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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Nelson

How Bilingualism Can Help During a Crisis

Do you remember the last time you were in a truly terrifying situation? Maybe you’ve been hospitalized with a severe illness or condition, or maybe you were in a position where you were powerless to defend yourself.


Regardless of what the situation was, do you remember how it made you feel? Were you scared? Hurt? Confused? Panicked? All of the above? You probably felt your heart pounding, your chest tightening, and your hands shaking.


This is a picture of a woman sitting on a red floor. She has her head in her knees, and she has her arms wrapped around her thighs, as if she's emotionally overwhelmed.
Dealing with trauma is difficult, scary, and isolating.

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay


In the aftermath of what happened, you probably had people to help you process through it, such as your parents, your spouse, your children, your friends and extended family, and even doctors or counselors.


Experiencing a situation where you feel powerless is one of the worst experiences. These situations are bad enough when you can understand the people around you. You might have felt powerless, but it’s possible to reclaim some of that power in the aftermath. You can tell your doctor or a police officer what happened. You can inform a nurse if something hurts. You can express your feelings about what happened to your counselor. All of that helps you to find support, process what happened, and move forward.


However, let’s imagine that no one around you spoke English. It would make your situation so much harder than it needed to be. It would be hard to determine who was there to help you and who was there to hurt you. Your doctor would not get accurate information about your condition, which could lead to an incorrect diagnosis and treatment. The police would have a hard time determining the crime and who was responsible. It would take longer for the situation to resolve, which could cause unnecessary damage.


Even after the event, it would be hard to get support if no one could understand you. A nurse likely wouldn’t catch an infected wound until the infection had progressed. A counselor wouldn’t understand how intense your feelings were until your mental health took a turn for the worse.


Going through painful experiences is already hard enough. Not being able to communicate with others about your experience is even worse. Not only do you experience the pain of the situation itself, but you experience the pain of loneliness and isolation on top of that.


This is a picture of two sitting women giving each other a hug.
There's an easy way for you to help others.

It seems like there’s been an immense amount of suffering in the world. Recent crises include the Covid-19 pandemic, a historic influx of migrants at the U.S-Mexico border, and sudden destabilization in Afghanistan. Even though the politics surrounding these issues vary significantly, the fact is that all three events have caused a significant amount of stress, trauma, and suffering. Many have suffered because of what’s happened, and lives will change in the days and weeks to come.


Since early 2021, migrants from Central and South America have come to the United States in record numbers. Several reasons have driven the most recent surge, including a new presidential administration in the U.S., natural disasters in Central America, economic devastation, gang wars, and political oppression. These countries are also dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic that they don’t have the infrastructure to fight. As recently as July 2021, countries like Argentina and Colombia recorded a record-high number of cases, and countries like Honduras and Guatemala have yet to vaccinate even 1% of their populations. There is fear that growing violence and instability, coupled with limited healthcare, will drive future Covid-19 surges and provide a breeding ground for future variants.


Many of these countries have dealt with turmoil for years. However, climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic are two new challenges that have made an already-precarious situation even more difficult. Climate change has brought more intense natural disasters, such as hurricanes and droughts, which has made it even harder for farmers to make a living. The economic devastation related to the pandemic has also made it hard for people worldwide to support themselves and their families.


The migrant surge also has to do with timing. President Biden was sworn in as the 46th president in January 2021, and he campaigned on promises that his administration would welcome migrants. This promise has given hope to many migrants. In addition, previous trends have shown that migrants often come in warmer months. The warmer weather and the welcoming administration are only two of the reasons why there’s been a migrant surge.


However, the Biden administration has been criticized for the treatment of migrants once they’re in Border Patrol custody. Many facilities are holding more migrants than they can safely house. As of Sunday, August 1st, 2021, the Border Patrol was detaining 17,778 migrants, meaning that the holding capacities were collectively at 377% capacity. The largest holding facility was at 446% of its capacity.


Due to the pandemic and a surge in cases due to the Delta variant, the Biden administration announced in early August that it would continue the Trump administration policy of expelling migrants. Under this policy, Border Patrol officials can expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries. These policies were implemented to prevent overcrowding and Covid outbreaks inside border patrol facilities.


However, this decision has been controversial. Many advocates have condemned these expulsions as an illegal Trump-era policy that denies migrants sanctuary and places them in harm’s way. As a result of these expulsions, there have been over 3,000 reports of kidnappings, rape, and assaults against migrants and asylum-seekers stranded in Mexico from late January-early August 2021.


It remains to be seen how this crisis will resolve.


More recently, the United States withdrew troops from Afghanistan to end America’s longest war. As of this writing, the Taliban has taken over control. They did so in a matter of days, despite having confidence that the Afghan military could continue without U.S. help.


The Afghan forces had over 300,000 personnel and multi-billion dollar equipment. On paper, they were stronger than the Taliban. However, a combination of factors weakened their efforts: corruption, poor leadership, a lack of training, and plummeting morale. The withdrawal of U.S. military support caused morale to plummet even further.


