For immigrants, an extra challenge in Gulf oil spill

NEW ORLEANS — They’re America’s shrimpers, crabbers and oystermen. Peelers, shellers and shuckers.

They came to the Gulf Coast as war refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s. After Katrina, they were the very first community to return and rebuild. But just as a sense of normalcy had returned to the community of Vietnamese fishermen, the Gulf Coast oil spill hit.

"They are the ones providing this country with 30 percent of its seafood,” said Father Vien The Nguyen, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam church in New Orleans East. An estimated one-third to one-half of Gulf Coast fishing vessels are owned by Vietnamese-Americans.

But many don't speak English — and as a result, they are getting locked out of cleanup efforts and having trouble filing for lost income.

About 200 fishermen gathered in the church in New Orleans East earlier this month to get updates from the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and BP. An estimated 210,000 gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Fragile marshes, marine life and the fishing communities that depend on them face great risk.

At the meeting, Vien moved back and forth between microphones for three hours. “Just switching back and forth trying to find the right words is tiresome,” he said with a few beads of sweat running down his forehead, “but I have to translate correctly for my people.”

The oil spill has indefinitely closed key fishing grounds in the state. Vien says everyone is asking the same thing: “What about jobs?"

The fisherman had barely been hanging on before, with high fuel costs and international competition. They scraped by after Katrina, but this could be the knockout blow. They're out of work, losing money by the day and unable to pay their mortgages. No one knows how long the spill will last.

BP spokesman Hugh Depland promised to provide the Vietnamese fishermen with the training they need to be hired to help with the cleanup. Yet training sessions that involve key safety and health information are mostly in English.

BP has done one training session in Vietnamese so far, but Vien said it didn’t go very well. BP brought translators, but after 20 minutes, some of the fishermen got frustrated with the level of communication. BP switched the training back to English and asked the fishermen to raise their hands if they needed translation. “We’re not sure how many understood how much and these are hazardous materials," Vien said.

With so many problems in the Gulf, details like language access have been overlooked.

"I hadn’t really thought about the problem of outreach until I came here today and I think we need to address it — right away,” said Coast Guard Capt. Ed Stanton, the commander in charge of oil spill recovery operations along the Louisiana coast for the federal government.

BP has a 1-800 telephone service to make a claim, but language is still a problem, with translators often not immediately available.

There are 33 different categories of claims a person can make to file for lost income. So far the Vietnamese community has been unable to obtain a copy of the claims procedure documents and questionaire from BP. BP didn't not respond to requests for comments.

So the community is taking matters into their own hands. The Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation, a community organization along with Reach Nola is training and certifying their own translators to assist people in the claims process with BP.

Certifying translators is also key because in a disaster there are several types of technical vocabulary — legal, medical and environmental — that need to be understood.

“To know is one thing,” said Vien, “but to articulate is another.” Take the word “dispersant." Father Vien translates it as, "The chemical that breaks up the oil so it will sink to the floor." One word has to become many. “It just can’t be word for word,” he said.

And then there are the words that are sometimes just letters, like EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). "We can say that but what does that mean?” Vien said.

To the EPA's credit, it hired a professional translator to attend the meeting. Yet the translator was unprepared for the level of language needed to inform the fishing community. Vien had to step in as the EPA’s translator struggled over phrases like “aerial monitoring.”

Everyone in the room was grateful, including the EPA official speaking in English. “I now have the world’s best translator,” he told the room, which burst into applause after Vien took over the microphone again. Vien half-kidded, “Remember to pay me for that.”