“I have a family for you,” the resettlement worker told me. “Their situation is a really good example of the struggles that Burmese families face.”
I’d asked Jen Cordaro to help me find a family whose experience could illustrate the day-to-day challenge for Burmese refugees. More than 200 families have arrived in San Diego since 2006.
So Cordaro drove me and photographer Sam Hodgson to an aging apartment complex in City Heights, where we talked to a woman named Ah Lee Mar and her husband, Mat Sa Pi. But we were quickly drawn in by a young man sitting nearby, who though deaf and unable to speak, somehow managed to talk to us with his eyes.
Cordaro told us about Har Sin, who’d grown up deaf in a refugee camp having never learned to communicate. When we met him, he was waiting for a seat in an adult literacy class for the deaf.
|Resettlement worker Jen Cordaro plays with Har Sin’s niece, Cho Maya, in the courtyard outside the family’s apartment.|
We saw an opportunity to tell the story of a man learning language for the first time in his life. He faced huge obstacles, but his yearning to overcome them was evident in the enthusiasm of the simple gestures he used.
We got a hint of his personality during that first visit. A group of East Coast-based missionaries knocked on the family’s door as we sat in the living room. They were compiling an annual report on their work in City Heights, and asked Har Sin’s family, which is Muslim, to line up in the courtyard for a photo.
Har Sin looked at us, a sly grin on his face, and rolled his eyes, as if he’d long ago gotten used to the steady stream of social workers, community organizers, and missionaries who find a haven for their work in City Heights, the gateway to America for thousands of refugees each year.
Sam and I quickly realized we wanted to tell Har Sin’s story, and we shifted our focus. Over the next six months, we spent a lot of time with Har Sin, sometimes a few evenings a week, sometimes just a single afternoon a week. Perhaps because of our closeness in age, he welcomed our presence.
|Har Sin communicates with reporter Adrian Florido outside his family’s apartment complex.|
We faced challenges from the beginning. We could hardly communicate with him. That meant we couldn’t be certain Har Sin knew we wanted to write about him.
I carried a little yellow notebook. Sam had his camera. Har Sin knew that I was a writer and that Sam was a photographer — that those were our jobs. We’d been able to communicate at least that much using improvised gestures. But did he know that when we were showing up at his apartment and following him to the park and to his school, that we were working?
I reconstructed many of the scenes from Har Sin’s past through interviews with his family and people who knew him from the refugee camp. I spoke with them through an interpreter and increasingly on my own, as their English improved. I spoke with resettlement workers and volunteers who became a part of Har Sin’s life. And I spent many hours trying to communicate with Har Sin himself.
That was the most difficult. Early on, we’d sat down with him, opened a newspaper, and tried to get him to understand that we wanted to put him in the newspaper (we didn’t try, at that point, to convey the nuances of online versus print).
We weren’t convinced he understood.
The situation raised questions we initially didn’t know how to answer, but that we hoped would clarify themselves over time.
And that is what happened. As Har Sin progressed in his literacy class, and as we spent more time with him, we developed a more streamlined way of communicating. We learned basic gestures, like job and school. We drew pictures, like chickens and trees, and we wrote simple words in my notebook, like food and soccer.
Over the months, communication improved, and there were moments when both Sam and I marveled at how quickly Har Sin was improving his formal skills.
There were also frequent reminders of the long haul ahead.
One afternoon, we walked into Apartment 7 expecting Har Sin to take us to a nearby park, where we were planning to watch him play soccer with a group of other young Burmese refugees. We wanted to see him interact with other people, and to find out how he was treated among his peers. A few days earlier, before leaving his apartment, we were sure we’d settled on those plans and had been impressed by our ability to decipher his gestures.
We were wrong.
Har Sin had no plans to play soccer with others. He wanted to play with us.
|Har Sin’s athletic prowess is impressive. He does a backflip at Balboa Park as reporter Adrian Florido looks on.|
It took five months to get the first definitive confirmation we needed that Har Sin knew we wanted to write about him. At a deaf social event in Mission Valley, a woman asked him if we worked for the “newspaper.” Yes, he said, and we were writing a story about him. A second woman, who had hearing but also spoke sign language, interpreted his gestures. He understood, and so did we.
It was in those moments around other speakers of sign language that we saw Har Sin at his most enthusiastic at having an outlet for his thoughts.
The delight was evident even in moments of misunderstanding. The evening of our first visit to the coffee shop, Har Sin walked with us into a nearby bookstore. He led us to the sign language section, where he browsed through the picture dictionaries containing English words and their American Sign Language equivalents.
He came across a word whose gesture resembled the one for “go,” a word he’d learned. But the word he’d found meant something else. He showed it to me, and explained in gestures that the word meant “go,” just like we had “gone” to the coffee shop that evening.
No, I said. I took the dictionary from him, and flipped to the word “go.” I showed it to him. “This is the word ‘go,'” I said. He looked. He saw the gesture for “go” and realized he’d made a mistake.
But he wasn’t disappointed. He was thrilled. His eyes opened wide and he nodded feverishly. He used his fist to repeat again and again the gesture for “yes, yes, yes!”
He was ecstatic that I had understood him despite his error, and that, using the book in his hands, I was able to correct him. He realized the universality and structure of the tool — language — that he was acquiring. That structure had always been missing in his life. His attempts to communicate had always been hit and miss.
|Har Sin browses through sign language books at a store in Mission Valley.|
That moment in the bookstore was one of the most emotional of the many we shared with him.
The thrill of communicating, of knowing he could do so formally, had not worn off nine months after he’d first learned he could.
In the months ahead, we’ll continue checking in with Har Sin, and updating you on the milestones in his journey. Every day is full of new discoveries, new progress. He wants to get a driver’s license. He wants a job. He wants, perhaps most immediately, a girlfriend.
We still don’t know how much progress Har Sin will make. There’s no doubt it will be a long process, and we don’t know how much he’ll be able to learn, how proficient he’ll become at communicating, having never learned to do so before.
But we’re looking forward to finding out.