Support services for deaf Cambodians are sparse leaving many isolated from their families and communities.
As I rode the bus home today, I met a little Cambodian boy who is deaf. The bus was crowded so a lot of us were standing in the aisles. The conductor made students give up their seats for adults so I ended up with a seat even though I was fine with standing.
I noticed a little boy with a container of bright orange food. You’re not allowed to eat on the bus. The boy was right next to the conductor so I watched to see if the she would stop him. He opened the container and sprinkled something on top. Then proceeded to relish his snack under the gaze of the conductor.
He stood out from the crowd because he was so animated. He also lacked a school uniform. Normally kids riding the bus on their own are students. Kids not wearing school uniforms nearly always ride with a parent or grandparent. No one seemed to be riding with this kid.
Kampuchea Krom is a busy route so lots of people get on and off at each stop. After a few stops, the boy found a window seat across from me. A high school student sat next to him. While she busied herself with her phone, he pulled a turtle out of his pocket.
He cleaned his turtle’s shell with a tissue and then tried to feed the tissue to the turtle. Unsurprisingly, the turtle wasn’t having any of it so the boy turned his attention to the phone screen. It was then that it became obvious that he was deaf. He never said a word to her but gestured to let her know what he wanted.
When my stop came, he also got off the bus and followed me. I have to cross a busy intersection to get to my next bus and he caught up with me as I waited at the light. He gestured to ask where I was going. I used American sign language (ASL) to ask if he was deaf and he nodded yes. After that, he didn’t seem to understand any signs.
This is not surprising because Cambodian sign language is different from ASL and many deaf Cambodians do not know any sign language. Cambodia lacks medical social services to identify deafness and support deaf Cambodians.
There are a few exceptions. The Cambodia Deaf Development Programme founded by Father Charlie works to identify deaf Cambodians in need of services. They helped develop Cambodian sign language and teach sign language and job skills to deaf adults. They also have two social workers who support deaf Cambodians in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham.
I discovered the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) the last time I spent a year here. An announcement in a Catholic newsletter asked for international foods for a tasting at the Deaf Development Programme. I brought biscotti. Father Charlie organized the tasting so deaf Cambodians could try foods from other countries. It was a fun opportunity to meet young adults from a community you rarely see in Cambodia. Their stories were heart wrenching. Many had no means of communicating with anyone until they were discovered by the DDP.
Back to the little boy. He followed me to the bus stop and asked where I was going. I pointed to my stop on the sign. He understood that it was stop 40 and he knew how many stops away that was. When the bus came, he got on with me and sat at the front. Some women used gestures to communicate with him.
It seems he wants to eat his little turtle. The women told him to wait until it was bigger. He also seemed to indicate that he had no home.
My bus stop is right in front of the Chinese Noodle Shops on Monivong. He got off the bus behind me and followed me so I asked if he was hungry. Probably a silly question. When is a little boy not hungry?
I let him choose what he wanted off the menu. He ate a little of his fish soup and we packed the rest to go. I had some dumplings. Then I started walking home. He tagged along and kept asking where we were going. When I pointed towards my street, he became very animated. He thought I live in one of the fancy tall apartment buildings.
I only live about five blocks from the bus stop and he walked all the way with me. He seemed to want to come home with me but I wasn’t comfortable inviting him up to my place so we parted ways at the gate.
Every Wednesday Maryknoll has a Catholic mass and dinner at the priests’ home. I usually go and bring dessert. It’s a good time to reflect on the week and to meet with people doing good work in Cambodia.
Father Charlie was there and he told me that another organization works with deaf children. Krousar Thmey runs preschools and has worked to provide education to young deaf Cambodians. I now have Father Charlie’s card so if I see the boy again, I can give it to him. I doubt he can read but I hope he gives it to an adult who can.
For more inspiring stories about deaf people in third-world countries, check out these articles:
Tanzanian Cafe where all the staff are deaf