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The Lost Deaf Men (and Women) of Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—The men (and occasionally, a woman) show up at the entrance of Deaf Development Programme, standing uncertainly by the corrugated steel gate, downcast eyes on their feet, as the person who brought them to DDP speaks to the elderly guard at the painted wooden desk just inside. They are often picked up from the streets, mostly by the riverside, by a good Samaritan who then bundles them into a tuk-tuk to bring them to DDP.

Other times, they are sent to DDP by organizations in Phnom Penh, such as LICADHO, a human rights NGO, who found two young deaf men in one of Phnom Penh’s notorious police-run detention, or rather, “re-education” centers, after one of the street-sweeping campaigns conducted on a regular basis by the government to “beautify” Phnom Penh. However these people find their way to DDP, they don’t know their names, where they came from, or where they can find their families. They arrive not being able to write in Khmer and without a signed language.

Kosal was given his name when he arrived at DDP from an "re-education" center after being swept up off the streets by a "beautification" campaign ahead of an ASEAN summit. He doesn't know his name or where his family lives. Do you know who this man is?
Kosal was given his name when he arrived at DDP from a “re-education” center after being swept off the streets by a “beautification” campaign ahead of an ASEAN summit. He doesn’t know his name or where his family lives. Do you know who this man is? DDP is still trying to find out who he really is. All we know is he likes food and cameras, especially mine. He understands sign language but prefers not to respond. Photograph by Erin Moriarty Harrelson.

On an annual basis, DDP takes out an advertisement in the newspaper with their photographs, somber faces peering out, “Do you know who this is? Where are their families?”

Very few of these students find their way home, but when it happens, it is by serendipity. One successful reunion happened after a family heard a radio advertisement about their daughter, who had walked away from her home after an argument with her brother. They went to the police station and the police led them to DDP where she had been living for a few days.

In 2010, a twenty-year old deaf man, Ra, and his older hearing brother migrated to Phnom Penh in search of labor to support their family in the provinces. After they arrived in Phnom Penh, they became separated in a crowd. Ra, totally dependent on his brother because he could not read or write and had minimal gestural communication skills, became completely lost.

After sleeping on the streets, earning very little money by shining shoes, Ra found his way to DDP. He appeared at the gate, not knowing his name, where he came from or how to get home. The staff at DDP gave him a name and enrolled him in the Basic Adult Education program in Phnom Penh. However, there was not room in DDP housing, so after a few months, he moved to Kampong Cham, living at DDP House and graduating from the DDP Basic Education program there.

After completing Basic Education, Ra was accepted into DDP’s Job Training program in Phnom Penh, where he was training to become a barber. One day a customer came into the DDP barber training center, where willing guinea pigs can receive free haircuts. With shock, the customer recognized Ra. The customer explained to trainer that he knew the family, who believed Ra to be dead. The Social Services team questioned the customer, and then dispatched a team to Svay Rieng, a province in southeastern Cambodia on the border of Vietnam, where they found Ra’s family in a remote part of the province. Indeed the customer was correct—the family had conducted full funeral rites for Ra and were still mourning his death.

DDP Social Services brought Ra back to Svay Rieng, where he had an emotional reunion with his family. Interestingly, Ra has two other deaf brothers but they never developed home sign or a way to communicate with each other. Stories such as these underscore the importance of raising awareness about signed language and the importance for families to try to develop a way to communicate with their deaf members, be it writing, gestures or home sign, if not in Cambodian Sign Language.

There are many more with stories like Ra’s. For more, see The Phnom Penh Post story about F4, found in Siem Reap. F4 still does not have an identity card or any other documentation. The local police district continues to refuse to provide him with an identity card, despite countless visits by DDP Social Services. F4 was given his name, signed with the ASL handshape for “P” on the forearm because of his distinctive tattoo.

The tattoo that named the man.
The tattoo that named the man. Photograph by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

F4 is now working on his own as a barber but he still doesn’t know where he came from. Recently, he has been talking about finding a nice girl and settling down; however, because he has no blood relatives to speak on his behalf to a prospective bride’s family, Fr. Charlie Dittmeier, Catholic priest and Director of DDP, has taken on the role of his father, so to speak. When F4 is ready, Fr. Charlie will speak to his prospective bride’s family on his behalf and help make wedding arrangements. F4 is not completely alone. He has created a family at DDP.

F4 breaking out into a laugh because I kept asking him to move this way, and then that way. The photo didn't come out that well but F4's personality still radiates through.
F4 breaking out into a laugh because I kept asking him to move this way, and then that way. The photo didn’t come out that well but F4’s personality still radiates through. Photograph by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

For more on this project, follow along on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH and on Instagram @erinmharrelson.