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Bilingual liaison: much more than translator

Posted on December 15, 2014 at 1:44 pm

By Maranda Loughlin

When Kelley Veselinov studied at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, her grandpa handed her some extra cash.

“He said, ‘I want to see you do something with it while I’m alive. Not when I’m dead,” Veselinov said.

Veselinov took that money and flew to Europe with a friend from school. She traveled for two months around London before she ran out of money and came home.

But she came home only to leave again. After graduating from the university, Veselinov taught English in South Korea for a year.

At Thanksgiving, the bilingual liaisons decorated their room with paper leaves that spelled out what they were most thankful for. / Photos by Maranda Loughlin

At Thanksgiving, the bilingual liaisons decorated their room with paper leaves that spelled out what they were most thankful for. / Photos by Maranda Loughlin

When she returned home, she knew she wasn’t done traveling. She joined the Peace Corps and, despite her mother’s criticism, headed to Macedonia.

When she finally made her way home two years later—with a new Macedonian husband in tow—she arrived just in time to find a job opportunity as the English Language Learner assessment specialist for Lincoln Public Schools.

“I remember when I had interviewed for this job, the director at the time said, ‘You’re used to going out in the world. Now you’ll see the world come through your office door,’” Veselinov said.

“She was correct.”

Veselinov works with the schools’ bilingual liaisons, helping to decide which ELL level the new immigrant students are placed in.

After Veselinov places the children in the classroom, the bilingual liaisons take this process a few steps further. They help  students acclimate into the American education system. They help enroll all foreign ELL students, no matter the level of English they speak. The liaisons help the children and their families find places to get vaccinated, and they also help keep them keep up to date on health records.

In and outside of the classroom, the bilingual liaisons break the language barrier between students and teachers.

“I get to work with people from all over,” Veselinov said. “I feel like there is a lot I can learn and a lot I can share.

“It makes me emotional. The bilingual liaisons here are just great.”

Linda Hix, director of the ELL programs at LPS, agrees.

“They really help families understand how school works, and they help them understand what steps to take if they have a question, or how to get ahold of a teacher or register for school,” Hix said. “These are all things that can be very, very different in another country.

“They’re leaders.”

Although this is Hix’s first year as the director, she has known who the bilingual liaisons are and what their job is for some time.

“What I like about Linda is that she knows who her liaisons are,” Veselinov said. “It’s crazy to her that some administrators don’t know who they are, and that’s the majority not the minority. So it’s great to have some like her in an administrative position.”

Hix believes it is important to have bilingual liaisons—and not just interpreters—at LPS.

“They’re very valuable employees,” Hix said. “It would certainly not be the same without them. It would make it more of an interpreter-type of relationship, that’s different. That’s not as helpful.”

LPS employs 18 bilingual liaisons who travel among Lincoln’s 55 elementary, middle and high schools helping 2,200 students and families daily. The liaisons currently speak either Arabic, Kurdish, Nuer, Karen, Burmese, Vietnamese, Russian or Spanish in order to accommodate Lincoln’s growing international populations.

While some of the liaisons are from the United States, most are not, but the liaisons who are not from the United States often have many of the same experiences as the newcomers to Lincoln. The liaisons each have had homes in such places as Central America, the Mideast, Africa and Asia. They all left their homes out of fear or for the pursuit of freedom, and they all had to find a way to survive in the United States and Lincoln, Nebraska.

Their reasons for leaving the country are often times similar, but their stories of getting here are never the same.

 

“Everyday is different," Elpidia Novoa says about being a bilingual liaison. "That is what I like about my job. Sometimes you think ‘Oh this is easy.’ And then other days you think, ‘Wow! I need to go for a walk.’" / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

“Everyday is different,” Elpidia Novoa says about being a bilingual liaison. “That is what I like about my job. Sometimes you think ‘Oh this is easy.’ And then other days you think, ‘Wow! I need to go for a walk.’” / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

Elpidia Novoa, Spanish

Her first job out of high school was working on the kill floor of a Tyson meat-packing plant in Lexington, Nebraska.

She remembers the job as being constantly hot from the boiling water and chemicals used to clean the knives and machines. She remembers the smell and the blood that would stick to her clothes from the slaughtered animals. She remembers being in her third and final year at the plant, realizing she needed to leave.

