Working in war zones, silence is in short supply. Even in a city such as Kabul, outside the daily fighting of Afghanistan’s southern provinces your ears are assaulted at odd hours by low-flying helicopters, sirens, and occasional gunfire. The horns of cars, motorcycles, and police trucks blaring through the traffic chaos never lets up and the individual honks meld into one tone deaf wail. There are times that I’ve literally worn ear plugs during the day just to dull the assault.
But it wasn’t until I met Ghaffar, the founder of the Afghan National Association for the Deaf, that I realized how deafening the silence can be.
Three years ago I was taken to a run down, dungeon-like building in a remote district of Kabul by my translator. This school was run by the deaf, for the deaf children of Kabul. One of only three small schools in Afghanistan. I was led upstairs to meet Ghaffar, a gentle man with thick glasses who is a modern day Afghan Helen Keller, deaf his entire life, and now slowly losing his sight as well. Ghaffar welcomed us and after sharing with me his personal story from Afghan refugee, to student in Pakistan, to founder and passionate leader of ANAD. He is the heart and soul of the burgeoning deaf community. He introduced to the rest of his staff, all deaf, all dedicated to this school and the development of an Afghan sign language. The only hearing person in the room besides me and my translator was Parween Azimi, a petite woman, with large brown eyes, in a lavender headscarf. Parween works for the UN full time but spends most of her free time volunteering as an advocate for the deaf and blind.
As we toured the classrooms, some indoors and some outside in the walled in courtyard, all devoid of any furniture save an occasional blackboard, children’s faces beamed when we walked in. Boys and girls of all ages were split into grades K-6, learning to sign, based on their communication level versus their age. Sitting on the floor with the students, they eagerly took turns teaching me to sign: “hello, how are you, thank you, you’re welcome”. I was given a sign for my name, shown how to ask “Can I take a picture?”, and how to ‘clap’ with the other students. They asked me questions about my life, my country, my daughter. I was given a much deeper taste of the frustration of not being able to communicate that went far beyond my usual limited language skills. Why had I not been exposed to sign language in my own country? How could I be this cut off from an entire segment of population? Parween answered my many questions, and throughout the day, she proved to be much more than a translator between the deaf and the hearing…she is their lifeline. Their only link to the world outside their concrete walls.
The deaf in Afghanistan are not like the deaf in the United States. They don’t have a community. They don’t even have a fully developed language. Most importantly, they don’t have a place in society at large. Parween is their key advocate, translating between sign, Dari, Pashto, and English – often in the same conversation depending on the group.
It’s easy to talk of marginalized populations in Afghanistan. Poverty across the nation is a brutal reality after nearly four decades of war. Women take top ranking in the oppression stats, as women’s rights are well-known as being practically non existent outside of Kabul. Yet, the deaf of Afghanistan are so far beyond marginalized it rocked my core. There are an estimated 10,000 deaf children living in silence, completely cut off from the hearing world, and with limited opportunities to be part of their community. They have zero access to education. They have minimal language development within their family and none outside of their home. They are unable to forge friendships with children their own age, boys are forced into physical labor for employment on farms or in factories, and girls are considered unmarriageable. Their deafness isn’t recognized for what it is, an inability to hear, and thus the deaf are often mislabeled as mentally handicapped, further isolating them from society. Unlike women, the blind, or the physically handicapped, they cannot advocate for themselves to government officials or NGO’s. This isn’t just living in silence, its living in isolation.
Ghaffar and the association he founded was formed when he returned from Pakistan, as an advocacy group to lobby for deaf education, Afghan sign language development, and recognition and integration into Afghan society. Over time, a school formed, and while ANAD focused on sign language development, deaf children had access to literacy, language, and friendship for the first time.
I recognized that working with ANAD could signal a future for the deaf thus far deemed unimaginable and guided my non profit, Mountain2Mountain to recognize the potential for creating a sustainable and powerful ripple across Afghanistan. Working with ANAD, we secured a land donation from the Afghan government to serve as a permanent location for sustainable home for Afghanistan’s deaf to build a thriving community. Our hope is to break ground next spring on the first K-12 school for the deaf in Afghanistan, and while a sticks and bricks style structure is necessary for ANAD to establish a home, the real power is within. Much more than a school, we are developing teacher training and interpreter training with ANAD so that they can extend their reach of for language and education beyond Kabul in the rural countryside, and all the major cities. This will also lift the current standard of teaching and create the ability for educated deaf students to potentially go to university, get jobs in the hearing world, and use their voice, allowing them to advocate for themselves and for future generations.
Their voices are have not yet been heard, but with language, education, and the emergence of a community, they will break through the silence that surrounds them and demand to be heard. 10,000 deaf children are struggling to find their voice. Can’t you hear them? It’s time to listen.
photo by Di Zinno – November 2008