By Allison Barrett
Dhan Biswakarma and his wife, Bee Biswakarma, who live in Kent, are among several deaf Bhutanese refugees who have been learning American Sign Language at Highline Community College.
Nancy Allen, an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher at Highline Community College, goes through a stack of name cards, holding up each one and looking quizzically at the students.
“Whose is this?” she signs.
A short man in his 50s smiles hesitantly and raises his hand slowly as he sees the card with his name.
“What is your name?” Allen signs.
The man points to his chest, crosses his fingers in the sign for “name” and then slowly shapes his stout, weathered fingers to form: “D-H-A-N. My name is Dhan.”
Sitting next to him, his wife laughs out loud as her turn comes. She stumbles over the signing sequence, but she follows Allen’s lead and carefully signs her name.
“My name is B-E-E. Bee.”
For Bee and Dhan Biswakarma, Bhutanese refugees restarting their lives in Kent, the struggles of resettlement are intensified by the fact that the deaf couple has few means of communicating with the speaking world.
The Biswakarmas are among a number of deaf or hard-of-hearing Bhutanese refugees who have been resettled in King County in the past several years. Last spring’s class at Highline represented the Biswakarmas’ first exposure to a developed language.
“They have gone their whole lives with no formal language, getting by without a lot of communication,” said David Van Hofwegen, the couple’s caseworker from the World Relief Organization.
They have a repertoire of gestures to communicate with family members. But when it comes to sharing their thoughts with the hearing world, they are limited to signing the basics: eat, sleep, sick, house, wife, child.
In class, Bee has difficulty remembering how to sign her name, but she immediately grasped the expression for family. At home, she makes the sign after pointing to each relative seated on the mismatched jumble of couches and wooden chairs.
Bee, 47, and Dhan, 55, met in a refugee camp along Nepal’s eastern border after each fled Bhutan by foot in 1991.
They were driven out of their home country by policies implemented in the mid-1980s to forcefully integrate the ethnic Nepali inhabitants of southern Bhutan into the monarchy’s vision of a unified national identity. Southern Bhutanese were required to go to impossible ends to prove citizenship, ordered to stop teaching Nepali in schools and to abandon traditional dress and customs.
They protested and the military cracked down.
Homes were raided at night and dissidents were jailed, said Bal Biswa, a relative who helps to take care of Bee and Dhan.
Dhan and his extended family, including his relatives and caretakers Bal and Pabita Biswa, joined 23 other families to walk out of Bhutan, sleeping in the forest by day and traveling at night.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, since 1990 almost 100,000 southern Bhutanese have fled the tiny Himalayan kingdom that is often hailed as the “happiest country in the world” and celebrated for its measurement of Gross National Happiness.
Sitting in the Kent apartment that he and Bee share with Bal and Pabitra, Dhan points at Pabitra and then brings his hand above the ground in a gesture that looks like he’s placing it on the head of an invisible child. He pantomimes that he is carrying something.
Pabitra explains that Dahn helped her carry her kids out of Bhutan. She and her husband, Bal, lost two of those young children to a fever that broke out in the squalor of the early encampments.
Bee and Dhan arrived in Seattle early this year, part of the more than 1,800 Bhutanese who have been resettled in Washington state since 2008. They came with their son, 12-year-old Golpal, who is able to hear and lives with other relatives.
The couple had little preparation for life here.
Bee and Dhan were both born deaf, leaving limited options for employment or education. Bhutan had no established sign language until 2003, when the monarchy opened its first school for deaf children.
“You are considered backwater in society,” said Mitra Dhital, a Bhutanese refugee who works as a medical social worker for the Asian Counseling and Referral Services.
In many ways, they are even less independent in America.
Bee and Dhan don’t like to walk the five blocks to a grocery store alone, for fear of getting lost. Sometimes they stroll around the perimeter of the building, but never leave the grounds.
At first they were fearful of going to their ASL class. They were daunted by many things, including the bus ride there, until the World Relief organization provided a volunteer-driven van ride.
Among the eight Bhutanese class members, there is a range of hearing impairment, from Bee, who lives in complete silence, to a man in his mid-30s who has no hearing in one ear and is slowly going deaf in the other.
The number of those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing represent only a small percentage of the Bhutanese refugees here. But caseworkers say it is an unusually large number compared to other refugee groups. No one is certain why.
It is unclear whether that is the result of policies that give the deaf resettlement priority because of their lack of opportunities in the camps, or if the number reflects a high occurrence of deafness within Bhutan.
The World Health Organization estimates that of the 278 million people in the world living with moderate to profound hearing loss, 80 percent live in developing countries. And about half of all cases are preventable, caused in part by illnesses like measles, mumps and rubella that have readily available vaccinations in the developed world.
Ear infections, exacerbated by poor sanitation and hygiene, often went untreated in the refugee camps for Bhutanese, said Dhital.
Allen is adamant that even without a formal language, Bee and Dhan understand each other just fine. “All deaf people have a language,” said Allen.
The challenge for Bee, Dhan and the others in the class is finding a way to interact with the hearing world.
Allen, director of interpretive services at Highline, was approached about starting an ASL class for deaf Bhutanese about a year ago. She had never taught a class tailored to refugees.
Around the same time, Allen ran into a Bhutanese couple in the college’s parking lot, a hearing woman with her deaf husband. The wife, enrolled in English classes at Highline, was in search of a class for her husband.
“The light bulbs started going off,” said Allen. “There are other deaf refugees here. There is a need that is not being met.”
She says her deaf co-teacher, Ricardo Velilla, is the key to the class.
Extremely animated, he can model abstract concepts with ease. He acts out a jaunty stroll down the road, a runaway vehicle and narrowly averted catastrophe. He then runs the palm of one hand up the back of the other in a smooth motion. This is the sign for “almost.”
For a short time, Allen and Velilla had a deaf man from Somalia in their class.
“One day he came in very agitated, making all these wild motions,” said Allen. “Ricardo took one look at him and explained to me, ‘He used to have a driver’s license in his home country but he’s frustrated because he can’t get one here.’ ”
Allen knows lots of other deaf refugees and immigrants could benefit from access to ASL. But for now, the class is only offered once a week.
Until Bee and Dhan acquire enough ASL to communicate ideas to the hearing world, their prospects for employment are dismal.
Van Hofwegen is assisting them with the lengthy and very difficult process of qualifying for federal disability benefits.
The program doesn’t accept international evidence. You have to visit a primary physician for a referral and get screened by certified audiologists and other specialists, a procedure that requires Bee and Dhan, accompanied, to run to appointments all over the county.
Evening sets in, and the Kent apartment is filled with the scent of Nepali dumplings. Golpal and some neighbor boys are engaged in a cutthroat game of marbles on the floor. Bal and Pabitra’s sons are using the bulky computer in the corner, browsing Facebook and watching Bollywood videos on YouTube.
Dhan retreats to the bedroom and returns, carrying a sheet of paper. He takes a seat next to Bee on the couch.
They both lean over the manuscript that is covered in a scrawling alphabet, written in Dhan’s shaky hand, and start to shape their fingers into signs, beginning with the letters of their names.
This article was written by Allison Barrett, a student in a global health reporting course at the University of Washington, and was published by The Seattle Times.