When Sarah Whayeb greets Arabic-speaking refugees who arrive in East Tennessee, she
welcomes them in her native language.
But Sarah, an interpreter with Bridge Refugee Services, understands first-hand the culture shock, exhaustion and uncertainty they’re experiencing, as well.
With Bridge’s help, she resettled in Chattanooga 11 years ago after fleeing war-torn Iraq with her mother, older brother and younger sister. They reunited with an older sister, who had arrived a few months before them with her husband.
“I know where they’re coming from,” Sarah says. “I try to make it as easy as possible for them to understand the rules and the system and how life is going to go for them because I know how it went for me.”
Sarah was 12 years old when her family became the first Iraqi refugees to resettle in Hamilton County.
“My mom was in shock – our culture is different,” Sarah says. “It took me about a year and a
half to just learn how to speak English; but then it took me a couple of years in middle school to learn how to read and write English. It was hard that first year to year and a half because you can’t talk to people.”
Some of her classmates were scared of her, she says, because she wore a headscarf as part of her Muslim faith.
“When the 2003 war was happening and then the Americans came to Iraq, my dad was an
interpreter,” she says. “He worked with the American military when they were in Baghdad.”
His work with the military led to his death in 2005, but it wasn’t until after her brother was
kidnapped and beaten a few years later that her family left Iraq.
Bridge Case Manager Jennifer Croxall had been one of the first to welcome them when they
arrived in Chattanooga. Jennifer, then a Bridge volunteer, met them at the airport and remained close with them over the years, watching Sarah navigate middle school, graduate from high school, start college, marry and have a child of her own.
So when Bridge needed a new Arabic-speaking interpreter earlier this year, Jennifer thought
Sarah would be a perfect fit.
“She has insight you can’t have unless you’ve been through the experience,” Jennifer says. “She’s good at being able to relate to our clients and put their minds at ease. All of our clients love her.”
Sarah agreed her experience as a refugee gives her a unique advantage when she’s working with fellow refugees from Iraq, Sudan and other Arabic-speaking countries.
“We help them with their first steps, but then they start walking on their own; that’s what Bridge is,” she says. “They help you find your way.”
Jennifer says Sarah has “a gift” when it comes to interpreting, serving as one of just a handful of interpreters that she’s worked with who can translate while the original speaker is still talking.
“It’s pretty impressive, actually,” Jennifer says. “Her English is excellent and her Arabic is
excellent. When she speaks, it’s fluid, and there’s not an accent.”
What’s even more impressive, Jennifer says, is that Sarah hasn’t been formally trained.
“Sarah is a success story,” she says. “She has come, has integrated, set those American dreams and is definitely working her way towards those. Our platform is about education, integration, family stability and personal freedom, and I think she’s living all of those. We are blessed to have her.”
Sarah has plans to pursue further education to become a certified interpreter not only so she can use her skills for full-time employment, but also because it’s in her blood.
She says she wants to continue her father’s legacy by following in his footsteps.