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Afghan refugees in Tucson will require the simple but critical work of interpreters

Tucson resettlement programs are looking for interpreters to help Pashto, Dari and Farsi-speaking refugees from Afghanistan arriving here in the coming weeks. Most of these interpreters will likely be fully resettled refugees themselves, wanting to return the service provided to them, one refugee agency said.

The job of a resettlement interpreter is to get refugees past language barriers, according to the UN Refugee Agency, but with the added task of protecting and assisting them. Understanding a refugee’s cultural background, however, is more important than just knowing their native language, said Connie Phelps, the president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.

“We’re looking for people who speak the language and have an understanding of the culture,” she said. “It’s not just ‘I can speak the language.’ It’s people who have been in Afghanistan, people who are coming from Afghanistan, people whose family came from Afghanistan. Those are going to be really helpful."

The basic role of the interpreter, Phillips said, is to ensure an accurate exchange of information to and from refugees, but they can be used in all kinds of roles. Bottom line, she said, is that interpreters need to make sure refugees are included in important conversations.

“They’re just kind of used for everything,” Phillips said. “Interpreters participate in many ways, whether it’s welcoming at the airport or a medical service or school enrollment or job training, immigration services. If there’s a concern that a refugee will not be able to participate fully, then we ask interpreters to come.”

Interpreters in refugee resettlement programs are typically refugees who have gone through the resettlement process some years back and have done well enough in the United States to feel like they’re ready to repay a service done for them, Phillips said.

“There really isn’t a specific kind of person,” she said. “They’re people who are feeling confident enough and successful enough to want to give back.”

They have a more limited role than case managers, who work directly with individuals and families to make sure they have housing, access to public services and other essentials. Case managers call interpreters when they’re needed and usually get their assistance over the phone or via text, though they also appear in person for certain activities, Phillips said.

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One of three local organizations taking in Afghan refugees locally, International Rescue Committee Tucson asks their interpreters to work in person or remotely. Their job, according to their website, is to render messages from one language into another “with accuracy and impartiality without omitting or adding.”

It’s a very prescribed role, Phillips said, saying that they’re not expected to provide any other kind of assistance or be too involved in each refugee’s situation. Case managers and volunteer co-sponsors for the refugees are much more closely involved with making sure refugees are resettled and getting necessities and basic services. Interpreters just have to make sure refugees can express themselves and understand everything correctly.

Case managers are the ones who call interpreters to tell them when they’re needed and how. Interpreters are contacted randomly but are told about upcoming appointments or events when and where they’ll be needed, Phillips said. Case managers usually deal with a dozen families or individuals at a time, she said, as they try to limit their caseload.

Help from every direction

Lutheran Social Services, which has been doing refugee resettlement since 1975, is expecting to take in 100 Afghan refugees. The International Rescue Committee said they plan to provide services for 400 refugees. Steve Kozachik, the Ward 6 city councilman, said that Tucson will take in as many as 500 Afghan refugees. Phillips said that Catholic Community Services also expects to provide refugee resettlement services.

Kozachik said 2,000-3,000 Afghan refugees are expected to arrive in Arizona, while nationally there will be 65,000 incoming Afghan refugees.

Resettlement programs receive federal funds to help refugees resettle, but there’s not a uniform set of benefits. For example, Afghans coming through the military bases will receive a one-time $1,225 payment and short-term emergency health insurance under the Afghanistan Placement Assistance Program, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

There isn’t any money that goes to resettlement programs like LSS to help them pay for interpreters, however, Phillips said. IRC Tucson and LSS both hire interpreters as contract employees, but Phillips said she’s hopeful plenty of volunteers will step forward.

“The communities are very resourceful and very generous, especially with how many people are stepping forward and want to help right now,” she said. “Because we’ve gotten so adept at virtual (work) and people are so good at their phones, I think that we’ll be able to find interpreters who will be able to give their time.”

Even though LSS knows how many Afghans to expect, they don’t know how many interpreters they’ll need. Phillips said that it depends on the language skills of the refugees as she expects some to speak English.

In the LSS program, there are 21 languages spoken, Phillips said, but she said this means that even if they don’t have a Dari or Farsi speaker available, there might be a third language that can be used.

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“A lot of the rest of the world speaks more than one language,” she said. “They might not speak English, but they might speak French, just as an example. But there might be other languages that they can speak. Until we have people here and understand the level of their English proficiency, we aren't going to be able to know.”

The amount of time each interpreter can give factors heavily into deciding how many interpreters will be needed, Phillips said. Generally, she said, “there are still a lot of unknowns” about what services incoming refugees will need.

The interpreters that will step forward, however, will almost certainly be former refugees themselves, Phillips said.

“People who come as refugees over the years often step forward to be interpreters,” she said. “They’ve gone through the experience. That’s usually where most interpreters come from. They came as refugees themselves, and they themselves want to give back and help guide new arrivals.”

One of their new interpreters, Phillips said, is a 30-year-old who came to the U.S. when he was 12. Phillips said he told her “I just had to come back and give back.”

Getting interpreters has never been a real challenge, Phillips said, because LSS keeps in close contact with local ethnic and religious community organizations. Interpreters will typically work with more than one organization, she said, which makes these connections good places to find interpreters.

The incoming Afghan refugees are also the first large group of refugees that LSS and other resettlement agencies have committed to resettling in a while, Phillips said, which will require that they rebuild some connections in the community.

