Reflections on the rewards of supporting refugee children and families

calendarJanuary 8 2020

by Lynne Awbery, teacher of the deaf.

A lawyer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a mother from Sudan, a teacher from former Yugoslavia, an architect from Somalia, a doctor from Eritrea, a teenager from Rwanda, a carpenter from Afghanistan, a trafficked mother from Ghana, a housewife, widow and mother from Sri Lanka….. and the list goes on. 

These are some of the of refugees who have crossed my path during my 38 years of teaching, widening my understanding, broadening my knowledge, welcoming me into their homes, however temporary, and inspiring me with their stories of their often perilous flight to freedom – not victims, but proud individuals whose lives have been forever changed – disrupted though war and fear and whose homeland they can now only yearn for. 

The common thread pulling this all together for me, was that each of these families required a service to support them with their deaf child – as a peripatetic teacher of the deaf I had the privilege of visiting these families in their homes, listening to their stories and encouraging them as they began to understand the nature of deafness and the impact it may have on their child. But these individuals and families were already dealing with trauma, loss, displacement and separation – taking on board a diagnosis of your child’s deafness in a new country, in a different language, without family to support you, cannot be underestimated.  Adjustment takes time, patience, understanding and empathy.

Of course, like any family, some parents were saddened and mourned for the child they felt they had lost, some rejecting the possibility that their child was deaf and asking for more testing.  Others were accepting and embracing, wanting to move forward and support their child, listening and acting on the advice they were given.   Parents’ differing reactions cut across class, ethnicity and education – this was true for both the indigenous population and for the refugee population, where, for example, graduates from West Africa, well versed in physiology rejected the notion of deafness for their child and support on offer; a family from a village in Afghanistan, were delighted with the help they were offered and embraced the home visits, support groups and sign language. Culturally, some families were influenced by local customs they had grown up with, where deafness was seen as a curse or something to be ashamed of.  Only with support, knowledge and the passing on of information could the parents begin to adjust and move forwards.  This support came from a range of professionals, all working and liaising to ensure the best outcome for the child and family.  From Audiology services and Parent Support Workers, to Speech and Language Therapists, Physios and OT’s, children were referred on where necessary, but co-ordinated by the Teacher of the Deaf.  Often in partnership, the Deaf Role Model would attend home visits with me – an inspiration to parents who asked, will my child talk, go to school, go to university, drive, have friends, marry and be happy? She was able to allay fears, give hope and to reassure parents that they didn’t need to fear for their child’s future here, when they revealed what life would have been, or was like, for a deaf child in the country they were fleeing.

How different countries respond to refugees is bound in state law and translated by local authorities – a policy of ‘dispersal’, so that one authority is not ‘burdened’ more than another in the UK, has meant that families have begun to settle and establish links, when, with little notice they have been uprooted and transported to another area, far away from their emerging new networks. Unfortunately this has been the case for a number of families with whom I worked and it is both frustrating and disorientating for the families.  Despite my best efforts to appeal these relocations, on the grounds of specialist support and education for a deaf child are already established, family and friendship links are in place, I have never been successful in stopping a family being ‘dispersed’.  All I could do was contact the services for the deaf in that area, give them as much information as possible and hope they were picked up as soon as possible after arriving in a new authority.  My experience is that this has always been the case and speaking directly to another Teacher of the Deaf in the north of England, for example, has ensured a smooth transition for the family and services can be put back into place as quickly as possible. It doesn’t diminish the disruption and isolation to the family, as they once again begin to build their family life and networks.

In September 2018 I had the privilege to attend the graduation of a young Somali mother of a deaf child, who arrived in Manchester in 2008.   She escaped from her home town of Mogadishu to Kenya, alone and desperate.  She told me, “When the shooting starts you just run and you don’t stop running until you fall down”.  After a desperate year in a refugee camp in Kenya, she was brought to the U.K. by the Red Cross and placed in a bedsit in a rundown part of the city. This young woman took every opportunity that was placed in front of her – English lessons, volunteer work, education and support from a local Somali community group. Within a year she could speak English and decided to move to London, where she met and married a fellow East African. Their daughter, diagnosed with a severe hearing loss, was born shortly afterwards.  This was a mother who embraced the world of deafness, attending every appointment, learning sign language, attending parents groups and speech therapy.  She was proud of her daughter and every small step she made, accepting her hearing loss as part of her identity. Ten years later, she was the proud recipient of a BSc in nursing. “I wanted to give something back to the county that gave me so much”. She asked me to be there as I had continued to encourage her studies preceding her degree and she had no blood family members in the U.K.

Hers is one story amongst thousands where refugees have succeeded against the odds through sheer hard work and determination to make a better life for themselves and their families. Her daughter is now at school – she speaks and signs and is settled and happy with good self-esteem as she is accepted and loved by her family and friends.

Each refugee who has arrived in this country is an individual with a unique story to tell, however harrowing and being part of that continuing story, has for me, been a privilege and enriched my world.  I have met some of the most remarkable, inspirational people whose lives are forever marked by their experiences of war and terror, but regardless, have built a new life in the U.K. and it has been a privilege to be part of their journey and help as best I could to help their deaf children.

A head and shoulders shot of a smiling Lynne Awbery

My name is Lynne Awbery and after retiring as a teacher after 38 happy years, I joined the staff at SENSE, as a Communication Guide.  I originally trained to teach children with physical difficulties, moving on to training as a Teacher of the Deaf in 1989 and continuing to expand my training into Dyslexia in 1999.  I completed an M.A in Refugees Studies, helping me to support the parents of special needs children, fleeing war and persecution.  Other charities I have a particular interest in are Deaf Kidz International and AFRUCA.

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