Even though the Taliban forces were smaller, they were highly motivated and more cohesive than the Afghan forces. They often surrendered without a fight, leaving the Taliban to capture city after city with little effort.


With the Taliban back in power, many Afghans are afraid of what the future holds for them. Many fear that the country will lose the progress it made over the past 20 years. Many remember life under the Taliban in the 1990s when women were forbidden to work, and girls couldn’t go to school.


As of this writing, the international community is concerned about the safety of women, girls, and those that aided the United States. Attention has now shifted to getting as many people out of Afghanistan as possible. Even before the Taliban takeover, the United Nations estimated that there were 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees worldwide, the second-largest refugee group after displaced Syrians.


Thousands of Afghans have been desperate to leave the country. As of Monday, August 16th, thousands of people were attempting to leave the country by plane. Some were so desperate for escape that they tried to cling to the outside of overloaded planes as they took off. Others have tried to enter nearby countries by foot through Taliban-controlled border crossings with varying degrees of success. Those that have evacuated will apply for asylum in new countries, many of which are far from home. Those that remain face a scary, uncertain future.


It’s a lot to take in, and it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such suffering.


In the coming weeks and months, there will be a need for food, shelter, clothing, and sanitation. There will also be an increased demand for bilingual workers and volunteers, especially for Spanish and Arabic speakers. Many migrants and refugees speak little to no English, and they need support from people who can communicate with them.


This is a picture of two students walking together and laughing. The woman on the left is wearing a white hijab and a long-sleeved, cream-colored dress. She's also holding a green backpack and a red book. The woman on the right is wearing a dark-colored dress and a light-colored denim jacket. She's holding a yellow notebook.
Being bilingual supports refugees and migrants.

People with certain occupations can help, such as social workers, counselors, and lawyers. Lawyers will be needed to help refugees and migrants apply for visas and citizenship. Social workers and counselors will also be necessary to help them adjust to life in America and address their mental health needs.


Those who experience such crises are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions. Many people become migrants and refugees due to extreme situations in their home countries, such as economic collapse, intense corruption, and threats of violence and terrorist attacks. Many have also lost loved ones to violence, and many have even been the victims of violence themselves. These factors put them at an increased risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Some risk factors for PTSD include:

  • Living through dangerous events and traumas

  • Getting hurt

  • Seeing another person hurt or seeing a dead body

  • Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear

  • Having little or no social support after the event

  • Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as the loss of a loved one, a job, a home, or pain and injury.


Unfortunately, refugees and migrants experience several of these risk factors. Dangerous events and traumas drive many of them to leave their homes in the first place. They’ve likely been injured, and they likely witnessed others experiencing severe injury or death. Leaving your home and community causes further loss. All of this can cause intense feelings of horror, helplessness, or fear.


If you can’t communicate with other people, it will exacerbate their feelings of isolation, which further increases their risk for PTSD.


As a result of these crises, there will likely be an increased demand for bilingual social workers and counselors to provide culturally sensitive mental health services. Providing this assistance will help victims to reduce their risk of developing mental health conditions. These services will allow them to become healthy, flourishing members of American society.


We will need more bilingual workers besides social workers and counselors, though. There will be a need for other bilingual workers, such as lawyers, humanitarian aid workers, and teachers.


If you’re fluent in Spanish or Arabic, consider volunteering your skills. Even if you don’t work with vulnerable populations for a living, you still have valuable skills that you can use to make a difference. Many nonprofit organizations need bilingual volunteers to interpret, translate documents, provide pro bono legal services, spread information, welcome migrants and refugees to the United States, and teach English and Citizenship courses.


This is a picture of a teacher working with a student.
Many migrants and refugees need English and Citizenship courses.

Regardless of your role, you can be with someone in their hour of greatest need if you speak another language:

  • You can meet the other person where they are. By allowing them to use their native language, you can allow them to express themselves in the way that’s most comfortable for them. For many people, it’s often easier to communicate with their native language when they’re stressed, especially if they’re not fluent in their second language.

  • When people get stressed, the “fight or flight” response kicks in, which can affect a person’s memory. Because of this, you’ll often have better luck if you speak the person’s native language since it’s ingrained into their long-term memories.

  • Using their native language helps the other person to let their guard down and relax because you’re presenting them with something that feels familiar and safe. The safer the other person feels, the more likely they will open up about their feelings and experiences and promote healing.

  • On a related note, using the other person’s native language helps you to gain their trust. When you go through a difficult, traumatic experience, it’s hard to trust other people. In many of these situations, people with bad intentions took advantage of other people’s trust and kindness. By making an effort to meet them where they are, you can show them that you’re trustworthy and a safe person.


If you’re not bilingual in Arabic or Spanish, ReDefiners World Languages can help you. We offer language classes in Arabic, Spanish, English, and Mandarin. We can help you to become bilingual. Regardless of your occupation, being bilingual can help you communicate with others, navigate unfamiliar cultures, and become a better global citizen. For more information, please visit our website or email us at info@redefinerswl.org.



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