Reporting on deaf refugees has had its challenges, to be sure. This past week when we were in San Francisco, our usual interpreter was caught up with other Asylum Interviews, and wasn’t able to make it to our meeting. But there we were – we had been traveling since 4:00 a.m. when we found the tiny hotel lobby where we met our refugee contact in an old red-carpet room, with dim lighting and the smell of antique furniture. It was around noon.
I had no idea what Elva looked like, aside from her approximate age and the fact that she had been born in Mexico. Oh, and I knew that she was deaf.
After an awkward greeting where neither of us were sure the other person had been looking at us or someone else from across the hall, I sent a text message to watch and see if she received it. She did, and I approached.
We chatted in sign language for a few minutes and out of the waiting room area walked her two small children and husband, Stephen. Elva had seemed a little suspicious of me at first, but eventually she smiled at some of my remarks about how my friend and I had taken the wrong train (it had been a rough morning) and her amusement set me at ease. Her husband, Stephen, was a deaf American, and marvelously optimistic in all of our conversations, which helped to lighten the tone before we jumped into the interview.
After waiting a while, we heard (officially) that we would need to conduct the interview without the interpreter who previously voiced for our audio recordings. We started the interview and I attempted to sign my questions, voice Elva and Stephen’s answers for the recording–and focus on my next question. It wasn’t going very smoothly, so I made a quick decision to conduct the whole interview in sign and voice the conversation in a later recording.
As Elva told me her story, I was overwhelmed with compassion for her and amazed that she made it as far as she did. She reflected through tears how her mother beat her when she became deaf, left her for a week without food and only little water as a six year old in a locked shed. She was without protection from the climate and certainly without understanding. She had grown up without language. When she was seven years old, her mother walked with her across the U.S.-Mexico border and disappeared, leaving her to wait, wander and eventually attempt communication with U.S. border patrol. At seven years old, she was completely alone.
Elva was placed in foster care with yet another abusive mother, who was also addicted to drugs and ended up in prison – twice. Elva suffered homelessness, hunger, lack of interpretation in schools and loneliness.
But today, Elva has a family. Despite her lack of a good motherly example, she attentively cares for her two children.
As I hear more of these stories, I’m beginning to understand with just a little more clarity why being a deaf refugee is unique. Many deaf refugees do not only face the challenges of assimilation, new language, new culture, loneliness and disorientation. Some also face the difficulty of having no language. Some have grown up, as Elva did, without comprehension of simple things because they were never communicated with. They were never taught sign, more than gesturing.
Not all fit into this category. The first refugee we interviewed had quite a different story – He came from a loving family who taught him sign, communicated with him, sent him to school (although it was in school that he suffered the worst abuse) – But his family, at least, embraced him before he left the conditions in Mexico to seek a better life in America.
My understanding of the plight of deaf refugees has been continually shaped by these stories. And these stories continue to shape me. Partially, it is understanding the simple, but deep necessity of things I take for granted: the ability to have language, to communicate easily with people in my surroundings. And stability.
These are things that Elva was seeking long after she arrived as a seven year old on the American border. There was a lot more to her story, about her homelessness, her struggle to learn in public schools, which she called “hearing school.” Now, tell me. How can we, as Americans, welcome these who are desperate? These who, perhaps have not even arrived here on purpose, but this is where they find themselves because there has been no other place for their own culture to “put them.”
America is not a place for only those who were born here. It is a place for those who come, seeking safety and seeking security.
Can we help give it?