The number of refugees resettled greatly dropped off during the Trump administration, which cut back on the number of people being admitted to the United States. In Arizona, there was a 90 percent decrease in the number of refugees resettled between 2016 and 2021, according to data from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. From 2011 to 2016, under President Barack Obama, the state saw a 100 percent increase in the number of refugees who made new homes here.

Most of the recently resettled refugees from the past two decades are from African countries, Phillips said. Many are Congolese, Sudanese or Somalian, but LSS and other Arizona resettlement agencies have also helped some Syrians and an even larger number of Iraqis.

The 12,370 Iraqis resettled in Arizona since 1981 make up the largest group to be brought to the state — most in the past two decades. The second and third-largest national contingents of refugees here are Vietnam with 10,511 refugees and Cuba with 8,154 refugees.

Most Vietnamese refugees came to Arizona in the '80s and early '90s, while most Cubans in the state have arrived in the past two decades.

Getting them settled

“Refugee resettlement is a very ordered process,” Phillips said.

There are nine national organizations tasked with helping refugees by the State Department. Local resettlement agencies work with those organizations, determining how many they can serve.

Episcopal Migration Ministries is the national organization that works with Lutheran Social Services in Arizona. They’ll decide whether to send a family to LSS, and LSS has to agree to take them.

Agencies like LSS consult with local community groups and government agencies to make sure there's capacity to provide help, so they have discussions with schools, the city, the fire department, the police and with the faith community, Phillips said.

“We have to do all that work so that people are aware and have said yes, we are willing to work with people, support people, who are coming as refugees,” she said.

Case managers from LSS will greet refugees at the airport and take them to their new homes. LSS keeps a list of things that have to be ready to receive those refugees that includes a furnished apartment ready with linens, towels and food.

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“It’s very prescribed what we have to have available for them,” Phillips said.

Those case managers will start working with refugees right away because they want refugees to be self-sufficient within their first 90 days, Phillips said.

The job of LSS, however, is not to stay that involved, she said. The goal is to get refugees engaged, for example, with their local mosque or congregation, getting them involved as a co-sponsor for other refugees, or getting them involved in Parks and Recreation or school-organized activities and groups.

“Our job is to help them integrate in their communities,” she said. “Then we kind of step back, but we’re always available as a kind of safety net.”

They continue to provide support services to refugee families and individuals for five years, Phillips said. After those five years, those refugees can apply for citizenship, and LSS provides immigration services to help with the application process.

“We’re always available, but we’re less engaged after the first few months,” she said.

The needs of individual refugees and families drop off in those first few months as well, Phillips said, because of how quickly they develop English proficiency.

“They might be needed in the first couple of months, but then not really needed because people learn English very quickly,” she said. “It’s amazing how resilient people are to learn this very complicated language.”

Refugees quickly learn enough to get by, she said, and it doesn’t take long for someone in the family to pick up English well enough to help the rest. Often, it’s the children who do this, she said, who are being exposed to the language more frequently in school and are learning it there as well.

When people come as refugees, they often start out in service jobs or manufacturing jobs, jobs that don’t take a lot of English skills, she said. From there, they often become entrepreneurs seeking to start their own business. As refugee children grow, they go to school, go to college then take all kinds of jobs, Phillips said.

LSS has stopped asking the community to fill other roles besides interpreters because there has been so much generous interest from the Tucson community. She said LSS is asking everyone to “sit tight” until they get a better understanding of what their needs actually are for the incoming Afghans.

Phillips did say, however, that LSS is trying to find rental properties. If people have commercial rental properties, have managed apartment units or have other rental property in Tucson, Phillips said she’s asking that those people let them know.

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Otherwise, Phillips said people interested in helping should wait until Afghans start arriving in the coming weeks.

The generous response for Afghan refugees that Phillips has described seeing is unusual, she said. Tucson loves helping refugees, she said, but with the recent decline in refugees coming to Arizona, LSS has lost a lot of its relationships within the community.

“A lot of people have a heart for refugees. Tucson is very welcoming. There are a lot of people who want to step in and help,” she said. “But we’ve had so few refugees coming over the past five years that we lost a lot of our relationships. This is kind of a restart, so we’re getting started again.”

Phillips said she knows that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent arrival of refugees has “really captured everybody’s attention,” but she hopes that people remember that other refugees will continue to need community support.

“The refugees who come from the other counties, whether it’s the (Democratic Republic of Congo), or it’s Syria or it’s Iraq or Afghanistan, that they are all going to need our support,” she said. “We anticipate that people will again be generous and will provide for the needs of the families that come.”

Besides Pashto, Dari and Farsi, the most common languages in Afghanistan, local resettlement agencies are also seeking interpreters who speak Amharic, Burmese, Karen, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Tigrinya, Urdu, Spanish, Somali and Vietnamese. Five of those are African languages, while the rest are Asian with the exception of Spanish.

Pashto and Dari, both Indo-European languages, are the official languages of Afghanistan. Dari is a dialect of Farsi, or Persian, that’s commonly spoken in Afghanistan. Farsi is the Persian spoken in Iran, but is still widely used in Afghanistan. Pasho was originally spoken by the Pashtun people in Afghanistan, and became the country’s national language in 1936.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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U.S. Air Force

Afghan civilians in a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III as they flee Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 22.

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