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Speech services to assist refugees

| Saturday, July 21, 2012, 9:05 p.m.
Northern Area Companies and Jewish Children and Family Services have set up Language Link, which will provide trained interpreters to immigrants and refugees. A need exists to help Bhutanese and Burmese refugees. The program will professionalize translations, which have so far been done informally. Bishnu Timsina is one of the interpreters who’s been trained for the task. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

So many immigrants and refugees have come to Western Pennsylvania from Nepal and Bhutan that two charitable agencies say they are creating a translation service to help them navigate doctor appointments and hospital stays.

“There is almost zero ability or knowledge among most Americans with these languages. This is not like finding someone who speaks Spanish,” said Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services for Jewish Children and Family Services, one of the region's two largest refugee resettlement agencies.

JCFS and Sharpsburg-based Northern Area Multi Service Center are spearheading Language Link, which has 17 paid interpreters on staff. The agencies hope to have the service up and running by late summer and eventually provide interpreters for other languages, too.

Language Link has been planned for two years by the Immigrants and Internationals Advisory Council, a group made up of representatives of the immigrant community and the public and nonprofit agencies that serve them.

The service initially is funded with a United Way grant and emphasizes medical interpretation.

“The doctor's office is probably the most important place to have accurate and impartial translation,” said Natalia Mytareva, communications programs director at the International Institute of Akron Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides services to foreign-born people in and around Akron, Ohio. A professional interpreter, Mytareva trained the 17 Language Link interpreters.

That kind of translation had been done informally for a long time, said Barbara Murock, project manager of the Immigrants and Internationals Initiative at the Allegheny Department of Human Services. Language Link will help provide services that are more professional and less haphazard.

“Our region has been growing in the number of immigrants and internationals, and they are participating in every sector of our community. Allegheny County is at a tipping point where we need a centralized resource to meet what is a growing need for interpretation and translation services in the languages spoken by the newest members of our community,” she said.

Since 2010 through this spring, more than 700 Bhutanese immigrants have been assisted by the Squirrel Hill Health Center.

Bhutan, a country of fewer than 1 million people, is sandwiched between China and India. Complaining of ethnic and political repression, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese have fled to Nepal, but those camps are closing, and more than 23,000 Bhutanese have settled in the United States.

Refugees arrive here with a series of strict timelines and guidelines involving medical checkups, enrolling in English as a second language programs and enrolling their children in school — none of which are easy without speaking English.

“Interpretation is all about access to information. Our interpreters will get paid. This is a serious commitment,” said Amy Hart, president and CEO of the Center for Hearing & Deaf Services Inc., the nonprofit agent that is running Language Link. The center does 22,000 interpretations each year for hearing-impaired people.

Speaking more than one language does not make someone a skilled interpreter, said Mytareva.

“There is medical terminology to know; a code of ethics for medical privacy, HIPAA; and objectivity. It really is better that an interpreter not be a family member or friend because they are more likely to offer an opinion or give people incomplete translations,” she said.

Bishnu Timsina, 37, of Whitehall, a married mother of two, came to the United States two years ago after living in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years.

She speaks fluent Nepali, Hindi and English and understands three other languages. Timsina has been trained as a Language Link interpreter.

“I gained a lot of experience from the training to be an interpreter,” she said. “I learned that I have to be more professional, that I have speak clearly.

“There's a difference between knowing a language and doing effective interpretation,” Timsina said.

For more information, call the Center for Hearing & Deaf Services at 412-281-1375.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or

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