A Refugee's Silent Journey, Revisited - Voice of San Diego

City Heights UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

A Refugee's Silent Journey, Revisited

We check in with Har Sin, a 25-year-old deaf refugee who is
learning to formally communicate for the first time in his life.
Since we profiled him a year ago, he’s made remarkable progress.
But hurdles remain.

 

The young man from Burma stepped onto the crowded coffee shop patio. His high-tops complemented his playful swagger. He worked through the crowd, speaking with friends he knew from school and strangers he’d never met, offering high-fives and hugs.

The young man, named Har Sin, was deaf. So were many of the people on the patio. The diverse group of students and professionals gathers at the cafe every Friday night to mingle and socialize in sign language.

If there’s one thing the coffee shop’s Friday regulars have learned about the young man named Har Sin, it’s that he loves to talk.

On a recent Friday, the patio buzzed with lively conversations. Har Sin’s hand gestures were excited and dramatic. He was frenetic at times, a firecracker in a sea of sparklers.

But those who know Har Sin for his outsized personality also know this: his hands still limit him.

Har Sin is 25 and has been deaf his whole life. He’s only been learning to sign since last year. Before then, he’d never even heard of sign language. He didn’t know deaf people like him could formally communicate.

Har Sin spent his childhood in a Burmese village, fled war for a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand as a teen, and spent nine years there before the U.S. State Department allowed him and his family to move to San Diego as refugees in 2008. Because he was deaf, he’d never been to school. He had grown up unable to hear or speak. He never learned to read or write. He could only communicate simple messages with basic hand gestures, often unsuccessfully.

He arrived in San Diego longing to hear. His family knew Har Sin thought American doctors could fix his ears. But expensive tests and surgeries were out of reach. The workers who helped his family resettle in San Diego were overloaded with other cases and responsible for basic things like finding an apartment and signing them up for welfare. His family hardly spoke English. Har Sin didn’t have much help. He lived a mostly isolated life. His future seemed lonely and grim.

But in late 2009, a young social worker charged with helping San Diego’s growing community of Burmese refugees stumbled across his family. She stepped into their small City Heights apartment and changed the course of Har Sin’s life.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Har Sin is still wildly enthusiastic about learning language. He points excitedly when he’s communicated an idea effectively to someone else.

 

She took him to Deaf Community Services, a school in Hillcrest. Standing in the lobby there, Har Sin saw two students speaking sign language. It was a moment of bewildering realization. He saw that they were deaf, and that they were communicating. His eyes were like saucers. He wanted to learn.

Last year, we spent six months following Har Sin as he began his unlikely journey to formally communicate. We published a two-part series last October documenting his early struggles and efforts to overcome them.

Early on, he had trouble finger-spelling the alphabet in American Sign Language and hesitated when introducing himself to other deaf people. As we watched during those six months, he gradually learned to have very basic conversations. Still, it wasn’t clear how much progress he’d make. He was an adult learning from scratch what most people begin as toddlers.

Har Sin doesn’t drive, but he enjoys going to deaf social events. So on a recent Friday, I drove him to the deaf coffee night, one of the few opportunities he has outside of school to interact with other deaf people. It was the third straight week we’d gone together.

There he was, working the crowd, talking about soccer, about dancing, about his past, making people laugh. Some students asked him to slow down because he signed too quickly for them to keep up. Har Sin was communicating.

But every so often, he’d hit a snag, a reminder of his limitations.

♦♦♦

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Har Sin jokes around with his friend Davi Yelton on the patio of a Mission Valley coffee shop. Yelton met Har Sin at his school, Deaf Community Services, and though they’ve known each other only a short time, Har Sin treats him as a dear friend.

 

When we arrived that third week, Har Sin was bounding with anticipation. He scanned the crowd. He had something on his mind.

He was looking for a young, pretty woman with brown hair he’d spoken with the week before. She’d been so charmed by his playfulness that she’d thrown her arm around him and snapped a picture with her cell phone. He’d struck a valiant pose. After she left, he’d formed his hands into the shape of a heart.

Har Sin had been waiting all week to see her again, but when he arrived, she wasn’t there. Instead he spotted Davi Yelton, a friend who volunteered at his deaf school.

He sneaked up on Yelton from behind and wrapped his arms around his torso. Yelton, a tall man, lit up with a smile.

The girl from last week, Har Sin said, in sign. Where is she?

She’s not coming.

Yes! Har Sin said.

No!

Yelton remembered that the young woman had come to the deaf event for a class requirement, but she wasn’t a regular. She had cheerleading practice most Friday nights, she’d said. Har Sin hadn’t picked up on that.

Yelton explained, using slow, deliberate gestures.

Har Sin threw his hands up in a melodramatic show of disappointment. He finally understood.

