When people become refugees, what is the first thing on their mind?
For survival, they need food, water and a place to stay.
Due to the war and bombings, the number of refugees children becoming Deaf keeps climbing. Because they are so focused on surviving, language is often the last priority.
99% of the children do not know sign language so therefore, many Arabic families don’t know sign and don’t know how to communicate with their children. Some Deaf are unable to get a hearing aid.
One thing I had learned through my travel as a Deaf person, I realized how privileged we are as compared to other Deaf around the world. In America, we are so privileged to have programs that can support us with hearing tests, special education, resources, etc. However, the Deaf community around the world doesn’t have the same privileges as us.
Stacey and I have always wanted to do humanitarian work through our travel in the future. We actually had researched a few places where we could volunteer but then we realized that most of the organizations are hearing. Since they are non-profit organizations, most would not provide an interpreter because it would cost them but also, the communication barriers between the Deaf and hearing. We thought of Deaf organizations but there aren’t many that we know of.
One day, I was scrolling on Facebook. There was a video with a six years old Deaf Syrian boy, who was learning Sign Language for the first time. I literally jumped out of my seat. I was so excited that I shared it with Stacey right away. We were so, so inspired by this video that we just had to reach out to the woman that was teaching Sign Language.
Through her, we learned so much about her work with this amazing organization called Planet Deaf Soul where they helped Deaf Syrian Refugees.
Deaf Planet Soul (DPS, a non-profit organization), President/Founder Gregory Perez, and Vice President Zaineb “Zee” Abdulla are two most passionate people who want to establish a community center in Chicago to provide equal access for the Deaf community and dissolve the barriers that the Deaf community face.
The committee of DPS’s goal to purchase a warehouse in Chicago to convert to a community center for the Deaf community. They plan to include workshops, courses, and amenities.
However, it is not only a community center. They are also a world’s first Deaf-led humanitarian aid mission! They aim to do humanitarian work once every year for the Deaf community.
In March 2017, Gregory, Zaineb and other two members went to Lebanon to help Deaf refugees who are living in the camps by providing audiological care, hearing aids, sign language resource and parental counseling/consultation.
Zaineb posted a short Facebook video of her teaching sign language to one of the Deaf refugee children who was exposed to sign language for the first time. You can see the video here which went viral on Facebook!
We went ahead and interview Gregory and Zee about their experiences with the Deaf refugees in Lebanon.
What inspires you to decide to help Deaf refugee camps in Lebanon? Why Lebanon?
Zee: In the past, I read about the Syrian refugee kids and how there is a great rate of declining hearing. Not a lot of people solved that problem So these kids live in isolation with no language, no hearing aids and don’t have support. We knew that Lebanon, the country itself already have a huge number of refugees.
Gregory: Zee is the key person who was exposed to Deaf refugees issues. I saw a picture of a kid laying down on the beach. A girl with blood on her face at a clinic.That really impacted me. It made me want to expand and help Deaf community in other countriesWho are they? They were hearing. The war affected their hearing.So do they know ASL or any other kind of gestures/language? No. I felt responsible to do something about it, expand and teach sign language.
As you know, the media have been only portraying Middle East countries negatively. Did you have any fear when visiting? How did you manage or overcome that fear?
Zee: The media shows bad, negative images of Middle East. So were we afraid before we left? For me, no. I am Arab, myself.I was born here but originally from Iraq. I have traveled to the Middle East before. Yes, they do have a lot of wars that’s terrible.But honestly, the people there are so nice and welcoming. So you’ll always feel safe when walking through the Middle East because no matter what happen if you become lost, stuck or whatever. People will always support and help you. So I wasn’t afraid. No fear at all.
Gregory: For me, yes I was scared. Why? Because it’s out of the country and I am not familiar with places. Also because of the war, I was a bit nervous. At the same time, I kept in mind that I won’t be alone. I’m going with a team. Plus I grew up in NYC and moved to Washington DC. I already knew about the most dangerous cities in the US.So afraid at the beginning, yes. Over there, no.
Is there anything you’d like to share for those who fear to travel to Lebanon or other Middle East countries?
Zee: My advice for people who are interested in traveling to the Middle East.Don’t be scared! If you travel to an area with a lot of war, it might be dangerous. But the rest of Middle East is very welcoming and so beautiful. It’s really unique. We have crisis everywhere even here in Chicago.People die every day from gun violence. It still didn’t stop people from visiting. So remember to see the beauty in whatever countries that you travel to including the Middle East.