“One day I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” Elpidia Novoa said.

Today, Novoa is a bilingual liaison at Park Middle School. At the beginning, the job was an opportunity for her to use her first language, Spanish. Seven years later, the job has transformed into something much more. Being a bilingual liaison has given Novoa the opportunity to connect with her community, be a part of an education system and spend time with her children.

“Everyday is different. That is what I like about my job,” Novoa said. “Sometimes you think ‘Oh this is easy.’ And then other days you think, ‘Wow! I need to go for a walk.’”

Before Novoa worked at the meat-packing plant and then as a bilingual liaison, she lived in Mexico. At the age of 14, Novoa emigrated from Mexico to Anaheim, California. At the beginning, she lived in a quiet and peaceful neighborhood with her family. But after several gang fights and shootings disrupted the neighborhood, the family decided to move to Nebraska.

Novoa had an older sister who was living in Lexington who convinced the family to move.

“She told my parents there were jobs in Lexington and opportunities,” Novoa said. “At the time there was not a lot of Hispanics in the community. But years later, more and more families began moving to Lexington because of the opportunities.”

After Novoa left the meat-packing plant in Lexington, she moved to Hastings and went to school at a community college. After graduation, Novoa worked at the college, and it was there that she met her husband. Along with her new husband, Novoa was offered the opportunity to be a bilingual liaison.

Some days her job is simple: She helps parents translate newsletters, makes phone calls to families and helps out at parent-teacher conferences. Other days, her job is more difficult: She breaks up fights between children, organizes informational events for the English Language Learner programs and listens to parents and helps them solve problems.

It can sometimes all be too much.

“I have to know my limits. Sometimes there is so much our families have gone through, like so much violence or mental health issues,” Novoa said. “And as a liaison you are transferring all of that information. If you’re not careful it can eat you up.”

Novoa admits that if she doesn’t remember her limits, it’s easy to feel burned out.

“I feel like you have to feel OK to be able to help others,” Novoa said.

Novoa and the other liaisons rely on one another to talk through the problems they are having with their families, or about the trauma the new families have been through.

“It helps because it’s not healthy to just go home and think about what these families have gone through. It’s very challenging,” Novoa said. “I think as a bilingual liaison the longer you’re in the job, the more you learn how to cope.”

Even with the everyday stressors and the constant thoughts of what her families have gone through in their lives, Novoa loves her job. She loves that she is involved in the education system and that she is able to help newcomers adjust to life in Lincoln, but mostly she loves being a bilingual liaison because she believes there is a true demand for her job.

“I just enjoy what I do. I think there’s a need for the job, you know?” Novoa said. “There’s always a need for more liaisons because our numbers are growing. People care that we are here, and they can always come to us to find the answers they need.”

 

“Trust is the most important thing for me. I want the families to trust me,” Nhung Nguyen said. / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

“Trust is the most important thing for me. I want the families to trust me,” Nhung Nguyen said. / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

Nhung Nguyen, Vietnamese

This isn’t Nhung Nguyen’s first time working in an education environment. Before Nguyen came to Lincoln in 2010, she worked as a Vietnamese teacher at UNESCO, a cultural exchange program in Vietnam. She also taught Vietnamese to foreigners. Then, when she arrived in Lincoln, she began volunteering at the Asian Community and Cultural Center, teaching Lincoln residents how to speak Vietnamese.

Now, Nguyen works as a bilingual liaison at Lincoln Public Schools overseeing about 300 children. Although every day is different and new stressors pop up daily—fights at schools, new family appointments and miscommunications between students and teachers—Nguyen loves her job.

“It’s my passion to work with students,” Nguyen said. “So, when I came to Nebraska I thought, how could I be in the field I love?”

When Nguyen arrived in Lincoln, she was startled by how completely different her idea of America was from the new reality she was in.

“Everything is different. It was nothing like I expected. In school I learned about American culture,” Nguyen said. “But it’s always different. And it’s not an easy different. You need to adjust to the new way of life.”

Now, Nguyen has an idea of what new Vietnamese families are thinking and feeling when they first arrive in Lincoln. She can relate to their change of environment from her experience making the 8,318-mile journey from Vietnam to Lincoln herself.

