Mater interpreter gives patients a voice

30/Oct/2019     HealthHospitals

Meet Mater interpreter Safia. An interpreter for Somali language, Safia has a passion for helping people express themselves in their own language.

Born in Somalia, Safia became a refugee when she was just four years old. While working in a preschool, a friend told Safia the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sub Office in Kakuma Refugee Camp (UNHCR) Protection Unit were looking for people to apply as interpreters. After a lengthy process involving interviews and written tests, Safia was chosen as the only Somali interpreter.

“This was a life changing moment for me and I really loved it,” Safia said.

“I was able to help refugee families with their Refugee Status Determination interviews in the refugee camp,” she said.

Safia worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as an interpreter in the camp before arriving in Australia as a refugee.

“I was forced to live in a refugee camp because of the war in my country and lived in the camp from 1991–2009 before emigrating to Australia with my sister,” she said.

Now an interpreter at Mater, Safia works three days onsite in Mater Mothers’ Hospital antenatal clinics, birth suites and post-natal wards and Mater Hospital Brisbane. She can often work weekends via telephone or onsite for agency.

For Safia, interpreting isn’t hard, but managing the cultural beliefs around it is.

“In the beginning it was very challenging for me to balance the cultural and interpreter needs – I knew a patient could understand the words I was saying but they couldn’t take it in,” Safia said.

“We have a culture where we don’t specifically talk about death–which is hard not to do in hospitals, especially cancer care.

“The doctor may tell a patient they have cancer and have six months to live, but in our culture, you would say ‘only God knows’.

“But still I have to tell them, I have to interpret the information correctly,” she said.

When Safia walks into a patient’s room, her job is to interpret.

“I just walk in, say ‘Salaam-Alaikum’, which is ‘hello’, introduce myself as Safia and that I am a Somali interpreter,” Safia said.

“Sometimes people will tell me they speak English and don’t need an interpreter, so I let the health professional know. It’s then up to the health professional as to whether they need me.

“Most of the time I stay, because the health professional requests me to interpret complex medical information and I’m happy to.

“Usually they end up needing me even though they speak conversational English,” she said.

Safia believes interpreting for people who don’t speak English is incredibly important.

“It’s tough if someone who doesn’t speak or understand English comes to a health professional with a problem and wants to tell them about it, but cannot make themselves understood.

“I don’t think health professionals can do their job as efficiently or safely without an interpreter if they have a patient who speaks limited English,” she said.

With more than 20 000 occasions of interpreter services per year at Mater, ensuring patients have interpreter access at any time during their journey is important.

The most popular languages requiring an interpreter at Mater are Mandarin, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic, Somali and Persian.

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