Workers aim to ease language barriers

Improving immigrant aid discussed at conference

November 09, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

When Yoshi Yamasaki-Bussey took the stage yesterday in an Anne Arundel Community College auditorium after an impressive introduction, the audience paid rapt attention.

That is, until he began his remarks in Japanese.

Sensing the audience's confusion, he switched to Spanish. But that didn't help much.

"Now," Yamasaki-Bussey asked in English, "how do you feel being left out?"

"Disconnected," one man called out.

"Panicked," a woman said.

The exercise was part of a keynote address Yamasaki-Bussey gave at the 20th annual conference of the Maryland Coalition for Refugees and Immigrants, a network of service providers who offer assistance to refugees and immigrants in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Yamasaki-Bussey, director of special programs at the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, wanted to remind the more than 200 conference attendees how immigrants with limited English feel before they reach the door of a social service provider, such as a health clinic.

"You are already going in [the clinic] with all of these feelings, and on top of that you have to disclose everything about yourself," he said. "They ask you, `Do you have a rash?' `Did you have sex?' And then if the client refuses to get treatment, what do we write in their folder?" Yamasaki-Bussey asked the audience.

In unison, they replied: "Noncompliant."

This year's conference focused on how to better serve immigrants and refugees who have limited English skills, a theme that resonated for many attendees who turned out to learn how they can better comply with an executive order issued last year by President Bill Clinton.

Clinton's order said that failing to provide access to vital federally funded services to people with "limited English proficiency" amounted to discrimination, as prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He ordered federal agencies to prepare plans to improve access for those with limited English-language skills.

That means oral and written language assistance to immigrants and refugees must be provided free by all federally funded individuals and institutions, such as physicians, hospitals, nursing homes and welfare agencies, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines.

Yamasaki-Bussey urged agencies that have not done so to develop a policy for serving immigrants with limited English and added that it is not enough to have bilingual staff members unless they also have been certified as interpreters.

"The most important role of an interpreter is to remain neutral, but your first role as a case manager is to be an advocate for your client," he said. "You have a conflict and it's a difficult role."

More than half a million immigrants live in Maryland, according to the latest U.S. Census, posing challenges for social service providers and government agencies.

"Some Americans think that immigrants don't want to learn English, but the vast majority do," said Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, whose office coordinated the conference. "It's just that they're often working two jobs and can't always access the classes they need.

"We're convinced that not speaking English is the chief barrier to integration," Ford said.

During workshops, the conference covered a range of topics from meeting the mental health needs of immigrants to implementing equal access for people with limited English to conquering language barriers in the legal system.

The role of the English-as-a-second-language teacher in times of trauma also was addressed. Conference speaker Myrna Ann Adkins, of the Denver-based Spring Institute, said that world events after the Sept. 11 attacks have heightened the possibility that refugees and immigrants - especially those coming from countries where war and uncertainty are a way of life - will experience trauma.

Adkins told attendees that as they take care of their clients, they also must make time to examine their own feelings about Sept. 11.

Adkins said she has spoken with service providers who have recurring terrorism nightmares and others who, for the first time in their lives, are concerned that their accents may make them a target.

"We have our own issues and our clients' issues on top of that," she said.

Adkins recalled sitting on a plane after the attacks and listening to a flight attendant telling passengers traveling with children to place the oxygen mask on themselves before putting on their children's. Adkins said she saw wisdom in the demonstration.

"You need to be sure that you have your own oxygen mask on; otherwise you can't help your clients," she told the crowd.

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