Syrian Sign Language Interpreter Makes Helping the Deaf her Life Issue
Zeina Shahla- Independent Journalist-
Every Tuesday morning, Farah al-Tal and Huda Mohammad arrive in the building of the Literature and Humanitarian Sciences Faculty in Damascus University. They enter one of the halls, and they attend lectures for a master’s degree in sociology for several hours, and in the end of the academic day, they spend some time at the university garden before returning to their homes.
Despite of the special relationship that binds the two girls, it does not seem that their appearance attracts the attention of students or teachers who used to see them together most of the time.
Huda is a deaf girl and Farah is a sign language interpreter, who voluntarily chose to accompany her friend to be a substitute – albeit temporarily – of the sense of hearing for the 20- year-old girl who lost her hearing since childhood.
“I completed my university study two years ago, and today I am the only deaf girl at the master degree,” Huda explained using the sign language while we were sitting at the hall of the library in the faculty, while Farah was translating her signs into spoken words.
It wasn’t difficult to notice the love between them as according to Huda, the presence of a translator is necessary to understand the idioms and the new and difficult concepts, which writing isn’t enough to understand them.
While Farah feels very happy and proud and she invited me to attend the graduation ceremony of Huda at the end of the current year.
“Making this achievement by a deaf person is great for me and her…The deaf people in Syria are my issue,” Farah says.
Society needs communication
Farah al-Tal, 29 years, is one of the few who work as professional translators for sign language today in Syria. The number of deaf and dumb people according to official statistics is about twenty thousand, while some NGOs say that the true number is almost five times larger than the stated figures.
This year, Farah entered the world of sign language with the beginning of her first academic year at the Sciences Faculty in Damascus University. It is a world which has fascinated her since childhood as she used to watch the sign language interpreters at various T.V. news bulletins, and she was amazed by how they have converted spoken words into quick signals without thinking or a moment of pause.
Farah remembers her childhood days, happily recalling it “I fell in love with these signs without knowing exactly what they are, and despite of not knowing any deaf person, and I was able, day after day, to decipher some of them as I started to know what are the signs related to the war, blast, family and other words frequently used in the news. ”
The girl started taking courses to learn sign language, and then translate it professionally, which enabled her to get a closer introduction into the life of the deaf in Syria, which she describes as difficult and full of challenges which some of them have been imposed by the society, and the war which the country has went through over eight years has increased these challenges and difficulties.
One of the most important of these difficulties, says Farah, is the deaf’s lack of suitable communication mechanisms with the environment, starting with the family, then school, and ending with society as a whole.”
“Many families are ignorant of how to deal and communicate with deaf children, especially when the father and mother are among those who can hear,” the girl explains her idea.
She added that this sometimes has catastrophic effects, which may amount to staying most of the time at home, where some parents feel shy of integrating their children with others as the Syrian society often doesn’t accept persons with disabilities, and other families are afraid that children will be exposed to embarrassing or dangerous situations, so they resort to isolating them from the outside environment.
This difficulty in communication extends even to the school, university, and workplaces, with the lack of a suitable educational environment for the deaf, whether inside schools or universities, and the limited number of sign language interpreters, and the lack of educational curricula for their own needs, thus depriving thousands of deaf Syrians of education and work opportunity along with their inability to reach a scientific and practical level equivalent to those who can hear.
More Difficulties throughout the war
Those challenges have rapidly doubled throughout the years of the crisis as Farah explains, as those deaf people who have been isolated have become more isolated, and their affairs no longer constitute any priority in a society where all of its members are suffering under unprecedented social, economic and psychological pressures, especially with the increase in the number of people with motor disabilities and focusing the attention on them, perhaps at the expense of people with other disabilities.
Among these challenges, the interpreter remembers, is the poverty of the sign language dictionary in Syria in general, and the need to update it and add hundreds of new vocabularies, which she strives to work on with other translators.
That need has become clear particularly with the necessity to add war vocabularies, which haven’t been known by the Syrian society before, to the sign language dictionary.
During the battles across Syria, the deaf added some new signs to their dictionary, such as that of a mortar, where the path of the shell is drawn by hand from its launch to its fall and explosion.
When she presented that example, I asked her about the way deaf people deal with various sounds of war, such as shells, missiles, warplanes, and others. Farah answered “They feel the vibration accompanying these sounds, and they only hear them if they are very close and loud. Maybe, that has changed their concept of immediate fear which the hearers feel with various sounds.”
This relative difference in dealing with the concepts accompanying the war, and the inability sometimes to determine the risk have increased the fear of some families about the deaf children who found themselves – as Farah says – trapped at homes and unable to live their lives as they were before the war. Here she remembers how she was afraid about her deaf students and friends during the battles in Damascus, adding that she felt that she is responsible for protecting them due to their inability sometimes to hear the sounds of shells and explosions.
With the Deaf till the End
In addition to her voluntary work at the Deaf Association in Damascus and supervising a number of activities there, Farah al-Tal spends her day between teaching natural sciences – her university specialization – and doing activities related to sign language interpretation and speech-language pathology, whether for her friends who are mostly deaf with whom she feels a great integration, or within various social activities.
In addition to that, Farah today is a second-year student at the Special Education Faculty in Damascus University. She says that she has become accustomed to accompanying the deaf students throughout their academic years at that faculty as she has been responsible for interpreting the educational content and the lectures for them as two years ago she decided to join them to become a student and an interpreter at the same time.
“Although I have never suffered from this disability, I consider that the issue of deaf people in Syria today belongs to me to the fullest extent due to their lack of the appropriate language for communication with society, as well as the retreat in their situation in the recent years, “says the girl who talks enthusiastically about her dreams and aspirations, including her dream to contribute to developing curricula for the deaf, especially with regard to the scientific subjects that need many new vocabularies in sign language.
Farah laughed when I asked her whether she considers herself a role model for other Syrians, saying “All I know is that I have a goal, which I will strive to achieve, despite the difficulties, including my family which doesn’t accept that job too much, ” adding “To see the smile on the face of a deaf child whom I helped to communicate better with those around him, it is the most beautiful reward for me. “