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Refugee Youth Interpreter Program pilot begins in Salt Lake City

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It is widely accepted that parental involvement in their child’s education correlates with school performance. What happens, then, when there is a language barrier between parent and teacher? While students might still excel in academics, it becomes increasingly difficult for parents to be involved in the process. To mitigate this concern amongst the refugee and new American populations in Salt Lake City, New Americans in Action—a class started at Cottonwood High School with support from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City—started the Refugee Youth Interpreter Program, a pilot program designed to train a small group of students to become interpreters. Fifteen students, who speak a wide range of high-need languages, were trained in time to assist during parent-teacher conferences—an integral time for parents and teachers to meet and discuss the student’s academic performance.

15 refugee and new American students became youth interpreters through programming developed in partnership with New Americans in Action--a class supported by the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.
“This program will bridge the language differences between parents, students and educators, thus, allowing for an increased level of communication, parental involvement, and empowering parents in their children's education.” Edwin Espinel explains. Photo: Alaa Al-Barkawi/IRC

Edwin Espinel, an interpreter trainer and program developer for the pilot, shared the importance of involving parents in their child’s education: “We believe that students benefit the most from their education when their parents are involved. This program will bridge the language differences between parents, students and educators, thus, allowing for an increased level of communication, parental involvement, and empowering parents in their children's education.”

This pilot program, the first in the state of Utah, received “overwhelmingly positive feedback” from both teachers and parents, Alaa Al-Barkawi, college & career readiness specialist at the IRC in Salt Lake City says. An increased demand and limited availability of interpreters increases the need for interpretation services at local schools. “Schools often struggle with getting interpreters to each school and family. This helped relieve some of the stress at the schools and provided professional experience for the students.”

Through the training, students received a certificate of completion from their school’s principal. This means that not only were they qualified to interpret during parent-teacher conferences, but now they have certification to interpret at events on an as-needed basis—further demonstrating the value of the students’ skills and abilities, Alaa explains.

The pilot program gives students confidence in their skills, Alaa mentions: “The program was beneficial for students because it helped them utilize their multilingual abilities into the greater refugee community. Students often feel that being an English Language Learner is a detriment to their learning abilities and many even feel ashamed of it, however, this program was created because we wanted to show that students have super powers and could be liaisons in their communities.” Being a certified interpreter also provides a unique and flexible opportunity to work while still in school—an opportunity that some students have already initiated.

Maryam is a student participating in the New Americans in Action class, a program supported by the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City
Maryam, an outgoing sophomore enjoyed the interpreter pilot: “I loved the interpreting program and it helped me get a job through the program. I loved the experience that I had." Photo: Courtesy of Maryam

Just weeks after the training, Maryam, one of the student participants, attended the Food Entrepreneur Round Table, put on by Spice Kitchen Incubator, as an interpreter.

Maryam, a very outgoing sophomore, loves interpreting—in fact, as a child she used to pretend she was an interpreter. Not only does she love interpreting, but she also personally understands the frustration of not being able to communicate with those around you. She recalls her own experience moving to Utah from Jordan just six years ago: “It was so hard not speaking the language. I used to sit in the back and not talk. Everyone treated me like a five-year-old.”

Overcoming that difficult experience, Maryam has become extremely service oriented, “I just love helping. I help all over. I would leave my classroom to help someone.” Her personal experiences, love of interpreting, and desire to help others made Maryam, along with 14 other dedicated refugee and new American students, a great candidate for the pilot refugee youth interpretation program. 

Ensure refugee students like Maryam have the opportunity to participate in robust programming and services that help them become contributing members of our community by donating to support our work at Rescue.org/GiveSLC.

We would like to extend a special thanks to our community partners who made this program possible. 

Refugee Services Office

Utah State Board of Education

Granite School District