Fort Bend County, Texas Precinct 4 Commissioner Dexter McCoy speaks at Houston Ethnic Media’s briefing on language access on March 23 (Photo Credit: Regal Media Group, LLC).

Imagine coming to the land of opportunity, seeking a better life for yourself and your loved-ones.

You have found others from back home to make your transition easier.

You have found a community to call home, a church to worship in and a job that provides a good living for your family.

However, the fact that you have not mastered the English language makes it harder for you and your loved-ones to get information about natural disasters, pandemics and other things necessary for survival.

When many Americans think of language access and language barriers, they understandably think of those from the Asian and Hispanic communities.

While language access probably affects those communities the most, immigrants from African countries face similar hurdles as their brothers and sisters from the Asian and Hispanic communities.

On March 23, Houston Ethnic Media invited leaders from Houston’s ethnic media companies to hear from leaders in the community who witness the hardships that many Houstonians face daily because of language barriers and a lack of access to adequate translators.

Speakers at “The Push to Expand Language Access” briefing included: Fort Bend County, Texas Precinct 4 Commissioner Dexter McCoy, Jose Eduardo Sanchez, the director of Language Justice & Popular Education for Tecolotl, Terry Yun, who serves as Community Service Coordinator of Woori Juntos, Sarwa Numan, the outreach specialist and community health worker at Hope Clinic and Maung Maung, the president of Rohingya Society of Greater Houston, who also serves as a community health advocate for the Asian American Health Coalition.

Greater Houston area residents, not including new arrivals, speak 145 total languages.

That reality presents a huge dilemma when vital information and services are often only translated into a few of those languages.

To combat that issue, Commissioner McCoy and Fort Bend County, Texas have become proactive to make county services more accessible for its diverse population.

The Fort Bend County website is translated into 75 different languages.

Additionally, ballots in Fort Bend must be translated based on the percentage of residents.

However, McCoy says that funding is a problem because it takes a workforce and manpower to translate important information into a plethora of languages so that all residents can have equal access to county services.

McCoy said, “When you have folks in our community who have issues and concerns, they need to know exactly where they go to have those issues and concerns resolved.

“And you have folks in our community who want to know how to be engaged and to participate, in not only our government, but in the community around them.”

The county commissioner shared a story of a childhood friend who did not speak English when his family moved to America.

McCoy’s friend’s first year in America coincided with McCoy’s first year in a diverse Texas community.

Initially, the two fourth graders shared a connection through hand gestures because the only word McCoy’s friend knew in English was “hello.”

But while McCoy’s friend learned English via ESL classes in school, the future political leader learned Spanish by spending time with his friend.

McCoy ran into his fourth-grade friend years later and he is now a highly successful businessperson.

His friend was given the resources at an early age to survive although he initially did not speak English.

However, McCoy knows that not every immigrant has the access to the resources that his friend got to enjoy.

As a result, many live in America afraid to speak out and afraid to ask for help from others.

Some might say, why can’t these immigrants just learn English if they want to live in America?

Some will say that when Americans visit other countries, the people of those countries often do not go out of their way to help Americans translate their language into English.

Sanchez’s reply would be it is hard to work a full-time job, take care of a family and learn English at the same time.

That is why many sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews must serve as translators for the elders in their family.

Sanchez knows this firsthand because he often had to translate for his older family members who did not speak English fluently.

But obviously, the issues of language access and language barriers are not confined to the perimeters of the “Space City.”

A report by New Mexico Voices for Children (NMVC) exposed the racial inequities that exist for Asian, Pacific Islander (API) and African refugee and immigrant communities.

During the pandemic, NMVC discovered inequalities such as barriers to economic security, housing security, education and healthcare.

The report showed that 65 percent of the Asian, Pacific Islander and African immigrant communities had a relative who lost work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Furthermore, those communities reported that 79 percent of their families lost income during the pandemic as compared with only 43 percent of all Americans. reported, “Many people who are eligible for government services, public benefits and other resources are excluded from them, in large part due to language barriers. Several study participants expressed frustration with the systems they encountered, explaining, ‘Everything is in English.’”

Every Child Thrives added, “Facing inequities in language access is not a new issue for API and African immigrants and refugees, but the problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The report explains, ‘as a direct result, there are communities of New Mexicans who feel isolated and disconnected, who are facing disproportionate hardship during the pandemic and who are unable to readily access the government assistance for which they are eligible.”

In the Greater Houston area, Yun helped many people keep their homes who initially could not get help keeping those homes because they did not understand English.

Yun’s work represents some of the stories of salvation.

But what about those who did not have access to critical services and programs because of language access issues?

Todd A. Smith
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