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EMBARC providing multilingual coronavirus information, food delivery
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EMBARC providing multilingual coronavirus information, food delivery

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series
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Kar Meh, EMBARC

Kar Meh, an EMBARC AmeriCorps member who coordinates food deliveries, poses in a recent photo surrounded by boxes of donated food. 

WATERLOO — As the state of Iowa started recording its first cases of coronavirus in early March, the governor started daily briefings updating residents of the growing infection and death rates, and news organizations have been covering the unfolding pandemic within Iowa’s borders in earnest.

But nearly all of that coverage and information has been in English, Iowa’s official language. And that meant refugees who don’t speak English as a first language were left in the dark about coronavirus’ impact.

“It’s so hard for them to obtain good, credible information because of the language barrier,” said Erin Kim-Cho, communication consultant at EMBARC, a nonprofit helping Burmese residents and other refugees based in Des Moines. “They were getting information kind of as a rumor or word of mouth.”

One of those rumors? That the Burmese — who had survived the horrors of living through Myanmar’s civil war as well as refugee camps in Thailand — somehow would not contract the highly contagious virus. Kim-Cho described the thinking as, “We’ve gone through so much in the past that we will be immune to this.”

“We wanted to clarify that with credible sources,” she said.

To aid in that effort, the organization started EMBARC Daily News, which translates the latest news and coronavirus information that is then read each day in Burmese, English, French, Hakha-Chin, Karen, Karenni, Kirundi, Kunama, Lingala, Mizo-Chin and Swahili, the languages of the refugees the organization serves in both Des Moines and Waterloo.

The videos are a few minutes long and briefly cover a few topics Monday through Thursday. This past Thursday, that included closures at meatpacking plants, drive-thru coronavirus testing sites and President Donald Trump’s latest immigration order.

“What we’ve been finding is that, when we post it on YouTube, not only are we getting listeners from local cities, but a lot of people from throughout the country,” Kim-Cho said. “It’s really great, and that kind of shows there is this need for better communication, good information and credible sources that’s not happening for these community members.”

At the same time, EMBARC also rolled out a Crisis Helpline, staffed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and available in the same languages as the Daily News. That helpline helps clients access food assistance, set up medical appointments, book an interpreter, apply for unemployment benefits and other emergency needs.

“We’re anticipating more calls about unemployment and assistance,” Kim-Cho said.

EMBARC partners with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank to do direct deliveries to around 30 families per week, said Kar Meh, an EMBARC AmeriCorps member who coordinates those deliveries.

“The families we serve are uncomfortable going out of their houses,” Meh said. “Since we started it, the number has increased. I’m expecting more families to reach out.”

They’ve also set up a Youth Navigator support group for middle and high school students, said Grace Kalala, who leads Waterloo’s youth group. The group, who meets virtually to adhere to social distancing mandates, has attracted several students through word of mouth.

“We help students with their emotional and mental stability throughout this crisis period,” Kalala said, noting the activities included music and fitness.

EMBARC officials said they could use more delivery drivers, particularly as the need increases, and they’re also hoping for homemade cloth masks they can include in care packages to families. Those with video editing and graphic design skills were also asked to contact EMBARC for help with their daily videos.

“Everything helps at this point,” said Kim-Cho.

Those interested in volunteering are asked to email covid19@embarciowa.org or call 515-207-5168 after 5 p.m.

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