When Oscar Sanabria tried to file for unemployment last month, he was stumped by the complicated online form, which is available only in English.
“It’s very difficult,” said Sanabria, an immigrant from El Salvador who had been working in Manchester until COVID-19 hit.
Sanabria said through a translator that he had to call his son for help making an account on the state website, and his American daughter-in-law translated for him.
“It takes a crew of people just for one application,” said Iliana Barreto, who was helping translate for Sanabria on Thursday.
In New Hampshire, translation can feel like an afterthought, said Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of the Granite State Organizing Project.
“New Hampshire is relatively newly diverse,” she said.
According to U.S. Census data, just under 8% of Granite Staters don’t speak English at home — though in Manchester, Nashua, Hanover and Berlin, that figure is about 20%.
Without much help from the state and cities, New Hampshire’s immigrant and refugee communities are translating information for themselves, about how to stay safe from COVID-19, what’s happening with their children’s schools and how those who qualify can apply for unemployment.
Overcomers Refugee Services, a Concord group that works with refugees, has been been gathering information from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Concord Hospital and the IRS. The group translates short updates into Swahili, Kinyarwanda, French and Nepali — the main languages spoken by refugees in New Hampshire — and shares them on Facebook pages and in WhatsApp groups.
Clement Kigugu, executive director of Concord-based Overcomers Refugee Services, said refugees are in some ways especially in need of reassuring, accurate information.
“Some people are really scared. People who came as refugees have trauma,” Kigugu said.
But some who have lived through epidemics and upheaval are finding strength in their experience.
“There are people who say it’s a pandemic, (but) we had a different kind of sickness back home and we survived. We went through the war, we survived,” Kigugu said. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
Barbara Seebert, the state refugee coordinator, said the state Department of Health and Human Services is getting translated health information to New Hampshire’s refugees.
But she said community leaders are often more effective messengers — especially when explaining the necessity of tough measures like social distancing. She said people in refugee communities know how to reach each other better than outsiders from the state.
For example, she said, when a Bhutanese refugee came down with COVID-19, community leaders called nearly every Bhutanese family in New Hampshire to make sure they knew how to stay safe.
Last week, members of the Bhutanese refugee community ran a Facebook Live presentation in Nepali, with help from a Nepali-speaking physician in Pennsylvania, and a Manchester man, Ran Wagley, who has recovered from the disease.
Suraj Budathoki, a community leader who helped in both efforts, said New Hampshire’s Bhutanese community has collected gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. They also have helped people who have lost their jobs apply for unemployment and health insurance.
But not much has been translated, Budathoki said, and many refugees do not have internet or computers at home to fill out online applications. He urged the state to do more to reach out to immigrant and refugee communities.
“Due to language barriers and lack of knowledge of how the state works, refugee populations are always left behind,” Budathoki said. “If we leave one behind, they will spread the virus and we will not be safe.”
Deo Mwano, a Manchester resident, decided to make some short videos about COVID-19 in Spanish and Swahili.
Not everyone can read in the languages they speak, Mwano said. And like many English speakers, some people learn better from listening or watching a video.
“It’s important to make sure the information is being broken down in a way people can understand it,” Mwano said. “I was like, I hope service providers can do it this way — but I reached a point where I was like, I think I’m just going do this.”
Mwano recruited friends who speak Spanish and Swahili to translate information he found on government websites and produced a series of short videos about topics like disaster loans for small businesses and navigating the unemployment website.
The ad hoc translation and sharing of information within communities seems to be working, said Eva Castillo, a community advocate and director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.
Castillo said she has not seen misinformation spreading in Manchester’s Latino community. But she said it is difficult to reach people during the coronavirus crisis.
Circulating information through word-of-mouth is harder than it has ever been, with people staying away from church, running fewer errands at local bodegas, unable to chat in barber shops. There is no Spanish-language press in Manchester to help, and it isn’t possible to call every Latino in New Hampshire.
“We do what we can through social media,” Castillo said. “I just text people: ‘Go check this here, go check that there.’ That’s all we do, word of mouth.”
Castillo said she wishes information for New Hampshire’s immigrants and refugees was easier to find, maybe a page on a city or state website gathering all the information people need from different departments by language type rather than topic.
“We’re just trying to make up what we do as we go along,” Castillo said.
For now, official information from the state is still largely in English.
Every Sunday afternoon, when Oscar Sanabria has to file his weekly certification for unemployment benefits, the form is still in English, as are communications from the state employment security office about his case.
“Even with some of the translations, it’s not fully complete,” Sanabria said through a translator.