When Gov. Phil Scott’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order went into effect on March 25, Omar Somow saw a problem.
Digital producer Abagael Giles began reaching out to Chittenden County residents about COVID-19, translation and grassroots solutions in April.
As president of the Islamic Community Center of Vermont and a speaker of Somali, Maay Maay and English (he understands Arabic and Swahili too), Somow was hearing that non-English speakers needed information fast.
Since March, Somow has been fielding calls every day, helping friends and neighbors navigate Vermont’s unemployment system.
“People are so frustrated. There was one guy I worked with who said, ‘I’d rather just sleep outside. I’m tired of calling them,’” Somow said in April. “One day, I called all day until 5 p.m., trying to get through.”
The mosque — a place of worship but also of community — was also closed due to COVID-19 until the second week in May. Even now, it has only partially reopened and remains closed for Friday prayers.
“For the Somali community, the mosque is the center of everything," Somow said. "We pray five times a day… and people meet and gather. It’s where they get and give news."
Many Somali speakers in Chittenden County came to Vermont from Kenya, as refugees in the years since 2003. Many are survivors of racial violence and civil war, and weathered long stints in refugee camps before they came to the United States.
WhatsApp and Facebook help to keep in touch, but those who don’t use written language, speak an oral language, or don't have experience using a computer (or have a computer at home) were left in the growing dark.
When the Stay Home, Stay Safe order was announced, just before the start of Ramadan, Somow printed flyers and distributed them at the Community Halal Store and Brixton Halal on North Street in Burlington.
Using the app Free Conference Call, he also set up a weekly community conversation. Anyone could call in from any phone: All you needed was the code, published at the Halal stores.
Until early June, when Somow and his wife had a baby, the conference calls ran every Saturday and Sunday night, and would often go for two hours.
When they began on March 29, their content was primarily news about coronavirus, relief opportunities and the rapid unfolding of new restrictions around daily life.
“People ask questions and we gather the information and relay it,” Somow said in April. More than 40 people regularly called in after breaking fast for Ramadan.
They’ve since evolved. Through May, Somow would share the news, but he also lined up speakers like a Somali-speaking doctor from out-of-state and imams from across the country. The topics ranged from advice about how to celebrate Ramadan remotely, to brainstorming ways to safely stay connected.
At the end of each call, anyone who had a lingering question could ask. Somow said people made plans to get others what they needed — like groceries. Call participants would take turns speaking, and some nights the mood was light. Others, it was serious.
“We’re all at home, and normally at this time, we’d be at each others’ houses, sharing food, being with our friends and family, sharing joy,” Somow said in April. “So of course, when someone asks a question, you hear kids in the background. Every once and a while a kid takes over, someone’s baby cries. And you have to laugh.”
Somow led the question and answer session at the conclusion of each conference call, in Somali.
Meanwhile, Somow was working as an on-call interpreter for Winooski School District and as a team leader at Autumnharp, Inc. in Williston. He was also pursuing a degree in STEM Studies at the Community College of Vermont, while helping his own five kids — his youngest are both under 3 and his eldest is 9 — with remote learning at home. He and his wife had a baby in early June.
Most Sundays, a day he usually reserves for spending time with his own family, he works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., guiding people through unemployment applications, and other paperwork needs over the phone.
❞ I [and other translators] still have to do what we do for the community. It doesn't matter whether we get paid to do it.
His interpretive work for the school district, guiding parents through their students’ schoolwork, was paid. But his work in the community is all on a volunteer basis. The lines frequently blur.
“I [and other translators] still have to do what we do for the community," Somow said. "It doesn’t matter whether we get paid to do it."
He said effective translation is about more than making a phone call — the option so often available in hospitals and other institutional settings: Call this number, listen to this person who speaks Somali.
“I use the example of my wife," Somow said of her recent childbirth. "She always has a C-section, and they told me I can’t go in with her; they’ve got someone who can explain. I can explain so much without talking, just using my hands. But if you put someone on the phone who came from a different region in Somalia, she may get 20% of what they’re trying to communicate.”
He said for some families, kids who now primarily speak English are left to translate bills and other mail to their Somali-speaking parents.
“How do you explain something that has no cultural context to someone in their language?” Somow said.
The 32-year-old says he’s also concerned about misinformation about the pandemic circulating on social media.
“The stuff you get from Facebook is different from reality,” Somow said. “That’s why I put the time in: I want people to hear reality, not the incorrect information.”
He says the challenges COVID-19 has illuminated have ramifications across all spheres of life in Vermont.
“People are working really hard right now to get people help,” he said. “But I see room for improvement in how information reaches our community. Take elections… so often we only get partial information, not the full information.”
He knows firsthand: he remembers the first time he came to Vermont in 2009 as a refugee from Kenya. Somow says that experience drives his work as a volunteer.
“If someone calls me and does not speak English, is new to this culture, I put myself in their situation,” he said.
On June 4, Somow answered this reporter’s call from the University of Vermont Medical Center. He was sitting outside of his wife’s hospital room. They were quarantining there for a few days after the birth of their fifth child.
“Are you still helping people with translations?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Somow laughed. “And trying to wrap up the last week of school with my kids over Zoom.” He’d just taken a call, off the clock, to help someone reapply for unemployment insurance, while his wife was resting.
Somow said back in May that the conference calls would continue until people no longer phoned in. At that point, the questions were primarily about reopening. But now with a baby at home, he no longer has the ability to take four hours away from his own family each weekend to lead them. And in light of the recent COVID-19 outbreak in the Winooski and Burlington area, he's looking for someone to take them over.
"I'm still helping people day to day," he said in late June. "But sometimes it's my second-youngest, my little one, who picks up first."