Windsor

Refugee-immigrant duo offer translation services to ease newcomer transition

Vasilis Panousis and Mahmoud Hatoum heard local non-profits were struggling to provide language services to newcomers in the City of Windsor. They knew a translation and interpretation business would be a success, and weren't going to let a pandemic get in their way.

Between them, they speak 7 languages from Arabic to Russian

Mahmoud Hatoum (left) and Vasilis Panousis heard local non-profits were struggling to provide language services to newcomers in the City of Windsor. They knew a translation and interpretation business would be a success, and weren't going to let a pandemic get in their way. (Jason Viau/CBC)

When Vasilis Panousis and Mahmoud Hatoum threw open the doors of their translation company on March 10, they knew there was a need for their services in the City of Windsor. 

Panousis, who had immigrated from Greece in 2012, and Hatoum, who came to Canada as a Lebanese refugee in 2004, had seen the long waits for translation and interpretation, and how local non-profits were struggling to keep up. 

"They do excellent work," said Panousis, "But they cannot support everybody."

"They have to accommodate and assist so many people, they cannot lift the burden on their own," he said. 

The pair never expected to have to close the very next day, as COVID-19 took hold, and the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic.

So they locked up, and locked down with the rest of the city. 

Mahmoud Hatoum (seated) was a doctor before immigrating to Canada, and studied in English, so he uses that knowledge to help unravel the complexities of Canadian medical care for newcomers.  (Jason Viau/CBC)

Until July 6, that is. 

Since then, calls to MV United Translations have been consistent — a testament, Panousis says, to the diversity of the area. 

"We cannot be accommodating 150 ethnicities without having the necessary linguistic background."

Most of the demand is for translation or interpretation in Arabic, Mandarin and Cantonese and Spanish, and the pair hire contractors to help with more rare languages like Swahili, Chaldean and Ethiopian dialects like Tigrinya.

From bank appointments to doctor's visits

Moving to a new country where you don't speak the language can be a daunting experience. When people do, they often find they need help with everyday tasks, says Panousis. 

"From opening a bank account, visiting the doctor, going to the immigration office to get their paperwork: for all of that they need the services of a professionally-trained interpreter. Sure, I can bring my kid, I can bring my cousin, I can bring my wife who speaks English. But are they really trained?"

Panousis was an economist in Greece, but has since been trained, and is an instructor in, St. Clair College's Language Interpreter Certificate Program. 

Hatoum was a doctor before immigrating to Canada, and studied in English, so he uses that knowledge to help unravel the complexities of Canadian medical care for newcomers. 

"I'm familiar with medical terminology so I can help them, for example, when they go to the hospitals, clinics, doctors meetings," he said. "The main idea is to help people as much as we can."

Pro-bono work

It wasn't long before non-profits were calling Panousis and Hatoum looking for MV United Translations to lighten their load. 

The business is a for-profit venture, but both men have a soft side. 

Sometimes people pay what they can afford — in some cases, that's nothing at all. Pro bono work is an important part of their work, said Panousis. 

"We know how valuable each and every dollar has when you are in a new country," he said. "We do not send anybody away."

Even if it means the cost of paying contracted interpreters comes out of Panousis' and Hatoum's own pocket. 

Moving to a new country where you don't speak the language can be a daunting experience. People often find they need help with everyday tasks, says co-owner Vasilis Panousis. (Jason Viau/CBC)

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