Halima is our Interpreter of the Month
Our interpreter of the month is Halima, a talented interpreter who speaks French and Somali. Her work has been recognised for the care and sensitivity she demonstrates in challenging interpreting scenarios.
We were honoured to speak with Halima about her journey to becoming an interpreter, the importance of doing something meaningful, and how she finds that a career in interpreting fulfils this, just as her previous role as a care worker did. We also spoke about the challenges of navigating the world as an observant Muslim woman and how facing discrimination encouraged her to move to the UK.
Halima gave us some wonderful insights into her life, family and career. We hope you enjoy the interview…
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Halima and I am a Somali and French interpreter. I was born in France and raised and educated there. My mum and dad are of Somali descent and so that the language I was taught and spoke at home. I grew up in this multi-lingual environment and then, from a young age, I also learned English at school.
With languages, I think you truly learn when you start practicing on a daily basis and when you start living in an environment where the language is spoken around you. So I would say that it was when I moved to the UK, six years ago now, that I really started working on my English skills and became fluent.
When I first came to the UK I worked as a care assistant and care worker. I’d worked in this field before, and it really helped me integrate into the country. I got to know a lot of elderly and vulnerable people and working with them polished my English skills and gave me a far better understanding of the culture.
Did you enjoyed working in the care sector?
Yes, I was really happy. I did it for about five years and I think it’s down to your character really. It’s just one of those things I found quite fulfilling. It added something to my person. I was assisting people with their daily tasks or going to appointments, and I found myself, more often than not, doing more than my job required of me because I cared.
But three years ago, I was pregnant with my first child and then I took my maternity leave, and I just wanted a career that was a little bit more flexible and a little bit less physical.
Is this when you decided to pursue interpreting?
Yes, I came across a course that was helping people become interpreters and when I read the description, I had never realised this was something I could do for a living. I knew of translators but not really interpreters.
But when I read the description, I thought that it was something that I already did on a daily basis, whether for my relatives, people around me or even at work. The idea that could be my career was exciting, and so I tried it. I applied for the course, successfully completed it, and since then I have been working as a freelance interpreter.
How do you find interpreting? Do you enjoy it as much as you enjoyed the care work?
Yeah, it’s something that I really enjoy. I know not many people are lucky to have a job that they enjoy. I’m not sure whether it’s the novelty and variety of it that makes it feel so natural, but I do find myself really enjoying the call. I’ve never looked back really.
Language is a powerful, ever-evolving tool that connects (or disconnects) people from all backgrounds. Seeing, on a daily basis, the impact access to language has on people’s lives is fascinating.
As an interpreter, I feel like I am able to do something for someone else. I handle sensitive conversations and that gives me of a sense of fulfilment. It is obviously a job, which I’m lucky enough to be paid for, but there’s also that element that comes into it.
I would say the majority of my interpreting work is undertaken in Somali. The balance is roughly 70% Somali, 30% French. But that’s a result of the demand for those languages really.
There’s a lot of overlap with care work, in the sense of helping people and making a difference.
Yeah, very much so. It really helps give me meaning. As you said, that’s something that you can also find in care work and it’s definitely a big part of why I’ve been doing it and why I would like to stay in this field.
The flexibility is also really valuable, especially as a parent with young children. I can log on to take calls whenever that suits me and I can plan my pre-booked appointments around my availability through the week. It’s great that there are these flexible opportunities for parents or those with other responsibilities. They still have the opportunity to work and make a living for themselves.
How do you handle challenging or difficult interpreting assignments?
Sometimes interpreting can lead to you hearing about some extraordinary circumstances, or it can be quite heavy at times. But for me, knowing that I’m able to do something for someone just overrides all of that really.
Many of the people our interpreters work with are migrants or refugees, which is something you have first-hand experience of, both through your family and your own life.
Yeah, my parents are the first from my family to come to Europe. It was over 30 years ago, so the immigration policies were a little different then, but it is nevertheless a distressing and difficult subject. If I’m honest, they were quite shy about this topic at home. They never really delved into it much. I’m not sure whether that was because we were quite young at the time or maybe they didn’t really want to talk about it.
I know that my mother went through a lot in the process. My father travelled through various countries in Africa before being able to get onto a boat to arrive in Italy. But my mum, she took a different route, through the Middle East, and so there were a lot of obstacles they had to go through. They were already married, but they had this separation and somehow held it together.
I should ask them more about the details, but I know it was something that was quite traumatic for them and that they don’t talk about it much.
And in your own life you made the decision to move from France to the UK?
Yes, and I know that I was lucky to have a French passport. I made the move before Brexit, so it was very straightforward. But in some ways, that makes you aware of the arbitrariness with which people are treated. Because of a piece of paper, I was processed a certain way; had it not been for this document things would be very different.
Why did you want to move to the UK?
So, I am a practising Muslim and I do choose to wear a veil. For many people this is probably the first thing they notice about me when they meet me. In France, with the political climate and the approach they had to religiosity, or public displays of religious beliefs, I felt that things were becoming very difficult for me.
It’s quite sad to say, but despite the fact that I was born there, had a perfect French accent, had been educated there, and knew the culture, I was still treated differently. I was French through and through but when I applied for jobs, or even at university, I knew I was being treated differently. I don’t like to paint myself as a victim, but it was so obvious, so blatant, that over time I had just had enough.
It wasn’t deserved. I had done everything to prove myself and beyond, but I had this sense that the only way for me to be accepted into this society would have been to give up a part of myself in my religious expression, and that was something I wasn’t willing to do.
I had an aunt that lived in the UK and I had visited her a few times before. She and her daughters didn’t face the same issues, at least not to the same extent. They were judged based on their competency and skills more than who they were, or their names, or their appearance.
I thought to myself, I don’t really have much to lose here. If it hadn’t worked out, I could have returned to France. But I’m more accepted here and feel very lucky I have been able to make this move. I have just fitted right in.
That’s incredibly hard, to feel pushed away by your home because of who you are.
It did feel like that for a long time. You just get to a point where you feel like
You don’t really want to fight that anymore. I hope there is a point where French society realises the impact this atmosphere is having, because I know that this has been the experience of a lot of people. I know friends who have left for Australia. It’s a constant battle, and some people are still braving that, and trying to drive change. I can only applaud them and hope they are successful. But living your life in this way, constantly facing barriers, it is exhausting.
The difference in the UK is so stark. I mean I don’t think there’s any country in the world that is perfect. There are flaws everywhere. But since being here I have just felt that yes, I’ve found my place.
And finally, what would you say to someone considering becoming an interpreter?
I think I would just tell them that it’s a really fulfilling and deep role. It adds a lot of value to you, to your understanding of others, and to the awareness that you might have of immigrants or people that have limited English ability.
It is a privilege to work with charities such as Migrant Help, Refugee Council, The Salvation Army, Freedom from Torture and so on. They are all doing a brilliant job and don’t get nearly enough recognition for their work.
I also think that interpreting feels like you are doing something for your own community; for the language that you speak. In the process, you help people that you would never have come across otherwise.
When I am interpreting for migrants and refugees I really think ‘This could have been my mum or my dad 30 years ago; This could have been family and friends that have been on the other side’. Sometimes you come across circumstance that are so familiar, things that I have experienced or witnessed myself, and to be able to help in those situations is incredibly rewarding.