The week before, his conversation had seemed so effortless. He’d nodded vigorously. You would never have known he wasn’t understanding.

But his conversation with Yelton a week later made it clear that he’d missed some critical context.

“Sometimes,” Yelton later said in an email, “I will notice Har Sin nods his head letting the other person know he understands. But sometimes I will ask him if he really understood, or he will come to me and ask me to clear it up.”

“He still has a long ways to go.”

♦♦♦

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Har Sin has made remarkable progress with language and moves through rooms with an air of confidence. Still, he has challenges ahead: Finding a job and his own way in San Diego.

 

Har Sin’s attempts to communicate often end with an exasperated shake of the head. But he finds more joy than defeat in the challenge.

Though he’s been studying sign language for a year and a half, his eagerness hasn’t faded. The hitches make the triumphs sweeter. He gets giddy when he realizes he’s been understood, as if the very concept of communication is still a wonder to him.

Yes! Yes! Yes! he’ll exclaim, almost trembling, the gesture resembling a fist knocking on a door.

His zeal is infectious, and at the deaf coffee nights I took him to, a small crowd often formed around him as he bantered with friends and strangers.

He spoke in sweeping gestures and with facial expressions that swung so dramatically between determination, playfulness, suspicion and wide-eyed amazement that a woman beamed while watching him one Friday night, amazed at his energy.

He has come a long way from his days living in a refugee camp, where this would’ve been impossible.

Still, Jed Gallimore, his teacher at Deaf Community Services, said while Har Sin has made great strides, he has only mastered a beginner’s proficiency in sign language and only knows written English at a first-grade level.

When Har Sin finishes his two-year program in April, he’ll likely have reached a second-grade level, and research shows it can take five to seven years before someone like him can become English proficient.

“It’s not an easy road,” Gallimore said through a sign language interpreter.

After graduating, students in Har Sin’s program can continue refining their English skills and eventually enroll in a local community college. Or they can get help from a local nonprofit to find a job in a grocery store, or train for a trade career like hair styling or auto repair.

Har Sin isn’t sure what he wants to do. He’s never planned for the future, and now, his ambitions and thoughts about it seem to expand as his vocabulary does.

Through an interpreter, he pondered several career options.

“I can be a bagger at a grocery store,” he said. He opened his palms and moved them up and down, like the pans on a balance scale. “Maybe.”

“I can work at a deaf school. Be the principal,” he said. “Maybe.”

“I can be a bartender,” he said. “Maybe.”

One thing he was sure of.

“I want to study more,” he said. “Get better.”

Like the other students in his program — deaf adult immigrants who never learned to formally communicate in their home countries — he’ll always face challenges, Gallimore said.

But motivation is also key, he said. Har Sin has plenty.

♦♦♦

Photo by Sam Hodgson
In his home in City Heights, Har Sin’s niece Cho Maya leaps into his arms. Har Sin and the three young children who live in the City Heights apartment are picking up on a myriad of cultural norms, as they learn about American culture in their schools.

 

On a recent Friday, Har Sin tucked the hems of his pant legs into his high-tops before leaving his family’s apartment.

He wore skinny jeans and a fashionable mullet he was proud of. He was ready for a night out.

His sister stayed inside with her three younger children and her two older sons, aged 20 and 22. They’re friendly and welcoming. But they often stay at home, highlighting an ironic twist in Har Sin’s coming-of-age story.

The three youngest children are in elementary school and speak English well. But the adults in the house are having a harder time adjusting to life here. They have trouble communicating outside of Burmese and are shy about their imperfect English. They’re less eager to venture out beyond their immediate community of Burmese friends and neighbors, as Har Sin has done.

But for Har Sin, the opposite is true. Here, in this new country, he now communicates better than he ever could before. He strives to get out often and to be around other deaf people, to be part of a community, to embrace American customs.

He’s scoured swap meets to amass a hipster’s wardrobe. Burmese women often put a thick yellowish powder called thanaka on their faces as makeup. On Halloween, Har Sin borrowed his sister’s and painted stripes on his face with it, then stumbled around imitating a zombie. He spends hours on Facebook, leaving messages like this one for Jen Cordaro, the social worker who helped him enroll in classes: “school sign good I happy I love you Hi!”

Though Har Sin’s journey has been punctuated by hurdles, it’s been defined by thrills.

“His sign language is improving at rapid rates,” Gallimore said. “He’s reaching that intermediate level. If he continues socializing the way he is, going to coffee and deaf events, his level will continue to develop very fast.”

In Burma and in Thailand, Har Sin was isolated, lacking stimulation or prospects for learning. When he arrived in San Diego, he had a blank slate. One he was eager to fill.

He just needed a little help.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Har Sin withdraws cash from a City Heights ATM. Since arriving in the United States in 2008, he’s taken on many American customs and styles.

 

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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