergency case,” Andrianna says. “It turned out that her baby was in danger and she had to be hospitalized. She was eight months pregnant. After a few days, the doctor decided she had to do a C-Section. We were there. It was really intense. I remember we stayed until the end and it is one of my favorite memories since I started working in this project. Her husband couldn’t be there on time and when she saw us waiting outside her room, she hugged us and said ‘You are my family here’. She thanked us. I cannot even describe the feeling. Sometimes we are lucky enough to witness priceless moments like this one. Currently we are also accompanying a pregnant woman from Afghanistan to her regular visits to the Pregnancy Clinic. She is expected to give birth in a couple of months.”

Ahmed, a 30-year-old man from Pakistan, had to visit the hospital to arrange an examination for psoriasis and Hepatitis C. He has been diagnosed in Pakistan but until recently he didn’t have the chance to visit the doctor. In the hospital’s office, he remains silent but you can see the anguish in his eyes. He is turning to Haji, the interpreter, and asks him in Urdu: “How bad is it?” He is ready to shed tears. “It is OK. Calm down. The doctor is writing what kind of tests you have to run before we arrange the next steps”. Haji comforts him with his words and he taps him on the back in a comforting gesture. “You need to eat well. Can you describe a daily meal?” says the doctor. Ahmed looks down and replies that most of the time he has to eat whatever he finds.

Andrianna goes through his papers and she arranges with the doctor the next steps. He needs to do additional tests to check the level of Hepatitis C in his blood and he will be treated for the psoriasis.  Andrianna explains to Ahmed the procedure and what the next steps are, while Haji does the interpretation. Ahmed’s papers from previous medical tests and prescriptions are piled up on the doctor’s desk but Andrianna knows exactly what needs to be done.

“This service is one of the most important components of the CARE and PRAKSIS joint project. It is extremely useful for both refugees and doctors as it comes to fill in a gap in their communication. Public hospitals don’t have the capacity to provide this service and doctors often don’t know how to deal with a patient if they cannot communicate clearly what is the issue. They appreciate the fact that there is someone who plays the role of the mediator as this ensures they can do their job well and treat the patient appropriately. In addition, our role is to explain to both the doctor and the patient the bureaucratic procedure behind all the examinations or medicine prescriptions," says Andrianna with a gentle smile. “It is a very rewarding job because you can see the impact of your actions immediately."

The health issues that the teams have to deal with are diverse.  Regardless of the urgency of every case, doctors and other hospital staff have been extremely positive, singling out having the interpreters as a huge relief to their services, and the social workers as a patient's advocate who can explain things and take on the task of navigating people in need through all the bureaucratic procedures.

Andrianna and Haji talk to one of the people they escort to the hospital every day. Photo Credit: Vangi Dora/CARE