“When you have to change, you have no idea how hard it is,” Nguyen said. “I think the most important thing to remember is, when you leave half of your life behind, you have to start over.”

Today, Nguyen’s job has her running between multiple schools for appointments, family literacy classes and parent-teacher conferences. While a part of her job is interpreting between students and teachers, or even between parents and teachers, another part of her job is to help acclimate students into American culture and to help them feel welcome in Lincoln.

“I thought: ‘How could I help people feel at home here? How could I make them feel welcome?’” Nguyen said. “When I stepped into this country I was scared, and these families were scared, too.”

While Nguyen admits that a big part of her role is helping interpret for families, it is only one of many hats she wears as a bilingual liaison.

“Interpretation is just one thing we help with as liaisons. We play many roles, but it all depends on the family,” Nguyen said.  “Some of the families really depend on me. Some can’t speak English, and some can’t even drive. Sometimes it feels like we are social workers.”

It becomes hard for Nguyen when she sees a family in public away from her work environment.

“Many times parents will approach me outside of school. They know me and they trust me which makes me feel really good,” Nguyen said. “But I have to tell them I am not at work, and I will call them back later. But it’s still a very flexible situation.”

Nguyen believes that one part of her job is more important than the rest.

“Trust is the most important thing for me. I want the families to trust me,” Nguyen said. “My job is to keep the families’ secrets. My job is not to give opinion, but to explain for them clearly the role of things. As liaisons, we have to be very clear with them that we never tell their secrets.”

She is happy to be working in education again.

“I’m here, and I’m pretty comfortable with where I’m at,” Nguyen said. “The Lincoln Public Schools system is very open minded, and it makes me feel very comfortable here. I feel very lucky. You never feel alone when you’re at this job.”

 

Elizabeth Montes says, “We have to use our knowledge, our experience and our guts as liaisons.” / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

Elizabeth Montes says, “We have to use our knowledge, our experience and our guts as liaisons.” / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

Elizabeth Montes, Spanish

Elizabeth Montes’ office is jammed with winter clothing, books and barely used bedding. Her desk sits in the back, overwhelmed by the piles of donations from LPS teachers, donations Montes will use to entice members of her family literacy programs to come to class.

Each week Montes teaches English as a Second Language to 20 immigrant and refugee mothers for six hours at Everett Elementary School. Every time a mother comes to class, Montes gives her a ticket. At the end of each school quarter, the women are allowed to cash in their tickets for prizes from the donations.

This program is different from the ESL classes Montes took when she first arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“The English class here is different because it is based around the child and the community,” Montes said. “The mothers learn about what their children are learning in the classroom so that they can help the child with homework at home.”

In this program, mothers learn how to help their children with math, reading and other studies. In the other ESL class Montes teaches, called Family Learning, mothers learn other important skills such as basic family nutrition and safety or how to work a gas stove. Both programs also provide child-care so that mothers can bring their young children with them, making it easier for them to attend the classes.

Apart from teaching the two ESL classes, Montes serves as the bilingual liaison for more than 500 LPS Spanish-speaking students and their families. She often helps interpret for the students or their teachers, bridging the language barrier gap.

But Montes has many jobs and roles as a bilingual liaison.

“Our job doesn’t have a description at all because we do many things,” Montes said. “Sometimes you are an interpreter, and other times you are a social worker. Other times you are a therapist or a psychologist.”

While her primary goal is to translate for teachers and their students, or for teachers and their students’ parents, Montes recognizes that her families face many other barriers. She helps them understand the local laws and to find food, shelter and clothing.

It makes for work days that are rarely the same.

“We face different challenges every day with our families,” Montes said. “It could be domestic violence, financial situations or even violations of the laws because it is different than our home countries.”

Montes remembers having to explain to one mother that offering to pay a police officer the amount of fine she had just been assessed was likely to be seen as attempted bribery. Another time, Montes helped a family find a new place to live after a car ran into their home on the first floor of their apartment building.

“We have to use our knowledge, our experience and our guts as liaisons,” Montes said. “We try to educate our families because this is a different country than they are used to. Our job is not easy, but we try to do our best.”

 

 Toan Tran, Vietnamese

Within seconds of hearing a voice over the phone, Toan Tran knows which Vietnamese parent is calling. He knows who the caller’s children are, where they go to school and if they went to school that day.

