Samra Habib's We Have Always Been Here, on Language Barriers

"Being the most fluent English speaker in the family, I quickly shifted into the role of the parent by translating for my mother. I felt it was my job to put her at ease, to help her make sense of this new reality that I hadn't yet come to terms with myself." - (41-42, We Have Always Been Here, Samra Habib).


In Samra Habib's book "We Have Always Been Here" she discusses the nuances of being a queer Pakistani Muslim new comer to Toronto, Canada. As the eldest child with the strongest English skills, Samra carried a lot of the burden when it came to helping her parents integrate into Canadian culture. She had no time to process her own move and trauma because she had to be the interpreter and translator of the family. As the eldest child, in general, it is easy to fall into the role of the parent and carry the family's responsibilities. Especially when it comes to navigating immigration documents, health insurance and finding work, newcomer parents often rely on the eldest child’s English proficiency to help them understand this new world they are encountering.


Samra found herself in that position often, and given that 4.9% of the city’s population does not have official language skills, Samra is not the only child who has had this experience. It has been shown that children of immigrants suffer from adverse mental health effects as they struggle to assimilate to the culture and support their families. Interpreters and translators are essential for the wellbeing of Canadians. It is not fair that a child becomes responsible for so much at such a young age. Samra specifically cites the feeling of shifting” “into the role of the parent by translating” for her mother; Samra carried the burdens of her mother’s unease with the move. Her parents did not have work for a long time due to language barriers and Samra took it upon herself to sell roses to strangers to make money.


“One day, after hearing my mom complain about how fast the money she’d brought with her was disappearing, I went to the edge of the park lined with rose bushes. I began to gather them together into small bunches and fasten them with blades of grass.”- (46, We Have Always Been Here, Samra Habib)


Samra, instead of playing at the park, was instead carrying the weight of finding some money so her family could afford this week’s groceries. She did not have the luxury of playing carefree like other kids. Again this is a story all-too familiar to newcomer children in Toronto - 75% of non-official language speakers in Toronto are racialized and 38% are living in poverty. If these communities had access to language interpretation and translation services, they likely wouldn’t be as vulnerable as they are. This means that language services are critical for newcomer and racialized communities.


“It had been a drastic shift—only a few months ago we had a personal cook to prepare my mother’s favourite dishes and I was attending one of the best schools in Lahore—so I was especially attuned to these new anxieties.” -(48, We Have Always Been Here, Samra Habib)


Despite living comfortable lives in their home countries, before having to flee for safety reasons, a lot of newcomers face the reality of being treated as less and being deskilled due to language barriers and other barriers that act as systems of oppression. This has detrimental effects on families and especially children. Access to interpretation and translation services would help newcomers to Canada prosper and live a more comfortable and safe life.

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