Montreal·First Person

I worked as a translator for migrants in detention centres. Here's what I learned

When I started receiving calls from immigration detention centres, I wasn't sure if I was helping or hurting, writes Rachel Mevs who works as an interpreter.

I wanted to help my fellow Haitian Creole speakers, but at times I feared I was hurting

Haitian migrants wade across the Rio Grande river to Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on the border with Del Rio, Texas, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Fernando Llano/AP)

This First Person column is written by Rachel Mevs, a clothing designer and Haitian Creole interpreter who lives on the south shore of Quebec City. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

When I started working as an interpreter for clients seeking to help Haitians communicate in English last summer, I was thrilled that I'd be able to help a community that I love.

During my training, it seemed that most of my calls would be related to health care, insurance and banking. It didn't cross my mind that I'd be interpreting for migrants near the southern United States border.

But I immediately started getting many calls connecting me to migrants speaking Haitian Creole who needed help expressing themselves in English. And I was surprised to see that so many of those people were in detention centres, often in Texas.

Most of these were "sick calls'' where doctors ask basic questions about their medical history and their current medical situation. Very few had a history of medical problems. But many would speak about health issues related to their journey — like infections and fevers.

Although I hadn't yet pieced everything together, I felt for them. And when doctors would prescribe medication or talk about how the patients would be treated, I knew that I was helping.

But as much as I was glad to help, I was sometimes annoyed. I found some migrants, whether they were detained or released, had a strangely inaccurate and often vague way of answering questions.

When asked how long they've had this problem, the answer would often be "for a while." And I felt that they didn't listen when they were given instructions — I'd find myself either repeating the message over and over, or interpreting a question for which they'd just gotten an answer.

But as time went on, I got more calls that would help me understand not only their situations, but also why they expressed themselves the way they did. There was the woman who told me she had travelled for two months on foot. She was exhausted, unwell and barely able to walk as she was also eight months pregnant. She, like many other migrants, had a lot on her mind. They were damaged.

As I received more calls, I learned that many had made this journey. Their situations were far from what I was used to hearing about those immigrating to the U.S. from Haiti. In the early '80s, my immediate family had taken a direct flight.

Rachel Mevs (second child from the right) and her family are seen in this photo taken in New York in 1988. (Submitted by Rachel Mevs)

But listening to these stories taught me that many now passed through Chile, Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua or Guatemala (not necessarily in that order), then Mexico to finally enter the U.S. in Texas.

My heart went out to them. And I was glad I could help my fellow Haitians.

Then those horrible images and videos of migrants crossing the Rio Grande were released last September. Officers on horseback were chasing them away as they tried to cross with almost nothing in their possession. Some had small children on their backs.

Now I understood why many migrants spoke of no longer having certain important papers. Or why many explained that the information they needed was in a bag that they weren't allowed to bring with them for questioning.

Not long after those images surfaced, I heard that many would be deported back to Haiti, where many feared for their lives or had witnessed horrific violence. I heard women speak of the unspeakable which forced them to leave; I heard grown men cry at the thought of going back.

At this point, I didn't know anymore if I was helping or just giving them false hope.

Unfortunately, many were deported. Not only did I see it in the news, I also started getting fewer calls from detention centres in October. Now, many of my calls are with lawyers, trying to help the remaining migrants stay in the country. It was an eerie and sad feeling to speak so seldomly to the detainees, as I knew it was because many had been sent back to Haiti.

Migrants, many from Haiti, wade across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, as some face deportation on Sept. 22, 2021. (Fernando Llano/AP)

In the end, I had to believe that I was helping and not hurting. It wasn't my decision to deport them, and I truly believe that if I was in their shoes, I'd want to know in my own language what the lawyers were saying. I also try to keep in mind a key point from the training I received: I don't have all the details or information. This helps me not fall into despair, even if I hurt for others seeking a better life.

But most importantly, what these migrants' stories have taught me is to show patience, compassion and kindness for anyone I come across. I haven't been through what they have, and I don't know all they've been through. As we are and probably will continue to be receiving more and more immigrants from various countries in Canada, I will keep this in mind when interacting with newcomers.

CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for First Person essays. Please email for details.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

BBIC Banner


Rachel Mevs is a Haitian American clothing designer and seamstress who lives in Quebec. While she loves her creative work, she is also passionate about helping the Haitian community as an interpreter.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?