Lost WITHOUT TRANSLATION

Agencies prepare for encounters with non-English speaking


     Robert Dziekanski, a 40-year-old Polish citizen who spoke no English, arrived at the Vancouver International Airport on October 14, 2007. Dziekanski, a construction worker, was the only child of Zosia Cisowski. Cisowski, according to news reports, had emigrated to Canada, then worked two jobs for many years in order to send for her only child.

     But when Dziekanski made the long journey from Poland to Canada, what was set in motion was the backdrop for an enormous and very public tragedy. After flying from Frankfurt, Germany, on the last leg of his trip, an exhausted and jet-lagged Dziekanski landed at the airport, hoping to see his mother waiting for him. That was not the case.

     Although his mother had come to the airport, the two never connected. Instead, Dziekanski found himself imprisoned in the airport's confines, unable to cross through immigration to find her and incapable of communicating with airport officials, police or well-meaning passers-by. Ignored and at the end of his rope, Dziekanski grew frustrated and violent.

     Because the incident was obviously escalating and playing out to a captive audience of travelers, one man with a video camera began to film it. Another, using the camera on a cell phone, also recorded it.

     The grainy, shaky cell phone video portrays an obviously distraught Dziekanski pacing behind a glassed-in area that separates him from other travelers. At one point he picks up a chair as if he plans to throw it, then puts it down. He also hoists a small table. Although difficult to discern, he apparently also grabbed some computer equipment. Comments from bystanders who were following his movements indicate they realized he spoke no English. Several are heard speculating that he is Russian. One woman suggests that he might be speaking in Hebrew.

     What they don't know is that Dziekanski has been in the airport for at least six hours, unable to leave, contact his mother or find anyone who understands him. At this point he has spent close to 24 hours or more on this journey.

     A woman approaches Dziekanski in an attempt to communicate with him, but her efforts are in vain. Soon airport security is on the scene. One official is heard on the radio requesting a Russian interpreter. No one shows up, but Dziekanski doesn't speak Russian anyway. Besides, in a few seconds — about the amount of time it takes to punch up a telephone number on a cell phone and hold a brief conversation — Robert Dziekanski will die on the airport floor surrounded by police, in front of dozens of witnesses.

     In the video, four officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) approach him. They subdue him with force, taking him down and hitting him with an electronic control device (ECD) at least twice. The take-down does not appear unreasonable. The officers who responded could not communicate with Dziekanski, nor he with them. He also could not comply with their orders because he did not understand them, and they could not understand him. Whether ECD should have been used is a subject currently under exploration by Canadian authorities.

     Somehow during the scuffle, Zosia Cisowski's son's heart quit beating and his hopeful journey to his new country ended on the floor of the airport, without anyone understanding a word he said.

     Later, after viewing a videotape of the incident, Dziekanski's words were translated. He was calling for help and asking for the police.

     Cell phone footage of the incident, posted on You Tube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CR_k-dTnDU) and an eventually released videotape incensed both the Polish people and Canadian residents. Inquiries into the matter are ongoing and appear to be a vehicle for a change in RCMP's ECD policy.

     One thing that could have possibly prevented the tragedy from the very beginning has not attracted the publicity it should have: If someone could have translated for Dziekanski, there is a good chance he would be alive today.

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