A voice for refugees: Boynton Terrace residents say full-time interpreter is needed

A voice for refugees: Boynton Terrace residents say full-time interpreter is needed

April 12th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Evariste Simbananiye spends time in his residence at Boynton Terrace. Simbananiye moved to the United States from Burundi in 2007 leaving due to war and despite being an educator in his home country, he has difficulty communicating since he only speaks Swahili and French.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

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Evariste Simbananiye lives in a fully furnished apartment in Boynton Terrace but prefers squatting, as he did in his native Burundi, to sitting in a chair.

Simbananiye, 64, is among a handful of refugees from at least three countries who live in or near the public housing facility. They've been there since 2007, but Boynton residents say some refugees still don't have the support they need to adjust to a new culture and language.

Another Burundi refugee has had so many apartment fires that some residents say he shouldn't use the stove. Instead of using a pot or pan to hold his cooking food, he holds it directly over the electric burner, much as he would have done with a fire in his homeland.

Before coming to the United States under a federal resettlement program, these refugees may only have known life in a refugee camp. Once here, they often cling to their old way of life because they can't communicate well enough to understand and adapt to cultural differences.

"They were brought here and just dumped off," said Bennie Haynes, president of the Boynton Terrace Resident Council.

The result can be friction with neighbors, and even public safety or health problems.

One of the things Boynton Terrace residents say needs to be communicated is not to use the bathroom in public places like the elevator.

And they're asking the Chattanooga Housing Authority or some other agency to supply a full-time language interpreter on site to help.

CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright said she wasn't aware of the request.

"If someone has that request, I suggest they send it to their property manager and forward it to the director of asset management and we will deal with it," she said.

McCright said CHA has a contracted interpreter. Bridge Refugee Services, a nonprofit that works with the refugees, says it also has a contract with a freelance interpreter.

Haynes said he occasionally sees an interpreter, but she wants money to work and doesn't keep regular hours.

In the meantime, residents have to figure out how to communicate.

Simbananiye gave Haynes a Swahili-English dictionary. Haynes said when he realized that the book cost $20, he gave Simbananiye a television converter box.

The two have sat across from each to drink coffee and have been fishing together, but communicating is difficult, said Haynes. An interpreter would help bridge that gap and make it easier for the immigrants to adjust, he said.

The need for better access to an interpreter isn't new. In 2009 a woman from Burundi was raped by a neighbor. It took five days to arrest the suspect because no translator was available to ask the victim what happened, according to news reports.

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Two people from Burundi and one from the Sudan live in Boynton Terrace, said Haynes. Two families from Cuba and another from the Ukraine live in Boynton or other public housing buildings, according to Bridge Refugee Services.

The federal program to relocate refugees has closed, so no more are expected to come, said Marina Peshterianu, coordinator of Bridge Services.

Thousands of refugees fled war-torn Burundi in 1972. Some spent 30 years in refugee camps before being resettled here and elsewhere.

Between 2005 and 2008, Bridge brought about 80 of the Burundian refugees to Chattanooga.

Most have since relocated to other areas, said Peshterianu.

"People don't understand that they have fear for their life, not fear for having enough economics," Peshterianu said.

She said Bridge is thankful to the CHA for agreeing to house the immigrants. They come without such things as Social Security cards or a credit history, so it is difficult for them to get support, she said.

Still, some residents are upset that they are left to deal with the cultural differences. Others called for more tolerance and understanding.

"It's a tough situation," said Haynes. "They are totally in the dark."

Simbananiye, meanwhile, does the best he can.

He taught French in Africa and also speaks Swahili. He's trying to learn English but still has trouble carrying on a conversation.

He pointed to a map to show Burundi, the African country he left because of war.

When asked what's the hardest part about adjusting to life in Chattanooga, he said, "Chattanooga is good."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or call 423-757-6431.