Interpreter Khadmalla Eldaw has witnessed many births during her years in Lincoln, but there's one she will always remember.

The baby was premature, just 26 weeks of gestation -- and he lived.

“Amazing, a miracle,” she says.

Both Eldaw and the mom thought, “This is a miscarriage. This baby is gone.”

That would have been the case in their home countries.

But Eldaw got to tell that mother that her baby survived.

“Whenever I see that child, it is just a blessing. He is a miracle,” says Eldaw, who emigrated from Sudan more than 16 years ago. 

Since the tiny baby's birth, his mother has gone to school and learned to speak English well enough that she no longer needs an interpreter.

And she has called to thank Eldaw for her help during that delivery.

“I was just doing my job," Eldaw says. "I get paid for that.”

What started out 10 years ago as a three-year grant program designed to train interpreters for the influx of refugees coming to Lincoln has grown into a business that grosses about $700,000 a year and has turned nurse Carol Brown into a businesswoman.

When she took the job with the former Lincoln Action Program, Brown expected it to be a short stint. She thought she'd spend a couple of years teaching people medical terminology, the words they'd need to interpret in medical settings.

Instead, the grant project that started with about $800,000 in federal funds flourished. And Brown helped found a business that is incorporated as a separate LLC, although it still has a relationship with what's now called the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders Counties.

Today LanguageLinc has about 65 interpreters, primarily refugees and immigrants with good English skills who work as subcontractors. They interpret for about 450 business customers, including medical offices, worker compensation companies and businesses that hire workers who don’t speak English.

Last year, the business had nearly 12,000 time sheets representing separate jobs for interpreters who translate documents, in person for people (often patients going to doctors or clinics) and by phone (often on medical and housing issues).

Sometimes they translate training information or instructions during work training programs, particular for safety classes.

LanguageLinc used to provide interpreter services for patients at CHI St. Elizabeth and Bryan medical centers, but the hospitals have moved to companies that do interpretation long-distance through Skype.

LanguageLinc has interpreters for 36 languages. Spanish is the biggest need, followed closely by Arabic and Vietnamese.

"It is amazing out there. The vastness of the need," said Brown, who is looking for and training interpreters almost weekly. 

The initial grant program began as a way to provide a community service and offer a livable wage for some refugees with good English skills, said Jill Connor, communications and development director for Community Action. 

It has become a stepping stone for refugees fluent in English, who gain business skills. Some go to school at the same time, and move on to other jobs, said Brown.

Community Action takes care of some services including human resources, but 90 percent of the income goes to the interpreters who do the work, Conner said.

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The program's initial focus was to help people with limited or no English when they had medical appointments and procedures, and interpretation for medical visits are still a big part of the company’s business.

Using an interpreter helps avoid misunderstandings because of language or cultural differences, Brown says.

And it helps maintain healthy family dynamics. When children, who often speak English well, become interpreters for parents, it can change the power dynamics, Brown said.

There’s also a liability issue, particularly with medical problems. A person without an interpreter may be nodding, but he or she may not understand what is being said.

For the medical community it is the law. Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act says if a person or business accepts any government funds it must provide an interpreter at its own cost, Brown said.

Interpreters for LanguageLinc must be very fluent in English, testing at a level 7 or 8, when 2 is considered conversationally fluent.

People who want to interpret for LanguageLinc take classes at Southeast Community College, studying the ethics of it, how to run their own businesses and cultural differences, as well as learning specific words for translating in medical settings or court.

For example, time management is important to interpreters and their clients.

In some countries being 15 to 20 minutes late means nothing. Here, some physicians will have canceled an appointment by then.

Interpreters must make sure they are true to the message and neither add nor subtract anything, Brown said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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