“Without Me They’d Be Screwed”

Mohammed Nousair (24) is a language professional. When he was 13 years old he moved from Palestine to Germany. Having been raised bilingual, he’s now been working in a refugee shelter since April 2015.

The Work of a Language Professional

As a language professional, Mohammed assumes all the classic responsibilities of interpreters, who carry across spoken speech from one language to another, and those of translators, who translate written texts. “When did you come to Germany? What should I be aware of?” are questions Mohammed hears often. “I'm typically a point of contact for refugees . . . a tether they can hold onto”, he says.

According to estimates, roughly between 20,000 and 55,000 language professionals help individuals in German refugee shelters on a volunteer basis. Monika Eingruber, Vice President of the Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators explains that it’s difficult to determine exact numbers because there doesn't exist a centralised registry.

Many of the people involved with refugee work grew up bilingually or are studying a language and don't have the proper training – they are neither state-certified interpreters/translators, nor do they have an education in simultaneous interpreting.

Interpreter as Confidant

Mohammed generally accompanies refugees to the job centre or to the doctor. “Interpreters are often confidants. A person who learns things that most others, including family members, don't learn”, he says, doctor visits being a very private matter in particular. Language professionals, for this reason, are required to maintain confidentiality. Soud Hamoud, a refugee from Syria who is supported, among others, by Mohammed in Hamburg, emphasises: “the relationship is highly valued, because interpreters are told a lot”.

Another area of work is the translation or summarisation of official documents. “There’s a lot of informational material they're sent in Germany. Many refugees can't understand them and are scared that they've done something wrong”, says Mohammed.

Most refugees can't read, let alone understand, mail written in the German bureaucratic language. One obstacle is that many refugees from the Arabic-speaking world have problems with the Latin writing system, which they are unfamiliar with. 

Interpreters Aren't Always Necessary

Soud Hamoud criticises employees at the job centres for sometimes requesting interpreters even when language skills are sufficient for communication. “It all depends from case worker to case worker”, he says, and continues: “some of them are okay with refugees’ levels of German, but others aren't”. But finding and then paying for an interpreter falls on the shoulders of refugees.

Mohammed hopes that the refugees he currently supports will soon no longer need him. "Because for me language means a lot. If you speak a language, you’re independent, you’re free”, he says.

Black Sheep in the Field

For Mohammed integrity is really important in the interpreting process. “Interpreters are neutral, they translate, and then go on their way”. But this isn't always the case: “I've heard stories of interpreters who have different religious beliefs and affiliations. That they then bring up associated conflicts or issues is just terrible. The role of the interpreter is to communicate the content of a message. Period.”

Eritreans in particular have to struggle with this problem, since there are only very few Tigrinya interpreters. In the meantime there have been media reports of translators and interpreters who are faithful to the current regime in Eritrea and that they even work in German official agencies.

Mohammed also wants to work in the language field, and wants to get a masters degree in simultaneous interpreting after he completes his bachelor in Islamic studies. The only thing about his line of work that he criticises is that he has to make clear to many refugees that he isn't available around the clock. “I can't be there for them 24/7”. He wishes it were made easier for refugees to attend German language courses sooner.

That language is considered by many people to “open doors to much” can be read can be read in our survey of young Syrians.

Henri Maiworm
19 years old, Kiel
. . . realised how it's people like Mohammed who through their work make communication with refugees – and ultimately integration – possible.