Part I of II
In the City Heights apartment’s dull, pre-dusk light, a worn second-hand couch creaks under the pressure of a little girl jumping on it. Her mother scolds her from the kitchen, where she is slicing off a fish’s head.
Children from neighboring units chase each other through the open front door, past a young man on the carpet, and then back out. The children, almost two dozen of them, some snot-nosed, some barefoot, squeal in Burmese and Nepali, Spanish and Swahili. In the concrete courtyard outside, they laugh as they jump to catch soap bubbles.
One appears in the doorway, a bubble wand in his hand, and pokes an inquisitive nose inside. The woman with the knife shouts something in Burmese, and the boy scurries off, yelping like a hyena.
The woman named Ah Lee Mar shakes her head, laughing. “Too many baby,” she says.
In the next room, the young man sits, his expression empty. He leans his slender frame against a dirt-smudged living room wall, one leg outstretched, one knee bent up to his broad chin in a half fetal pose. His eyes are fixed on his kneecap.
His name is Har Sin, and he is Ah Lee Mar’s brother. He is 24, but he appears lost in the thoughts of a much older man — thoughts that at times he yearns to express.
But he can’t, except with the emotion in his big brown eyes, or the inquisitive wrinkles in his forehead, or the melodramatic toss of his head when he laughs a voiceless laugh.
Each dusk, an eclectic cacophony envelops this dense Mid City apartment complex — whacks, laughter, yelps, children’s squeals. The sounds are the nightly soundtrack of community in one of the many refugee enclaves of City Heights.
Har Sin cannot hear that soundtrack. Two years ago, when he arrived in the United States, he dreamed he might. But he is deaf. So as the whacks and laughs and squeals resonate around him, Har Sin sits on the carpet, leaning against the once-white living room wall of Apartment 7, and imagines what it all must sound like.
|Outside his family’s apartment, refugee children are always at play,
letting out screeches and hollers that Har Sin cannot hear.
Har Sin has lived a life without language, a life without words.
For two decades, his attempts at conversation have been met by blank stares and misunderstanding. Throughout his life, he’s been able to convey only simple concepts. As an adult, more complex interactions — flirting, joking, boasting — have so often ended with a frustrated shake of his head, trapped by his own limits.
He grew up in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, where an oppressive military regime and feuding ethnic groups forced millions to flee to neighboring countries. Har Sin’s family was poor, and he never went to school. He never learned to read. He never learned to write or to speak.
Beyond a few rudimentary hand gestures — eat, drink, walk, go — he never learned to formally communicate.
The slender 24-year-old was boxed in and brushed off by people who assumed his disability made him forever dependent. All fostered by their belief that the deaf child, then teen, then adult, could never stand on his own, hold down a job or find a girlfriend. He didn’t share that belief — look at his eager eyes — but it defined him anyway.
|Har Sin gets ready to leave Apartment 7.|
The scars behind his ears suggest why Har Sin is deaf, but even his family is not certain when he lost his hearing. He had surgery when he was 3, his sister remembers, because as a toddler, he had persistent ear infections. He cried a lot.
His mother, who had coddled him, died when he was a child. His sister took responsibility for his upbringing. When men with guns showed up at their rural home and forced them out in the late 1990s, they had no choice. They fled to neighboring Thailand, where they lived for nine years in a teeming refugee camp on the Burmese border.
While children around him went to school, Har Sin stayed home. There was no school for the deaf in Burma or the camp. No one to teach the deaf child.
Har Sin never saw sign language. He never knew there was a way for someone like him to communicate with the world around him. He never imagined he could convey those complex emotions that are only hinted at in his expressive eyes — about how he felt, what he feared, what his dreams were — to anyone but himself.
He assumed he was alone.
In the summer of 2008, the family of eight Burmese refugees arrived in San Diego, their new home.
