CHAMPAIGN — Though her official title at the Refugee Center in Champaign is bilingual Spanish translator, Guadalupe Abreu would be the first to tell you her work goes far beyond interpreting.
Her small, wood-paneled office in the basement of a West Kenyon Road office complex is covered with green-card applications, license-renewal forms, immigration documents and case files for the hundreds of immigrants she’s helped over the past 20 years.
Though she primarily works to translate during hectic meetings, tense hospital visits and long-awaited ceremonies, Abreu said that becoming an advocate and friend for her clients is just part of the job.
“From the moment I started at the Refugee Center 20 years ago, I have given myself to my work completely,” she said. “It’s my passion. It’s work that gives you great satisfaction.”
Winner of the Leadership Award at this year’s Immigrant Welcome Awards Ceremony, Abreu has become the go-to, one-stop shop for immigrants to Champaign.
She said many of her clients are referred to her — not the Refugee Center — for help; “if you have a problem, they say ‘Go to Guadalupe.’”
“We have developed a great relationship precisely because I’m an immigrant,” Abreu said. “Because I can speak Spanish and because I can see myself in them from those days when I was here by myself and didn’t know English well or the processes or the country well.”
Whether it’s helping them find housing, medical help, food benefits, legal aid or simply someone to talk to, Abreu said the Latino families she has worked with have given her a reason to stay in her job.
“The wave of immigrants always changes,” Abreu said of the Mexican, Central American and South American families she has helped at different points through the years. “But the wave never stops coming.”
Abreu said her work focuses around being the support immigrants need when they get to this country. When she first started out back in the 1980s, she said, the immigrant community was much smaller — as were the resources available to it.
“The first 10 years working here, there was not much help here in Champaign-Urbana,” Abreu said. “I went to court; I went to houses; I went to hospitals, day, afternoon and night. Thank God now there are more resources for families. But back then I was one of the few people that immigrants could go to.”
She said the Trump administration has made her work much harder: She is constantly learning about policy changes, reading up on new practices and “constantly training, training and training.”
“It’s a continuing education because things are changing every day,” Abreu said. “Right now a lot of people feel ostracized, rejected and scared in this situation. Before there was an upfront and brazen racism. But it seems the president has given carte blanche for people to voice their racist opinions, and that’s scaring a lot of people.”
Due to the fear that many immigrant families have, Abreu said her work has been much harder because “every day you’re hearing about there are going to be raids, or that if you don’t have papers they’ll take you away if you go to school or court or the hospital.”
She said on two recent occasions she has felt helpless as she watched clients get taken away by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“One time when I was with a client taking him to court for a traffic violation, an ICE truck blocked my car and said they were looking for my client,” Abreu said. “In that moment you can’t do anything. They tell you that it has nothing to do with you and you feel very bad. You feel powerless. It was very difficult having to go back to his family and tell them he was detained.”
But there are good moments that keep Abreu going.
“It makes me happy to see when clients have everything together and are working through the process,” she said. “One Guatemalan client I recently helped finally has his asylum and we’re working on her green card. There are the moments that give you great satisfaction.”
For Abreu, her work isn’t just as translator: She offers support, acts as an advocate, listens and becomes her clients’ closest friend.
“I always thank God that there are so many resources here now,” she said. “We have a lot of help and a lot of empathy of the problem these days. A lot of times my clients don’t know much about anything, so they need that support system as a friend too, not just someone to tell them to fill out a form. My job is not just to translate; it’s to be a support for all aspects of their life.”