Speaking up for those who can’t

Daad Azar, interpreter and scheduling coordinator for Interpreter Services at Children’s Hospital Boston, seems relaxed in the hectic, often noisy office that manages more than 120,000 requests per year—nearly 200 per day—for interpreters speaking more than 80 different languages. Some days, walking into Interpreter Services can be like visiting a modern-day Tower of Babel, but soft-spoken Azar takes it in stride and manages to be heard over the clamor. “Sometimes I’ve got five phone lines going at once, with people speaking five different languages,” she says.

It’s an atmosphere not unfamiliar to Azar, who grew up in Aleppo, Syria. Called by many “the most ancient city in the world,” Aleppo’s history as a permanent settlement goes back at least 4,000 years. Due to its location on the “Silk Road”—the trade routes that connect Asia with Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean—Aleppo has long been a waypoint for travellers from diverse cultures and backgrounds. As a child, Azar’s playground friends spoke a mix of languages including Armenian, Turkish and Hebrew. She regrets not paying more attention to these dialects when she had a chance. “I could have learned these languages so easily as a child,” she says. “There are just some opportunities you don’t appreciate when you’re young.”

Still, Azar’s linguistic repertoire is impressive—she speaks Arabic, French and English fluently and can understand Spanish although she doesn’t speak it. She learned to speak French as a child when she attended Catholic school in Aleppo, which is also where she cultivated her passion for helping people. As a teen, Azar helped children with special needs at her school, including taking them on camping trips during the summer.

After graduating from the University of Aleppo, where she studied chemistry, biology and agriculture science—which she describes as a combination of everything, including physics, math, animals and anatomy—Azar got married and moved to Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. She returned to Aleppo eight years later, a divorced single mother of two, determined to make a life for herself and her family. But it would not be in Syria, where she now found herself alone with two young children.

“Imagine yourself in a place where you don’t speak the language… Now imagine trying to care for your child in that environment. That’s why we’re here.”

Her destination was clear. Azar’s mother, father, sister and brothers had all emigrated to the United States years before, and Azar used to visit them every summer. “I was the only one in my family left in Syria,” she laughs. “They all left me behind!” In 1996, Azar, along with her children, Albert and Stephanie, joined her family in North Carolina. The following year, they relocated to Massachusetts. A friend who knew Azar was looking for a career where she could help people recommended her to Children’s manager of Interpreter Services at the time, and Azar knew she had found where she needed to be. “It’s something I was raised with—to give,” she says. “Children’s is the best place in the world to give to people.”

Azar coordinates interpreters for Children’s main campus, drawing from a pool of more than 100 freelancers, and occasionally working with outside companies to source interpreters for the rare languages that aren’t already covered by the hospital. It can be a challenge because, as Azar proudly states, Children’s standards for interpreters are higher than anywhere else she knows of. “When you work with children, as opposed to adults, you need both compassion and passion for the job,” she says.

It’s that combination of passion and compassion that Azar looks for in all of the interpreters she works with—a group she describes as her extended second family. Since she started at Children’s, Azar says she’s never wanted to be anywhere else, because she doesn’t believe there’s any group who needs an interpreter’s skills more than parents trying to explain their child’s most urgent needs to someone who can’t understand them. “Imagine yourself in a place where you don’t speak the language,” she says. “It’s like you can’t hear, you can’t see. Now imagine trying to care for your child in that environment. That’s why we’re here.”

When she returned to Syria last summer, after an absence of 13 years, Azar was surprised to find she didn’t miss it as she thought she might. “My life and work in Boston changed my vision toward life in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated,” she says. “My job, my children and my family are all here—they make up for anything I might miss.”