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Finding The Right Words To Help Rohingya Refugees

Imagine an aid worker in Bangladesh. Her mother tongue is Chittagonian. She's trying to help a Rohingya refugee, whose language is similar to hers — but not 100 percent. The refugee tells her gaa-lamani biaram, "my body is falling apart."

Would she know that phrase meant the refugee had diarrhea?

That's why a new glossary is being developed. And one of the 180 entries is that Rohingya phrase, indicating that a person is suffering from diarrhea.

In June, a nonprofit group called Translators Without Borders, in partnership with Oxfam and UNICEF, created a special online glossary for humanitarians working in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. The app, which aid workers can download on their mobile phones, includes terms with translations in five languages spoken in the camps: English, Bangla, Rohingya, Chittagonian and Burmese.

Many local aid workers in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh — home to nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees — are not native Rohingya speakers, says Irene Scott, the program director for Translators Without Borders in Bangladesh.

The local dialect spoken in Cox's Bazar area, Chittagonian, is close to the Rohingya language, but "not close enough to avoid misunderstandings," says Alyssa Boularès, the crisis response program manager for Translators Without Borders.

A November 2017 study from Internews, a nonprofit group that helps people in low-income settings access news and information, reported that almost two-thirdsof the 570 Rohingya refugees surveyed at Cox's Bazar were unable to communicate with aid providers.

That can be particularly dangerous when it comes to health care, says Scott. "It's one of those areas where language makes a difference. If you can't explain to your doctor what's going on, and the doctor can't explain the diagnosis and prescription, it's impossible to [help]."

To create the glossary, Translators Without Borders assembled a focus group of aid workers and refugees to come up with "a dictionary list of terms they use at the camps every day and terms that field workers are having trouble trying to communicate," says Scott. Then they worked with members of the community and a staff sociolinguist to translate the words into the four languages.

The group has created special glossaries like this a few times before. In March, it published one for aid workers in northeast Nigeria, with translations in English, Hausa and Kanuri. And in 2016, for the European refugee crisis, it made guides in Greek, Farsi and Arabic.

Most of the words in this first iteration of the Bangladesh glossary focus on water, sanitation and hygiene. Over the past few months, the camps have faced acute water shortages, putting people at risk of waterborne diseases like cholera, bloody diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis E.

Among the frequently used words by the aid workers, according to the group, are "chlorine tablet," "complaint," "skin rash," "oral rehydration salt," "consultation" and, of course, "diarrhea."

"Chlorine tablet" is an important word for aid workers to clearly translate, says Scott, because they're asking refugees to put a foreign substance into their drinking water to make it safe to consume. "It's hard to tell a traumatized community to put that tablet in water and drink it. You can imagine the unease after telling a person to do that." The idea is to create a standard term so the Rohingya will come to know exactly what is meant.

If aid workers can't explain to refugees what the tablet is for and what it does, the refugees might think that the aid worker is trying to poison them or make them sick, Scott explains. Using the precise word, klorine bori, can help build trust between the two groups, she says.

There are a few unexpected words in the glossary — like "poem." Rohingya aid volunteers in the camps specifically asked for this word to be added.

"Since Rohingya is an oral language, written communications like fliers or pamphlets [to convey important health information] may not be effective given the lack of a standardized script," says Krissy Welle, senior communications officer for Translators Without Borders.

Rhyming conventions are a key way to transfer knowledge and historical facts in Rohingya culture, explains Eva Niederberger, Oxfam's community engagement adviser in Cox's Bazar, in a statement to NPR. So an aid worker might say something like, "Here's a poem that will teach you how to protect yourself from certain diseases."

Sometimes there's no direct translation so the group looks for a work-around. That's what it had to do for the words "rehydration" and "dehydration." "Rohingya as a language has a far smaller vocabulary, so you can't always translate terms," says Scott. "So we used phrases that literally mean 'to fill up the body with water' and 'to dry up the body's water.'"

The group is now working on its next edition of the glossary, which will include terms relevant to gender-based violence.

Khin Khin Hla, a translator working in the camps and a native Rohingya speaker, believes that the glossary "will be helpful, especially for Bangladeshi translators," she says. But she has problems with some of the translations.

Take the word "complaint." In Rohingya, Hla says the word in the glossary is muadima, but that refers "only to [complaints] related to court cases."

AK Rahim, Translators Without Borders' staff sociolinguist, agrees with Hla's assessment. "To be honest, in hindsight, I would go with bisaar dohn, the more colloquial term [for 'complaint']," he wrote in an email to NPR.

"The glossary is a living, changing tool," says Welle of Translators Without Borders. "Translators frequently disagree on word choice, especially in an oral language. We encourage this kind of feedback from translators and the community."

Such conversations have a special value, says Scott. "When we talk about language with Rohingya women and men, they're happy that someone is paying attention to something so crucially important to their cultural identity. For so long they've had their rights denied to them. It's all about respect at the end of the day."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.
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