Both Sides, Now


When MCIS first published this blog on February 19, 2020, the subject of the interview was in the process of appealing his refugee status. In order to protect him, and the confidentiality of his case, we did not publish his name. However, in November 2020, he successfully appealed and received refugee status. The judge in the case accepted the chapter translation of Colombia Diversa that MCIS provided free of charge, as key evidence to support the subject’s case. With the subject’s approval and blessing, MCIS is now reposting this interview in full with Hernán Alonso Sierra Arias. In his own words, “without MCIS providing free translation of this document, I would not be able to argue my case and prove that my experience was real and my life was in danger.”

MCIS’ Social Impact Fund has been supporting individuals and agencies in need of language access since 2015. The vast majority of individuals requesting free interpretation or translation services have very modest or no income. In addition, many of them live in precarious living conditions, struggling with poverty, mental health or housing, not to mention the burden imposed on one’s life as a refugee.

Only rarely do we choose to interview our clients.

On one side, we are conscious of negative publicity that could impact their objectives. On the other, we realize that people do not like to see themselves as victims of their circumstances. Occasionally, however, we do get clients, like the one interviewed here, who are not only willing to advocate, but are also keenly aware of the larger systemic issues because they have experienced and lived on both sides, servicing refugees and eventually, living as one.

This interview was conducted with the generous help of bilingual staff at MCIS: Luisa Cano, who was committed to this particular translation project from day one, helped us to conduct the interview in Spanish, and Ixchel Cervantes, one of our project managers, coordinated the translation and the transcription of the interview.

For this reason our February 22, 2020 event, Translation Pop-Up Clinic, celebrated the World Day of Social Justice and all individuals and agencies, clients and staff, who have been fighting quietly, but persistently, for language and social justice.

MCIS: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your life immediately before you had to leave Colombia? If you are comfortable sharing, what was it exactly that led you to the decision to leave the country and start anew?

Hernán: Before I came to Canada, I was working with the UN Refugee Agency in different places. I graduated in 2003, and received my Master’s in Human Rights Law from Spain. As a human rights lawyer, I worked in Chile with Palestinian refugees. I was then sent to the border of Tumaco to be in charge of the first UN office there, working with only one other officer beside me. I was there for two years, mostly helping young people and some children avoid being recruited by militia groups, such as FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). We were trying to solve some very complex problems for different sectors, as well as different neighbourhoods, and develop a strong anti-recruitment strategy. It was because of that job in particular, and my exposure through it, that I became the target of threats. Eventually, I was forced to leave this post and choose another refugee agency that was outside the UN umbrella. Here, I was also assigned to work in different regions such as Chocó, Caquetá, and Meta, where I spent about a year. I was also travelling a lot and because of my travel, I was found; which resumed the threats.

At that time, in 2016, I also received a small stipend to study in Canada, and my student visa was just approved. I felt very insecure in Colombia. The country was going through difficult times due to the outcomes of the Peace Agreement Referendum. Colombia has a number of unresolved issues, especially around cartels. In addition, although the rights of the LGBTQ community in Colombia were, at least in comparison to other South American countries, better, the discrimination and violence were, and are still, common. These issues affected me tremendously. I felt that my country was taking the route of using the LGBTQ community as a scapegoat in encouraging the public to target them. I felt sad about this turn of the narrative and its aggressive domination over the public discourse. I felt disappointed with attention turning away from the corruption and the cartels— what we needed to be resolving. I realized then, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find safety here.

MCIS: Can you describe your first months in Canada – where you lived, which agencies assisted you, with the level of English you had, how comfortable were you with services?

Hernán: First, when I came, I stayed with a host family, and after that I found a Canadian family to live with who helped me a lot over the first 8 months while I was studying. At first, I was relying a lot on the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCC), an agency that works primarily with the LGBTQ community and has done a lot of advocacy on their behalf; I still work with them as a volunteer. However, to be very honest, the memories of my first day are a bit foggy. I remember having an incredible anxiety about what to do next, and who do I turn to for help. I also remember that I could not make decisions easily, partially because I did not know what is available to me, and partially because I felt I was not strong enough to believe that I could follow up. The issue with my housing was especially difficult. I could not stay where I was staying, and because of precarious housing, my efforts to find something affordable for me created incredible, paralyzing stress. In addition, as I came with only basic English language skills, I could not express myself as fully as I am used to, which was very frustrating. Now, instead of advocating for others, I had to advocate for myself, and this, I could not do well. Having the experience of working in the social and human rights sector, I saw firsthand what kinds of barriers are produced from lacking language proficiency. For example, I wear braces and at that time they were broken, so I had to communicate to health service providers and explain what I needed. When I received my bill, it was over $2500 because I had no insurance. Not only could I not fix them but also I could not find words to explain why wearing them caused me pain. I ended up sending them to Colombia to be adjusted and brought back by my friends. This was very difficult. On the other hand, another organization I had a very good experience with was COSTI. They helped me to regain my independence and learn how to move around the city. From what was left over from my savings, I decided to sign up for a George Brown College program, which helped with my work.