Tran oversees about 300 Vietnamese students enrolled in LPS and knows every single one of them.

“We have to build a relationship with the family,” Tran said. “And we have to build trust so that they feel comfortable coming to us if they need anything.”

Every day, Tran receives phone calls from concerned parents. They call to inquire about their children’s education. They want to know how they are doing in school and what assignments they’ve missed. They call to say their son or daughter is sick.

Other times, they call Tran for help with problems that are unrelated to their children’s education.

They call if they don’t know how to pay a parking ticket or how to handle a car accident. They call because they need documents translated so that they can understand them. They call because they have questions about where to find a doctor, a dentist or immunizations for their children.

“We have to build a relationship with the family," Toan Tran says. This sign hangs near his work station. / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

“We have to build a relationship with the family,” Toan Tran says. This sign hangs near his work station. / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

For Tran, being a bilingual liaison means working to break down the language barriers for both teachers and new Vietnamese families. Sometimes, though, his job is more than that.

“I like my job,” he said. “I love my job. I know sometimes with my families I need to go beyond my job. We are the family’s support, and our job is kind of like being a social worker.”

When new Vietnamese families arrive in Lincoln, Tran meets with them to determine their children’s English Language Learner level and what school they will attend. Then he translates paperwork for the family.

This is just the beginning.

Next, he connects the family to community resources and introduces them to literacy programs. He educates them on scheduling doctor’s appointments and immunizations. And he finds the family additional resources—clothing, food and shelter—if needed. The goal is for the families to be able to be on their own as soon as possible.

Tran came to Nebraska in 1991 with his family from Vietnam after qualifying for refugee status. Before Tran was a bilingual liaison for LPS, he was a community liaison for the Lincoln Police Department and a board member at the Asian Community Center.

“It was a tough road for us,” Tran said. “Back in the early ’90s we didn’t have a culture center. We didn’t really have much support.

“Now, we do. I will do anything to help my families.”

Tran’s job at the police department was similar to his job as the Vietnamese bilingual liaison: He helped refugees find resources and a sense of community. But in the years between 1990 and 1997 a lot more Vietnamese refugees were arriving.

“In the police department I was helping Vietnamese families with the crisis,” Tran said. “Today, I help my families with their future.”

These days, one of Tran’s goals is to help his students graduate from high school and move onto college. He loves seeing his students succeed, especially those who were a little lost when joining LPS.

“My favorite part of the job is when a student who is a little off track in their education starts coming back to school and doing their homework,” Tran said. “Then I think about how their future has changed. This student has a positive future ahead of them.”

Graduates will often come to Tran with gifts or money to repay him for all of the services he has provided to their families. Tran never accepts the gifts or the money.  All he wants from the students and families he helps is for them to give back to the community.

“I tell them, ‘I do my job to help you and help myself feel good. If you want to thank me and you want to feel good and successful, then contribute back to the community. Even if you help one student who has been skipping come back to school and graduate, that is enough.’”

That, Tran makes clear, is the only thank you he wants.

“‘Help anyone in the community. I don’t care what you do, just help.’”

 

Wah Wah Moo says of her job as a bilingual liaison, “It’s many things. Little things. But I am very happy with my job because I am able to help my community.” / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

Wah Wah Moo says of her job as a bilingual liaison, “It’s many things. Little things. But I am very happy with my job because I am able to help my community.” / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

 Wah Wah Moo, Burmese and Karen

Wah Wah Moo remembers waking up every morning to water her vegetable garden and gather eggs from her chickens. She remembers the chickens were colorful and bright and the eggs were large and brown—“like farm eggs.” After school Wah Wah Moo would sometimes go to the lake behind her farmhouse and row around on her small boat. For her entire childhood, Wah Wah Moo lived on a farm in the Burma Karen State.

Then, at 17, she was forced to leave.

“I wanted peace and independence from the Burmese army and government,” Wah Wah Moo said. “They wanted to control us and dictate us. When the Burmese army came to our village, we ran. For many, many years we moved like we were hiding.”

