Good Practice

15 May 2020
Coronavirus messaging translators step up in their communities to fight against misinformation
As published in ABC South East SA
Written by Bec Whetham.

Photo: Vincent Uwimana (right) has been translating coronavirus information for local Congolese (Credit: ABC South East SA, Bec Whetham).

Vincent Uwimana did not set out intending to be the go-to source of coronavirus health information for his Congolese community.

But when he discovered some people were relying on traditional medicines to prevent coronavirus — like inhaling onion, orange, and hot water — the 26-year-old knew he had to do something.

Since March, Mr Uwimana has been translating and distributing key updates in Swahili and Kinyarwanda to the Congolese migrants in Mount Gambier in South Australia’s south east.

He started a hotline, directed to his mobile, for migrants targeted by scam emails, and now answers questions on a WhatsApp group he manages.

While governments and other key services work hard to provide this information, the National Refugee-led Advisory and Advocacy Group (NRAAG) believe the way the messages are currently communicated does not help stem the amount of misinformation in migrant communities.

NRAAG’s COVID-19 National Refugee Community Consultation, released this week, concluded that “major policy gaps have meant many vulnerable groups have been left behind at this time of crisis”.

Key points:

  • Vincent Uwimana started translating coronavirus health updates when he discovered misinformation in the local Congolese community
  • Australia’s refugee advocacy group says services need to find new ways of translating key information, like video messages
  • The Government’s Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) is experiencing increased demand during coronavirus

Coronavirus confusing for anyone, let alone migrants

When it comes to understanding translated messages, NRAAG vice chair Shukufa Tahiri said it was usually harder for refugees — many of which may have missed out on learning to read or write.

“Even for people who are literate … [the official messages are] really difficult to read because a lot of those translated materials are written in complex, academic language,” Ms Tahiri said.

“Rumours are the sort of information that they often rely on, unfortunately, because that’s the source of information they can get.”

Ms Tahiri said it was common for migrants to hear and apply advice they saw on social media from their home country.

With updates happening so quickly, Ms Tahiri said it was difficult for translators to keep up with the turnaround of messages.

“That’s where the community translators come in,” Ms Tahiri said.

Community translators important

Ms Tahiri said locals like Vincent Uwimana brought a sense of trust when it came to communicating important messages.

Before moving to Australia last February, Mr Umiwana was running a program called Bags for Change in Rwanda, giving people in rural areas and refugee camps access to electricity.

“That motivated me to see what I can do here in Australia to impact people,” Mr Umiwana said.

While not officially trained as a translator, his English is strong thanks to high school literature and an online business degree through a US university.

Since living in Mount Gambier, he has been volunteering for the Red Cross, teaching computer skills, and educating school children about asylum seekers and refugees.

At the start of the year, the Red Cross employed him to work in its migrant support program.

His decision to translate coronavirus information was instinctive.

“[The news coverage] was in English so I thought to myself ‘is everyone in my community getting the same message? Are we on the same page with everyone?'” he said.

Mr Umiwana now spends his free time scouring media updates to keep up to date.

“They [community members] have been calling me, asking me any question in their own language, which is great because sometimes it’s hard to even formulate a question when it’s not in your own language,” Mr Uwimana said.

Big help for locals

Pontien Semanza is one of the migrants who has been calling Mr Uwimana.

“Since coronavirus has started, Vincent has been closer, explaining how we can help ourselves to stop the spread of this coronavirus,” he said.

“It was very [kind] of Vincent to sit with me, to read together, and to explain what the brochure is talking about.”

Mr Semanza speaks five languages but he does not consider English one of them, even though his English is very good.

“I can read, I can listen, I can understand 50 per cent of what the information is saying. But my wife does not,” he said.

“After understanding … it was my responsibility also to sit down with my family and teach them.”

Need for video translations

Ms Tahiri understood there were some potential challenges with “community translators”.

“There is no independent body checking whether the translation or what’s being said is up to date and correct,” Ms Tahiri said.

She said the effort going into written materials should be funnelled into video messages that can be shared in social media groups.

“There are certainly organisations that are trying to do it, but I think it’s been done in a very limited way,” Ms Tahiri said.

The Australian Migrant Resource Centre this week released video messages about coronavirus in three African languages.

Ms Tahiri hoped this kind of initiative would increase and improve into the future, even after COVID-19.

Culturally and linguistically diverse communities can contact TIS National by calling 131 450 to request an interpreter.

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