Deaf refugees in Syracuse work to overcome unique challenges

Resources available in the city to help with language barrier, job placement

It’s a summer afternoon in August, and Hai Nay Htoo is sitting in a classroom. He and a group of peers watch as their instructor at Whole Me, Inc. gives the day’s lesson about job preparation and training. Like many 19-year-olds, Hai is concerned about the future and all that comes with it: making himself employable, becoming independent and finding a job.

Photo: Samantha Mendoza
Maggie Russell, Director of Interpretive Services at Aurora of CNY, stands outside the organization's entrance.

Hai also faces a different set of challenges. He is a deaf refugee who arrived in the U.S. from Burma in 2012.

“It was strange,” Hai signs to an interpreter about his transition to American life. “I didn’t really know anything. Learning ASL (American Sign Language) was hard.”

Hai is one of 1,857 Burmese refugees that have resettled in Syracuse since 2001, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Onondaga Citizens League. The study did not reference the number of deaf or hard of hearing refugees who have relocated to Central New York.

While there isn’t much data available on how many deaf refugees reside in Syracuse, it’s a population that Najah Zaaeed, a mental health specialist at Interfaith Works, one of the three refugee resettlement organizations in Syracuse, said will likely continue to grow.

“I think we’re going to see an increase of individuals suffering from different types of disabilities due to exposure to toxins from weapons in areas of conflict, or hearing loss due to the exposure of bombs.” Zaaeed said

Zaaeed, who has been researching developmental disabilities in the Middle East since 2008, said that often non-developmental disabilities are present in refugees from Iraq, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They add additional challenges to refugees because of the need for interpreters to explain already complex processes like looking for jobs and applying for citizenship.

“It takes time to educate them on what’s available,” Zaaeed said. “One of the challenges is that if they haven’t learned the English language prior to arriving in the U.S., there are language barriers.”

Zaaeed explained that when deaf refugees first arrive at Interfaith Works, they are assigned to a case manager, who re-tests their hearing levels and assesses their needs in order to find the best resource available for them.Whole Me, a non-profit deaf service provider that was founded in 2003, is one of the organizations that services this community.

Michael Ruf, the transitions coordinator and mentor for the “Summer Works” program at Whole Me that Hai is enrolled in, said that in the past five or six years he has seen an influx of deaf refugees seeking the organization’s services.

“The challenges that these kids face is even more than a normal deaf individual who’s born in America would,” Ruf said. “Sign language is not universal. They’re learning English, they’re learning ASL, they’re learning a new’s overwhelming.”

Ruf said Hai has made significant progress in his ability to express himself since he first enrolled in Whole Me’s program two years ago. He added that many deaf refugees who settle in the area aren’t always aware of the resources available to them.

“When you come into a community like Syracuse, there is an established deaf community, but they don’t necessarily have contact with the refugees who are deaf,” Ruf said. “They don’t know about them.”

As this population continues to seek resources, Aurora of Central New York, a nonprofit that advocates for and provides services to the deaf and blind, locates and identifies deaf refugees who have not yet been connected with the deaf community.

Maggie Russell, the organization’ s director of interpretive services since 2005, said that her staff has identified at least 50 deaf Nepalese refugees over the past four years by door-to-door knocking.

The Supplemental Securities Income, or SSI, provides benefits to disabled individuals who have limited income. Russell said that she sees instances of resettlement agencies not recognizing that a deaf individual’s family members cannot properly communicate with them and are not connecting them to the resources they need, such as ASL courses and job training.

“What we’ve been finding is they’re leaning on their hearing family members. The hearing family members are getting an SSI check, so they’re getting some monetary value of having deaf family members,” Russell said. “And the deaf want to break free. They have their own language and their family might not see them as intelligent.”

Russell has been attempting to collaborate with the three resettlement agencies for the past two years to establish concrete programs that will help deaf refugees access the resources they need to be independent.

“They want to work. They don’t want to sit down and collect SSI,” Russell says. “But without language, they’re very limited. The city could recognize that there’s this population of people and advocate for programs that would specifically service them.”

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