Maneuvering Through a New World: A Reflection

As the City of Sioux City’s first Community Inclusion Liaison, part of my role is to identify structural and institutional barriers to social equity for underrepresented groups and develop solutions to overcome these obstacles. To showcase how this is possible, I believe it is necessary for you to  understand my story. My story may be unique to you but maybe a reality for many families in the Sioux City area. I present this as a way for you to not only learn a little more about my story. I want to give you a look as to what our multicultural youth and families may be facing and implore you to look at your practices and policies to reduce barriers and let our youth stay young longer. 

As a first-generation Ethiopian/Eritrean American, I grew up in a very traditional household. My parents were new to the country, the language, and the system. There was no established presence of Ethiopians/Eritreans in Sioux Falls, SD, at the time, so my parents tried their best. Fortunately for them, they had three kids who understood the language enough to assist with the navigation process. This can be beneficial for parents but can also become stressful for children in these positions. I remember when I was younger having to fill out paperwork. I had no business filling out this paperwork as I did not truly understand what I was reading for my parents. I knew all about my family’s bills and income. This was awesome as much as it was awful. I knew so much about my family’s finances that I sometimes felt selfish asking for anything that wasn’t necessary and started working two days after I turned 14. It would have been nice to be able to say, “I don’t want to,” but I knew that was not an option. So, I filled papers out, read mail, etc. And it didn’t stop at bills and paperwork. I knew all about my parent’s health, whether it was looking good or not. I look back at my childhood sometimes and feel like I grew up quickly. Other times, I look at the skills I learned through that experience and say, “well now I know how to do this.” 

I share this because I believe Sioux City can conquer these barriers. But it is going to take all of us to do that. I would like for all of you to close your eyes and imagine that you are in a place, you have children and only your children know the language. Where your children are the ones in charge of completing your mortgage refinancing paperwork, in charge of reading bills and maybe even writing checks to pay out balances. How stressful do you think it will be for them? For you? Imagine the stress they may have experienced trying to figure out who to call, where to send payments, when they should give your SSN out and more! This is the reality for some of us. 

Ways to overcome these barriers:

  1. Hire multilingual staff – Hiring multilingual staff can be beneficial to everyone in the business community. Diversity in the workforce can help create smarter solutions, drive in business, and help serve more community members from diverse backgrounds. 
  2. Having a language service in place – when you do not have multilingual staff on board, this is another option. This can be more expensive but is important to think about. If your business receives federal funds, Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000d, provides that no person shall “on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. If your business does not have a LEP (limited English proficiency) plan in place and receive federal funds, I encourage you to do that ASAP. 
  3. Take the time to educate people who seek services from you. Not every person coming from a different country has the same system back home.  Patience goes a long way. Do not assume people understand everything! Ask comprehension questions! My ESL teaching supervisor once told me, “If your students don’t understand what you taught, you failed as a teacher today.” 
  4. In the case that none of these are options, and you must use a child to interpret, be careful with how you talk with them. Not all kids are proficient in their home languages or have clear understandings of what you may be asking. I advise that if you are doing anything that can have long-term effects, such as financial transactions or medical items,  do not have a child interpret. Children do not know the long-term effects of a large transaction. Anything medical may make a child worry, and/or violate HIPAA. It may be best to reschedule to meet with them at a time where they can bring their own interpreter or work with an agency who may have interpreters available. 

The answers to barriers are not overnight fixes. But if we work together to implement practices where we are actively looking for barriers and do something about it, we can all make Sioux City an even better place to live. 

By Semehar Ghebrekidan M.S., Community Inclusion Liaison

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