New website aims to help nonnative English speakers amid pandemic

Published: Apr. 9, 2020 at 1:09 AM EDT
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Two people in Burlington are providing resources to make sure New Americans and non-English speakers have access to important health information during the coronavirus pandemic.

Not everyone in Vermont has been able to understand directives from health officials, such as wash your hands and stay indoors since they’re typically spoken only in English.

Mohamed Jafar, a Somali American, and Mellisa Cain run “New Americans in Vermont,” a website that translates information from health officials in 20 different languages including Arabic, Swahili, Kirundi, Vietnamese and Somali.

“There’s a wealth of communities in the state of Vermont that don’t speak English and they’re every bit as important as everyone else that does speak English,” said Jafar.

Jafar and his family moved to Vermont from Somalia in 2003. He knows firsthand the frustration associated with moving to the U.S. and not having anyone help you understand your new world around you. Jafar says in the middle of a public health crisis, those feelings are exacerbated by many New Americans.

“A lot of folks are kind of scrambling to get some sort of normalcy and comfort, this is almost every day for some people. This is what people go through every single day throughout the year,” he said.

Jafar says a lot of New Americans are trying to understand why they have to stay at home or they’re asking how to properly wear a mask. He called on his friend Mellisa Cain to help create a website to provide translations.

”I made an infographic of simple steps from the CDC and I’m crowdsourcing translations. So we have it in Nepali and Burmese so far,” Cain said.

Both Jafar and Cain believe the more information people in our community have about the coronavirus, the safer we can all be.

“We are all only as healthy as the next healthiest person so it doesn’t matter who you are. If your neighbor is sick, we’re never getting out of this pandemic so leaving your neighbor behind, in essence, is leaving yourself behind so let’s pick everyone up,” said Jafar.

Cain and Jafar are working to get funding from the city or the state to sustain the resources they’re providing.

“This is meeting a need which is huge. That gap in services needs to be addressed,” said Cain. “This needs to go bigger and it needs to be funded. People shouldn’t be doing this on a volunteer basis. This is an important work. People are trying to live and work for their paychecks. People who have been welcomed into this country and they aren’t getting the services they need. People who do have the resources they need to say ‘Help my neighbor. Help my friend.’”

"New Americans in Vermont" is available throughout the year to help New Americans find information that pertains to things like the school district.

As of Wednesday night, the website had more than 1,600 visitors. Cain says they’ve reached people all over the world including Ireland, Tanzania, and Iraq.