After leaving Burma, Wah Wah Moo didn’t have a home. She and the people of her village would make temporary houses in jungles and forest only to have them burned by the Burmese army. Wah Wah Moo sold everything. She remembers trading her jewelry for bowls of rice. Many people were sick and didn’t have enough clothes or blankets.

Wah Wah Moo made her way to Thailand and became a teacher in a refugee camp. She lived in the camp for more than 20 years.

“My life in the refugee camp was darkness,” Wah Wah Moo said.

Then, Wah Wah Moo was given the opportunity to come to the United States. She was able to choose which state she wanted to live in, and she chose Nebraska because her family was already living there. The only two states Wah Wah Moo knew were California and Nebraska.

“There is 50 states, but we only know the United States,” Wah Wah Moo said. “But it doesn’t matter which state because we are safe.”

After arriving in the United States, Wah Wah Moo faced the challenges all refugees encounter: She didn’t know how to drive, she didn’t know where to find or how to get to a grocery store, and she didn’t know many other Burmese or Karen refugees in the community.

But, most important, she was safe.

After taking ESL classes, Wah Wah Moo began to volunteer at schools and hospitals. Then, because the Burmese community was growing, LPS needed Wah Wah Moo’s help with translating and communicating with new Burmese and Karen refugees and immigrants. She was hired as the bilingual liaison in 2008.

As a bilingual liaison Wah Wah Moo translates for students and teachers for parent teacher conferences, she helps new families fill out paperwork, and she calls to schedule medical appointments. Sometimes, she has even found parents jobs.

“It’s many things. Little things,” Wah Wah Moo said. “But I am very happy with my job because I am able to help my community.”

Wah Wah Moo lives in an apartment complex on Washington Street filled with Burmese and Karen immigrants. Four apartment complexes sit right next to one another that are home mostly to Burmese and Karen immigrants. Because of this, Wah Wah Moo lives in close proximity to the families she is helping at LPS.

“I like everything about my job, but sometimes it’s too much. On the weekend I still don’t get to spend much time with my family because the parents always have questions,” Wah Wah Moo said. “Sometimes the parent will get a letter they don’t understand and they see the LPS sign and they will come and knock on my door to have me translate it.

“They worry. They think their child is in trouble or that they owe money. They are very worried. And sometimes it’s just a letter about a pajama day or field trip.”

When Wah Wah Moo finds a little bit of time to relax, she walks to the plot where she gardens with other Burmese and Karen immigrants. She got her plot through Community Crops, a community garden program that accommodates Lincoln residents who don’t have room for a garden at their homes. Here, gardeners can grow fruits and vegetables, spices and flowers.

Although the garden is not the same as one she had in Burma, Wah Wah Moo will never leave Lincoln.

“I will stay here and I will never move. I like my job and I love my community,” she said. “I will stay here and continue being a bilingual liaisons.”

 

Sebit Deng, Nuer and South Sudanese Arabic

When he was 26 years old, Sebit Deng was offered a second home in America. He left his family in Sudan, a place split between the North and the South, between Islamics and Christians, to live in a land with opportunities. He found his new home in Lincoln

“I fell in love with this country,” Deng said. “When I came to this country I found freedom of religion and no racists. I came to this country and the thing people were killing each other over there for, was normal here.

“I don’t want to leave. If someone were trying to take the freedom that I have in this country away from me, I would be ready to give my life for it,” he added.

“I fell in love with this country,” Sebit Deng says. “When I came to this country I found freedom of religion and no racists." / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

“I fell in love with this country,” Sebit Deng says. “When I came to this country I found freedom of religion and no racists.” / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

After Deng came here to Lincoln in 2002, he left in 2007 to work for the U.S. Army Reserves as an Arabic translator. After being away for three years, Deng returned again to Nebraska and looked for a job that was similar to what he had done in the military. He applied to be a bilingual liaison for the Nuer and South Sudan Arabic languages.

Now, Deng is the only Nuer and South Sudan Arabic liaison. Although the South Sudanese speak Arabic, it is a different version from that used in the Middle East.

“Someone from Iraq has difficulty understanding Arabic from Sudan. And likewise,” Deng said. “Just like British English is sometimes difficult for Americans.”

Deng notices many differences between the schools in South Sudan and the ones in Lincoln. In Sudan, students were taught by force. Teachers would strike students on the hand or backside if they misbehaved or were falling behind in their studies.

