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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Coronavirus: meet Makkah's multilingual volunteers spreading Covid-19 information

Forty-five volunteers speaking 13 languages between them give test results, information and support in a cosmopolitan city

The coronavirus can infect anyone, regardless of nationality. In cities with people from all over the world, this can raise an issue for responders needing to break down language barriers.

In a call centre in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, a group of 45 volunteers speaking 13 languages are a few of the tens of thousands who have signed up to help the kingdom’s response to the pandemic.

Working eight-hour shifts from their office, they spend their days fielding questions or making calls to give people their test results in their native language.

In the group are speakers of Urdu, Farsi, Rohingya, Hausa as multinational Makkah has a large number of foreign residents from India, Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan and Chad.

“I can’t forget one phone call from an Indian man in his thirties who lives alone in Makkah. When he heard that I’m answering him in Urdu he started crying,” volunteer Salman Al Shareef, 24, told The National.

Mr Al Shareef explained that the man had been ringing the Health Ministry’s call centre but no one there could understand him.

“He told me every time he called the main call centre he spoke in Urdu and they would reply in Arabic or English and so he just hung up as he was panicking,” Mr Al Shareef said. “On the fourth attempt, before he could say a word, they transferred him to me.”

He explained that the caller had Covid-19 symptoms and wanted to know what to do next. “He was so scared and crying, he kept saying: ‘I don’t want to die alone away from my family’,” Mr Al Shareef said.

He helped the man get an ambulance to take him to be tested and then checked in on him until the results came back.

Mr Al Shareef said that since the caller’s symptoms were not severe, he was sent home.

“I called to tell him that his test results were positive, but we are taught to first prepare the patient emotionally ... We try to calm them and explain what will happen next.”

He said the call lasted for more than two hours, as the man was afraid and alone. “I didn’t hang up the line until I was sure the man was calm,” Mr Al Shareef said.

Salman AL Shareef .  Frontline health workers are praised as hero’s in today's pandemic, but before patients get their help, some are getting lost in translation. Here comes the role of those volunteering at a health call center in Saudi.
Salman Al Shareef, who speaks Urdu, has been helping people over the phone for weeks. Balquees Basalom for The National

Asma Miswak, who runs the centre, explained that all the calls coming in are transferred from the main hotline when they need translation. Volunteers also call patients that they know speak languages other than Arabic and English to give test results.

“Citizens and residents are communicated to in their spoken language to guide them with precautionary measures and to follow up with them,” Ms Miswak said.

Mr Al Shareef said that many of the calls he fielded in the last three months stayed with him.

He recalled a conversation he had with a foreign labourer whose roommates kicked him out of their accommodation when he started showing symptoms.

“He called saying: ‘I beg you to help me! I have been standing under the sun for the last six hours just wandering the streets and I don’t know what to do’,” Mr Al Shareef said.

The volunteer raised his issue with the director and arranged a test for the man who was then housed in one of the government’s isolation residences for free until he fully recovered a few weeks later and could return to his accommodation.

The city of Makkah has a lot of experience in dealing with people from all over the world as it hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims every year for Umrah and Hajj. Mr Al Shareef says he has previously worked helping pilgrims, a role that helped prepare him for his current undertaking.

“I have worked every Hajj season since I was 7 at the office for South Asia pilgrims,” he said. Working with pilgrims brought him into contact with people from all over the world, including those who are frustrated, angry or tired. “I learned how to deal with all moods and in two languages,” he added.

Mr Al Shreef is just one of the 157,000 people in the kingdom who signed up to the health volunteer scheme when it began in March.

As well as initiatives like the call centre, other volunteers are going to labour accommodation, malls and mosques to raise awareness about the symptoms of Covid-19, how to prevent its spread and safety measures.

Health professionals not required on the front line have also volunteered to work in field hospitals and medical centres around the kingdom.

Dr Saber Jan  Frontline health workers are praised as hero’s in today's pandemic, but before patients get their help, some are getting lost in translation. Here comes the role of those volunteering at a health call center in Saudi
Dr Saber Jan is nicknamed ‘the star of the place’ as he speaks seven languages. Balquees Basaloum for The National

In Makkah alone, 2,828 volunteers have so far completed Health Ministry training and have started work.

Dr Saber Jan is one of them. He also works in the call centre where he has been nicknamed ‘the star of the place’ by the other staff because he speaks seven different languages.

“I always love meeting new people and diving into their cultures when I travel,” he said. “Over the years, and with practice, I proudly speak fluent Arabic, English, Farsi, Russian, Uzbek, Urdu and a bit of Turkish,’ Dr Jan said.

He said he was grateful to be able to use his skills for a good cause.

“Since the pandemic started to spread in Makkah, I have been working here without taking a day off,” he said. Every day he works from 2pm until 8 pm, even at weekends.

“These critical times require that we stand with each other and everyone should help with what he or she can,” he said.

Volunteer Sameer Hussain, who speaks Arabic and Rohingya, teared up as he described the significant moments he experienced since he started volunteering.

Sameer Hussain Frontline health workers are praised as hero’s in today's pandemic, but before patients get their help, some are getting lost in translation. Here comes the role of those volunteering at a health call center in Saudi.
Sameer Hussain, whose language skills are in demand given the estimated 200,000 Rohingya living in Makkah. Balquees Basalom for The National

With an estimated 200,000 Rohingya living in Makkah, his language skills are in demand.

“It really touched me when they start praying for us, and for our parents,” he said. “No words can describe what I feel. It really touches me when they pray for my parents.”

Mr Hussain added that the highlight of his time was during Ramadan. “Right before iftar, we used to get really beautiful prayers and it made all the long hours worth it,” he said.

Muslims believe that prayers around the time of iftar when they break their Ramadan fast will always be answered.

Updated: June 25, 2020 05:54 PM


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