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Immigrants call out Buffalo Police for difficulty over language barrier

Posted at 6:57 PM, Jan 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-24 18:57:03-05

Juvenal Nahimana from Burundi and Majeda Mustafa from Syria both addressed the Buffalo Common Council's Police Oversight Committee Tuesday.  The two immigrants discussed separate interactions with Buffalo police officers that left them confused, scared and angry.  Neither speaks English and spoke through interpreters about the language barrier between immigrants and police.

Nahimana told the committee how police were in his East Side home on January 13.

"Two police officers came into the house," he said.  "They started asking questions in very fast English.  We could not understand what they were saying.  It was disturbing and frightening because we had no idea why they were there."

According to Nahimana, the officers asked a 12-year-old relative to act as an interpreter.

"12-year-olds should not be getting involved with police," said Council President Darius Pridgen.

Nahimana said he still doesn't know why police were in the house or what they were questioning him about.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said today was the first he heard about this situation, but "would investigate" to find out more information.

Mustafa said she was being threatened by a neighbor and had been helped by police, who filed a harassment report against the suspect, but had no such luck when she went to a police station near her West Side home after she says the same neighbor threatened her children.

"They went to the police station but were told they couldn't get help because no one understood," said an interpreter for Mustafa.  "The family doens't speak English, they only speak Arabic."

Mustafa and her family fled during Syria's civil war and moved to the United States in March.

BPD officers are supposed to carry language cards to help in these situations.  They also are trained "every couple of months" on how to handle situations with a language barrier.

An attorney with Mustafa said the officers did have their language cards, but ran into other problems.

"What the officers then were struggling to find out is 'how do I get an interpreter?'," said Lisa Strand of the Legal Aid Bureau in Buffalo.  "'Do I have a number I call?' and that's where they were hitting a dead end."

Captain Steve Nichols is a community liaison for the department that interacts on a daily basis with immigrant community groups and advocates.  He said a lot of new information was shared with police at today's meeting and he would be looking into it.

"I'd like to know exactly what happened there and we would correct it," he said.  "The officers have all been trained and are continually trained in knowing to just call 9-1-1 and ask for a language access line in the language needed."