“You never realize the importance of [listening] until you meet someone who doesn't have a voice,” said Stephanie Martinez-Calderon '20 at a panel discussion of several students who volunteered to translate and interpret for asylum-seekers during Knox College’s winter break.
The January 14 event, “Reflections from the Border: Translating and Interpreting for Asylum-Seekers,” featured Montse Cancino '20, Natalie Juarez '21, Stephanie Martinez-Calderon '20, Alexis Ramirez '21, Ellis Staton '20, and professor of modern languages Robin Ragan. They described the personal impact their work had, as well as the legal and emotional battles asylum-seekers go through every day.
The work of volunteer interpreters, translators, and lawyers is crucial to asylum-seekers, Staton said, as immigrants do not have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. The Knox students interpreted conversations between asylum-seekers and their volunteer lawyers—spending long hours with them—and translated birth certificates and other important documents such as medical and police reports.
Volunteering at the border seems to be a natural extension of the classroom environment Ragan cultivates. She includes practical work that involves real clients in her Spanish translation courses. During the 2020 winter term, her Introduction to Spanish Translation students translated the paperwork for an asylum case and prepared handouts for a therapist with Spanish-speaking clients. They collaborated with the group Al Otro Lado, a non-profit that provides essential legal services to migrants at the southern border.
Ragan started translating and interpreting in-person during the spring break of 2019 when she went to volunteer in Dilley, Texas, with then-students Jennifer Erl '19 and Rebecca Disomma '19. Ragan said the experience “challenged us emotionally like nothing I've ever experienced.” Since, she went to Harlingen, Texas, last summer with Ramirez, Cancino, and Maika Padilla '19 and took Staton, Juarez, and Martinez-Calderon to San Diego, California, to volunteer over winter break.
In Harlingen, Ramirez’s client explained to the lawyers that he was fleeing danger in his home country. Since arriving in the U.S., his son had been taken from him and he’d experienced severe depression. Ramirez said, “As [my client was] telling this story of trauma, I'm translating to the lawyers. Every word he spoke, I spoke; and every tear he shed, I had shed as well.”
Ramirez said, “On the last day working with [my client], I got a thank you with tears in his eyes because I made him feel a lot better about his situation. He told me that he had found a new hope in his life for the future of his family.”
This human experience stuck with all the students. Of her time interpreting in San Diego, Martinez-Calderon said that “getting that human interaction definitely helps you see the world in a different way. Sitting in a classroom, you’re never gonna get that.”
She added that her experience has made her more comfortable chiming into classroom conversations, saying it “made me more confident in what I was saying.”
Students have kept up the work even after their return, interpreting for asylum-seekers over the phone and translating for various immigrant aid organizations. For example, Staton is an intern at the Esperanza Legal Assistance Center in Moline, Illinois.
“Getting that experience, even if it has nothing to do with my major, I think it’ll definitely teach you more about yourself in terms of what you can do within this school, and even outside,” said Martinez-Calderon, who majors in economics.
“I love Knox,” she added: “As soon as I stepped on campus, I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ And with this experience, I was like, Knox is really helping us. They’re really letting us see what the real world is.”