Har Sin was 22. He moved into a threadbare City Heights apartment with his sister, her husband, Mat Sa Pi, and their five children. Paint was peeling from the wooden front door. The family of eight slept on four mattresses in two small, dimly lit bedrooms.
Still, their new home was far better than the camp they left behind. There, unpaved roads turned to mud when it rained. The stench of sewage hung in the air. Soldiers patrolled the fenced perimeters with rifles, under orders to contain the Burmese inside.
Har Sin and his family were not welcomed in Thailand. But returning to Burma, to risk their lives under a brutal military regime, was out of the question. They had fled decades of war between rival ethnic groups and political factions. They could not go back.
Hope for a better life came when Har Sin’s family was granted admission to the United States as refugees.
An apartment in the United States, where Ah Lee Mar’s children could go to school, where she and Mat Sa Pi could work, sounded far better than any life they could hope to lead as a caged, stateless family.
|In his family’s living room, Har Sin interacts with his sister Ah Lee Mar and her
husband, Mat Sa Pi, who understand his homemade hand gestures.
Har Sin was most eager of all.
He thought they could fix his ears.
When he first arrived, Har Sin, like all refugees, was eligible for eight months of federal aid. Each month, he got a check in the mail, a temporary source of income to help him get through the difficult transition all refugees face integrating into a society they do not know.
The adjustment was a challenge for his family. It was all but impossible for Har Sin.
A year after arriving, his cash aid had run out. His formal connection to the resettlement agency had been cut. But he hadn’t signed up for programs that could’ve helped, like disability insurance or deaf social services.
Resettlement agencies aren’t required to sign clients up for those programs, and overburdened caseworkers often can’t provide more than the basic services the agencies are required to by law.
So Har Sin languished with no certain future. Though no longer contained by the walls of the refugee camp, his lack of language presented a barrier equally daunting. He could not find a job or learn to drive. He stayed home when his sister and her husband went to English classes nearby. He watched as his young nieces and nephew enrolled in school and picked up English with ease.
He found respite only in the evenings, when he and his 19-year-old nephew went to a nearby park to play sepak takraw with other refugees from Burma. The game is like volleyball, but played with the feet, and Har Sin was widely recognized by the other young men as one of the most focused, agile players. In those fleeting moments, he didn’t need language.
|At a City Heights park, Har Sin prepares to play sepak takraw. He meets here with
a group of friends. Some of them know him from their days together in the Thai
The unwavering concentration in his eyes. The almost cocky strut in his step when he returned a spike. The sideways glances he gave teammates for giving up a point. His expressions said more than words could.
It was at the park that Har Sin found one of his most meaningful connections to other people — where he interacted with peers not through language, but through sport, and where he displayed that, on the field at least, his disability was irrelevant.
But then he’d return home, to his family’s dull City Heights apartment. Once hopeful he might hear, by the summer of 2009, Har Sin was still silently idling within the walls of Apartment 7.
He had fallen through the cracks, alone in his quiet.
One summer day last year, Jen Cordaro, a blonde-haired 26-year-old with the matter-of-fact air of someone out to save the world, knocked on the peeling front door of Apartment 7.
Cordaro was a community organizer at the agency that first settled Har Sin’s family into its new apartment. Her job was to help the small but growing community of Burmese refugees in San Diego find each other and create a support network.
On that day, Cordaro had volunteered to drive Har Sin to a doctor’s appointment.
Cordaro stepped into the apartment’s dim light. There stood Har Sin. She extended her hand and introduced herself. Har Sin smiled cautiously and shook her hand, but said nothing.
She asked his family if he was receiving services for the deaf. They said no. Back at her office, she asked her colleagues. They said no, too.
Cordaro couldn’t believe it.
Har Sin didn’t know where Cordaro was taking him, but he was happy to go along for the ride.
It was late last year. Cordaro had discovered that Har Sin needed a hearing test to prove he was deaf to qualify for government-funded schooling for the hearing-impaired. He had lived in San Diego more than a year, but hadn’t had his hearing checked.
