The young man walked into Apartment 7 with his characteristic swagger.

He looked at me and gestured.

Where have you been, he asked with his hands.

I made the American Sign Language symbol for “job.” I wanted to explain how busy life had been — the personal and professional reasons that had kept me from stopping by his house for so long. I hoped that one word — one of the only sign language symbols I knew — would suffice.

He shrugged his shoulders and waved me back to his room. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen Har Sin, a refugee from Burma. But his nonchalance about my arrival made it feel like I had just seen him yesterday.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Har Sin came to the United States deaf, hoping that someone could fix his hearing. It took a year for him to discover that the damage to his ears was irreparable. Soon after, a resettlement worker enrolled Har Sin in sign language classes.

In 2010, Adrian Florido and I chronicled Har Sin’s journey learning to communicate for the first time. We revisited him recently and found that while Har Sin has made a lot of progress with his communication, and is as lively as ever, he still has a long way to go to achieve his goals.

As I photographed Har Sin, I saw many similar moments unfold, both at home and as we traveled to a sign language meet-up at a coffee shop in Mission Valley.

I paired some images from 2010 with the moments from this year, to look at what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in the life of the young refugee man.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Har Sin still lives in Apartment 7 along with his sister, her husband and their five children. In 2010, before leaving the house, Har Sin received a hug from his niece Cho Maya, which he met with reservation. In October, she leapt into his arms and he hugged her with enthusiasm.

 

 

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Throughout the week, Har Sin takes a bus from City Heights to Hillcrest to study sign language at Deaf Community Services. He still doesn’t have a driver’s license, but loves getting out of his house. This October, Har Sin rides in reporter Florido’s car to a sign language meet-up in Mission Valley.

 

 

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Har Sin has been quick to adopt much of American culture. In his City Heights apartment in 2010, Har Sin watches an episode of American Gladiators. This October, he withdraws cash from his local Bank of America branch.

 

 

Photo by Sam Hodgson
The young children in Har Sin’s apartment complex are just as full of life as ever. Unlike their elders, they have little or no recollection of life in a refugee camp or the war in their home country. In and around Apartment 7, they enjoy the simple pleasures of childhood.

 

 

Photo by Sam Hodgson
In 2010, at a sign language meet-up in Mission Valley, Har Sin couldn’t find his friends and was often reluctant to start conversation with others. In October, he still searched for a regular group of friends, but also broke out and regularly met new ones.

 

 

Photo by Sam Hodgson
If there’s one thing that’s consistent in Har Sin’s life, it’s his enthusiasm for learning. When he reaches an understanding with someone, he points excitedly and grins widely.

 

 

Photo by Sam Hodgson
When we first met Har Sin, he had just received his first American Sign Language textbook and fumbled through the alphabet. Today, he has friends like Davi Yelton, who he can communicate with effectively. “He still has a long ways to go,” Yelton said. But the conversations the two engage in would never have been possible before.

 

Note: The idea for these diptychs is inspired by Melissa Lyttle at the St. Petersburg Times. Earlier this year, she revisited “The Girl in the Window,” a story about a “feral child” named Dani, who was left in a closet for years, inhibiting her development as a child. When Lyttle followed up, she noticed many similar moments between the photos today and the photos three years prior.

I’m a photojournalist at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact me directly at sam.hodgson@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5664.

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    This article relates to: City Heights, Community, Investigations

    Written by Sam Hodgson

    Sam Hodgson is a freelance photojournalist and contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can contact him at samhodgsonphoto@gmail.com and check out his work on his website: http://www.samhodgsonphotography.com/singles.

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