Staff Spotlight: Naomi and Esther on the importance of their roles as bilingual Health Education Officers

We interviewed WHE staff members Naomi King Bol and Esther Xu on the importance of providing in-language access to health information and services for women in their communities, their roles as bilingual health education officers, and why it’s crucial continue to support women from migrant and refugee backgrounds in the Eastern Metropolitan Region and beyond.


Can you speak to the importance of your roles – so not just having in-language programs, but having dedicated bilingual/bicultural staff for them?

Naomi King Bol: As bilingual staff in my own community I can deliver all the important health information and other news, like COVID-19. Most of the women only speak Hakha Chin and they don’t understand English, so there is no way they can get all the information for themselves. If we deliver session, or any important things around us in Hakha Chin language, they can get easily the information and they feel more safe and don’t miss out. That benefits the community and family. It also helps the children as well – women are not the top of the household, but they are like the secretary, they can provide and spread all the information they learn to the family and to the community. Bilingual health education is very important. I believe that working with WHE is not only working the bilingual session, but if women need translating or help with participating with other community we are also there for them to do as much as we can.


Esther Xu: As Naomi said, it’s about passing reliable information to the community who don’t speak the language. If people don’t have enough language and don’t understand the health system, reading all this COVID-19 information is really daunting – it’s messy and always changing. To have health educators make that information logical and clear, and then pass it on to the community is really important. Every time I run the health session or talk to any Chinese communities, they also feel that comfort that we speak the language they do, and it can reduce a lot of anxiety and fear. It also makes participants feel more safe and willing to open-up and ask questions, because they know you will understand. We bilingual educators also have more understanding on the issues and needs of the community because we share the same background. I feel like that’s what we are doing, not only bring the information but bring some comfort and certainty to the community.


And why are in-language programs, such as the ones you have been important to you personally?


NKB: If I wasn’t in this role, I wouldn’t be able to deliver health information or important news to my community. Before I want to spread out the news by myself but without being a partner with an organisation I was scared, we are not entitled to advertise our own news and stuff. Now I have the official recognition to give health sessions to my people, I am trusted. Now, they go to the doctor but if there is no interpreter, they bring the piece of paper home and their children translate for them. Sometimes it includes contraception information and the children doesn’t know what that is, especially if they don’t have a daughter – men don’t understand what the contraception is. Working as a Bilingual Health Education Officer I can provide more help for my community and I see that my community are increasing their knowledge. These in-language programs, that’s increasing the benefit for our community – this will be the best thing I’ve ever done because I only want to help other Chin women.


EX: One of the biggest thing through my own health challenges is how to make an informed decision on health. That’s why in-language is so important – to show all the information, all the facts there, all the different options they can access, and then empower them to follow not whatever people are saying, but reassess themselves based on the information and their own (health) conditions, then make a decision. That’s empowerment for women – to know your body, and listen to your body’s needs, and make your own choice on health, you can lead to better quality of life. Delivering in-language programs I also get to increase my own knowledge in many different areas. This work is very fulfilling for me – every time after the session the participants, they feel like their knowledge has been increased or they feel more comfortable to choose for their health. That’s ultimately what I want to do for this role – to let people know you have the power to choose for your life. There are always options out there to help you and there is always hope. 


What is the importance of in-language programs specifically for women?


NKB: Women are, we have a tough life, every woman. We are doing multi-tasking every day – as a mother I can see that. I do more stuff than my husband, mentally and physically and in community as well. Women we need a lot of support – you know in public society we are quiet, if something like family violence happen women keep it quiet but if someone approach them, they open up but if someone doesn’t approach them they won’t open up. This is very important to have in-language program for women. In Australia we don’t know, as I said previously, we don’t know this system and English is not our language. We can’t seek help because of lack of transport, lack of language sessions and so on. Therefore delivering in-language health session women feel more supported, more safe and secure, and physically they will get better health as well because we deliver on their need.


EX: Women give to our kids, our family, we don’t really have time to look after ourselves, look after our health. And especially considering a lot of women, like Chinese women, they migrate together with their husbands to Australia and many of these women have limited English language and if they have younger kids they will stay at home and look after kids so they don’t have a lot of social connection. They experience all this loneliness and they might experience violence because of the rigid gender roles. Because of the culture difference in the new country women become more isolated, that transition to another country is really hard. This kind of in-language programs give women the knowledge, tools and services for to support their health and wellbeing. Gaining knowledge is empowering and when women know they have support, that brings hope. The programs can also create connecting environment for women to meet other people, create more social inclusion and connections for them. Migrant women’s life quality can be improved slowly like this.


What has been the role of in-language information during the pandemic, and what will it be in recovery?


NKB: During the pandemic, because we were delivering COVID-19 in-language information to our community we can see the injection rate was up. Most of the men and women have booster and I can see in the data it’s worked. I think 98% or 99% have vaccination now – before the health sessions people were denying, there was a lot of myths so they don’t want to get injected, but we delivered the session and now the myths are gone and they do all the jabs. I think in the recovery, mental health will important, and we have to work on that.  Also, financial and household effects are there as well, many people need to find a job as well because many lost their jobs so we have to encourage them. And then with kids – kids born during pandemic they got severe language disorder because we couldn’t go to playground, childcare or playgroup so it affected the kids. Mothers are worried about their kids so we have to help them, we need to deliver something on what is the language disorder and what is mental health as well. We have to work on a lot.


EX: Like Naomi I’m delivering COVID-19 vaccination and booster sessions – I think that’s very important during COVID-19 to give people all the key information and to address their concern and fear. The last two years, demand for health services has increased because of the pandemic, and that demand will continue in the recovery.  A lot of issues we’re seeing were already embedded before like family violence and gender inequality, and COVID-19 just brought everything up. Considering Australia is a migrant country, there will be certainly more needs on accessing in-language information and in-language services moving forward. Multilingual health educators play a critical role to fill the system gaps and having creative in-language programs conducted by bi-cultural workers with culturally safe approaches to target the root cause of these issues is very important on the recovery journey.  They will have a direct influence on the health of migrant and refugee women, and on the overall wellbeing of Australia as a whole. 


There is a lot we can do as WHE, but I also think it’s very important to work in partnership with other organisation to support community through recovery and expand to community grassroots efforts. It’s important to see the issues and what’s actually causing that rather than dealing with the symptoms. Now is just the start – we need more in-language information, and we need more in-language health educators! What we really need is long-term, secure investment in bicultural workers and multilingual health educators.