MCIS: What do you think would help you greatly upon arrival to Canada that you did not have access to?

Hernán: Having a lawyer helped me with pursuing my status, but I felt that there were some gaps with services that hindered my process, especially lack of access to translation services.  The reason for this is that when you are advised about your process, you are given “options” but not the exact type of action you need to take. One of the reasons why is that lawyers do not have a full understanding of the context of our claims, unless they have access to credible documents in the language they speak. For example, when I decided to file my appeal, what helped me the most was the translation of the report chapter, which MCIS paid for; it was a credible source that significantly strengthened my case.

MCIS: Was depression experienced upon your arrival triggered by difficulties you had and the refugee status you sought at the time?

Hernán: It was triggered, certainly, but I don’t think I was properly diagnosed in the past. I don’t even think I was encouraged to look into my mental health. So, what happened was that after my arrival to Canada, my natural tendencies were exacerbated. Initially, I found myself not having the strength and composure to look into my mental health, which is ironic because I used to help refugees, and I am familiar with this issue. But then, I was one of them and what I could do in the past—advocate or make a case—I could not do for myself. Anyways, I do believe that everything happens for a reason and my respect for lawyers has increased because I have seen both sides and know what the job requires.

MCIS: And, in terms of language barrier, once you are in the country, what kind of assistance could the Canadian government provide to resolve some of these cases more effectively?

Hernán: If the objective of the government is to accept a certain number of people on humanitarian basis, then one of the goals should be to find ways to help claimants integrate into society quickly. We already know that the main obstacle to timely integration is access to services, and the key to services is language access. Not understanding the language or not having sufficient language comprehension due to mental or general health or financial issues decreases ability to integrate and be productive. If you as a claimant do not know what your rights are, it is also difficult for lawyers to move the cases forward. And yet, people arrive in Canada from complicated situations, already vulnerable, and now being even further marginalized by the lack of knowledge about processes or how to use their personal experiences to advance their case. I think that especially in the LGBTQ community, where experiences of some of the members can lead to internalizing the mentality of being deprived of rights, it can be difficult to find a supportive system and a network of organizations to advocate on their behalf. My suggestion to the government would be to develop an “LGBTQ refugees and newcomers information kit,” designed to respond to the needs of the community by describing the rights and resources, above and beyond the information about HIV found today.

MCIS: How did you hear about MCIS Social Impact Fund?

Hernán: I think I was given the information by both COSTI and Access Alliance. I was already feeling better and I was doing a lot of research about organizations in the field but I could not identify any with free interpretation and translation services. MCIS was added to my list of organizations I needed to contact to advocate for myself. I did participate in community programs targeted to LGBTQ communities but there were no interpreters in the room and given our lack of knowledge, language skills, and general disorientation, I do not think we learned as much as we would have with an interpreter. But I was listening, and I suddenly remembered a report published in Colombia, in 2014, then the pressure experienced by the LGBTQ community was especially strong. I contacted Colombia Diversa directly through their web page to let me translate the chapter I needed, and then I had to find somebody who could do the translation for free. I was pressured with time – I had only three weeks so it was crucial for me to get the translation of this rather large document on time. Luckily, MCIS approved it and delivered the document on time, I was able to give it to my lawyer just before my appeal, as new evidence. I believe that if I would not have had this, my case would have been delayed because I would have to rely on commonly used evidence, such as newspapers, which I see being used in Canada abundantly but not always convincingly. I believe that the translation of this chapter is one of my most important pieces of evidence because of credible statistics gathered by credible institutions. The chapter included historical data showing the gaps and injustices toward the LGBTQ community over the years, as well as the data about institutionalized discriminatory practices of the police, hidden from the public view.

MCIS: If you would not have had access to free translation, what are alternative pathways that you would take instead?

Hernán: First of all, this process, the appeal, has affected my integration process in Canada. I am a professional; I have studied the law in Colombia with 15 years of experience, and I was hoping to be able to work here in my professional capacity. But now, I am experiencing this dichotomy between who I am professionally and how I am evaluated here in Canada. I am still saving money to be able to evaluate all the work I have done up to now, and I am hoping this will open the doors for me. However, translation of all credentials is costly, and without the translation, the process cannot start. Yet, if I do not translate my credentials, I will have to start my education from the high school level up.

MCIS: I wonder if you can reflect on language and legal barriers for newcomers in Canada, especially Toronto? How does it feel to be without a voice? What kind of mental or emotional response one has when verbal expression/ speech is limited?

Hernán: Without words, one not only feels powerless, but is powerless. I myself, felt frustrated and isolated. I also felt stupid. I mentioned my health issue and the braces that were hurting me, but I simply could not find the words to explain what was wrong. Access to language that people understand should be an essential human right because if self-expression, in itself, is a human right, then language access cannot be separated from self-expression.