Also in Sudan, students did not do homework like American students do. In Sudan, all teaching and homework takes place in the classroom, while in America, students are given additional homework to do outside of class.

Most important, the way education is seen in Sudan is different than the way it is seen in America.

“Education is a desire over there. Everyone has the desire for an education, but not everyone gets that opportunity,” Deng said. “But in order for you to survive, you have to work hard, you have to be determined, you have to motivate yourself because then you will be as equal as everyone else.

“Here, the students may think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. I can get a job at a meat packing plant.’ But over there in Sudan, there is no meat packing plant. You have to be educated in order to survive.”

Deng describes working as a bilingual liaison as being an advocate for the more than 400 Nuer and South Sudan Arabic students in LPS. Deng checks up on all of his students’ grades and attendance through a system called Synergy that allows him to see how his students are doing in school. Through Synergy he is also able to contact the students’ teachers and parents.

“We advocate for those kids because we don’t want them to miss opportunity,” Deng said. “I advocate for these kids because I want them to prioritize around education. Because otherwise they will miss out later on.

If a student earns a poor grade, Deng will visit with the students and their teachers in order to resolve the problem. Sometimes, he helps students with their home issues as well. Deng recalls a time when he learned one of his students had a rat infestation in his home.

“They found out the child had a rat in his home because there was a rat in the classroom and all of the students were upset and screaming, and this child just continued to sit in his desk,” Deng said. “The teacher asked him why he wasn’t afraid and he said, ‘Well, we have a lot of them at home. I am not scared of a little rat.’”

After an investigation LPS federal programs was able to put the student and his family up in a hotel for a couple of days while the apartment was cleaned.

“I asked him why the school helped him and he said, ‘Because the school knew that in our house we had a problem and they wanted to help,’” Deng said, smiling.

Deng believes that because LPS is involved closely in students’ lives, immigrant families choose to stay in Lincoln.

“Overall, one of the best states in the United States is Nebraska,” Deng said. “The reason families stay in Lincoln is the education system because they are able to get help in the schools.”

Deng is also a student himself, at Doane College where he studies criminal justice. Although he loves the subject of criminal justice, he doesn’t plan to ever leave his job as a bilingual liaison.

“I am shooting to be here until retirement age. But you never know,” Deng said. “I don’t know what tomorrow holds for me, but I am going to stay here as long as I can.

“It’s not the worst job in the world, and it’s not the best job in the world,” he added. “The only thing that makes it so special is that you are dealing with human beings. I can see the effort I put into my job seen in another child’s life.”

 

“In our work there is a flexibility that I am very appreciative for as a mother,” Zaynab Al-Hamzawi says. / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

“In our work there is a flexibility that I am very appreciative for as a mother,” Zaynab Al-Hamzawi says. / Photo by Maranda Loughlin

Zaynab Al-Hamzawi, Arabic

Zaynab Al-Hamzawi recently had a home visit with one of her new Arabic families.

She delivered news they weren’t expecting to hear. Lincoln Public Schools was going to accept their 4-year-old special needs son next year when he starts kindergarten.

In Iraq, this would never have happened.

Al-Hamzawi goes on many home visits and school visits for her job as an Arabic bilingual liaison for LPS. She sometimes even meets families at her own home. Al-Hamzawi knows what it’s like to be a concerned parent in the school system. She has four children of her own.

“It’s so helpful having this job and this experience because I have kids and they go to these schools,” Al-Hamzawi said. “I am better able to understand what is going on in their classrooms now. That makes a difference.”

Especially through the teenage years.

When Al-Hamzawi was having problems with her teenagers a few years ago, she found LPS to be very forgiving and understanding. They allowed Al-Hamzawi to work shorter hours so she could spend more time with her family and focus on her life at home.

“In our work there is a flexibility that I am very appreciative for as a mother,” Al-Hamzawi said.

Still, Al-Hamzawi sometimes feels stressed out as she tries to keep her work life separate from her home life.

“Sometimes at 10 or 11 o’clock the families will call. I used to take every phone call I ever received from them, but I couldn’t keep doing that because I have a family too,” Al-Hamzawi said. “But they always have needs.”

Al-Hamzawi’s life revolves around work and home, leaving her little time for herself.

