Connecting with Arabic-speaking patients

11/10/2019
Pictured is Ali Abdalkadir and his supervisor, Ingrid Gámez.

Ali Abdalkadir fled Iraq in 2007 seeking safety from violence and war. Ali and his wife were threatened multiple times for his role interpreting speeches and other information for the government-run Iraqi Media Network. Today, Ali is a CHA medical interpreter who engages with dozens of Arabic-speaking patients throughout his workday. He bridges the divide between culture and language and brings the patient voice to life in medical interactions.

What these patients often don't know is that Ali is blind. He relies on technology to interpret conversations from Arabic to English. Patients sometimes ask if Ali can see them, and he kindly responds with a glowing smile, "yes, with my mind's eye." He calls his desk the "command center". He uses JAWS, a computer screen reader program for the visually impaired, and the Be My Eyes app, a platform in which volunteers, through a video call, supply users with visual assistance for tasks.

"Language access was my first career and I have always found value in connecting people from different cultures and experiences," commented Ali. He graduated with a BA in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Baghdad in 1995 and had a prominent career in broadcasting. Ali was the senior editor of the Iraqi Television Network and later served as the leader of translation for the Iraqi Media Network after the government of Sadhem Hussein was toppled.

As the situation became increasingly more volatile in Iraq, Ali left his siblings and their families and sought refuge in Amman, Jordan, through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In Amman, he continued interpreting for agencies who were connected to refugees and immigrants.

Two years later, in 2009, Ali and his wife arrived in the United States. Before joining CHA, he received a Medical Interpreting Certificate and spent time working as an interpreter for the International Refugee Assistance Project at Yale University, Catholic Charities USA, and other law firms and businesses. "I was reluctant to transition into the medical field after bearing witness to so much suffering in Iraq before we left," said Ali. "However, what I discovered was that my past life experiences enabled me to focus on the patient and meet them where they are at that moment."

Ali was placed at CHA as a medical interpreter intern in 2016 through Project SEARCH (Employment Now), a collaboration between CHA, the Carroll Center for the Blind and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Through CHA membership in the Healthcare Interpreter Network (HCIN), Ali engages with Arabic-speaking patients at CHA and 50 other health systems around the country. CHA and HCIN assist patients who trace their country of origin to 22 countries. He especially loves helping fellow Iraqis throughout the diaspora connect to care.

"I rediscovered myself through my role at CHA and feel privileged to spend my days breaking down cultural barriers and giving our Arabic-speaking patients a voice in their care management," said Ali. According to Ali, sometimes older Arabic-speaking patients may feel like a burden while in the hospital and embarrassed when receiving assistance with daily hygiene. In response to this sentiment, Ali helps to ensure that the patient's privacy is honored and their dignity is at the center of their care.

"At CHA, my coworkers make my job so easy by providing support, assistance and the tools to enable me to be productive and help our patients," noted Ali. CHA is home to a team of more than 100 compassionate medical interpreters from all over the world. CHA's language access program serves more than 70 languages and upwards of 350,000 encounters a year. If you are exploring where to receive your health care, find a CHA care team today by calling 617-665-1305 or visit www.challiance.org/cha/find-a-doctor.

Cambridge Health Alliance

Contributed By: Cambridge Health Alliance

Cambridge Health Alliance is an academic community health care system committed to serving all members of our communities. We have expertise in primary care, mental health and substance abuse, and caring for diverse and complex populations. CHA patients receive high quality care in convenient neighborhood locations, and have seamless access to advanced care through CHA’s affiliation with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. With over 140,000 patients in Cambridge, Somerville Everett and Boston’s Metro North, CHA is working hard to offer the integrated services its communities need now, and in the future.