Columbia interpreters help migrants relay their voice

Zuhnia Kuzbar, right, an Arabic interpreter, accompanies Mohamad Abaker to a dental appointment. Kuzbar did not come to Columbia as an interpreter, but began doing this work because there was a hole to fill in the community.

Migrants have been a part of the world for centuries. We’re seeing it currently with Ukrainian refugees due to Russia’s invasion, last year with Afghan refugees when the Taliban retook control and previous years in Syria in the midst of a civil war.

Regardless of when and why people are migrating, common threads persist: moving to a new, unfamiliar place and oftentimes where everything is in a different language. This naturally leaves migrants out of the conversation.

However, according to three interpreters in Columbia, interpreting is more than just translating. It’s about making a personal connection with people when they may need it the most, giving them a voice to advocate for themselves and making them feel like they’re not alone.

These three interpreters discuss what it’s like to help bridge the gap between communities.

Zuhnia Kozbar, Arabic interpreter

Growing up in Bahrain and studying in an American school, Zuhnia Kozbar considered English her second language when she became the principal at the Islamic school in Columbia. Kozbar started interpreting to help non-english speaking families enroll in courses. 

Columbia interpreters help migrants relay their voice

Zuhnia Kuzbar, an Arabic interpreter, helps clients understad a wide variety of things such as medical information and bank statements.

Kozbar was called upon by a St. Louis company to interpret English for an Arabic-speaking family who had gotten into a car accident. The family needed an interpreter to attend a court hearing with them. Kozbar offered to attend the hearing with the family. “They were very relieved to have somebody who can interpret their side of the story,” she says.

Since then, Kozbar has become a full-time interpreter at Columbia Public Schools were she translates parent-teacher conferences. In addition to this role she is a medical interpreter. As a medical interpreter she helps with scheduling, attends appointments and translates paperwork. “I work with a community that I can talk to and feel their pain,” Kozbar says. “There’s this communication with them when I visit them and when I’m with them. I just feel this part of my family.”

With an increase of refugees moving to in the past decade, she says the need for interpreters was very obvious. “I always imagined myself going somewhere where I don't speak the language. I don't know the culture, I don't know what to eat,” says Kozbar, adding that Muslims are restricted from consuming pork or alcohol. “(Having) someone to come and help me with all this and to tell me where to go, where not to go, what to eat and what not to eat, I'll be so grateful to that person.”

Ana Garcia, Spanish interpreter

After starting her own interpreting company, Trusted Communications founder Ana Garcia realized she’d been interpreting long before she decided to make it her job. Since she was a child, Garcia was the link between her Spanish-speaking parents and an English-dominated country.

“I was interpreting at my own parent teacher conferences,” she says, adding that this took away power from her parents they would’ve gained if they'd had someone there other than their child to relay messages. “Whenever we get parents that are a lot more involved in their child’s education, it creates a better outcome for the child, and I think interpreters play a big role.”

For Garcia, interpreting is about advocating for people to have language access. Even if they don’t speak the same language as most of the community, they would still have a voice.

“We as interpreters are a tool that can help an individual that's in need of bringing justice to themselves,” says Garcia, who adds she’s interpreted for victims of domestic violence. Garcia has seen the relief in clients who know that, with her assistance, they have a way to speak for themselves.

“We interpreters are needed all the time, everywhere,” Garcia says, such as in education, legal or medical fields. “The idea of helping others is what made me want to go down this career path.”

Mohammad Siddiqui, Pashto interpreter

An animal nutrition and husbandry specialist, Mohammad Siddiqui didn’t have any prior training as an interpreter. This is until a friend encouraged him to take an interpretation services job with him in Afghanistan to translate Pashto, one of the official languages of the country.

For about 10 years, Siddiqui says he spent time at bases interpreting for the U.S. military. As operations in Afghanistan were being scaled back, Siddiqui returned to the U.S., where he’d previously earned a PhD from Texas Tech and a postdoctoral degree from Mizzou. He the found a part-time position as a Pashto interpreter for CPS.

Siddiqui translates messages between Pashto-speaking families in the English-dominated school system. Siddiqui says students of clients with whom he works often see him in between classes and view him, he says, like he’s a part of their family.

“If they see someone who is speaking their language, you can really see a bigger smile on their face,” says Siddiqui, who meets with students on behalf of teachers or gives them advice and guidance on how to interact and effectively communicate with other students.

Siddiqui says interpreting is more than translating. It’s helping people make the transition from an old environment to a new one by understanding the differences between them.

“It's not only the words you translate, but you translate the whole concept,” Siddiqui says, who adds that all messages between parties need to be mutually understood and effectively processed for these relationships to function. “If you're going to a doctor, you give that information from the patient to the doctor and then if the doctor is asking a question, you have to communicate that.”

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