700 words and expressions to help aid workers communicate with Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo by: KM Asad / European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — The word “haiz” means menstruation in Rohingya, but it isn’t the term a young woman would use to describe her period. Instead she might rely on the euphemism “gusol,” which means “to shower.” That may seem a small detail, but it could mean the difference between a health worker obtaining an accurate medical history or deeply embarrassing a patient. It’s one of 700 terms that will be available in an updated online glossary to help aid workers and interpreters communicate with the 1 million Rohingya refugees they currently serve in Bangladesh’s coastal region of Cox’s Bazar.

In partnership with humanitarian aid groups responding to the crisis, the nonprofit Translators without Borders has so far focused on translating “problem” terms related to water and sanitation, but the group is adding 500 words to the glossary this week to address emergency operations, disability, and gender. The list of terms is available online and via a downloadable app that functions offline to allow aid workers in the field to look up and listen to the words — each translated in the five languages spoken in the camps: English, Bangla, Rohingya, Chittagonian, and Burmese.

Aid groups 'desperate' to communicate effectively with 1 million Rohingya refugees

The current suite of ad hoc communications strategies in Cox's Bazar reflects an aid community unprepared for the rapid growth of a city-sized refugee camp. But communication challenges have also been compounded by the low literacy rate of the refugee population, the complexities of the Rohingya language, and a surge of aid groups unfamiliar with the local context.

In a city-sized refugee camp, misunderstandings and communication barriers slow aid delivery and can put lives at risk, especially if vulnerable people are missing out on vital information about health services or cyclone safety plans.

Since the arrival of 700,000 additional refugees to Bangladesh in late 2017, aid groups have been scooping up staff who speak the Chittagong language, a dialect of Bengali spoken in Cox’s Bazar and its northern port city neighbor of Chittagong — and the language considered most similar to Rohingya. Still, Rohingya is an oral language with no standardized written script, which has made translation difficult even for Chittagonian speakers and left many aid groups struggling to communicate.

A November 2017 report from Internews showed that more than three-quarters of Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar felt they didn’t have enough information to make good decisions, and almost two-thirds said they were unable to communicate with aid providers.

“This is obviously a huge concern when you think about responding to specific health and protection needs,” said Iulia Andreea Toma, Oxfam gender adviser in Cox’s Bazar who consulted on the glossary project. “It also means we miss opportunities to learn from the community about what they need to help to protect themselves and how to improve their access to things they need.”

To come up with the list of terms, Translators without Borders held consultations with humanitarian staff active in various sectors, then conducted focus group discussions with different linguistic groups and with male and female refugees of varying ages. Afterward, the team “goes through each individual word,” explained AK Rahim, the nonprofit’s sociolinguistic researcher.

The glossary includes a guideline outlining some of the findings behind the evolving language as well as details for when and with whom to use certain terminology in the field —  something aid actors are particularly looking forward to, Rahim said. If an aid worker wants to broach the general topic of puberty, for example, they could say someone is “getting bigger,” or “dor oiyi.” But there is a specific term for girls — “gor-golli” — which means the girl is now “entering the house,” a euphemism that accounts for a girl becoming more housebound during this time of her life.

The glossary features terms around safety, exploitation, abuse, and stigma in order to help aid groups better tackle many of the harmful issues faced by women and girls in the sprawling camps. They are additions that Oxfam’s Toma says can’t come soon enough. Even the term gender is difficult to navigate, as there is no single word to describe the concept. Instead, it’s “moroth-fua ba maya-fua,” which means “man or woman.”

In a recent joint agency survey, Oxfam found that one-third of women do not feel safe walking around the refugee camp, “however we know that the term safety is not uniformly understood — so potentially this could be even higher,” Toma said.  “If women do not feel safe in the camp, we need to understand why and how we can improve it.”

Already, the tool has helped actors in water, sanitation, and hygiene better communicate why the refugee community should utilize water purification tablets in their drinking water, explained Translators without Borders’ Cox’s Bazar Program Director Irene Scott.

Previously, the language around the tablets seemed simple, along the lines of: “Put the tab in the water, wait for 30 minutes, then you can drink your water.” But asking someone to put a foreign substance in their water is “a breeding ground for rumors,” Scott said. “And some people were avoiding use of [the tablets] because of it.”

Through their research, Translators without Borders was able to instruct aid workers to relate the chlorine tablets to a system of purification Rohingya had previously used in Myanmar: “They could say ‘this Aquatab is like that, but it also makes your water safe to drink,’ so that when the WASH sector is explaining these products, they’re using terms familiar to the community,” Scott explained.  

The glossary tackles the idea of confidentiality and privacy, for which there is no direct translation in Rohingya. And the concept of women-friendly spaces — the shelters dispersed throughout the camps where women are encouraged to relax, participate in discussions, and learn new skills — was also foreign and hard to communicate. The Bangla and Burmese equivalents didn’t make sense to the Rohingya community, Rahim said. Instead, women started calling the spaces “garmens,” he explained. The word is a Chittagonian take on the word “garments” which the Rohingya community adopted since women sometimes sew in these spaces.

The language is changing constantly, Rahim said, and it’s crucial for aid actors to keep up. The glossary, as a result, is meant to be an ever-evolving tool. Translators without Borders encourages interpreters or NGO staff members to send in corrections or suggestions to be added to the next update.

There are plans to tackle additional terms in health, education, and nutrition, and Scott hopes the expanded glossary continues to improve the ability of humanitarians to respectfully communicate with Rohingya in their language.

In conducting research with women for the gender glossary, Scott was concerned that bringing up sensitive terms such as abuse and rape would be retraumatizing, “but what we kept hearing from them is that they were so happy someone wanted to talk to them about their language and culture,” she said.

“It wasn’t about retelling their story or their trauma, it was how they like to talk about things. There’s a pride in that.”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.