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Refugee Organizations Offer Multilingual Hotline, News Updates On COVID-19

A coalition of refugee and immigrant-led organizations is working to staff a multilingual hotline and crisis response website to provide more information on COVID-19.

Refugee and immigrant-led organizations in Iowa are banding together to provide information on COVID-19 in ten different languages. The resources include public health information and advice on how to cope with our new reality in the age of coronavirus.

Iowans have a new way to get updated information on public health measures and community resources in languages other than English.

Refugee advocates, community groups and churches are coming together to staff a multi-lingual hotline and translate news updates for a COVID-19 crisis response website.

It can be confusing enough for native English speakers to navigate the ever-changing public health guidance and the sometimes byzantine process of applying for government benefits. Organizers hope having this information available in more languages will help Iowans get the help they need and adjust to the new limitations on public life.

“They just call the hotline and then it will go directly to the language, whoever speaks that dialect. And then we can communicate and asking them what they want, who they are and how we can help them,” said Abigail Sui, a staffer with the refugee advocacy organization EMBARC, which is helping lead the coalition.

For now, the program is mainly targeted at Iowans from Burma and Central and East Africa, who make up a large portion of the state’s refugee communities.

Staffers who speak Burmese, French, Hakha-chin, Karen, Karenni, Kirundi, Kunama, Lingala, Mizo-chin, and Swahili are providing video updates of state and national news on the novel coronavirus, as well as information on how to slow the spread, avoid scams and file for unemployment.

And for those who have questions, the coalition is running a crisis helpline, where staffers can answer general questions about the virus, as well as how to set up medical appointments, food deliveries, apply for benefits like unemployment, SNAP, WIC and other support services.

The hotline is currently available Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5 pm, with staffers who speak Arabic, Burmese, Hakha-chin, Karen, Karenni, Kunama and Swahili.   

So far, the most common issue that callers are asking about is unemployment benefits, said Sui. As of Thursday, more than 100,000 Iowans had applied for unemployment between March 14 - 28. That represents a staggering 2,134% increase in applications compared to the two weeks previous.

“Right now, the most call[s] we [get] is for unemployment. So we train our staff [on] how to help [with] unemployment application[s] online so that we don’t have to meet in person because of the social distancing,” Sui said.

The resources are currently being piloted for Polk County residents. Organizers plan to add more staffers and more languages as they scale the program statewide. More information is available at http://www.embarciowa.org/.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter