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Meet the Googlers breaking down language barriers for migrants

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Googler Ariel Koren was at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018 when more than 7,000 people from Central America were arriving in the area. Ariel, who speaks nine languages, was there serving as an interpreter for asylum seekers fighting their cases.  

Ariel, who leads Marketing for Google for Education in Latin America, knew language skills would continue to be an essential resource for migrants and refugees. She decided to team up with fellow Googler Fernanda Montes de Oca, who is also multilingual and speaks four languages. “We knew that our language skills are only valuable to the extent that we are using them actively to mobilize for others, ” says Fernanda. The two began working to create a network of volunteer translators, which they eventually called Respond Crisis Translation

In addition to her job leading Google for Education Ecosystems in Google Mexico, Fernanda is responsible for recruiting and training Respond’s volunteer translators. Originally, the group saw an average of five new volunteers sign up each week; now, they sometimes receive more than 20 applications a day. Fernanda thinks the increased time at home may be driving the numbers. “Many of them are looking to do something that can have a social impact while they're staying at home,” she says. Today, Respond consists of about 1,400 volunteers and offers services in 53 languages.

Fernanda says she looks for people who are passionate about the cause, have experience in legal translations and have a commitment to building out a strong  emotional support network. “Volunteers have to fight against family separation and support folks who have experienced disparate types of violence and abuse,” she says. “It’s also important to have a support network and be able to take care of yourself.” Volunteers have access to a therapist should they need it.

In January 2020, the group officially became an NGO and to date, Respond Crisis Translation has worked on about 1,600 cases, some of which have helped asylum seekers to win their cases. Respond Crisis Translation largely works on cases at the Mexico-U.S. border, but is also increasingly lending their efforts in Southern Mexico and Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic also prompted the group to explore more ways to help. Volunteers have created translated medical resources, supported domestic violence hotlines and have translated educational materials for migrant parents who are now helping their children with distance learning.  

One challenge for the team is meeting increasing demand. “We weren’t just concerned about growing, but ensuring the quality of our work as we grew,” says Ariel. “Small language details like a typo or misspelled word are frequently used to disqualify an entire asylum case. The quality of our translation work is very important because it can impact whether a case is won or lost, which can literally mean the difference between life and death or a deportation. Every time there’s a story about someone who won their case we feel a sense of relief. That’s what motivates us to keep going.” 

Ariel and Fernanda also hope Respond Crisis Translation can become an income source for indigenous language translators. Whenever they work with indigenous language speakers, Respond  asks the NGO they’re working with to provide compensation to the translator for their labor. 

Although Ariel and Fernanda didn’t expect their project to grow as quickly as it has, they’re thrilled to see the progress they’ve made. “Being a multilingual person is a very important part of my identity, so when I see that language is being used as a tool to systematically limit the fundamental right to freedom of mobility,” says Ariel. “I feel a responsibility to resist, and work alongside the language community to find solutions.” 

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