‘We Need to Do Better’: Language Barriers Create Steeper Hurdles for African Migrants in Shelter

‘We Need to Do Better’: Language Barriers Create Steeper Hurdles for African Migrants in Shelter

Editorial credit: Arnett Murry / Shutterstock.com

By Daniel Parra, City Limits

New York City Councilwoman Alexa Avilés opened Tuesday’s hearing on the experiences of Black migrants by calling for more funding and language access services for new arrivals from African countries, hundreds of whom gathered at City Hall for the discussion and a rally outside beforehand.

Avilés, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigration, said that while the city has been offering social and healthcare services to migrants in Spanish and English, it has failed to meet the needs of migrants who speak other languages.

“Those needing information translated and interpreted in languages predominantly spoken in West African countries, including Wolof, Arabic, Bambara, Fulani and French, among others, have reported difficulty in communicating with migrant shelter staff and obtaining information from city agencies,” she said.

While the vast majority of asylum seekers and immigrants who’ve entered the shelter system initially came from Latin America, more adult migrants and families are now coming from the African continent.

During the last two years, over 189,200 migrants have come to New York City and about 64,400 are currently under the city’s care; of those, roughly 17 percent are from African countries, according to City Hall.

During Tuesday’s joint hearing of the Immigration and Hospitals Committee—which was not attended by officials from Health + Hospitals or New York City Emergency Management, two key agencies handling the city’s migrant response—advocates complained about the language barriers and lack of access to interpreters in shelters.

They also cited the difficulty of certifying new immigrants for workforce programs such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training in languages such as Arabic, French, Pulaar, and Wolof.

Avilés asked the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) about this lack of opportunities for non-English and non-Spanish speakers.

“As you know OSHA is a federal program,” said MOIA’s Commissioner Manuel Castro in response, acknowledging that it is difficult to find trainers who speak other languages. “This is also an issue that partly belongs to the federal government. They need to do better at providing training in these languages.”

According to Adama Bah, founder of Afrikana, a community center serving asylum seekers, the city does not have translators for some of the languages it needs, and the language phone line it uses to access an interpreter by phone does not work after hours, so she has been translating herself.

“There’s many people in this audience right now that I have to call after hours to translate for migrants, and they’re constantly calling and telling the staff members to speak to Adama.”

And written documents do not work for those who cannot read, advocates explained.

“There is a significant amount of people who are illiterate,” Bah explained. “We have been sending voice clips to the migrants explaining to them what their rights are and to understand what’s going on. So it’s not just written, we need vocals.”

An oral history teacher at LaGuardia Community College who has been volunteering with new arrivals from Africa read the testimony of two such migrants.

“Life in the shelter is not a life,” she read, narrating the experience of a young Senegalese man. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to live in such condition. If you go out to look for work and you miss a meal, then you have to go find food. But if you can’t find any work, how are you supposed to buy food.”

The other shared testimony came from a migrant from Mauritania who’d had difficulties getting information from shelter workers. “You meet staff at the shelters who would rather clean their fingernails than answer a question,” the woman said. “Sometimes you ask a question and strangely you get many different answers.”

During the hearing, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ asked the administration officials present what their takeaways were from the large audience and their testimony.

“That we need to do better, and we agree we absolutely need to do better every day,” Molly Schaeffer, interim director of the Office of Asylum Seeker Operations, acknowledged. “Specifically with language access. I think that was the biggest thing we heard.”

Schaeffer explained that around 81 percent of migrants from African nations are single adults or part of adult families, which makes them more likely to have shorter stays than families with children coming from Latin America. Under Mayor Eric Adams’ deadline policy for new immigrant arrivals, families with kids are subject to 60-day shelter limits, while adults without children get just 30 days.

Asylum seekers from African countries have accounted for 16 percent of applications at the city’s asylum application help center, Schaeffer added.

She explained that the primary preferred languages of migrants under city’s care—though not necessarily reflective of the most newly arrived—is Spanish, at 76 percent, followed by those whose primary language is French (9 percent), English (3 percent), Russian (2 percent), Arabic (2 percent), and Fulani and Chinese (1 percent each).

The wait time for a new shelter placement is 24 hours, Schaeffer said, though she did not provide details about the current length of the waiting list, and City Hall did not respond to questions about it by publication.

The Senegalese young man whose testimony was shared by the LaGuardia Community College professor also touched on the impact of the city’s shelter deadline policy, which a number of lawmakers have pressed City Hall to abolish.

“They’ll kick you out in the middle of the night in the cold,” he said, according to the shared statement. “They just don’t respect us.”

This article was republished from City Limits, an independent, investigative news source.

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