What can I do if I don't understand a question at my asylum interview?

Don't just guess at the interviewer's meaning! Ask for clarification.

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Question

I am a female citizen of Afghanistan who was not allowed to go to school. I taught myself English at home, but I do not believe that my English is perfect. I am worried that I will not understand the questions the asylum officer will ask me. What can I do to help myself?

Answer

Your asylum interview is a hugely important time, in which crucial decisions will made in your case. The job of the Asylum Officer is to figure out who is a refugee. Once an officer decides that you are a refugee, he or she must decide whether the law allows granting you asylum or whether there are legal issues that prevent this.

In order for all of this to go smoothly, you must be able to understand the officer’s questions and you must be able to answer them. If you are not confident that you will be comfortable speaking to the officer in English, you can bring a translator with you. The translator can be anyone who is fluent in English and your primary language -- a friend or family member is fine.

If you believe that you know enough English to communicate with the officer, or if you cannot find a translator willing to come to your interview with you, you must be very careful to listen to and answer the questions accurately. Although the officer will want to hear your story, he or she may have a particular style that does not match yours. Some officers ask many direct questions, while others allow you to tell your story more naturally. You will not know your officer’s style until you are being interviewed.

There are a few things you can do to make sure that you answer the questions accurately such as:

  • asking the officer to repeat any question you are not certain you understand
  • asking the officer to speak more slowly

Although you may feel rude doing this, remember, it's far better to speak up than to risk the officer misunderstanding your case. An officer who believes that you have given inconsistent testimony may deny your case for that reason alone.

It is also important that you submit a detailed affidavit, explaining your story and why you fear returning to your home country, for the officer to read. This way, you will know that the details of your story will be reviewed even if you have difficulty during the interview.

The officer will use this affidavit as a basis to ask you questions and will compare your answers with the information you have written. This is, however, also a reason why its important for you to understand the officer and to be clear when you answer the questions — if you say something different than what is in your affidavit, the officer may find that you do not appear to be credible or truthful, and disbelieve your entire story as a result.

If you have hired an attorney to help with your case, it might be wise to ask the attorney to accompany you to the interview. The attorney will not be allowed to translate, but can make a statement at the end of the interview summarizing your claim so that you can be sure the officer heard what you had to say.

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