LEWISTON — Bashir Osman’s cell phone rang Monday. A fellow Somali Bantu who does not speak English needed help understanding her bill.

Osman went to her home, read her Time Warner statement, and explained it was higher because there was a balance from the previous month.

For several years Osman and other Bantu leaders in Lewiston have provided help interpreting, free and on demand. But they’ve had to work around their school and work schedules, which limited help, said Sheikh Mohamed, spokesman for the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Association of Lewiston-Auburn.

A recent $4,800 grant from the Maine Community Foundation means the Bantus can pay interpreters.

“This is the first grant we’ve ever received. It is a very, very big deal to us,” said Mohamed, whose association represents the local Bantu population of about 1,700.

“We’re very happy and thankful to the Maine Community Foundation,” association Director Mohamed Farah said.

The grant allows four interpreters to be paid $10 an hour and reimbursed for mileage, increasing the capability of interpreters, Mohamed said. “They’ve been volunteering for five years. Now some will get money and will be paid.”

The Maine People’s Alliance represented the group in applying for the grant. They also received advice from Bates anthropology professor Elizabeth Eames.

“The worry was that people who are working so hard pro bono will burn out,” she said. Paying interpreters something “was an attempt to professionalize their services and validate them,” she said. “They work several jobs and they help their community,” Eames said, calling them generous.

Peter Taylor of the Maine Communication Foundation said his group is about building community. The Bantus were awarded the competitive grant so they could continue resolving everyday problems tough for immigrants because of the language barrier. The interpreters are helping the new Mainers adjust.

The foundation’s Androscoggin County Committee members “felt strongly that the volunteers should be rewarded, and move that service to more of professional type positions,” Taylor said.

There is a need, Bantu leaders said.

There are two groups of immigrants in Lewiston-Auburn who fled war-torn Somalia, the ethnic Somalis, who had access to schools in Africa; and the Somali Bantus, who did not.

Because the Bantus are less educated they need more help.

Volunteers help them fill out job applications, decipher calls and letters from their children’s schools, social service programs, the police, doctors and hospitals and utility companies.

They try to prevent havoc, and untangle red tape after problems arise.

One example is disconnection notices from Central Maine Power. Too often the disconnection letter isn’t understood, so it’s put aside. No payment is made. The power’s turned off.

That happened twice last week, Farah said. One family lost their food in their refrigerator.

Interpreters intervene, negotiate, try to find money to help get the bill paid and power restored.

The need for interpreters is temporary, Mohamed said. In a few years the children of current parents will know English. “Every family will have their own person speaking English.”

Money for MCF grants comes from private sources, “from hundreds of gifts from $5 to thousands of dollars in Androscoggin County,” Taylor said.

For more information: www.sbcmala.org

Bashir Osman, right, an interpreter for the Somali Bantu community, goes over a telephone bill with Hawa Mohamed of Lewiston on Monday. Because of a Maine Community Foundation grant, Bantu interpretors like Osman are being paid, improving their availability.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.