Sukran Kavak interprets for her father. A journalist with Swdish Radio's P1 Tendens programme, she did a survey of children with foreign born parents and asked them if they interpreted for their parents or relatives.
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Sukran Kavak with her father Credit: Privat
Benjamin Salazar Lopez interprets for his parents every day.
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Benjamin Salazar Lopez interprets for his parents every day. Credit: Sukran Kavak/Sveriges Radio.

Migrant children often act as their parents' interpreters

Sukran Kavak: My father got cancer and I had to be the one to tell him
6:09 min

Migrant children in Sweden often become interpreters for their parents in places such as hospitals, reports Swedish Radio News.

A survey based on 400 children, aged 13-14, with foreign-born parents, found that many needed to act as a translator at some time or other for a parent or relative. A common need is at hospitals.

When it is a hospital, it is always difficult, because there are difficult words and I do not understand. It feels stressful that everyone is checking on me, it feels tough. Everyone expects an answer and I do not know what to say," says Benjamin Salazar Lopez.

He was 7 years old when he began interpreting for his parents. Today he is aged 13 and says that he does it almost every day.

He is not alone. Swedish Radio's Tendens programme carried out a  survey of 400 children at schools in immigrant suburbs in Stockholm,  Västerås and Luleå. Many children said that they interpreted for a parent or relative every week.

Parents often end up depending on their children to interpret in a variety of settings, particularly in hospitals and parent-teacher interviews. It is a heavy responsibilty on children and some countries have outlawed the practice.  

Sukran Kavak is a journalist at Tendens and is behind the survey. Now 34, she has interpreted for her father and mother since she came to Sweden as a 7-year-old.

I have always done it since my parents came to Sweden. It is normal to me. My parents cannot read or write so for them learning Swedish is really hard. There have been difficult times, especially when I went to the hospital with my father and had to tell him that the doctors say that you have cancer," she tells Radio Sweden.   

Norway has banned the use of child interpreters by an any state authority. In Sweden, there is no such law and there are no guidelines from the National Board of Health and Welfare.

"It happens rather often actually, so I have stopped thinking about it," says nurse Azize to Tendens.

"I had a patient who had a panic attack. Her daughter was with her and was maybe aged 8 or 9. It feels wrong that she took on the mother role, the mother was like the child when she comforted her and held her hand. It was very difficult to calm her when she did not understand me. Then it was the daughter who did it,"  says Azize.

The government has recently appointed a working group, comprising five departments, to come up with measures to address the shortage of interpreters. The coordinator of the group is Mårten Svensson Risdal from the Ministry of Education.

He says children interpreting for their parents is a symptom of the lack of trained interpreters.

"We knew that this is happening and we have had to discuss the matter."

What discussions have taken place?

"It is just like a number of other issues so we have not focused on it  specifically," he says.


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