Language No Barrier for Habitat


Language No Barrier for Habitat

Translators are used to help families with home applications

Charlotte Observer February 11, 2008

Nancy Pugh recently spent an afternoon showing Habitat for Humanity building lots to eight families.

Of the future homeowners, only two families were natives of the United States. The rest came from Somalia, Vietnam, Cuba and the Congo – and didn't speak fluent English.

Language barriers are a new challenge for the local Habitat staff as more families from diverse foreign countries apply for homes.

"You can kind of figure it out if you're willing to play charades," said Pugh, who works with families once they've been approved for Habitat homes.

Volunteer translators have helped, but its harder to find them for less common languages like Russian or Swahili, said Habitat spokeswoman Akilah Luke. Now the organization will have professional help from an international company that has agreed to translate housing applications for free.

N.Y.-based TransPerfect translated an application for a Russian family in January and is open to donating more services in the future, said spokesman Nathan Richards. The company has a network of 4,000 linguists around the world who can translate more than 100 languages, Richards said.

"We're more than happy to help Habitat for Humanity with whatever they need," Richards said. "People who have limited English are underserved across the board."

Habitat Charlotte has sold low-cost homes to legal immigrants since the branch started 25 years ago, said director Bert Green. But now, he said, the group is seeing more non-English speaking refugees and more diversity among those clients than ever.

Of 181 housing applications in the past year, 80 were filled out by families who spoke a first language other than English. A third of the 77 homes completed in 2007 were sold to non-native speakers.

Recently, staff said they've seen an influx of refugees from Africa and Vietnam. The Montagnards (pronounced MON-ten-YARDS), an ethnic minority from Vietnam who have been discriminated against because of their Christian beliefs, have been coming to Charlotte since 1986.

Many ended up in North Carolina after they received asylum in the U.S. for fighting alongside Fort Bragg-based Special Forces soldiers during the Vietnam war.

A large group arrived in 2002, but more are still coming, according to two local refugee resettlement organizations. The N.C. Montagnard Dega Association estimates that about 8,000 Montagnards now live in North Carolina, including at least 1,450 in Charlotte.

Tien Rahlan was among those who arrived in 2002. He lived with his brother until his family arrived at the end of 2005 and he needed his own place. Rahlan still didn't speak enough English to apply on his own, but his brother acted as an unofficial translator. Last November, he and his wife and four children moved into their new 4-bedroom house just north of uptown.

In Vietnam, they never had a house like this, Rahlan said. He picked up a leaf to show what his roof used to be made of.

"There we work hard but didn't have any money," said his 13-year-old daughter Yel Rahlan.

Since so many Montagnard families have been approved for Habitat homes recently, the organization put together a special homeowners course for 11 of them. Saturday, they also held a group dedication ceremony for Montagnards who moved into their homes over the past year.

Pugh has learned ways to work around language barriers with her future homeowners. For instance, she meets face to face as much as possible, or calls in the afternoons when kids might be home to help translate. But, she said, it will really help to have some of the paperwork translated so clients can understand everything fully. The three-page application asks for employment and rental history, income information and a list of family members.

"A lot of them are not getting all of the details," she said. Applying for a house is already a daunting task, but "especially for newcomers in the United States," she said. "It'll be easier to do and less intimidating for everybody."

by Deborah Hirch

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