Behind Har Sin’s Story – voiceofsandiego.org: Survival
“I have a family for you,” the resettlement worker told me.”Their situation is a really good example of the struggles thatBurmese families face.”
I’d asked Jen Cordaro to help me find a family whose experiencecould illustrate the day-to-day challenge for Burmese refugees. Morethan 200 families have arrived in San Diego since 2006.
So Cordaro drove me and photographer Sam Hodgson to an agingapartment complex in City Heights, where we talked to a woman namedAh Lee Mar and her husband, Mat Sa Pi. but we were quickly drawn inby 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 refugeecamp having never learned to communicate. when we met him, he waswaiting for a seat in an adult literacy class for the deaf.
Resettlement worker Jen Cordaro plays with Har Sin’s niece, ChoMaya, in the courtyard outside the family’s apartment.
We saw an opportunity to tell the story of a man learninglanguage for the first time in his life. He faced huge obstacles,but his yearning to overcome them was evident in the enthusiasm ofthe simple gestures he used.
We got a hint of his personality during that first visit. Agroup of East Coast-based missionaries knocked on the family’s dooras we sat in the living room. they were compiling an annual reporton their work in City Heights, and asked Har Sin’s family, which isMuslim, to line up in the courtyard for a photo.
Har Sin looked at us, a sly grin on his face, and rolled hiseyes, as if he’d long ago gotten used to the steady stream ofsocial workers, community organizers, and missionaries who find ahaven for their work in City Heights, the gateway to America forthousands 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 lotof time with Har Sin, sometimes a few evenings a week, sometimesjust a single afternoon a week. Perhaps because of our closeness inage, he welcomed our presence.
Har Sin communicates with reporter Adrian Florido outside hisfamily’s apartment complex.
We faced challenges from the beginning. we could hardlycommunicate with him. that meant we couldn’t be certain Har Sinknew we wanted to write about him.
I carried a little yellow notebook. Sam had his camera. Har Sinknew that I was a writer and that Sam was a photographer — thatthose were our jobs. We’d been able to communicate at least thatmuch using improvised gestures. but did he know that when we wereshowing up at his apartment and following him to the park and tohis school, that we were working?
I reconstructed many of the scenes from Har Sin’s past throughinterviews with his family and people who knew him from the refugeecamp. I spoke with them through an interpreter and increasingly onmy own, as their English improved. I spoke with resettlementworkers and volunteers who became a part of Har Sin’s life. and Ispent 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 wewanted 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 toanswer, but that we hoped would clarify themselves over time.
And that is what happened. As Har Sin progressed in his literacyclass, and as we spent more time with him, we developed a morestreamlined way of communicating. we learned basic gestures, likejob and school. we drew pictures, like chickens and trees, and wewrote simple words in my notebook, like food and soccer.
Over the months, communication improved, and there were momentswhen both Sam and I marveled at how quickly Har Sin was improvinghis formal skills.
There were also frequent reminders of the long haul ahead.
One afternoon, we walked into Apartment 7 expecting Har Sin totake us to a nearby park, where we were planning to watch him playsoccer with a group of other young Burmese refugees. we wanted tosee him interact with other people, and to find out how he wastreated among his peers. A few days earlier, before leaving hisapartment, we were sure we’d settled on those plans and had beenimpressed by our ability to decipher his gestures.
We were wrong.
Har Sin had no plans to play soccer with others. He wanted toplay with us.
Har Sin’s athletic prowess is impressive. He does a backflip atBalboa Park as reporter Adrian Florido looks on.
It took five months to get the first definitive confirmation weneeded that Har Sin knew we wanted to write about him. at a deafsocial event in Mission Valley, a woman asked him if we worked forthe “newspaper.” Yes, he said, and we were writing a story abouthim. 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 languagethat we saw Har Sin at his most enthusiastic at having an outletfor his thoughts.
The delight was evident even in moments of misunderstanding. Theevening of our first visit to the coffee shop, Har Sin walked withus into a nearby bookstore. He led us to the sign language section,where he browsed through the picture dictionaries containingEnglish 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 theword “go.” I showed it to him. “This is the word ‘go,’” I said. Helooked. He saw the gesture for “go” and realized he’d made amistake.
But he wasn’t disappointed. He was thrilled. His eyes openedwide and he nodded feverishly. He used his fist to repeat again andagain the gesture for “yes, yes, yes!”
He was ecstatic that I had understood him despite his error, andthat, using the book in his hands, I was able to correct him. Herealized the universality and structure of the tool — language —that he was acquiring. that structure had always been missing inhis life. His attempts to communicate had always been hit andmiss.
Har Sin browses through sign language books at a store inMission Valley.
That moment in the bookstore was one of the most emotional ofthe 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 isfull of new discoveries, new progress. He wants to get a driver’slicense. He wants a job. He wants, perhaps most immediately, agirlfriend.
We still don’t know how much progress Har Sin will make. There’sno doubt it will be a long process, and we don’t know how muchhe’ll be able to learn, how proficient he’ll become atcommunicating, having never learned to do so before.
But we’re looking forward to finding out.
Please contact Adrian Florido directly at email@example.com at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.
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