Focus: Frontline - Citas

Indira Das-Gupta,

What it is: The Community Interpreting, Translation and Access Service

What it does: Aims to provide equal access to services for non-English-speaking asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants by interpreting for them

How it's funded: The local authority, the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and Connexions London West

If you have a Croatian aunt who doesn't speak any English and needs someone to interpret for her at the doctor's, then the Community Interpreting, Translation and Access Service in Hammersmith, London, can help. With a network of 600 interpreters speaking more than 55 languages, Citas can provide an interpreter for virtually every occasion.

"We have never been in a position where we have been unable to provide an interpreter," says Malika Hamiddou, the general manager, proudly. "If we don't have someone who speaks the right language, we contact universities until we find someone who can."

About 85 per cent of the organisation's translators are women who, until they came into contact with Citas, considered themselves unskilled.

"When people first arrive in the UK, most don't realise they can make a living through a skill they already have, which is the ability to speak two languages," explains Olivera Markovic, the deputy manager. "Rather than embark on training that might take years, they can do one of the courses in interpreting that we run with Hammersmith and Fulham education department, which can be done in as little as six weeks."

An 'enabling' service

Citas is involved in everything from providing interpreters for a group of Arabic women visiting the Natural History Museum (above) to providing anti-bullying packs to local schools. It also provides telephone interpreting on a two-way or three-way basis, for example if a doctor wants to call a non-English-speaking patient to discover why they haven't turned up for an appointment.

It was also invited to attend discussions between the police and members of the local mosque following the London bombings, to try to improve community relations. On one occasion, Markovic even had to break the news to a couple who had just arrived from eastern Europe that their daughter was dying from terminal cancer and had just three days left to live. "Luckily, I don't often have to break such sad news," she says.

Hamiddou describes Citas as an enabler: "We do not solve the problem; we provide signposts so people know what's available." To reflect this ethos, Citas is moving into advocacy work, such as helping immigrants find schools for their children and making them aware that they are eligible for benefits.

Markovic says: "When you arrive here, it can be isolating. We take time to understand people's needs so we can explain them."

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