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Arabic, Hmong Speakers Look To This Fresno Organization For COVID-19 Information

Elijah Her, a Hmong translator (left) and Dalya Hussein, an Arabic translator at FIRM.

Naveen Alasaad sits at her dining table in her Fresno home catching up on the day with three of her six children. Their conversations are often a mixture of Arabic and English and on this night, the topics range from online school to the pandemic. 


Alasaad and her husband, Nassar, are originally from Syria. They came to Fresno as refugees in 2016. It’s been challenging enough coming to a new country -- finding work, scheduling doctor’s appointments, getting the kids into schools --  and the pandemic has only made it harder. Alasaad says she has relied on one organization, Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries or FIRM, for help.


As COVID-19 cases continue to increase across Fresno County, FIRM is working around-the-clock to translate information related to the virus for Arab and Hmong speakers. 


 “We kept updated through the short video clips with FIRM regarding what's COVID-19? What are the symptoms? Where should you go?” Alasaad says through a translator. 


She adds if it weren’t for FIRM, understanding the pandemic would be a lot more complicated.


“The other option could be asking the doctor or making searches through google but that would not offer me with my language,” Alasaad says. “So in this case I would need help from my kids who are in school.” 


But Dalya Hussein, a community health worker at FIRM, said it’s a struggle for Arab children to navigate cultural differences, let alone become translators for information on a new virus.  


“Because of the barrier of the language, some of these communities couldn’t understand perfectly what was going on,” she says. 


FIRM holds weekly meetings where about 23 translators, including Hussein, meet with medical advisors to discuss questions their communities have concerning the coronavirus. 


“And then we get the answers, we translate it and then transfer it to the community,” Hussein says. 


She and others do this by distributing pamphlets in other languages including Arabic. They even produce short informational videos to share via text messages, Hussein says. 


And she’s getting a lot of subscribers. “I notice myself adding a lot of phone numbers and names from families that I’m sending messages and videos,” she says.  


The Syrian community is relatively new to the Fresno area and it’s pretty tight-knit. So when the pandemic hit, Hussein says social distancing was really hard for some people to embrace. 


“Culturally the Arab community, they love to gather all the time like family, friends,” Hussein says. “So it wasn't that easy of a job to explain not to go to your parents’ house not to go to your neighbors, not to go to your brother’s.”


But it’s not just the Syrian community FIRM is assisting. The organization also partners with KBIF Hmong Radio four times a month to provide information on COVID-19. 



Paying Her translates information on testing sites in Fresno for KBIF Hmong Radio.

Elijah Her is a Hmong translator for FIRM. As a college student, Her spent his free time translating for older Hmong community members at the hospital, social services appointments and even church.


It’s important that the younger generation share information about the virus in Hmong because the older generations tend to trust them, he says.


“As soon as one family member explains to them what the virus is and how it can affect them and family around them, it gets them to think that they need to listen,” Her says. “And do what needs to be done to protect themselves and their families.” 


But he says having professional translations takes the burden off of younger generations who may already struggle to keep up with different Hmong dialects, especially when it comes to explaining a new virus that isn’t even part of the Hmong vocabulary.


“In Hmong there’s no language for a virus,” Her says. “It’s all bacteria so we have to explain what a virus is in detail of how we would put a virus in Hmong to the community.


It’s why pamphlets and radio shows are so vital, he says. The translation of health information plays a critical role in this global crisis, he adds. Dayla Hussein agrees. 


“You are serving people to survive, to survive honestly, because they don't know where to go and they don't know anything about the language,” Hussein says. “And they could do a lot of mistakes related to the culture and language.”


Hussein recalls her experience seeking refugee status in the United States with her husband and daughter 11 years ago. At the time, she says, there were very few resources that could help her family make that transition from Iraq. It’s why she decided to become a community health worker with FIRM, she says. 


And now with schools moving to online learning due to the pandemic, both Her and Hussein are shifting their focus to translating documents for parents and ensuring kids get access to the devices and hotspots they’ll need to start the school year.