Watch: A migrant's first call home

It took some serious detective work to translate the phone call of one refugee, who had just arrived safely in Italy

Earlier this month, the Compass team traveled to Italy to document the stories of migrants who had just made the perilous trek over the Mediterranean Sea. While filming a group of Syrian refugees by the Sicilian waters, they noticed a young African man crying.

He'd struck up a friendship with the Syrians, although none of them spoke his language. Neither did anyone on our team. But after a journey that's killed some 1,800 refugees so far this year, it was clear the young man wanted to call home and tell somebody he'd made it safely.

Compass host Sheila MacVicar lent him her cell phone. After multiple tries, he finally got through – our cameras capturing the charged moment, and the joy that for a second split his face into a wide grin.  We just had no idea what he said. Based on the area code of his phone call, we knew the man called Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries in West Africa that's been plagued for decades by coups, assassinations and civil war. Moved by the story, I volunteered to have the short exchange translated – thinking it would take a phone call or two. 

I was wrong.

Guinea-Bissau's official language is Portuguese, but more than 20 other languages are spoken in the small country of 1.7 million. My first thought was to call Guinea-Bissau's embassy in Washington, D.C., but all three of the listed numbers were out of service. It turned out that Guinea-Bissau had closed its embassy in 2007, and the U.S. had suspended its embassy in the country back in 1998, in the midst of violent conflict.

Next, I tried the United Nations Mission on Guinea-Bissau in New York City. The woman listened to the video twice over the phone.

“He’s speaking a local language, one of those ethnic languages,” she said. But it was unrecognizable to her ears.

My next thought was the Voice of America, the federal government's official global broadcast with affiliates worldwide. I played the tape for the executive producer of its Africa service, who played it for the team at the Portuguese desk, who played it for one of their engineers from Guinea-Bissau. The man couldn't distinguish the dialect, but was certain it wasn't the local creole, which functions as Guinea-Bissau's lingua franca. Mandingue, a group of West African dialects, was his guess.

I called the Washington, D.C. government’s African Affairs department and the U.S. State Department’s language school, but no luck. (Although I'm very grateful to the D.C. Mayor’s Office and Deputy Director of African Affairs Willair St. Vil, who generously tried to decipher it for me at close to midnight one night.) 

A refugee from Guinea-Bissau, who had just arrived in Italy, smiles after calling his family back home.

A large language service company told me it would need at least a week to find a interpreter. Howard University’s African Studies department tapped their network for me, but without success. 

I decided to give the U.S. Peace Corps a call, because it had an online dictionary for Mandinka, the primary language of the neighboring country of Gambia. Kristin Caspar, the Peace Corps country desk officer for Guinea, Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone, volunteered to share the video with their online community. After watching, one staffer strongly believed it was in the Mandinka family, since she understood 16 words in the video clip. Another felt confident it was Jahanke, a related language that's partially intelligible in Mandinka. Former teachers and translators from around the country filed in to help, but leads ran dry.

Then, our newsroom's IT manager suggested calling Language Line, a service that provides live telephone interpretations. I made an account and asked for a interpreter who spoke Mandinka. The woman said she spoke 17 of the 18 different Mandinka dialects and was able to understand some of the man's discussion. She believed it was a Gambian Mandinka dialect, spoken in northern Guinea-Bissau.

I immediately called Gambia's Permanent Mission to the United Nations. They were happy to help, but said the only person who could speak the dialect was the country's ambassador – and he was in a meeting. So while I waited, I found a Gambian American Association on Facebook, and called a number printed on the back of a flyer. The woman put me in touch with her friend Fatu Camara.

Camara was the first person to understand almost all of the video clip. It made her cry. The man's name was Karamo, she said, and this was almost certainly the first time he'd spoken to his mother since beginning the 2,500-mile journey from Guinea-Bissau to Libya to Italy.  

This video is the story of what one young man was willing to risk and leave behind in the hopes of a fresh start. And it's a smaller story of a producer 4,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., thankful for the chance to share his voice with the world.

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