Tag Archives: deaf

Deaf School Finishes Construction and I Breathe Sigh of Relief

Today I witnessed something I feared may never happen, the construction of a school for the deaf in Kabul with ANAD.  Five years ago I first met ANAD, Parween was my incredible link to the fully deaf administration that had founded ANAD and was running a school in a remote area of Kabul under dire circumstances.

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I wrote a short blog about meeting ANAD and the situation for the deaf community in Afghanistan, The Deafening Silence, which I had hoped would inspire those that read it to get involved.

Three years ago I was taken to a run down, dungeon-like building in a remote district of Kabul. 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.  He is the heart and soul of the burgeoning deaf community.  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 who serves as the only liason for ANAD with the hearing world. 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.

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? 

For two years, worked to secure land for ANAD from President Karzai and had a inauguration ceremony at the site.   Soon after we were able to ensure that ANAD wouldn’t lose this land, common in Afghanistan as often its a matter of ‘he who builds first, owns’.  An amazing Afghan man living in Colorado, Rafaat Ludin, offered to build the security wall, knowing we didn’t have the money to build it, but realizing that ANAD wouldn’t be able to keep the land without it.

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The wall was built, a well was dug, and Global Exchange donated hundreds of fruit trees to grow in the courtyard.  At the time, this slice of land was only accessible by a bone jarring drive, which hasn’t changed much in the three years since we secured the land.  What HAS changed is the immense change to the landscape around this desolate piece of land.  What was literally a wasteland, a vast dusty, empty landscape, with our 5 acre piece of land enclosed by a security wall standing alone, is now an explosion of construction.

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This weekend, the students start moving in to the school, built by ISAF.  There is still much to be done, but it does my heart good to see that we were able to facilitate a permanent home for the deaf community and that we can continue to connect those that want to help to ANAD and help them build their capacity, teacher training, and reach their long term educational and outreach goals for the deaf of Afghanistan.  It has been such a pleasure to work in their service in some small way.   We are still raising funds to pay for the wall, something that exceeds Mountain2Mountain’s small annual budget.  Parween hugged me today on the drive to the school, “Shannon without the land, we wouldn’t have a home, without the wall, we would have lost the land.”  The road is long and our goal is to continue to connect them to those that can help them continue forward and build a deaf community for all of Afghanistan.

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Renewable Energy Provides Solutions in Afghanistan

Green technology, renewable energy, sustainable and energy-efficient construction.  These words are still cutting-edge in the West, but they are also integral to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Most have gotten used to the idea that development work and reconstruction means ugly concrete blocks, built for function, not design.  Many more take limited view that technology such as solar and wind power are novelties in a war zone, not necessity.

Yet function, design, and sustainability should be commonplace in development and reconstruction work.   Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a daughter of an architect that makes the above statement resonate so deeply.  Perhaps its the love of the outdoors and tragedy of waste, and short-term, disposable solutions that pollute our environment.  Regardless, its the approach I’d like to see in all development work. Work that most often takes places in countries that have the worst pollution, worst access to electricity, and ugliest construction.

Our goal with all of our projects within Mountain2Mountain is to run a green thread throughout with the intention of partnering with sustainable partners that can help us achieve our goals with sustainable, minimalist impact, especially in a country as ‘impacted’ as Afghanistan.

One of our first partners, GOAL0, has launched an incredible product that addresses renewable energy in a portable package.  Field tested in the Congo on humanitarian projects, they have found ways to provide reliable and portable renewable power sources that eliminate the barriers to progress.   I now use their portable, Sherpa 120, a portable solar panel and power pack when I travel to remote areas, and its small enough to carry in my messenger bag or backpack along with my other necessities.

In supporting our projects, we discovered that we could use one of their other projects, the Scout Explorer Kit, to provide light for our midwives that live in rural village without electricity for nighttime deliveries.   The kit looks like a thin briefcase with a thermos and two lights.  The briefcase is the solar panel and the thermos is the power supply.  The two lights provide adequate light for the midwives to work safely and save lives.  The majority of rural deliveries in Afghanistan are done at home with no birth attendants, medicine, supplies, or light, and consequently Afghanistan suffers from the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.  Mountain2Mountain takes a decentralized approach to the problem with a village-based training program for local women to become skilled birth attendants.  Upon completion, we provide them with a basic birthing kit which includes the Scout to provide a reliable light source for their work.

Our other partner lies in the realm of construction.  Innovida and IHFD partnered to help support the construction of our school for the deaf  in Kabul.  Using Innovida’s innovative green technology in the construction process ensures a quickly built, energy-efficient, and a green alternative to tradition building methods.  They also create a designbuild based on our floorplan so that there is minimal waste of the building materials, but without creating a ‘big box’.

Creating an eyesore that is functional doesn’t inspire.  It doesn’t add value.  It doesn’t show a country its worth as it rebuilds.

