Syrian refugees face language barrier in Oakland

Ahmed Alzuabi coming out from Saint Anthony's School in Oakland after finishing a day in English language class, Wednesday. Ahad Rummani

Ahmed Alzuabi coming out from Saint Anthony's School in Oakland after finishing a day in English language class, Wednesday. Ahad Rummani

Eman Ibraheem spent three days unable to eat, sleep, or talk after she received a call earlier this month from an interpreter who had translated an urgent message from her doctor into Arabic: “You might have an eye tumor; you should see a specialist as soon as possible.”

When she received that call, Ibraheem, a 24-year-old refugee from Syria, had been in the United States for a year. What tore her apart at that moment was not the possibility of having cancer, but what could happen to her four kids—aged between nine and nine months—if something happened to her. “They don’t have anyone but their father and me. How will they manage?” she wondered. “I’m terrified. How can I survive unless I can talk to the doctors? But we struggle to find interpreters.”

This wasn’t the first time Ibraheem had come up against the language barrier. Her husband, Mohannad Abdulrahman, had not been able to find an interpreter to help solve a financial problem he had been struggling with for two months. When Ibraheem learned that she might have a tumor, he felt more helpless than ever. “I saw my wife crying and suffering in fear, and all I was thinking was, ‘How can I find an interpreter to schedule an appointment?’ She was breaking down, and I couldn’t do anything—even just that small part, scheduling an appointment,” he said.

Although Abdulrahman, who lives in Oakland, has been going to English language classes offered by Lao Family Community Development for a year, he hasn’t made as much progress as he had hoped. “I can buy groceries and do small tasks, but I still can’t talk. I don’t think that one year is enough,” he said speaking in Arabic. “I’m trying my best, but it’s hard to advance in English when you are surrounded by financial struggles, so much responsibilities and communication difficulties.”

Abldurahman’s plan to find a job after six months of studying English wasn’t successful. “I was surprised that all the places that were hiring and paying a salary that could support my family required good English,” he said. Abdulrahman is afraid that leaving school for a job that does not require English but also does not pay well will mean losing the financial assistance he receives from Alameda County Social Services—as well has his only chance to attend language classes.

Abdulrahman noted that most of the Syrian refugees who attend the same language school are trapped by this communication barrier, which prevents them from finding jobs and leaves them struggling to deal with minor tasks that require a basic knowledge of English.

Researchers have found that in the long run, improving refugees’ English is crucial to their self-sufficiency and integration into American society. Immigrants who are not refugees are usually more proficient in English than refugees. Like other immigrants, most refugees improve their English skills over time. However, a recent study conducted by the Migration Policy Institute on different groups of refugees found that 58 percent of refugees who had spent more than 20 years in the United States had limited English proficiency. The researchers recommended that lawmakers expand education and language-learning opportunities for refugees.

Ahmed Alzuabi, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee who has been in the United States for a year, has been struggling with the place where he lives in Oakland. “A resident has been encircling my children when they go out to play. Yesterday he tried to grab my wife and hug her without her consent,” he said. Lacking English, Alzuabi has been using gestures to try to stop his neighbor. “I tried everything, he doesn’t get me, and I don’t know how to talk to him.”

Alzuabi, who reluctantly leaves home to go school every day, is worried about his family and looks forward to finding another place to live. His lease just ended, but Alzuabi, who has been struggling to pay a monthly rent of $1,850, is counting on a friend who speaks English to help find a cheaper place. But he’s waiting for the friend to get back to him. “He must be busy right now, but hopefully he will get back to me,” he said.

“One of the major issues Syrian refugees encounter in rebuilding their lives is the language barrier,” said Ghidaa Mousabacha, an English teacher in San Jose who has been working with local mosques to help refugees resettle in the Bay Area. “The number of Syrian refugees I know of who succeeded in finding jobs is small. All jobs require English,” she said. Mousabacha, herself a Syrian immigrant, notes that the financial aid that refugees receive from the government is not always sufficient. To make up the difference, “mosques contribute with donations, and we also help Syrian families as interpreters and assistants with whatever they need.”

Mousabacha says that Syrian refugees need translation help with everyday things such as reading mail, filling out forms, and visiting doctors. Some of the mosques that she works with are in non-Arabic-speaking Muslim communities, so they cannot offer much help except for donations. “I receive calls all the time to translate,” she said. “I do all I can, but with my full-time job and my long commute, it’s not always easy to be able to offer help for everyone at any time.”

According to Kate Goodin, the Arabic-bilingual resettlement case manager at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, a nonprofit organization that assists refugees, “It’s always challenging for any refugee, but I think for Syrians it’s been hard in some unique ways.” She notes that most Syrian refugees have little English when they arrive in the U.S., and unlike other groups, like Afghans, they don’t have a supportive, concentrated community to join. “A lot of times they arrive not having really wanted to leave and still believing that any day now they’ll be able to go home,” she said. “Having that feeling that this is just temporary makes it hard to be willing to move on, to make a new life starting over from scratch.”

After Ibraheem got that phone call about her eye, three days passed before Abdulrahman found an Arabic-speaking college student who could help the couple schedule an appointment and visit the doctor. “We were lucky that he finished school earlier that day and could help us,” Abdulrahman recalled.

At the clinic, Ibraheem shed tears of joy when she learned that her tumor was benign. “I felt like my life had been given back to me,” she said. Ibraheem returned home feeling calm after surviving that nightmare. She held her kids. She also held a piece of paper—a card with the phone number of the neurology clinic her doctor had advised her to call. She gazed at it, and realized that the struggle she just had been through was about to start over again.

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