What is your favorite moment while working in Lebanon?
Gregory: My favorite? Watching these kids put on their hearing aids and seeing them smile so big. When I show them sign language, they become so amazed to find their Deaf identity. That really warms me watching these kids smile having hopes for their future.Plus the parents who grieved for their Deaf children and worried that their kids will rely on them in the future. No, I am here. Zee is here. We will empower them and show them nothing is wrong becoming Deaf.These kids are really aggressive with learning languages. They scream for language. The barriers are broken.
Zee: My favorite moment? There are so many beautiful moments of seeing kids learning sign language for the first time.My number one favorite is when I watched Gregory worked with a little girl, about six or seven years old.She is profoundly Deaf. She can’t hear at all, no sounds. No hearing aids.She was learning sign language for the first time with Gregory at the clinic. Gregory showed her that people have names. He showed them the signs for mama, papa, and sister.The girl looks up and points at herself saying me, me. She asked, “What’s my name?” Gregory gave her a name sign. She looks so happy! Her face lit up knowing she finally has identity. It was so amazing and so inspiring!
What is one of the most challenging moments you both faced while working there?
Gregory: The challenging part is when parents bring their kids and ask if hearing aids can help cure their deafness. “Can they be hearing again and speak?”I looked at them and tell them that it’s not true. Yes, hearing aids can help with hearing and develop language.But hearing aids are temporary. Sign Language are for life. Language never fade.That’s my challenge. Parents become aware and accept. Instead of grieving, they become inspired.I was positive, giving them tips and stimulating them. he parents became more accepting
Zee: My biggest challenge is not really connected to the program. Not the hearing aids or anything. My biggest challenge was seeing all the terrible living situations. All the camps were really poor. No food. No clean water. Garbage everywhere. The kids don’t have anything to play with. They don’t go to school. Also hearing all these stories about their dads killed in the war, watching my brother or sister die, buildings collapsed, killing people, etc.These are really sad stories to hear from the children.They’re kids.A story of a kid was sitting at home when a bomb went off. His ears were bleeding. First, he heard screaming then nothing after that. He became Deaf. It’s not normal. It’s unnecessary.It’s hard for me to see and hear all these stories. Seeing all these awful living situations.Then knowing I am going back to a safe hotel, and eventually going back to my safe home in Chicago.Knowing that these kids are still living in that situation, it was hard for me to accept.So that’s my biggest challenge
What was the most pivotal moment for you?
Zee: My biggest pivotal moment is when I realized that this mission is not about the audiologist. It’s not about the hearing aids. Yes, the hearing aids are important but it’s not the key. Just like what Gregory says before, hearing equipment are only temporary. It’s the language that’s forever.So when I realized from the very first day, kids were starving for language.Their parents were so supportive and eager to learn. When I see that, that pivotal moment changes my experience.It changes my perspectives.
Gregory: We helped fill in their void.That was what was missing in their lives.That does not stop us from giving them language books, provides hearing aids.Why not be positive? Help them overcome their negative situations. That’s what is different about this organization. I am so proud to be here and provide help, education, Deaf identity, etc.the best service that International needs to know.
What are your upcoming plans?
Gregory: Our organization’s next plans are to go to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. What’s our goal? To fundraise money to get more hearing aids. Only hearing aids? No, also books with ASL and Arabic Sign Language. We want to empower and teach. But without your help, they can’t get any resources from us. We want to continue with the fundraiser for a lifetime. Our goal is to raise $75,000. Why high price? First of all, hearing aids are not cheap. Most of these kids often need two hearing aids. I can’t give them two, only one. Now with $75,000, I can give them two hearing aids. It will make them happier. That’s our goal.
Zee: I can’t wait!
Gregory: See you soon!
As you can see, Greg, Zee, and the whole team are absolutely amazing for using their foundation, Deaf Planet Soul, to help Deaf refugees. They are truly an inspiration in all that they do not only in Lebanon but even in Chicago as well.
“Sign Language is for Life”
If you can help with money donation, please visit their website: http://www.deafplanetsoul.org
On their website, you’ll see “Deaf Refugee Initiative” to contribute to this amazing non-profit organization! Anything will help!
To watch their interview through video, check it out here!