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BOISE — Georgette Bisoka and her family had a major COVID-19 scare early in the pandemic, when Bisoka’s sister, Wivine, tested positive for the virus.

Bisoka’s mother, Yvette, is 49 and immunocompromised. Luckily, she made it out of the two-week quarantine period without the virus, but it shook Bisoka to her core.

“I told siblings they couldn’t leave our house. It was a lot of pressure,” she said. “But we still had to work, no matter what.”

Bisoka and her sister are home health care workers. They help disabled and elderly people in their homes, “so we had to have contact with other people,” she said.

Bisoka’s family of four are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have been in Idaho since 2012.

Bisoka said she believes her family and other refugees face deeper challenges than some U.S. residents who aren’t immigrants. She sees the challenges in education, where she also works as a translator and volunteers as a tutor with the Boise School District.

“Those who are from refugee communities who don’t know English, they have fallen way behind due to COVID, and I do not know when or how they will catch up,” Bisoka said.

Language barriers keep refugee communities from accessing many resources to help them during the pandemic, and there are few organizations working to bridge those gaps.

Georgette Bisoka, middle, her two siblings, Samuel, left, Winvine, right and their mother, Yvette, (not pictured) are refugees from the Democr…

The International Refugee Committee in Boise has been translating information and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Georgette Siqueiros, community engagement coordinator with the refugee committee, said translation isn’t enough to get the information into the hands that need it.

“We started working with community leaders and advisers, church leaders, daycare owners and really anyone in the community who could interpret,” Siqueiros said.

Like the rest of the U.S., refugees have struggled with job loss during the pandemic, but navigating unemployment claims and other government assistance without knowing English is challenging, if not impossible.

Siquerios said refugee committee staff have learned how to apply for assistance so they can pass that along to their clients.

In addition to helping people apply for unemployment, the IRC has also tried to help people who’ve lost their job during the pandemic get back into workforce.

“We have had over 130 workers assisted with insurance and unemployment, and over 85% of them were able to go back to work,” she said.

More than 3,000 refugees have resettled in Idaho since 2016, and the state is home to refugees from 24 countries. Idaho’s refugee population represented 34 languages as of 2019, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees.

In addition to the lack of reliable information available about COVID-19 in languages other than English, the language barrier also leads to added emotional stress from misinformation, Bisoka said.

“It is misinformation that can hurt people, and that was going on a lot in my community in the early days of COVID,” she said. “The biggest misconception is COVID is a government-created virus, so people would get sick and not want to go to the hospital because they were scared they wouldn’t be helped.”

Siquerios said the refugee committee is trying to address the misinformation through translation services. With more accurate information available in more languages, the refugee committee is combating the spread of misinformation.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, refugee communities are tight-knit and always willing to help one another, said Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.

“I think the communal effort of making sure everyone is doing OK is something that a lot of resettled communities come from,” Wolfson said.

She said she is trying to incorporate that thinking into her own life, like making sure elderly neighbors have groceries and even transportation.

But refugees are doing more than helping their own communities. Many refugees are essential workers who fill key roles in hospitals and home health and other industries in Idaho.

“Refugees are contributing to the response of COVID-19,” Wolfson said. “They are your nurse, your doctor, and are in charge of cleaning and keeping our factories going, driving buses and more. They have kept going to make sure that we can continue to move forward in our community.”

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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