PORTLAND — Qamar Ahmed looks into the eyes of her client, a mother of five whose years in Baghdad haunt her sleep.
She holds the woman’s shoulder and speaks softly in Arabic as the two wait for an appointment at the Spurwink Psychiatric Clinic in downtown Portland, Maine. Ahmed, 31, is a professional interpreter, an occupation the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls one of the fastest-growing in the United States. Her first job on this bone-cold December morning is translating for Muna Rashed, 37, who left the chaos and violence of Iraq five years ago.
America is still that place where, when you have to go somewhere, the door opens, and not just in New York, Los Angeles or San Antonio. Last fiscal year, 350 refugees came directly to Maine from overseas, up from 60 five years ago, drawn to the northern New England state for its quietude and good schools. Most are from Iraq and Somalia and speak little or no English.
Ahmed, who was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. 15 years ago, now spends her days translating for those newer arrivals from the Muslim world.
“I am them,” Ahmed says of her clients in syntax that’s perfect except for the occasional omission of the definite article. “When you are interpreter, you are the person who is talking. You are them.”
She stands just over five feet tall, and this morning wears a black pantsuit and gold jewelry around both wrists. Her round face is framed by a black, pink and gold hijab, the Muslim headdress. She is Sunni. She believes God answers her prayers and that the no-drink, no-smoke, no-sex-before-marriage precepts of her faith are there for good reason.
Through Ahmed, her client Rashed says she saw three in-laws killed in the brutal chaos of her city. She describes the bullet holes that riddled the house she left behind. Her sisters are still there and she’s worried. Rashed says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of the hundreds of appointments Ahmed makes every year wherever language is a road block — from parent-teacher conferences to job interviews — doing the translating in a psychiatric session accounts for half.
“Back home, we don’t believe in psychiatrists,” she says. “Now people are realizing: Why should I hide my problems. If I hide problems, it’s going to destroy me.”
Refugees are not illegal immigrants. They are credentialed by the United Nations as people fleeing persecution. The State Department wants them self-sufficient in 90 to 180 days. They can apply to be citizens after five years. Still, their presence fuels the national controversy that heated up this year as President Barack Obama tried to overhaul the immigration system, namely, that new arrivals put an untenable strain on government services. Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, tried but failed this year to bar immigrants and asylum seekers from getting state assistance.
No one talks about cutting interpreters. Those who rely on their services say life would be messier and more dangerous without them.
They help get to the bottom of serious crime, including murder, according to Portland Police Lt. James Sweatt, head of detectives who use interpreters. Last year a suspect in the sexual assault of a young child was indicted only after a Spanish-speaking interpreter was brought in. That case is still making its way through the court, he said.
Ashley Storrow of Catholic Charities Maine, the federally- designated gatekeeper for all Maine’s refugees, says her staff regularly hears horror stories when no interpreter is present: a woman involuntarily committed to a mental institution with no understanding of why she was there, another undergoing a painful biopsy without medication because she didn’t know how to ask.
In November, Ahmed was driving to a McDonald’s with her husband and three sons, 10, 7 and 4, when they came upon a car accident. Her husband recognized one driver as a co-worker, an Iraqi who spoke no English. Ahmed stayed with him for four hours from crash scene to hospital, where he was finally released with minor injuries.
“That felt so good seeing somebody needed your help,” she said.
She and her husband, Liban Ayanle, are a team, she says. He’s the housekeeping manager at the Regency Hotel in the cobblestoned Old Port section of Portland where tourists inhale oysters and microbrews and watch the fishermen come in. He helps with the housework and spends his days off at their home at the end of a quiet street watching their sons while Ahmed works.
This Muslim woman who starts her day by dropping off the boys at school is self-employed, keeping an average of five appointments a day, five days a week. She’s paid $20 an hour and bills six agencies for her services, jotting down all appointments and hours worked in a large calendar book. Her chief source is Catholic Charities, whose staff picks up new arrivals at the Portland airport, drives them to housing and helps get them started on the package of benefits coming their way, including $25 in pocket cash for each.
Ahmed could enter the picture from the start, at the airport. Since assignments are made randomly, clients are always changing and rarely does she know if her presence makes a difference. An exception came this summer when she went with an Iraqi refugee to a job interview at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Visiting a friend some time later, she saw the man was there. He came running over, thanking her for the help in landing his job.
“Wow, Qamar,” she said to herself. “I’m making a difference.”
Of the 108 interpreters Catholic Charities Maine uses, she is among its busiest, says Storrow, the assistant program director and Ahmed’s supervisor.
Like many of the others, Ahmed has been warned not to get too close to her clients lest she become a friend who might sugarcoat a bad diagnosis or negative feedback at a job interview.
“They have to be like a telephone,” Storrow said, “and repeat exactly what they hear.”
Ahmed’s life story doesn’t make neutrality easy.
As a young child in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, she watched a bomb tear off the back of her house. Her parents packed up the 10 children (she’s eighth) and headed for Yemen, where Ahmed lived for 10 years and learned Arabic. In 1999, the family came to Alexandria, Virginia.
She was in her junior year of high school there when a fellow Somali told her about a brother living in Maine. He came to visit and, in September 2002, they married. She was 19. He was 25.
Ahmed’s first year in Maine was difficult. Her husband worked long hours. Her English was poor and she had no friends as she completed her senior year at Portland’s high school.
With her English improved and after a stint at Wal-Mart, she tried her hand at interpreting. She liked it. She went through 60 hours of training at a local community college, including the study of medical terminology so she could handle doctor visits.
When Ahmed and her client emerge from their recent psychiatric appointment, Rashed’s face is flushed. She looks exhausted.
Ahmed says Rashed cried when asked about sleep. She’s up at 3:30 every morning. Adjustments are made to the medication and a follow-up appointment is scheduled.
Ahmed follows her client to the street. She bids adieu — “ma’a salama” — careful not to get too close but ever mindful of how much they share.