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How sign language helped one family settle in the UK

Photo: Yasmin smiling with her parents.

Moving from Syria to Northern Ireland as refugees took some adjustment for Nour and Omar. But with support in place and sign language under their belt, they’re now feeling positive about daughter Yasmin’s future.

As she runs around the house loudly playing and laughing, it's hard to believe Yasmin (4) hasn't been able to communicate with anyone until very recently. “Yasmin has a strong personality,” dad Omar says. “She likes to mess about or be a little bit cheeky.”

The family, who are originally from Syria and speak Arabic, only moved from Lebanon to the UK last year. “In the beginning, we didn’t know Yasmin was deaf,” Omar explains. “We took her to the doctor who did some tests and gave her a nose spray. Nothing changed. So we took her again and they found she had a very low level of hearing. She only responded to loud noises, if there were bombs or explosions or things like that near our house. Anything else, she wouldn’t respond to.”

The family had no experience of deafness and were offered very little support from health services in Syria. “When I found out she was deaf, I couldn’t explain the feeling,” Omar says. “It was sadness, depression. It was very hard news to take in. The doctor said there was hope she could regain her hearing with  cochlear implant surgery but we couldn’t afford it.

“Yasmin was frustrated, she was unable to communicate at all. Before we came to the UK, we had concerns. There were no schools for her in Syria. We didn’t know how to help her, I couldn’t reach her in any way.”

The family, who had then moved to a refugee camp in Lebanon, applied for refugee status stating Yasmin’s deafness and poor quality of life as the main reason they needed to move. Happily when she was three years old, they were resettled in Northern Ireland. “It was quite difficult in the beginning getting into a routine but we got used to it,” Omar says. “We’re very happy here. My wife goes to college full-time to learn English and I take part-time courses when not looking after Yasmin. We’re both very keen to learn.”

With support from a Barnardo’s keyworker, the family were introduced to life in the UK through the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme. Yasmin
was referred to the NHS and the Education Authority, who assigned her a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD). Their new GP put Yasmin on a waiting list for cochlear implants.

Last September, she started nursery. “We noticed progress in her immediately,” mum Nour says. “She was concentrating more, paying attention and becoming calmer. She began to wake up on her own, ready to go to school, and she would point at things like her school uniform when she wanted to put it on. She was
able to communicate with us for the first time.”

Once Yasmin started nursery, her ToD put the family in touch with the National Deaf Children’s Society as she felt they could benefit from Family Sign Language (FSL) lessons. “The ToD described Yasmin as a bright spark who was yearning to communicate,” says Paula, our Language and Communication Officer. “While there was a long wait for implantation, the ToD really felt sign language was going to play an important role in enhancing communication in the family home.”

“We thought it might be a bit difficult,” Omar says. “Especially as we don’t even know the language of the country!” He was right, it was a complex set-up with the parents, their Arabic interpreter (who luckily and by chance knew a little British Sign Language (BSL)), Paula and the FSL tutor Agnes. Agnes is profoundly deaf and a full-BSL user so Paula would translate her signs into English for the interpreter to translate into Arabic for the family. The family started learning the fingerspelling alphabet, an immediate challenge as the alphabet is slightly different in Arabic. “Over the sessions, the translator and I had a lesser role as Mum and Dad began to communicate more directly with Agnes,” Paula explains. “Agnes would always praise Omar and Nour as she could tell they practised hard between sessions.”

"We’re so happy right now that we’re all learning sign language at the same time together."

“We found her way of teaching very sweet and funny,” Nour adds. “After we started using the signs repeatedly, Yasmin started to use them too. If she wants to eat, she will sign ‘eat’ and she uses signs to tell us what she wants to do and if she needs to go to the toilet.”

“We noticed that with sign language we were able to learn English even faster compared to just listening to the words,” Omar says. “If we signed them, it helped us remember and understand them. We’re so happy right now that we’re all learning at the same time together.”

“My favourite sign is ‘love’,” adds Omar. “And mine is ‘bad’,” laughs Nour. “Yasmin always messes about and when I sign ‘bad’ she finally recognises she’s done a bad thing!”

Agnes was also the first deaf adult the family met and it was an important moment for them. “We felt optimistic meeting Agnes,” says Omar. “We hope that Yasmin continues to progress in both sign and spoken language – we hope she will be trilingual with English, Arabic and BSL! We realise that deaf people here still have a future, they can do a lot of things and keep on learning. In Syria and Lebanon where we were, they don’t have a future.”

For other families who have moved to the UK or have English as an additional language, Nour and Omar have advice. “Don’t waste any time,” they say. “Learn sign language as soon as you can!”