“My life is around me all the time,” Al-Hamzawi said. “I don’t feel like there is much time for myself. I feel like my time is for the house and family and work.”

As part of her job, Al-Hamzawi makes sure her students have all the proper health documents filled out, and she helps her families when they can’t understand the paperwork. And she helps students and teachers communicate by translating for them.

Often times Al-Hamzawi believes, she seen only as a translator.

“In my experience some of the schools have seen me as just an interpreter,” Al-Hamzawi said. “I almost think that we should be cultural liaisons instead of bilingual liaisons because we do a lot more than interpret.”

But whatever they call it, Al-Hamzawi finds the job rewarding.

“It’s really nice when people tell you how appreciative they are for your help,” Al-Hamzawi said.  “Everyone here is so special.”

 

Shaima Shakir, Arabic and Kurdish

Shaima Shakir knows her families. She knows their fear. She knows their loss. She knows what they need.

She knows what it’s like to be new in a foreign country. She has experienced the same anxiety and confusion as her families three times herself now.

“For me, when the new kids come to the ELL office, I don’t see them as just students,” Shakir said. “I think about how I went through this. Every time I see a new family, I think about my own family, and I want to help them as much as I can.”

Shaima Shakir says, "Every time I see a new family, I think about my own family, and I want to help them as much as I can.”

Shaima Shakir says, “Every time I see a new family, I think about my own family, and I want to help them as much as I can.”

In 1988 Shakir, her parents, her sister and her baby brother left Iraq on a journey that would eventually bring them to the United States. Shakir lived in a mud house in Iran with two blankets for her five-member family. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Pakistan with two other families. Now, she lives in Lincoln with her husband and children.

Shakir is one of the Arabic LPS’ bilingual liaisons and the only Kurdish one. As a bilingual liaison she helps refugee and immigrant students and families acclimate into the LPS school system. In her work, Shakir bridges the language gap between the new families and teachers, teaches family literacy programs and enrolls families into schools.

Sometimes she has to reach outside of her job description in order to help a family succeed in the school system and Lincoln.

“Interpreting is just a small part of our job. As liaisons we are trying to work with the students, work with the teachers and work with the parents,” Shakir said. “It’s not just about enrolling the child and then saying, ‘Bye! See you later!’ That’s just the first day.”

In addition to helping with school related problems, Shakir helps the students and families find everyday necessities.

“Sometimes we are the only resource that can help the families,” Shakir said, “when they don’t have shoes, when they don’t have clothes, when they don’t have furniture.

“As liaisons, we will send messages to the schools and teachers to see if there is anything we can pull together to give to our families.”

Shakir is quick to point out that she not only helps families and teachers with language, she helps them with everything.

“Our job is not just to interpret and then be done. We go deeper,” Shakir said. “A lot of the times the families don’t know anybody except us. Sometimes we have to act like social workers.”

Shakir works with students from kindergarten through high school seniors, but she has the hardest time peeling herself away from the younger children.

“The kids get the idea that I’m going to be with them all the time. But when they get to school they realize I can’t stay and then they get upset,” Shakir said. “I have a few young ones who want me to stay with them every single day, and then they cry when I have to leave.”

The younger Arabic and Kurdish students have also been having some problems more recently with religion issues boiling over in the Middle East. Sometimes Shakir is called in by an ELL teacher to sort out disagreements between students.

“I have to remind students that we are all here for the same reasons. Don’t blame each other,” Shakir said. “They’re new and haven’t settled down yet, so it’s hard for them. Luckily, there have just been small disagreements so far.”

No matter where the students are from, they are all here escaping their home countries in search of a different, maybe better, life. And at LPS, Shakir believes, the bilingual liaisons will do anything to help.

She believes that everyone who leaves home experiences loss. For some, it is more painful than for others.

“I understand some of the families who come here have lost. Some of the refugees have lost daughters, or their homes. Maybe they’ve lost a grandparent in war. Their pain is worse,” Shakir said. “We try to comfort them with resources. We want them to heal from the loss they have experienced. We don’t want loss to be an issue on top of everything else they are going through.”

That, Shakir says, is why she’s here.

“I could get a job anywhere else, but I stay here because I feel like I am changing people’s lives. Changing the students’ lives.”

 


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