Chicago-based group brings smiles to deaf Syrian children

Deaf Planet Soul' is bringing smiles to hard-of-hearing Syrian children and their parents in Lebanon on a two-week long mission.

Bar Elias: Six-year-old Aya al-Souqi, a Syrian refugee, held the camera phone up to her gaze and listened to hear her mother. "I hear you!" she exclaimed.

It was only the second time she'd spoken to her mother in Beeskow, Germany since getting fitted with a hearing aid by a Chicago-based charity to treat some of the invisible wounds of the Syrian war.

Aya, timid and diminutive, was a little over a year old in 2012 when a rocket struck her family's house in the Eastern Ghouta countryside, outside the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The strike killed her father and, the family believes, damaged Aya's right ear. Shortly afterward, the family moved to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of other Syrians now live as refugees, to wait out a war whose conclusion is still a speck on the horizon.

"She used to respond to her name and play with other children," said her grandmother, Hayan Hashmeh. "When we came to Lebanon, we noticed that her hearing was very limited."

The proudly named "Deaf Planet Soul" charity is bringing smiles to hard-of-hearing Syrian children and their parents in Lebanon on a two-week long mission to treat hearing loss. Most, though not all, have been affected by the Syrian war.

But for many of the young patients, it's the first time they have sat down with therapists and audiologists for treatment.

"When people think of refugees, they think of cut-off limbs and brain injuries, and all these visible things," said Zaineb Abdulla, a therapist and the vice president of Deaf Planet Soul. "They don't think about the invisible results of war. They don't think that this kid who can't hear really needs help."

The team of five audiologists, therapists, and a student met with children in clinics around Lebanon in the charity's first humanitarian relief mission.

In a makeshift clinic above a gas station in al-Marj, Gregory Perez, a mental health professional and the president of the group, used sign language to communicate with deaf, seven-year-old Jana Faour, a Syrian-Palestinian girl raised in Lebanon.

Her parents don't have the funds to enroll her in a school for deaf children, so her mother is teaching her Arabic Sign Language from what lessons she can find online through Google.

Jana, who usually depends on her doting younger sister to be her voice, was thrilled to be able to sign with a stranger. Though Perez signs in American Sign Language, the two found they knew many words in common, and they began to communicate silently and excitedly.

Jana looked up at her parents and beamed. "It's the first time someone sees to what I want, which was to have Jana meet with a therapist, to work with her personality instead of just her hearing," said her mother, Samar.

Perez said he founded the charity last year to "empower the deaf and help the deaf community be more independent." He was working "16 hours a day" in two mental health jobs in Chicago when one closed down.

"It was a group home for emotionally disturbed deaf kids, and when the company shut down, the kids were dispersed across the state," said Abdulla on Perez's behalf. Perez and Abdulla are both deaf. Perez can talk only haltingly, but Abdulla, who lost her hearing in adolescence, speaks fluently.

They are role models for their young patients, many of whom have never met a deaf professional before. Aya's mother, Kinaz Khatib, set off for Germany in 2015, crossing the Mediterranean to southern Europe by boat, hoping to secure the right to bring her children over.

Aya, sitting in a pumpkin-colored sweater with her siblings and cousins in an unfurnished apartment, said the family was waiting for the "papers" to be allowed to reunite.

Her hearing loss has made the separation especially difficult. She had been having a hard time hearing her mother on the phone, her grandmother Hayan said. She was also doing poorly in school. But now with her hearing aid, and her hair tied back in purple band, Aya cracks a smile.

"How are you?" Aya asked her mom. "I miss you." Her mother told her the hearing aid looked very nice on her. They talked a little longer, then Kinaz said goodbye. It was time for Aya to pack her bag and go to school.

The Deaf Planet Soul team held workshops for children over 10 days in different locations in Lebanon. They returned to Chicago on March 16 and say they want to raise funds for another mission. "This is a forever project," said Perez.

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