Multilingual Hotline Translates COVID-19 Information

The early days of the COVID-19 crisis in Central New York were a whirlwind of new policies and health recommendations. For the region’s New Americans, the flurry of cancellations, closures and safety rules brought additional challenges.

“People had no idea what was going on and they looked to us for support,” said Haji Adan, executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment (RISE) in Syracuse and a New American himself. “They were worried about their health and welfare. They were worried about their jobs. They had so many concerns.”

Due to lack of access to quality education in their home countries, many refugees and immigrants hold limited literacy skills in their own language and many are still in the process of learning English.

Uncertainty about the health crisis frightened some New Americans, many of whom had experienced war, poverty or natural disasters in their home countries.

“They remembered what it was like when there was a malaria outbreak in the refugee camps,” Adan said. “They could not understand how the greatest country in the world did not have medicine for this disease.”

They also worried about the effects of social distancing or quarantine. “If they could not see a family member for two weeks, that was devastating,” Adan said. “Connecting with family is healing for us. Being unable to see family created a lot of mental health issues.”

A grant from the COVID-19 Community Support Fund supported a 24-hour hotline to help New Americans in 15 languages, including English. RISE caseworkers calmed fears and provided accurate information — in the caller’s preferred language — about issues such as COVID-19 testing, unemployment benefits and food assistance.

The North Side Learning Center and the New American Forum also received grants to support emergency services and multilingual assistance to New Americans. RISE and the YWCA of Syracuse & Onondaga County are fiscal sponsors of the New American Forum.

RISE assisted at least 300 new clients during the initial panic of the pandemic. The agency’s 25 caseworkers previously worked with about 1,000 clients from 23 countries. The agency, located on Burt Street, remained open, with limited staff, throughout the crisis. “No one knew where else to go,” Adan said. “They watched the news then came to us to explain it to them.”

The staff tried to stay positive throughout the confusing period.

“We told them, ‘Think about your health and your well-being and your family. Remember, this country is great and things will get better.”