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Welcome but how? The Refugee Phrase-Book Project

As thousands of refugees come to Europe, we need to face a language barrier. They need to face a language barrier.

This is not “a problem.” It is, in fact, a collection of problems. They have walked thousands of kilometres to reach safety, but they can still feel far apart. They need to talk to many people, as they pass through many countries. We need to deal with this barrier now. The police, the helpers, the volunteers. We all need to talk.

Well, a community of people with a migrant background in Berlin decided to do something concrete about this situation. One of them is an artist, Julieta Aranda, one of the founders of e-flux. She is one of many, but she is the one I interviewed.

Why was the project first created? 

This project was created because it seemed obvious that something like this was needed – in view of the current situation for refugees in Europe. Many of the people working on it themselves have experience as migrants, or have close friends with migration backgrounds, and view this situation in the context of the horrors of German bureaucracy heightened by language barriers. As a project started, It started out – and still is – a simple open Google Doc. The doc quickly began filling with the work of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world who thought of phrases – general, medical, juridical — that might be needed. And then everyone proceeded to translate what they could.

It only took a few days until it grew into almost 30 languages and hundreds of entries. Printable versions are done through a conversion to Wikibooks. Everyone can contribute, everyone can use the data, everyone can print and distribute everywhere they want and develop the project further, or branch out.

In what situations would you say that refugees would find the phrasebook/s helpful? 

There are many situations in which it can be useful.

During the refugees’ journey, for communication with other refugees, with aid workers, police, doctors, officials of any kind. But also for aid workers or translators, f.e. the volunteer translators that come to camps or train stations to offer their help, or anyone who wants to bridge language barriers. This can range from a simple ” Hello“, ” How are you?“, ” I’m here and want to help you“ to the specific information like medical conditions, things that happened during the journey or back at home. A more extended version is in the works for those who have applied for asylum and are navigating daily life in a foreign country.

Why do you think no one else had created a project like yours? Phrasebooks and dictionaries have always been around, and translation apps for the smartphone do an excellent job and are also widely used among refugees and helpers these days. There hasn’t been much thought about why this wasn’t created previously; it was just started as a straightforward grassroots project. There are others, like the coordination of donations and food in Berlin, mostly via Facebook and Google Docs.

What kind of response have you had? Has it been helpful to refugees and those working to help them?

The feedback we got so far is excellent. In Croatia, the police started printing their copies to distribute and work with. In Vienna, hundreds of copies were handed out on a weekend when many-many refugees came through from Hungary. We’ve heard that the book made its way to Calais. And then to German and Austrian cities and camps, as well as in Hungary, Slovenia, and Greece. We try to feed responses back into the docs, however, what it started with is still true: everyone can make it better and create their version of it, the data is open and free. That’s what we hope for, that it continues to take on a life of its own.

 What kind of response have you had from the public? 

The public’s response has been entirely positive, and many-many people support the project with their minds, technical skills, know-how, time, money, and infrastructure – like printing copies in their offices, or translating what they can. It’s great to see. It’s simple and inclusive:  everyone can do it.

Refugees may not always have internet access. Are the phrasebooks available anywhere other than online? Or is it reliant on those working with refugees to print and supply the phrasebook? 

It’s, of course, possible to download a PDF on the phone once there is internet access, but we do not have optimised versions for that yet. It’s a very young project and, of course, rough around the edges. Some people want to make it into an app; we will see what will happen. Again, everyone is welcome to participate.

What are the professional backgrounds of those working for the Berlin-based support group? How many do people work on the project?

Some of us come from art, some from activism, some have IT/ computer experience…. The truth is that there are too many people involved to tell, and in the end, our background is not so relevant.

What’s your position on the project? 

I’m one of many.