And this, the right to self-expression, applies to the continuation of one’s career as one moves from one country to another. I feel that Canada needs to significantly re-think the piece about right to self-expression so that the people can exercise those rights. I did not have a chance to do significant research around translation and interpretation, particularly around how people receive the services or how the government manages them, or the things that service providers need to do when it comes to subjects like LGBTQ. I think there is a gap that needs to be analyzed and much better understood in regards to the LGBTQ community. When we talk about the refugee population, I do understand that other priorities come first. Yet without a holistic approach, people get affected. I have heard a lot of cases, some from my friends and some from the work I do here in Canada, where translation in particular affected the credibility of their court statements. We are talking about critical information because the refugee application process relies on the ability to determine if the claim is credible, and credibility should not depend on how the evidence is translated.

MCIS: Are you suggesting that translation and interpretation training would benefit from having specific modules on the rights and issues of LGBTQ community?

Hernán: Yes, I think so. I find it would be important for translators and interpreters to receive specialized LGBTQ training. I think this is a basic requirement, particularly because interpretation/ translation as a profession are also disciplines. It implies professionalism, free of personal bias, above-the-average familiarity with the subject and responsibility for choice of words. In my case, for example, in my first initial hearing I had an experience with an interpreter who did not understand what “machismo” means and did not know how to describe it. We had to stop the hearing for him to consult the dictionary and find an appropriate term —“chauvinism.” This moment is exactly when I began worrying because in the context of LGBTQ rights, we are talking about the basics, a foundational premise addressed each and every time. And in addition, obviously, this interpreter was also not able to describe any other related concept or the challenges the LGBTQ populations face. He had no knowledge about actual human experience, the stigma attached to it, or how to not re-victimize the victim. I never thought about this before until I personally experienced it, and it is a very serious issue.

MCIS: Yet, despite all of it, you were able to find the way to manage? What helped you to manage the tension? What advice do you have for people who find themselves between a rock and a hard place?

Hernán: We need community; I started with creating a community I did not have. Something very important for refugees in particular is to create a sense of belonging. So I started to knock on the doors and identify places where I could volunteer, places where I could go and get help, and where I could work because I have competencies to help. This is how I started to move and build my support network. I think it is also important to continue with some aspects of professional life, and to continuously learn and see not only new information, but new angles. For example, when I go for counselling, I try to set up appointments with different counsellors and seek different opinions so I do not end up limited to one version of the story. Finding work is, of course, difficult, but maybe some opportunities are available in your neighbourhood or with your community. For anybody new, research must be on the top of the list. It will help you make informed decisions. Next, you have to look for people with specialized knowledge in particular communities. In my LGBTQ community, where I am working now, we have a lot of professional people who are very knowledgeable, inclusive, and progressive. And finally, we must talk; put things out in words. I find this to be one of the most difficult challenges –to speak out in community. Yet, speaking out provides opportunity for better introspection as well as provides better connection to the community. As we speak out and understand the “other-ness” or how other people deal with issues similar to those we have, such as housing, or how they deal with difficulties, we also feel less special, less ostracized. It is what I recommend to most of my clients, in addition to establishing a routine, attending human rights workshops or English classes. Find your community in Toronto and talk to them. Always stay connected because isolation will only magnify the issues, especially in countries like Canada where loneliness is a significant public health issue, unlike in some other countries.

MCIS: Is this also how you see yourself now – not only as a lawyer but an advocate?

Hernán: I am not sure. I think I am a listener. I listen to stories and I help with building their case. I help people to understand the criteria they need to meet, and from their stories and testimonials I help with narratives, forms, and some evidence. We have a very diverse team speaking many languages and they are from the UK, Chile, Nepal and many other countries. At the moment there is no funding to pay me, and of course social services are often short on funding, I understand that. I believe that this barrier will be removed too. I am interested in a paralegal program, and maybe after that I will go to the University of Toronto.

MCIS: If there is a silver lining, something good in every situation, what would be a silver lining in your case?

Hernán: Naturally, there is always a silver lining. One can see how going through this process improves resilience and ability to overcome adversities. You also learn how some skills you gained earlier in life are, in fact, transferable to this new situation and can be easily adapted to a new language and new country. You also become more aware and proactive when it comes to social injustice, able to better advocate for yourself. I think I also learned how to take care of myself better, not to neglect my mental, emotional, and physical health.

I also find that it is incredible to see organizations such as yours having programs like this one, the MCIS Social Impact Fund, filling the gaps organically. Working with people directly means not losing sight of what is important. At this time, when government policies determine who are we helping or how we are distributing the help, it is even more important for organizations to stay true to some grassroots principles, focus on immediate human need, and sense where the actual gaps exist. There are many people out there, just like me, who need only one thing to move forward with their life, and that thing is free translation of a few documents. For that reason, MCIS has to keep doing what they are doing and keep advocating for language access to information and services.

Further reading:

  • The translation of the Discrimination, a Never-ending Battle — Report on the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons Report, Colombia 2017 can be found here.
  • The complete original report is available in Spanish on the Colombia Diversa website.