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Dire Language Barriers During COVID: 'They Need to Count Everyone Who Lives in Knoxville Equally'

Courtesy of Egide Irambona

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Knox County Health Department has held regular informational briefings and provided extensive English resources, but this same information has not always been extended to non-English speakers. This lack of access has put some residents at much greater risk, according to community advocates.  

A recent federal health department report highlighted the need for increased language services, specifically mentioning the Kirundi-speaking population in Knox County. Drocella Mugorewera is the director of BRIDGE Refugee Services. She has been working with Knox County’s Health Department to create informational videos in Kirundi, Kinyarwanda and Swahili. She says the need for translators is ongoing but heightened in the pandemic. 


“This is a need in the community across the board ... everyone serving refugees and immigrants should really provide interpretation services,” Mugorewera said. “You talk about inclusion, but you don't provide support, inclusion is not yet at that level. So, it's a great need we always advocate for.”


She said Bridge received financial support at the start of the pandemic to help their clients pay for rent, utilities and supplies. But as cases of COVID rise across the region, so do the needs. 


"We are very thankful, and I know some organizations are looking into the second round of providing funding related to COVID-19. The development director and I are working tirelessly to see how refugees are not missed," Mugorewera said. "Now we think we need additional resources, as you can see we expect people to stay home longer because the cases are increased." 

COVID-19 has disproportionally infected Black and Latinx communities nationwide and many are pointing to structural failures to meet the health needs of all residents. For example, Tennessee’s Department of Health launched a Spanish-language information site last week, a celebrated effort, but one that is months into the pandemic. In Knox County, Black people have contracted COVID-19 at twice the rate of white residents and Hispanic people at fives times the rate. 

Director of Centro Hispano de East Tennessee, Claudia Caballero, says information in Spanish is only a piece of the equation. 


“I think the health department has put in a lot of work to make sure information gets out, but it's more than just putting information in Spanish, right?” Caballero said. “There's also a challenge that our community is not mono-lingual. We speak at least five other dialects in the community, many from Guatemala and Mexico that are not written languages.”


As her organization aims to spread information to all of the non-English speakers they serve, she said language accessibility is just one part of making sure all communities have equitable access to safety from COVID-19.  


“The second part is funding. There are lots of sources of money right now, but they often come with certain limitations. For example, some of the funding we've had is restricted to a county.” Caballero said. “We had a waiting list of about 46 families from Sevier County in desperate need. We had money in other counties, but we weren't able to use it to support them.”


Part of the vital, though restricted, funding Centro Hispano received came from United Way of Greater Knoxville. The organization is distributing more than a million dollars in COVID relief funds through its grant program for non-profits. They’ve received 132 applications and funded about half of the requests, including for Centro Hispano and Bridge Refugee Services.  

Credit Courtesy of Egide Irambona
Egide Irambonan (left) said he wants to see more funding for organizations like SODELA that already connected to refugee and non-English speaking communities.

But according to United Way, 70 non-profit applicants have not received grants. SODELA is one of these groups; its a non-profit serving immigrants and East African refugees. President Nihazi Samuel sought funding through the city, county and United Way back in April but didn’t receive any. After a member of the community died in June, he started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe

“Our organization, we are speechless. We can't do anything at the moment, we don't have any means to deliver our services to our people,” Samuel said.

In recent weeks, SODELA has helped Knox County's Health Department create informational videos. But while KCHD is set to receive $7.1 million in COVID relief funds in the coming weeks, its partnerships with nonprofits to create these informational videos have all been on an unpaid, volunteer basis.

Samuel says he wants to serve his community in any way he can, but SODELA and his community need funding as well.  

“We need a fund to help prevent this, we can't just do it talking or by volunteering. Of course, we can volunteer, but if we don't have the funds to do that we're not going to accomplish anything,” Nihazi said. 

Vice president of SODELA, Egide Irambona, added that language accessibility is directly linked to accessing the resources that keep people safe in a pandemic, like rental support and unemployment assistance.  


“They need to count everyone who lives in Knoxville equally, not to just say we have the fund available you have to go to this website. There are many people who never touch a computer, never know how to go online and stuff right now,” Irambona said. “We have access to those resources like other citizens, but the language is the issue.”


He hopes to see more direct, funded partnerships with those working in their own communities.


“They need to use the organizations who are here right now to help our community because they know how they can help them, how they can reach them, how they can explain to them,” Irambona said. "They need to use us to help our people. That's what we need." 


CORRECTION: This story was updated on July 31 to define language access in the opening sentence, and to clarify the $7.1 million in funding for KCHD's COVID relief efforts is part of a grant through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act passed on March 6. A previous version of this story reported the funding as part of the CARES Act passed on March 27. 



See the U.S. Department of Health's report about Knox County's COVID-19 response in the attached PDF. 


More information about the organizations cited in this story is on their websites listed below:



Bridge Refugee Services:


Centro Hispano de East Tennessee: