MigraLingua: helping parents make the link

Article by Patrycja Perek, traduction française Kate O'Dwyer, relecture Camille Saadé, traducción española Ana Beltrán
14 December 2011

Have you ever been on a trip to a country that was completely exotic for you? Have you tried asking for directions on how to get somewhere and you felt lost and confused because you did not know the local language? It was probably not a pleasant situation. And now imagine that you have to live in that country, and not just spend your vacation there.

This feeling of insecurity is shared by thousands of immigrants who come every year to start a new life in Switzerland. In Geneva, which is the most cosmopolitan canton in Switzerland, almost 40% of population is foreign. However, this number does not include people without legal status.

Many of them struggle in their daily lives to accompany the schooling of their children, have difficulties in understanding laws and regulations, in accessing health care, in finding a job, etc. "This city is supposed to be very international, but for a lot of things, knowing French is very essential," says Lin Johnson, originally from China and a mother of two children, who arrived in Geneva from the USA last year. "We especially have problems with the documents and letters we receive from the City of Geneva and from the school. Everything is in French and we often don't understand what they want us to do. We can use Google translator to translate the letters, but the translation is not very precise. Another thing is the completely different school system, so we need to learn – where do we need to go, what do we need to sign up for? Everyday, we see how other parents pick up their children from school and how they communicate with the teacher. They know what their kids need to do at school, but for the teacher it is difficult to communicate with us. Most of the time, both sides just choose to say ‘Hello, Have a good day’ and ‘Goodbye’."

Lin's feelings about the challenges faced by parents who are foreigners are confirmed by GAPP, the federation for parents’ associations. It brings together about 80% of all parents' associations based in Geneva. GAPP's main objective is to improve the communication between schools and families.

"The question that always comes back is: what can we do to reach the migrant families, to help them integrate with the community and to facilitate their understanding of the Swiss school system? There are some cultures, like the Albanian culture for example, where the concept of repeating a class does not exist. So it is not only the problem of the language barrier, but also strong cultural differences. It is very important to overcome these hurdles because we know that the more the parents get involved in their children’s education, the better the chances for their children to succeed," explains Anne Thorel-Ruegsegger, the Coordinator of GAPP.

This willingness to help non-French speaking families lead GAPP to cooperate with ICVolunteers. In the words of Ms. Thorel-Ruegsegger, ICV's MigraLingua program is the best tool to make a link between the people in need and volunteer interpreters who want to give them a hand.

The purpose of the MigraLingua program is to accompany migrants who have arrived in a country where they do not master the local language. In Geneva, it assists migrants in their daily tasks, in particular those linked to school and education. This program may be the solution for many foreigners seeking linguistic support, given that there is no one place where parents can find all the necessary information. "All they can find is the website of the Education Department (DIP), but it exists only in French, not even in German, Italian or English," admits the Coordinator of GAPP.

One of the volunteers involved in this project is Ms. Ling Perret, a retired librarian who teaches French at the Université Populaire and the Université Ouvrière de Genève and who wanted to put her language skills to use. She attended four courses preparing interpreters to accompany migrants. One of these courses included trialogue, the communication between three people, and a visit to a refugee center with a briefing, explaining the extremely complicated procedure that refugees have to go through before either being accepted in Switzerland or being sent back to their country of origin.

Ms. Perret decided to volunteer because, as she told us, she has had a good life and instead of always receiving, she wants to give something back. "When I was a child, my father traveled a lot. I went to schools wherever he traveled but he never had much time to take care of follow-ups at school and my mother didn't really speak the language very well. So I found myself several times explaining to my parents what it was that my school wanted and that didn't seem right. I mean it seemed to me that dialogue should have been between my parents and the teacher and not going through me, the pupil. I was just a child. I always kept that memory in the back of my mind."

It is volunteers like Ms. Ling Perret who help new immigrant families to transition to their new environment. If you would like to help and support MigraLingua and ICV in our ongoing efforts, please fill in our general registration form (if you have not already done so) and send an e-mail to migralingua[at]icvolunteers.org.

More information

  • Giving a Voice, Report on the Language Support for Non-French Speaking Migrants in Geneva (Synthesis),  September 2008, FrançaisEnglish.

  • Parla Amb Mi, Parla Aqui. Report about the linguistic situation of migrants in Barcelona, July 2007, Català, English, Français.

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