She drove him to Dietsch’s Hearing Aid Center in North Park, where they were greeted by Willena Beyer, a tall, sturdy woman with a shock of short-cropped white hair and a deep, mellow voice that would put many of her patients at ease, if only they could hear it.
She led Har Sin through a narrow hallway into a small room containing a bulking soundproof chamber. A framed drawing of the human ear was propped on a shelf behind him. Beyer placed a heavy headset snug over his ears and handed him a button to click.
Cordaro used her hands to explain. She pointed to her ears, then to the clicker, telling him to press the button each time he heard a sound. Do you understand?
He nodded. Beyer closed the door and sealed it shut. Har Sin stared at the carpet wall in front of him.
Beyer sat down at a blinking instrument panel. She turned a knob controlling the hearing level and set it at 40 decibels, the volume of a whisper in a library.
She pressed the button labeled “stimulus.”
Inside the chamber, three beeps went unheard.
Har Sin did not press the button. The “response” light on Beyer’s panel did not flash green.
She increased the decibel level to 50, about the volume of a normal conversation with a friend standing a few feet away.
Beep, beep, beep. No response.
And then 60 decibels. No response.
Then 70 decibels … 80 … the volume of a loud telephone dial tone … no response.
Exposed to 85 decibels of sound, the human ear begins to feel discomfort.
And 90 … 100 … the volume of a speeding subway train pulling into a station … and nothing. At 100 decibels, sustained exposure can lead to hearing loss.
At 110 decibels, the volume starts to hurt, it starts to shake you.
The headphones blared 110 decibels. Har Sin sat in the chamber, looking at Beyer through a small window as if a power saw was not roaring and churning three feet from his ear — and did nothing.
Beyer ended the test. Har Sin had not responded at any decibel level. He was totally deaf.
She opened up the chamber door, and Har Sin stepped outside.
He looked at Cordaro. He gave her a thumbs-up and raised his eyebrows. He was asking if the test had gone well.
Cordaro pointed her thumb toward the floor. No.
Har Sin threw up his hands.
He went home and told his sister he wanted to die.
Weeks later, necessary paperwork in hand, Cordaro drove Har Sin to a three-story glass building in Hillcrest.
As she parked, Har Sin looked at her with upturned palms.
Where are we going?
Cordaro pointed to her chest, then to her eye, then to Har Sin.
I have something to show you.
They took the elevator to the third floor, which opened into an office with a glass wall adorned with the words, “Deaf Community Services.”
The words meant nothing to Har Sin.
Cordaro approached the reception counter and explained that she was there with Har Sin, a deaf refugee from Burma who had never learned formal communication. Not in Burmese, not in English, not in any language. He would have to start from nothing. A blank slate.
As she spoke, a pair of men walked into the office. They were doing something with their hands. Har Sin turned to look at them. He tapped Cordaro on the shoulder.
Look at those guys. What are they doing?
They appeared to be gesturing. Were they? They looked like the gestures he used with his sister — the ones he had made up. The ones she understood.
But these were so much more complex. More graceful. The men seemed to understand each other. They reacted and responded to each other. Were they talking with their hands?
Har Sin’s eyes grew wide. Emotion rushed to his face.
Cordaro thought he was going to cry.
In that instant, Har Sin made a realization. For all his life, he had thought he was alone in his disability. He had thought someone like him, without hearing, was doomed to a life of isolation, frustration, loneliness. A life of never being able to turn a complex idea into words. He never dreamed that a language requiring no speech and no hearing might exist.
Why would it? He thought escaping the refugee camp and moving to the United States — fixing his ears — was his only hope for living a semblance of a normal life. In an office in Hillcrest on a cool December day, all that changed.
Cordaro pointed at the two men, then at Har Sin.
Do you want to learn?
He nodded, his eyes still wide with disbelief.