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Harvey in Any Language: Volunteer Translators for Farsi, Arabic, Vietnamese Answer the Call

Covering all their bases at NRG Center.
Covering all their bases at NRG Center.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Before opening up the NRG Center to 10,000 people displaced by Harvey, Harris County officials and BakerRipley — which helped spearhead the shelter preparations — had planned to have translators for every language spoken under the sun in Harris County ready to welcome everyone.

But during one of the very first late-night shifts, there was a problem: They needed someone who spoke Farsi. Quickly, the call went out on social media and trickled across the region.

Within one hour, seven people showed up — and then after that, officials had to start turning a surplus of Farsi speakers away.

"We said, 'Only in Houston would you get more Farsi speakers than you can use in one hour,'" said Angela Blanchard, CEO of BakerRipley (formerly called Neighborhood Center), in between meetings with public officials and making sure the massive shelter operation was running smoothly.

Blanchard said translators for 16 languages — including Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Vietnamese and Chinese — are available to greet guests arriving at the NRG Center — a testament to Houston's diversity in a time when cultural, racial and ethnic divides do not matter.

There are enough translators, Blanchard said, that they can generally connect on a one-to-one level with families, lead them through the brief registration process, which includes filling out the "abbreviated version" of a form they may later use to apply for FEMA assistance, and then follow them to their dorm area and show them where they can find food and shower areas. Blanchard said the idea was to make people as comfortable as possible, as though they are staying in a hotel.

"BakerRipley has worked with the most diverse neighborhoods in Houston for years," she said, "and so we were very sensitive to the fact that we might want to be able to welcome the guests to the shelter in the language they speak."

Blanchard said her crew has started to feel bad about having so many volunteers showing up that some have to be told to try coming back another time. Even during the overnight shift and at odd hours, hordes of people continue to come.

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