How translators in the Netherlands are making Covid-19 information more accessible

Vulnerable communities around the world are faced with lack of access to information on Covid-19 and how to protect against it, including immigrants who don't speak the local language. Across Europe, initiatives have been emerging to fill in the gap.

How translators in the Netherlands are making Covid-19 information more accessible
A sign in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam warns people to keep their distance to fight the spread of Covid-19. Photo: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/AFP

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Across generations and countries, the year of 2020 has brought an unprecedented challenge: how to navigate a global pandemic. With vaccines still in development, the most efficient resources to fight back the new coronavirus at the moment are, according to experts, social distancing and information.

For many people, neither one nor the other can be taken for granted. Vulnerable communities around the world are faced with lack of access to information on Covid-19 and how to protect against it.

This is the case for many asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants living in European countries where they don't fully master the local language or English, making official government guidelines and information inaccessible for them.

In a report released in October, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that immigrants face a much higher risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 than native-born people. In some countries the OECD looked at, the infection risk can double for immigrants when compared to native-born.

Among many factors that contribute to the increased risk, including higher incidence of poverty, crowded housing and concentrated employment in jobs where physical distancing is hard, the Organization states that “lack of host-country language proficiency for some immigrants may hamper access to information on Covid-19”.

Around Europe, initiatives to fill in this gap and provide information for communities that don't speak the local language have been emerging.


In the Netherlands, what started out unpretentiously as a Facebook group to translate news reports for friends at the height of the coronavirus crisis has now evolved into a page with over 35,000 followers.

Rather than translating government guidelines, the Facebook page NOS in English seeks to offer contextual information on the coronavirus crisis in the Netherlands by translating the newscasts of NOS – the Dutch Broadcast Foundation, one of the broadcasters that form the Netherlands' public broadcasting system – to English.

“I noticed that all students around me were unable to catch up on the latest news, or very much lost in translation, and were basically in a state of panic constantly asking the Dutch students to translate what was going on,” recalls Noes Petiet, a university student based in Utrecht and one of the people responsible for the page, about the creation of the Facebook group in mid-March.

Internationals in the Netherlands began sharing the group and soon it became very popular. Only a week after it was first created, the volunteers – today a team of ten students – decided to transform it from a community group into a public page.

The demand surprised the group. “We assumed that in a country that is so internationally focused as the Netherlands, there will be some kind of journalistic source to keep everyone up to date, including those that don't speak Dutch,” says Petiet. “I guess we found a hole in the market.”

The Utrecht-based student explains that she believes the language barrier does not so much apply to practical information, as the government does make that available in English, but rather to contextual information about the crisis, which is important to grasp the bigger picture.

“It is more about how expats navigate through society, whose society they don't really know, and I think that proper journalism is highly important for understanding the bigger picture. Beyond the number of how many infections per day or how to get assessed, how do people respond to the measures? And what kind of impact does it have? Or critical comments and all those kinds of, well, contextual factors of the dynamics,” says Petiet.

With very little understanding of Dutch, Liliana Rossi, an Italian national living in the Netherlands, has been relying on the Facebook page, along with other English-language outlets, to stay updated on coronavirus in the country.

Rossi says that she partially understands the lack of specific and updated information coming from the government and while she, as the one who decided to move to the country, should be making more efforts to adapt and learn the language, it would be nice to receive such information from official sources.

For Petiet, the government or the NOS itself should take on the responsibility of translating information. “There are people that are educated and are equipped to do the task that we are doing that could take over for us,” she says.

This is also one the reasons why they aim to keep the project on a voluntary basis. “We do not want to have any financial compensation for it, because we don't want to profit from the pandemic. And also we're not official and professional translators, so we don't feel it is appropriate to ask for money for something we are not really trained for,” says the student.

Covid-19 and health inequality

Apart from informal initiatives such as the student-led Facebook page, existing organizations have also taken on the mission of translating information, targeting especially more vulnerable communities in lower socioeconomic conditions. That is the case of Pharos, a Dutch organization focused on health inequalities in the Netherlands.

The organization began translating basic government information on the coronavirus at the end of February, when the first case of the coronavirus was registered in the Netherlands. What began as a volunteer-driven project to make information available in five languages has now grown to a more formalized initiative which offers translations in 13 languages.

“When the [coronavirus] crisis started, we already saw that the information that was provided by the government was too difficult for people who are illiterate, with too many difficult words and very few images,” explains Mohammed Azzouz, a programme manager at Pharos who coordinates the translation work.

The organization then began translating government guidelines not only to other languages but also adapting it to a more simple and easily understandable vocabulary, including illustrations. “We validated with people from our target group whether they understood the rewritten information,” said Azzouz in a phone interview.

Mohammed Azzouz. Photo: Pharos

After the information in the first five languages were published, Pharos started receiving requests and demands for information in other languages, he says. The organization then adopted a sort of informal decision process: when they received more than five requests, they began processing the requested language.

One indicator that their work has been well-received was the number of page views and downloads of the images on Pharos' website. The website has registered more than 350,000 views, while the informational material has been downloaded over 100,000 times, said Azzouz, adding that other organizations download these materials to display them in public places like supermarkets, mosques and schools.

Today, Pharos offers basic coronavirus guidelines in 13 languages: Dutch, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, English, Farsi, French, Papiamento, Polish, Somali, Spanish, Tigrinya and Turkish. In order to offer so many languages, the organization had to transition from volunteer-based work to a partnership with a translation bureau, said Azzouz.

Pharos is partially funded by the government, along with other organizations. According to Azzouz, the organization is in contact with the government to secure more funding to move forward with the work. Besides constantly updating the available information, the programme manager intends to broaden the scope.

“I think we should do more, especially when we are facing the whole vaccination which is coming. A lot of questions will arise around vaccination,” he explains.

Azzouz believes the process works this way – with third-parties being responsible for translations, rather than the government doing it internally – exactly because the organizations better understand the demands and needs of the communities they aim to reach.

As an example he mentions how the recommendation to work from home has no resonance among some low-income groups who have jobs in factories, for instance, where social distancing is much more difficult.

The OECD report demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to be able to work remotely than native-born workers. According to the report, in around 75 percent of OECD countries the share of immigrants able to work from home is at least 5 percentage points lower than their native counterparts, often because they are concentrated in essential jobs.

“If you know why people act the way they do, you can create more effective tools. Because it doesn't help if you just keep spreading the basic information without being aware of the context people are in,” explains Azzouz.

Initiatives that aim to bridge these gaps are emerging in different forms across Europe. In Sweden, the #TellCorona campaign gathered personalities who are well-known to immigrant communities to disseminate information about the virus in different languages. Information in Somali, for example, is conveyed by Somali-Swedish Olympic athlete Mustafa Mohamed. Initiated by investigative journalist Nuri Kino, the campaign already features videos in 17 languages.

Other services aim to target specific groups or meet a particular need. In Austria, intercultural counselling and therapy centre Zebra has set up a 'worry hotline' with interpreters for those looking for some sort of psychological assistance. The hotline is available in eight languages.

Meanwhile an information hotline aimed at elderly people in the Netherlands was also organized by seniors group KBO-PCOB and NOOM, the Network of Organisations for Older Migrants, with the service available in nine languages.

Laís Martins is a Brazilian freelance journalist currently based in Amsterdam, whose work focuses on politics, human rights, and society.

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How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.