NAKASEC, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, focuses on organizing Korean and Asian Americans for economic, racial, and social justice in the Northern Virginia area. But during this time, another issue has been brought to light in the area: discrepancies in language access for Asians and Asian Americans in Fairfax County.

The organization focuses on community service provision and education for the Asian community, such as naturalization application assistance and DACA renewal services. Other focuses include leadership development, nonpartisan civic engagement, and organizing.

But a major problem recently came to light: discrepancies in language access. On the week of March 16, the organization started receiving calls from Korean and Vietnamese speakers asking about things like how to apply for unemployment insurance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sookyung Oh, NAKASEC’s DC Area Director, says that there were extremely helpful emails being sent out for Fairfax County residents answering this and many other questions – the problem is that they were all in English. “Even the state of Virginia doesn’t have information about unemployment insurance in Korean,” says Oh. “It’s not just Fairfax County.”

Stemming from the amount of questions they were receiving, NAKASEC decided to put resource guides together with phone numbers, websites, and other information that might be valuable to non-English speakers. “We just kept putting this guide together and it kept snowballing,” says Oh.

As of now, there are five different guides on their website highlighting the counties of Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William, Alexandria, and Arlington, that can all be found in English, Korean, and Vietnamese. “Each one is different because obviously each county has different resources,” says Oh.

Zowee Aquino, Community Health Organizer at NAKASEC, highlights the importance of the organization. “In the state of Virginia, we’re one of few that actually focuses on Asian Americans,” she says. NAKASEC not only seeks long term change and to mobilize local communities, but the most important part, she explains, is that the organization itself is run by Asian Americans. “It’s important to see people who can reflect who you are.”

The resource guides, which she helps update, also include information on food distribution, unemployment insurance, the stimulus package, and explanations that break everything down.

Aquino says that the guides are greatly important because of the number of households that are limited English proficient, or LEP, in Northern Virginia. “In Fairfax County, 19% of Asian American and Pacific Islander households are LEP,” she explains.

Apart from issues with access to information for those who might not speak English, Oh says that another challenge that the Asian community is facing is around immigration status.

“Particularly for those who are undocumented or live in a mixed status family, a challenge that they’re facing is that they are not going to get assistance,” she says. “They can’t apply for unemployment insurance. They’re not going to get these stimulus checks.”

Lastly, Oh says that NAKASEC hasn’t heard of many incidents of violence, either physical or verbal, targeted towards Asians and Asian Americans in the area during this time. “But that’s not to say it’s not happening.” She emphasizes that either way, it doesn’t help the community when the President or someone with a political position call the virus the “Chinese flu or the Wuhan flu.”

Oh emphasizes that although their physical office is closed, NAKASEC is still “open for business.” The organization, she says, is always looking to find more translators and interpreters of different Asian languages, particularly Korean or Vietnamese, as well as mental health providers who are willing to volunteer some time. “There are lots of different ways people can help and stay safe.”

NAKASEC, like many other organizations today, are trying to keep their costs as low as possible. “If the economy is not good now, it’s not going to be good for a while,” says Oh. She likes to advice people that if there’s a nonprofit they’ve always wanted to donate to, now is the perfect time to help out. 

Although there are still issues with language access for the Asian community in Northern Virginia, Oh says that Fairfax County has been listening to their requests. “Earlier this week, the county finally created a multilingual portal. They’re definitely making really good steps towards having more information, including videos in different languages, not just English and Spanish.”

Link to resource guides:

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