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The Deaf Hear, the Mute Speak

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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It is just before eight in the morning. The school yard is abuzz with children of all ages. Some are clustered, deep in conversation. Some have something to show in their schoolbags and are sharing it with their friends. One group of preteens – boys and girls – is jumping rope.

In each case you notice that eye contact is constant. Although gesturing is a given in Arab culture, you notice that this group seems bent on breaking all the records.

As you watch you notice the gestures are defined. As you come closer your ears strain to catch what the children are saying. They spot you – a foreign visitor. You are surrounded. Each of your sleeves serves as a tugging ground for four or five youngsters. They have much to say. Much to share. Much to ask.

They spot your camera. “Ham” is served for your len’s benefit. The girls twitter and fall back. The bigger the boy the more face you see. Best friends embrace, hoping their twosomeness will prove irresistible.

The need to communicate is overpowering. Anything to achieve contact is tried. Even if you have guessed the bottom line of this story, you are not prepared for the hearts and hands of these children. They are all hearing-impaired.

It is 8:15. A sprightly young nun meets you at the door. Her warm and friendly smile turns stern as she sends a nonverbal message to a group of overactive boys on the playground. Her smile returns as she greets one of the younger children whose mom has just brought her to the school.

Whistles shriek and the students line up. Each class is a line. Each line is a lesson in discipline. Uniforms are crisp and clean. A quick check is done by the nun and the teachers. Each ear is checked, not so much for cleanliness as to be sure each child is wearing his or her hearing aid.

Before his death on Easter, 1983, Father Ronald S. Roberts, the founder of this institution for the hearing-impaired, entrusted it to the Basilian Shoureit Sisters, a Greek Melkite Catholic community. As an English priest serving as a chaplain with the British forces stationed in Lebanon during World War II, Father Roberts grew to know the Lebanese people and their problems.

He returned after the war and purchased a crumbling mountain villa in the Beirut suburb of Harissa, intending to establish a home for the incurably ill. One day, however, he opened the door to a homeless five-year-old deaf and mute boy. When he realized that no one was filling the desperate need to educate the hearing-impaired, Father Roberts could not turn his back on their plight.

Soon the hearing-impaired outnumbered the incurably ill; eventually the school, then called the Home in the Hills, accepted only deaf boys. Girls came later. Since he knew very little about the education of the deaf, Father Roberts returned to Europe to learn.

Once back in Lebanon he recruited teachers, bought and borrowed equipment. For 24 years the English priest cared for deaf children in an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and affection.

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Tags: Lebanon Children Education Disabilities