IHFD’s use of GeoBricks for our security wall uses a new technology to address the traditional brick and mortar structural needs.  The bricks are energy-efficient, fireproof, non combustible, fireproof, and bulletproof (a useful consideration for a security wall in Afghanistan)  They are also providing solar, wind, and hydro solutions to the electricity issue prevalent in Afghanistan where electricity is still unstable at best, and non-existant in many communities.  Diesel generators run constantly adding to the soot and petrol that permeates every breath you take.

Utilizing the solar, wind, and hydro solutions can provide our projects, and the Afghans sustainable energy for generations to come.  In addition, they are working with Kabul University to set up a renewable energy degree so that future generations of electricians can have the skill set to not only install, but maintain country-wide solar grids.

Function, sustainable power, and design all covered in our approach. As we continue to find partners that can help us solve problems and build schools, it is imperative that we look forward to the future generations that will be affected by what we do now.  Just because Afghanistan has been destroyed over decades of conflict, and needs country-wide rebuilding, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking at all the tools in our arsenal to build energy-efficient and sustainable projects that can endure for generations.

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Land for the Deaf in Kabul

Two years after Mountain 2 Mountain first dedicated itself to working with the deaf populations in Afghanistan, a breakthrough.  Land, glorious land.  Not as easy to come by or inexpensive as you may think in a war torn region like Afghanistan.  In fact its quite expensive, hard to find and even harder to get firm commitments even if you have the cold hard cash to purchase it outright.  Harder still when you are looking for a land donation on which to build a school.   Land is notoriously changing hands, it becomes a game of he who builds first, wins.  There are many stories of land being donated in a village for school, yet in the time it takes to run things past a Board of Directors and in our case, raise the money, someone else may show up with cash in hand and the land is given to them instead.

Its not surprising given the history of broken promises that the Afghans have endured during thirty-five plus years of occupation and conflict.  Reconstruction and education is key to the future of this country, and while M2M is not a building-centric organization, in some cases construction is needed.  In the case of the deaf population a sustainable and permanent structure that could house not only a school but a teacher training program for the future meant that the search must first start for land.

Several avenues were pursued, until finally, last month a second visit with President Karzai yield a solid confirmation of a large parcel of land we visited last fall.   Originally we were told we could have it for the reduced price of $60,000.  Too steep for a small organization such as ourselves.  We held fast, and this March had another meeting and secured the land for the bargain basement price of $0.

Two weeks ago an opening ceremony was held on the parcel of land to celebrate and to officially transfer over the deeds to ANAD – the Afghan National Association of the Deaf.  Government officials attended and cut the ribbon, and engineers marked out the land boundaries and marked with chalk.

Last week a small trench was dug over the chalk to ensure the boundaries didn’t get washed away from rain and wind so that we can make preparations for our next steps.   The immediate step is to raise $10,000 to build a perimeter wall on the boundaries.  This is integral for any institution in Afghanistan for safety and to protect the land demarcation.  The wall and requisite security door ensures safety for the upcoming construction of the school and more importantly for the future safety of the teachers and students.

While the wall is being constructed this summer we’ll be moving forward with design plans and raising the big chunk needed for the school construction.   An estimated $200,000 is needed to build the school and now that we have the land, we are hoping to raise that in a few short months so that construction can start before winter hardens the ground.  No easy task.

Our excitement and commitment  is with ANAD and the deaf children the future school will support!

To read more about the realities facing the deaf in Afghanistan check out our previous blogs:  Silence in Afghanistan and Hearing Literacy.

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Silence in Afghanistan

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Third visit with the Afghanistan National Deaf Association (ANAD) and the school they are running in Kabul.  Not much has changed.  This project may be the most difficult to accomplish – but potentially the most rewarding.

We have been working to acquire land, twice having it fall through or be deemed unacceptable.  The deaf have very few advocates in Afghanistan.  10,000 deaf are estimated, and there are three small schools operating that service close to 1,000.  All three working privately, with donors and partnering with NGO’s to keep running without any governmental support.

This lack of support is frustrating for all concerned, but depressingly highlighted during a visit with representatives of ANAD with current Afghan President, Hamid Karzai a month ago.  The representatives of ANAD are deaf, and as such attended the meeting with a signing translator and a Dari interpreter.  The purpose was to get permission on a parcel of government owned land in Kabul on which to build a school for the deaf.  At an early stage in the meeting, Karzai asked his aide, what are those people doing with their hands?   When it was explained that they were deaf, and that this is how they communicate, he started crying (he is quite emotionally at times like these) and expressing his surprise and shame that he didn’t know there were deaf in Afghanistan.  Shocking and yet, not surprising.

So a parcel of land was offered at a greatly reduced cost for the deaf school.  Paperwork was drawn up, but until money exchanges hands, or the land is built upon, there is the worry that this could be given away to someone else at the drop of a hat.

