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Syrian refugees struggled to communicate until they learned American Sign Language at Ferris High School

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 27, 2017

In a boisterous Ferris High School classroom, Neroz Omar clutches her ears, scrunching her face in discomfort.

It’s loud. About 15 students, most of whom are learning English for the first time, are shouting while playing a game designed to help them master their new language. Omar is happy to participate, but at certain points the noise overwhelms her.

Seven months ago that’s a problem that couldn’t have existed.

Omar, 17, was born deaf, as was her 15-year-old brother, Mohamad, and her 7-year-old sister, Gin, in Syria, the last on the eve of revolution. Fleeing upheaval and violence, first to Turkey, then to the United States, meant the three children never learned a complete language, their education truncated by bloodshed and war.

That’s changing at Ferris High School. Seven months ago the siblings received implants that allow them to hear, though it will take years for the sounds to take on meaning. More immediately, they’re learning American Sign Language. It will be the first comprehensive language they’ve ever learned.

“Can you imagine going 14 or 15 years without being able to communicate with anyone?” said Mandy Manning, their teacher at Ferris. “The first time Mohamad signed a whole sentence in class I cried.”

Learning to talk

Mohamad’s family realized he couldn’t hear when he was two years old, after someone fired a gun during a celebration the family was attending. The toddler didn’t even flinch. Mohamad, like his older sister, had been born deaf.

In Syria, the Omars didn’t attend schools that taught formal sign language, said their mother, Aytan Fares. Instead, the family improvised. The children learned to lip-read some Arabic and had a rudimentary sign language system in their own home. But they never learned a full language.

It’s rare for humans to not be exposed to language, said Mark VanDam, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. VanDam has not met the Omar siblings.

“It can’t be overstated how difficult it is to not have that language, or to have a very rudimentary language,” VanDam said. “I mean, our language is so complex. It’s so useful. It’s not just being able to communicate. It’s being able to be part of a community and being able to be human.”

Instances where children haven’t learned a language often go hand-in-hand with severe abuse. One example: Baby Genie, a California girl who lived until she was 14 years old in near complete isolation locked in a dark bedroom.

Unlike Baby Genie, the Omar siblings have loving and engaged parents who were forced by geopolitical circumstances to flee their home country. In 2011, as the events of the Arab Spring reverberated through the Middle East, Syria devolved into civil war. By 2014 the country had become so dangerous and chaotic that the family fled to Turkey.

In Syria, Neroz Omar had some schooling. She can understand and speak some Arabic. Mohamad didn’t get that exposure. In Turkey, the children had little or no schooling, said Fares.

“It was very difficult for me to see them (at home as) days are passing and they are not learning anything,” she said via an interpreter.

In Turkey, school cost money, funds the family didn’t have, said Khalil Omar, the children’s father.

“The life in Turkey was very difficult,” he said.

“It wasn’t continuous schooling in one location, so that’s why they missed a lot of studying, reading and learning,” Khalil Omar said.

‘Taken off like a rocket’

When the children arrived at Ferris High School, Manning said she didn’t know the severity of their deafness. For several months the two sat in the classroom, largely disconnected from their peers, struggling to understand basic concepts and lessons.

“We were all trying to engage, we were finger spelling, limited sign language type stuff,” said Manning. “Particularly with Mohamad, he gave up easily when he was frustrated.”

Manning, who was named the 2018 Washington State teacher of the year, did what she could and advocated for services for the two. The children began to learn American Sign Language. Simultaneously, Manning started learning ASL herself.

Then, this year, the two children were assigned interpreters to follow them throughout the school day.

Those supports have made huge differences, Manning said. Especially for Mohamad.

“He’s taken off like a rocket,” Manning said. “He’s constantly signing, and he’s interacting with the students. He’s a completely different kid than when he first arrived. Completely different.

“I’m seeing rapid improvement in both of the students in their sign language and the English language proficiency,” Manning said.

As for himself, Mohamad said in an interview that for years he was angry and frustrated because he couldn’t communicate. In a journal entry from when he first came to Spokane, he said he felt “tired and angry” when arriving home from school.

But now, for the first time in his life, he’s able to communicate increasingly complex thoughts, desires and emotions. He can make jokes, pull pranks on his friends and interact in class.

The children’s progress has been aided by newly installed cochlear implants. The devices have their downsides, however. Suddenly being exposed to noise after a lifetime of silence can be overwhelming, as evidenced by Neroz Omar’s discomfort in loud environments. For now, that noise is mostly meaningless. It can take years for the brain to sort out the new auditory impressions, VanDam said.

Melissa Ratsch, an American Sign Language instructor at WSU, doesn’t know the Omar siblings. But based on what she’s been told of their situation, she said their path forward will be difficult.

“It’s definitely going to take longer for them,” she said of spoken language. ASL will likely come more quickly, she added.

Despite the difficulty, she’s optimistic. By being able to hear via their cochlear implants, and to sign at the same time, they can cross-reference objects and activities, thus speeding up the learning process, she said.

And the students are motivated.

“They want to learn,” said Susan Burkart, an interpreter for the siblings. “They are craving that interaction.”

The original version of this story incorrectly stated which year Mandy Manning was named teacher of the year. Manning is the 2018 teacher of the year. The story has been updated.

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