Translator Volunteers Her Skills To Help Immigrants Adjust To Life In Pittsburgh

Oct 2, 2017

*UPDATED: Oct. 2, 2017 at 4:46 p.m.

In the basement of the Mosaic Community Church on the North Side, a small crowd mingles before a joint meeting of the Perry Hilltop and Fineview Citizens councils.

“Most of the time, community groups can reach out to Americans, but the immigrant refugees are left out because of the bridge that has not been built yet in language,” said Gia Braafhart, a board member on the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council.

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Braafhart is originally from the Caribbean island of Curacao. She first came to Pittsburgh in 1999, for a master’s program in journalism at Point Park University.

During a break in the meeting, she steps out into the hallway to meet up with Adeeb Alawameh, a Syrian refugee who lives in Perry Hilltop. 

Braafhart is currently helping Alawameh and his family find a new house; he's still learning English. She doesn’t speak Arabic, but she communicates by gesturing or using a language app.

As he leaves, Braafhart has a little joke with Alawameh: they tell each other "nice to meet you," and walk away chuckling.

Braafhart does this kind of thing a lot as a volunteer: helping people like Alawameh navigate parts of life that are made so much harder by the language barrier.

Gia Braafhart studied journalism as an undergraduate student in Costa Rica before she arrived in Pittsburgh.
Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA

Her inspiration started with her time at Point Park, where she saw other international students struggling.

"They came to this country and couldn't understand a word, couldn't speak English," said Braafhart.  "And now they needed to open a bank account, do their student work and all these different things."

For Braafhart, it was a little easier. She grew up speaking Dutch, English, Spanish, French and Papiamentu, Curacao’s native dialect.

After graduating, Braafhart initially pursued journalism, but she eventually formed a different idea of what she wanted to be.

"I thought, 'Here I am, I know five languages. Instead of trying to pursue being a reporter or a host, why not see if I could  be that little bridge?'" said Braafhart.

She became an independent translator. She’s worked with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the University of Pittsburgh, among others. In her work, Braafhart has met many immigrants and their families during sessions.

"They often say, 'I know you interpreted for me back there, but, here, this paper came in the mail, can you tell me what it says?'" said Braafhart.

Yolanda is a Mexican immigrant who lives on the North Side. (WESA is not using Yolanda's last name because she’s worried about her legal status.) Braafhart helps Yolanda and her family with a variety of tasks.

"More than anything, she helps us with the stuff at school, the interpretations. Right now, she's also helping me with my lawyer," said Yolanda, in Spanish. She described herself and Braafhart as "more like sisters than friends."

Currently, Braafhart is working to start up a project called Social System Development.

She wants it to be a central hub on the North Side, offering resources for jobs, housing and education.

*This post was updated to reflect that Braffhart speaks French, not German.