When I went back to visit ANAD and discuss next steps, the blueprints and paperwork was proudly shown and we piled into a minivan to make the long, bumpy, and dusty ride out to an area of Kabul I’d never seen.  The area is vast and empty, a proverbial desert in the middle of a bustling city.  The land is a large parcel, and would allow for the school, teacher training building, and a small guesthouse.  The main road is on the city’s master plan to be fully paved which would shorten the commute greatly.   We walked the land and discussed possibilities, but the main issue being the land cost.  We are fundraising here to raise money for the school and staff, but the land cost is a hefty curveball.

Despite the continued hard work to secure land, this is a project that is desperately needed.  As Karzai, himself, illustrated, Afghanistan is unaware of its own deaf community.  In fact, I’d venture to say, that there isn’t a deaf community.  Not really.  Not like we see in other countries.  The deaf here are living in silence, with its own government unaware of its very existence.  There is little advocacy for this population, and virtually none outside Kabul and Jalalabad.  The steps forward are more difficult that building schools for girls, women at risk, or teacher training programs.  More difficult even than working in the women’s prisons.  This group cannot communicate without the aid of translators, and there are a handful in the country.  More schools can’t be built until more teachers are found and trained.  The three small schools that are taking students, are working towards communication, not a complete education.  There are gaping holes that need to be filled, and it will take an enormous amount of support, funding, and partnering with the deaf communities outside of Afghanistan to mentor them into developing a viable and thriving community within its borders.   A focus on communication, literacy, and vocation skills are needed immediately while a more comprehensive curriculum can be developed over time and with qualified teachers.

Until then, these children will continue to live in silence.

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Hearing Literacy

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Deaf children around the world deserve the same access to education as their hearing counterparts.  In Afghanistan that is no different.  Yet in a country that struggles to provide adequate access to mainstream education, the deaf are beyond the fringes, despite the hard work of the amazing founder, staff, and volunteers at the Afghanistan National Association of the Deaf (ANAD).  

There are approximately 10,000 deaf children in AFghanistan.   Of these 10,000, approximately 1,000 are being served in Kabul and Jalalabad with rudimentary primary education.  The lack of teachers means that the focus is getting the children literate and competent with Afghan sign language.   The amazing thing is that the Afghan sign language is a work in progress…the language is still developing and its fascinating to be witness to the creation and evolution of a language. 

When we discuss the primary needs for the deaf schools and the deaf community as a whole the picture mirrors that of mainstream education in this country.  Yes, schools are needed.  Yes, materials and sponsorship is needed.  More importantly, for the long term, teacher training and interpreters are needed.  Across the board, those we speak with cite teacher training as the next roadblock to education.  Quality education is lacking and its much more pronounced in the deaf community.

It isn’t enough to provide literacy and sign language if there isn’t also a basic education in math, science, history, and the like.  Literacy on its own doesn’t provide a door for opportunity.  It is simply the first step in the journey.  The first weapon in the arsenal.  If these children are to become self sufficient, and contribute to society, they need to have the same education on offer as their hearing counterparts.  

Now on my return visit, the solution became clearer.  The first step is basic literacy and sign language communication for all of Afghanistan’s 10,000 deaf.  Working in tandem should be the effort to train teachers to provide higher secondary education beyond the fourth or fifth year.   Not only does this improve those students directly affected by further levels of education, it develops a feeder system for a future teacher training pool from the same students first affected.  Creating an opportunity for employment after school in a culture with few opportunities available for the deaf. 

In an effort to tackle the larger question of opportunity beyond teaching, an effort must be made to train interpreters.  This would allow for students to integrate into high school and university should they choose, as well as providing access to opportunities in hearing world unavailable at the present time.    

Despite the broad and challenging picture of the long term needs of Afghanistan’s deaf community, taking the first step is actually very simple.   Literacy, schools, teacher training, all working to grow in tandem to the benefit of all.  In the specific case of the ANAD, and its school of 250 children, its a simple  matter of funding.  They need to build a sustainable school that can house a larger school for more children and space for a teacher training program.   As teachers become trained, model schools can open in the key cities of Afghanistan; Mazar i Sharif, Herat, Bamiyan, and hopefully in the south should security allow.  Each school educating the deaf children, as well as their families and communities.  

Parween, is one of Afghanistan’s biggest advocates for the deaf.  A petite woman, usually wearing a lavender headscarf, with a warm smile, Parween is an amazing woman who works full time with UNESCO and still finds time to play a key role in advocating for and guiding the ANAD and its school forward.  She passionately guided me around on my first ever visit, acting as interpreter, and explaining long term vision of the ANAD and the deaf community as a whole.  This visit she reprised her role as interpreter, taking time away from her family to meet with me after work to brainstorm solutions and where Mountain to Mountain could facilitate ANAD’s desire for a sustainable program for deaf education.   I even received the honor of getting my own sign…a sign that represents my name to speed things along when we are all talking.  

As ANAD, Parween and Mountain to Mountain brainstorm and make plans, it is our hope that the hearing impaired community in our own country will come to embrace Afghanistan’s, and work as a role model for what the deaf community can hope to achieve in the future.

 

photo by Di Zinno

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