Lost in translation: Newcomers need COVID-19 information in their own languages, advocates say

Language barriers are preventing critical information from reaching many Edmonton newcomers in low-income housing, warn advocates.

'God forbid if something happens in those housing premises — all of us will pay dearly'

Community leaders say many Edmontonians are living in close proximity in affordable housing, which makes it difficult to self-isolate. (CBC News)

Language barriers are preventing critical information about the COVID-19 pandemic from reaching many Edmonton newcomers in low-income housing, warn advocates.

They're calling on authorities to act quickly to address the gap.

"God forbid if something happens in those housing premises — all of us will pay dearly," said Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society (SCCS). "That would be a breeding ground for disaster."

Part of the issue, said Ibrahim, is that many newer Edmontonians live in close proximity in affordable housing.

Jibril Ibrahim helped launch a hotline to help Somali-Albertans access information about COVID-19. (Jibril Ibrahim)

The other problem is daily briefings from the provincial government are only translated into print in a handful of languages such as Punjabi and Arabic, he said.

That leaves many Albertans without direct access to rapidly changing information, such as recent updates on financial aid and increased restrictions, Ibrahim said.

It's the reason SCCS has joined other groups to establish a task force to assist the 35,000 Somali-Albertans across the province. Callers can leave messages on the hotline, 1-403-768-3736, about rental or business concerns related to the pandemic. 

They are also producing educational videos, which Ibrahim said will be more accessible than text to many.

'Hard to self-isolate'

On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, laid out new rules for people in mandatory self-isolation.

Anyone in quarantine after returning from outside Canada or being in close contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19, must remain on their own property. People who live in multi-unit buildings must stay inside their apartment and cannot use the elevators or stairwells to go outside.

Akram Shamie says community groups raised funds so two families in densely populated dwellings could self-isolate for two weeks. (Akram Shamie)

But advocates worry that not everyone is hearing the message. 

"All these directions that have been given — as to what to do and what not to do — are not well-communicated because there are no services," said Akram Shamie, chair of the United Communities of the Ethiopian Diaspora in Alberta.

He said it's largely fallen on resource-strapped community groups, volunteers, mosques and churches to do what they can.

Shamie knows of two cases where organizations like his were asked to donate money so families living in crowded conditions could self-isolate in motels for two weeks.

"If one group is affected by the coronavirus … it's a chain reaction — it could affect everyone," Shamie said. "Particularly if you are living in an apartment with three or four kids — it's very hard to self-isolate."

'There is a gap'

Capital Region Housing Corporation, Edmonton's main affordable housing provider, says it's trying to find ways to accommodate those who aren't native English speakers. 

In an emailed statement, chief operating officer Mark Hoosein said tenants are receiving timely health and safety information by way of emails, social media and posters, but improvements are on the way.

"We recognize there is a gap in our non-face-to-face communication to tenants for whom English isn't their first language, which we can address and improve upon," Hoosein wrote.

"Our future plans include a translation option on our website for languages other than English."

To help facilitate translation, Hoosein said the corporation has partnered with several immigration and settlement agencies — the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, C5 North East Hub and the Somali Canadian Cultural Society.

Community groups launched this COVID-19 pandemic information video in Somali 

But Ibrahim said SCCS has not had any communication with the Capital Region housing agency about COVID-19 or working together on translation.

Alberta Health Services has developed information sheets on self-isolation and physical distancing in 15 languages apart from English and French, and videos and signage in a handful of languages.

The health authority also offers videos and answers to frequently asked questions in Arabic and Tigrinya

The City of Edmonton urged groups connected to Edmontonians who need translation services to support each other or access free online services.

"Given how many different languages are spoken by residents, and how quickly COVID-19 updates are happening, we need to ask our community to support each other," city spokesperson Ashish Mohan wrote in an email. 

'Unhealthy living space'

Rules to prevent the spread are also forcing some families to spend all of their time in apartments where mould and repeated flooding are a problem, said Ibrahim.

In the case of one family, Ibrahim raised concerns prior to the pandemic in an email to Capital Regional Housing that included photos of mould and flooding in the home. A letter from a physician that said "the dust and unhealthy living space" put the safety of the family at high risk and could be a factor in their toddler's chronic cough.

Ibrahim said the family's concerns were not addressed. In an email Tuesday, Hoosein said any tenant who has a maintenance issue can call 780-420-6161 "and expect the problem to be resolved." The line is open from 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Mohan said options to address concerns about landlords can be discussed with the Landlord and Tenant Advisory Board.

"We expect all landlords to fully comply with health regulations," Mohan said.


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca