A Journey Never Imagined (2 of 2)

In our earlier installment, we learned just how easy it is to get caught up in a human trafficking scheme. Nelson, a smart, motivated, hardworking young man from Southeast Asia was looking to build his skillset and deepen his faith. Instead, the company he found turned out to be an organization trafficking and exploiting individuals.  He was forced to do landscaping work for 25 dollars a week and live in poor conditions without basic human rights and with no end in sight. With great fortune, he met friends in America that helped him escape – and he ended up here in Chicago.

This experience impacted Nelson in ways he never could have imagined. Instead of responding with fear or anger, Nelson found within himself a drive to fight for those experiencing similar powerlessness. Able to speak 4 different languages, Nelson decided to become an interpreter. He knew his skills could help other immigrants looking to rebuild their lives in the US. To become qualified as an interpreter, Nelson once again reached out to the woman who helped him rebuild his own life here in Chicago, Darci, from the Freedom from Trafficking program at Heartland Alliance.

“I love being a voice for people. It doesn’t feel like work. I do my best to make people feel comfortable, it’s one of the most important parts of the job.”

Darci found the right training programs, and Nelson passed each certification process with ease. His impressive handle on the art of communication made him an easy hire for Cross-Cultural Interpreting Services, a program of our own Heartland Alliance Health.

At CCIS, Nelson works not only as someone who translates words from one language to the next, but as a guide, storyteller, and advocate. He helps refugees and immigrants – still trying to pick up the language and adapt to a new country– understand the complexities of things like healthcare and the US legal system. With Nelson by their side, these seemingly insurmountable systems can be navigated with confidence. His work has also helped Nelson build up his own understanding of the US.

“This has helped me learn how people new to America have to navigate the system. I’ve learned a lot about healthcare, law, social services – and I’m learning more every day.”

Nelson has worked with hundreds of individuals as a translator, helping people find their place in Chicago. He recalled two people in particular that made him quite proud.

One of his first clients was an individual in a mental health facility. The client, a devout Hindu from South Asia, was a man who took his religious practice extremely serious. The doctors, nurses, and medical practitioners of the facility had no previous experiences with a person like this, and their understanding of the man’s language was minimal. They interpreted his strange comments and behaviors as symptoms of illness. Nelson, however, recognized  the client’s practices as cultural expressions of the Hindu religion.

For example, the client would regularly talk about how he wanted to “plant 108 flowers” or “sacrifice 108 flowers”. As it turns out, the number 108 is sacred in Hinduism, and is the number of beads on the Hindu mala (or prayer beads). Once the code was broken, the participant’s meetings and screenings with his doctors became much more productive.

Nelson became both the participant’s voice and ears in group therapy sessions, doctor appointments, and staff encounters.

 “I had to have many minds at that job. I had to be the voice for my client, but also for the doctors, counselors, and other patients.”

Within two weeks, the individual was released. He had been expected to stay for months – or longer.

“I’m not just translating, I’m interpreting. Feelings, language, culture, figures of speech, these all must be accounted for in communication. Context is everything.”

More recently, Nelson found himself in a courtroom doing the same thing – this time for a man looking to ensure his job security and freedom. A man mourning a family death who ended up receiving a DUI.  Nelson was sent to help get his license back.

“As an interpreter, I’m also an advocate. I felt like my own license was revoked, and I know just how destructive that can be for a person trying to move forward. This man is relying on me.”

It was imperative that Nelson translate as best he could in this scenario, expressing just how ashamed – and transformed – his participant was since the incident. Nelson also met with the organizations helping the participant acclimate to his new country, ensuring that they didn’t give up on him during such a trying time.

 “It’s all about communicating clearly and compassionately. You have to put people in another’s shoes, get them to feel and understand.”

Later on, Nelson saw the man out and about. He had actually received his license once more, and was moving forward in life. He told Nelson that he doesn’t drink at all, doesn’t even drink soda. He was effusive with his thanks and said he truly believed that he wouldn’t have this opportunity if not for Nelson.

These wins mean more to Nelson than simply getting the job done. These are lives changed, and impacts that go on to build entire communities. He knows just how crushing miscommunication can be for new Americans, and he’ll be there for whoever needs help next.

“I want to continue doing what I’m doing. I love helping people through my interpreting. I’ll continue to travel and see the world, and I’ll definitely continue to help and be with my family. I’ve always been vocal about what is right. I stood up and volunteered to point out my traffickers, and I’ll continue to stand my ground. Someday, maybe I’ll become an immigration lawyer.”

Read part 1 of Nelson’s story.