Bridging Language Barriers: Bidur Dahal | Off Message

Bridging Language Barriers: Bidur Dahal


Bidur Dahal - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Bidur Dahal
Editor's note: Seven Days is profiling some of the people defending Vermonters from COVID-19.

Bidur Dahal is usually busy this time of year preparing for the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, a birth celebration for the deity Rama. Dahal, a founding member of the Vermont Hindu Temple on Allen Street in Burlington, prints up flyers and promotes the event on the temple’s Facebook page. But this year, the coronavirus has changed things: Temple leadership has postponed Ram Navami and all other events until further notice.

“We ideally don’t want any gatherings anymore now until this subsides, is over,” Dahal said. 

The temple has been mostly empty lately, although the altar is festooned with   flowers and twinkling lights against a backdrop of colorful prints of gods and goddesses. Instead of congregating in front of the altar, worshippers are encouraged to pray and chant at home. 
Dahal’s role has shifted from event promoter to emergency broadcaster. He no longer posts the temple’s robust event calendar on Facebook but instead shares health alerts and coronavirus explainers in Nepali, the language of many of the page’s 1,500 followers.

The Vermont Department of Health has translated some material into 10 languages, including Nepali, and posted it on its coronavirus web page. The one-page tip sheets cover basic hygiene and encourage social distancing —  important tools to prevent the spread — but none mention COVID-19 by name. They don’t explain testing protocols, travel guidelines or that older people are at higher risk. The health department said it is working to get translated guidelines, but for now, that vital information is in English only.

Many Bhutanese and Nepali folks in Burlington, particularly older residents, don’t speak English at all, let alone read it, Dahal said. He’s shared the health department alerts on social media, but he supplements them with videos featuring Nepali speakers. One eight-minute clip includes a Nepali-speaking doctor giving advice. A split-screen shows animated graphics depicting how COVID-19 spreads, tips to prevent it and telltale symptoms.

“Very simple and comprehensive details for folks with limited English proficiency!” Dahal captioned another video. “Please share this.”

“I feel like people are quite aware about it because it’s everywhere, but it takes a lot of time and effort to translate or interpret a lot of things,” Dahal told Seven Days. “We are using our word of mouth and our means of communications available to us.”
Vermont Hindu Temple Facebook page - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Vermont Hindu Temple Facebook page

Teaching comes naturally to Dahal. His family fled their native Bhutan to a refugee camp in Nepal amid rising tensions between Hindus and the Bhutanese government. Dahal volunteered as a teacher and helped introduce a high school curriculum to the camp, where he lived for two decades.

Dahal resettled in Iowa in 2011 but moved to Vermont after six months, called by the mountains that reminded him of home. He became a paraeducator for the Burlington School District and also worked as an interpreter for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Today, he co-teaches graduate students who are enrolled in a University of Vermont program that focuses on children with special health needs.

Dahal thinks public officials do their best to provide timely and accurate alerts in languages other than English. During emergencies, he said, officials tend to rely on Google Translate, which often produces imprecise messaging.

Even though Dahal is disappointed that the events are postponed, he said the temple prizes health above celebration. And there’s always next year, as long as the coronavirus doesn’t stick around.

“We can celebrate at home. People love to come together because this is how our culture is, but … life is important,” Dahal said. “We want to educate people, we want people to be alert, and it’s better to prevent than cure.”

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