By Taylor Ha and Randall Waszynski
Fred Devone, a 60-year-old black American, is perched on a bicycle on Fulton Avenue in front of La Sevillana Bakery & Cafe. He has lived in Hempstead for 35 years. “Sometimes, it’s like a foreign country here,” he says.
Devone’s statement is no surprise, given that 45.5 percent of Hempstead’s residents age five and older speak a language other than English at home, according to a 2010-2014 U.S. census.
The non-English speaking residents of Hempstead are now able to conduct town government business through the Language Access Initiative – a program that has provided translation services in 17 languages for the townspeople since Oct. 13.
“I, myself, whose mother never spoke a word of English – and she brought us to England – I know the difficulties that she faced,” Town Clerk Nasrin Ahmad, who was born in Uganda, said. “Therefore, I’m absolutely thrilled with this. And the bonuses: We don’t have to hire any translators. We have them within.”
Thirty-five town employees volunteered to participate in the initiative. Out of the 17 languages available for translation, seven are more commonly used than the rest: Spanish, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Italian, Ahmad said. The wide variety of languages is related to Hempstead’s diverse population.
Hempstead is America’s largest township, with an estimated population of 759,937, according to the 2010 U.S. census. More than a third of that population is composed of minorities: 17.4 percent Hispanic or Latino and 16.5 percent black or African-American.
“Fortunate for me, I do have a young man in my office who does speak Spanish,” Town of Hempstead Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby said. “Spanish is one of the main ones we have.”
Another one of those translators is Ahmad’s executive scheduling secretary, Andrise Guiteau. Guiteau, who has aided over 100 people, translates Haitian Creole.
“You might be able to speak English, but you’re more comfortable with speaking your first language,” Guiteau said.
One of those non-native English speakers is a manager at Key Food Fresh in Hempstead: Lupe Fariera. Fariera, who hails from the Dominican Republic, has about 50 employees. The majority of them are Hispanic.
“Oh my God, that’s a wonderful idea!” she said regarding the Language Access Initiative, highlighting the diversity of Hempstead. “You’ll see Hispanic people, but they’re not from the same country,” she noted, pointing to three employees: one from El Salvador, another from Peru and the last from Ecuador.
However, translation services are not available for languages that originate from Eastern Asia, such as Mandarin or Japanese.
“Not a single time did an Oriental come who could not speak English,” Ahmad said.
5.2 percent of the Hempstead community is Asian, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
The Suffolk County government also passed Language Access legislation, primarily so that all residents, including the approximately 120,000 limited English-proficient people, had access to vital public safety information related to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, according to a press release from the Office of the County Executive. “About six months ago, we had inquiries to translate and communicate information in 36 different languages,” Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a county spokesperson, added.
Suffolk County has a population of 1.5 million. “For Hempstead, that would be a much smaller demographic that you’re dealing with,” Baird-Streeter said.
The Hempstead initiative is continuing to streamline communication between the public and municipal government.
“It’s making our residents feel at home – that they’re accepted in this new land,” Ahmad said.