WXXI AM News

Deaf refugees overcome language deprivation with help of deaf advocates

Dec 16, 2019

Sangita Kami gives a thumbs up to her instructor at the Deaf Refugee Advocacy center in Rochester where she and her husband Purna Kami take American sign language classes. The deaf couple met in a refugee camp in Bhutan and immigrated to the United States with limited ability to communicate.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI NEWS

Deaf refugees often have histories of being oppressed and marginalized in their nation of origin. Advocates in Rochester have organized to help folks adapt and become self-sufficient here in New York state -- folks like Sangita and Purna Kami.

Sangita Kami has been deaf all her life. Her husband, Purna, says he was born hearing, but became deaf after he fell from a tree when he was 8 years old. 

“I didn’t understand, ‘Now I am deaf.’ It just happened,” Purna says. “I did miss being able to communicate with people. Because people would communicate with me, but I didn’t understand anything they said.”

They are from Bhutan, but they met in a refugee camp in Nepal. It was 1997. They were both in their late teens.

“We met at the School for the Deaf, and we fell in love and, yep, that’s how we met!” Sangita says.

Purna Kami lost his hearing when he fell out of a tree as a child in Bhutan. Purna says he experienced abuse by teachers in a refugee camp while in Nepal because as a deaf person, he couldn’t follow the teachers' instructions.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI NEWS

She and her husband are communicating with WXXI News through a deaf interpreter, who is signing to a hearing interpreter, who is interpreting from American Sign Language to spoken English. 

Growing up in Bhutan, Sangita says that she wasn’t allowed to attend school. The schools were for children who could hear, not for deaf students. Instead, she had to work in the rice fields.

“We had to watch what was done and it was very repetitious. And that’s how we got through life very young,” she says. “That’s how we picked it up. There was no language. No instruction.”

This was when she was about 6 years old. In the fields, she worked alongside women who used some homemade signs.

“There were women who worked amongst us at that time who had some very basic home signs,” she says. “But we did not have a formal language, and of course we couldn't speak. So everything was gestural.” 

Around this time, Bhutan was enforcing a “One Nation, One People” policy that stripped hundreds of thousands of people of their citizenship. That meant that their presence was suddenly made illegal in the country.

Sangita and Purna were kids at the time. Like nearly 100,000 other Bhutanese refugees, they left with their families to Nepal.

It was there that the two met at a School for the Deaf, where they were learning Nepali Sign Language. They got married, had three children, and after about 20 years in the refugee camp, their family emigrated to the United States. It was 2010, and their first time on an airplane.

“I remember feeling horribly nauseous on the airplane. I couldn’t keep any food down during the entire trip. It was horrible,” Sangita says. “It wasn’t a good start because I arrived to America nauseous.”

They landed in Rochester, which has one of the largest deaf populations per capita in the U.S. In Rochester, they met their first American Sign Language, or ASL, interpreter. 

Sangita Kami reviews signs with other deaf refugee classmates at the Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services, where Deaf Refugee Advocacy operates. As a child, Sangita had no means of communication and had to work in the rice fields.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI NEWS

“Once I got here, things started going over my head, and I didn’t understand a lot of the things that were communicated to me," Purna says. "And slowly but surely, being exposed to American Sign Language, I got better at understanding.” 

Later, they met Rob Tawney, who co-founded Deaf Refugee Advocacy in Rochester in 2017. 

The group works with deaf refugees from all over -- Nepal, Somalia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria, for instance.

“In Syria, there was one refugee that we met that had to get, literally, through the bombs of a war and escape out of that,” Tawney says.

In the course of two years, the group has helped about 35 refugees with life skills, ASL classes, and with navigating legal and medical appointments with interpreters. Two interpreters -- one to translate from English to ASL, and a certified deaf interpreter who can break down ASL further for the refugee.

Without that advocacy, Tawney says, deaf refugees were at greater risk of losing custody of their children or becoming homeless. Miscommunication with doctors has also led to health complications.

“We had one refugee who was not improving in health whatsoever, didn’t communicate what he needed, and wasn’t sure about what medicine was, what miligrams were,"  Tawney says. "We had an advocate that got involved and as a result, this person not only improved his understanding of medical needs but his health improved as well. ASL interpreters were not enough because he didn’t understand ASL enough.” 

Rob Tawney is a deaf advocate for refugees. He co-founded Deaf Refugee Advocacy in 2017 in Rochester, NY.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI NEWS

Refugees were also isolated, dependent on family members since they couldn’t communicate, unable to find jobs, and unable to form community ties. Tawney says that domestic violence and substance abuse are also concerns. 

“Lots of immigrants when they come here, they don’t understand the law. They don’t understand their rights,” he says. “And they lived in camps and they depended so much on their family. We had to teach them how to become independent.”

As for Sangita, she says she’s grateful for the opportunities here.

“I wish that there had been more support for deaf people where we were from. But now that we're here we’re like sponges. Imagine a life where you didn’t have education. It was very oppressive where we were from,” she says. “And now in the U.S., it’s an open book.”