“I remember hiding in a ditch, with some tree limbs over us,” says Heang Samath. “There were four of us together. My parents, my older brother who was hearing, and me—the one deaf person. My parents told us we needed to be quiet.” The year was 1975 in Cambodia, the year the Khmer Rouge came to power, and Samath was 5 years old.
For the next four years, Pol Pot and his henchmen tore apart the lives of Cambodians. An estimated 2 million, about one in four Cambodians were killed during this time—many of them murdered and tortured and others dying from malnutrition, disease and forced labor.
Samath, the longest serving staff member of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme (DDP), will often recount his past experiences during the Khmer Rouge for visitors. He vividly remembers the bombs, the planes, the gunfire and walking for a long time and seeing bodies alongside the road.
His family eventually ended up in Phnom Penh, where in 1979 they began to rebuild their lives. Samath was not able to attend school. Schools were not equipped to educate a child who was deaf, and deafness was assumed to be related to a lack of capacity. Samath helped in the fields and around the house, using the home signs he had developed to communicate with his family.
Then in 1997 the direction of his life changed. The Finnish Association of the Deaf (FAD) had sent field workers to Cambodia to gather deaf individuals to document Cambodian Sign Language (CSL). Samath was one of the first individuals they met, and since the age of 27, he has played a key role in the development of the Cambodian Deaf community.
At the time, deaf Cambodians didn’t have a formal sign language, and at this early stage, Samath and other deaf individuals shared the signs they had been using so they could be documented. Because of his artistic ability, Samath became the first CSL illustrator, meticulously drawing the signs for different concepts and words. Since then, he has been serving as a teacher for other deaf individuals and is frequently called on as a special deaf interpreter for those who don’t know CSL.
Mastering CSL allows signers to form friendships with people across the country, access information through interpreters, and through this community advocate for themselves.
The role of lay missioners
Just as Samath has been integral to DDP for decades, so has Maryknoll. Over the years, six Maryknoll lay missioners have worked directly with DDP and numerous others have assisted with various projects. Without this combination of the long-term commitment from the locals—both hearing and deaf—and the shorter-term, skill-specific support from missioners, Samath, his colleagues, and the many other deaf Cambodians who have come through the program would not have a documented language, legal representation, opportunities for education and employment, access to sign language interpreters or many other advances.
At the very beginning, Maryknoll lay missioner Judy Saumweber supported the work of the Cambodia Disabled Peoples Organization (CDPO), which was FAD’s local partner in implementing the programs.
Through her connection, Father Charlie Dittmeier became involved with the group. As CDPO faltered and was going to end the deaf-focused program, Father Charlie and Maryknoll became the official partners of FAD in 2001. The program began to adapt to better meet the needs of the deaf population and more closely align with international best practices.
Father Charlie, a diocesan priest and member of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, still serves as the co-director of the program. Under his leadership, the staff is currently composed of a quarter Deaf Cambodians, who have taught the hearing Cambodian staff about the need to respect Deaf culture, listen to the Deaf community and advocate alongside them for equality in society. As the DDP mission statement says, the goal is that “Deaf people are accepted, respected and included as equals in all aspects of Cambodian society.”
When asked about the missioners who have served at DDP, Keat Sokly, co-director of DDP, can name each one. “DDP has really improved because of all of them,” he says.
Celina Campas was one of the first lay missioners to join Father Charlie and served in the Basic Education Project. Celina covered classes and helped in the creation of new materials, sharing advice on teaching techniques, which Thuch Sophy, Basic Education Project manager, said she still passes on to her teachers.
While she was studying Khmer, Celina lived with Ly Bolika, who is currently the project manager for the Deaf Community Center. Lika laughs about how they would watch different soap operas in the evening to practice their English and Khmer. Celina would explain the ones in English to Lika and vice versa.
Beyond the concrete contributions to the Basic Education Project, which currently works in three provinces serving around 50 students per year, connections like these form bridges between cultures and perspectives. Another lay missioner,
Susan Sporl, class of 2008, was instrumental in setting up the Social Services Project. One of the students who was able to benefit from her efforts was Lay Sopor. Sopor says, his hands at first struggled to make the correct shapes to accurately sign. At night, he would light a candle by his bed so he could still see the sign language books—and Samath’s illustrations—practicing each sign until he could remember and reproduce them.
Like Samath before him, Sopor’s life and story became linked to DDP when Susan hired him as a staff member to support the Social Services Project. He later joined the Basic Education Project and today is a sign language teacher.
Tay Vannarith, the first social worker hired for the program, explains how Susan brought her many years of experience as a social worker, helped him learn how to document cases and do consultations. Vannarith brought his cultural knowledge as a native Cambodian and his knowledge from his recently earned master’s degree in social work. Together, he explains, they learned how to work with the deaf population, as this was new to both of them.
“Deaf people have problems, too,” Vannarith says. “This was the first time they could really talk to someone about it because before there were no social workers that understood sign language.”
Equally important within DDP are the Maryknoll lay missioners who have helped in structural positions. Nancy Davies, class of 2012, instituted best practices in the finance department. Neang Rathary, DDP’s accountant for the past 15 years, says that Nancy was always willing to help her with any problem she encountered. Sokly adds that Nancy “didn’t just work in accounting. She was a part of the Deaf community. She would come to the sporting events and cheer.”
Nancy was followed by Russ Brine, one of two missioners currently at DDP, who works closely with the leadership team to ensure compliance with all funders’ requirements. Rathary reports that Russ helps her with developing reports and ensuring compliance with the donors, which is vitally important to DDP’s sustainability.
As the most recent lay missioner to depart from DDP, I continue to be amazed by my colleagues’ dedication and perseverance in a society that struggles to understand them. When I arrived, many in the Deaf community had little experience advocating for themselves. They tended to defer to hearing staff, and some were very shy when trying to communicate to visiting hearing people.
Given the opportunity to train as tour guides, however, many became more confident, proving that with a few tools and some encouragement, they were perfectly capable of succinctly and powerfully telling their personal stories as well as the history of DDP to visitors.
While the goal was to ensure the DDP story was being told by the Deaf community, it also led to shifts within the Deaf staff. They began to question things and articulate their needs in ways leadership had never seen before.
On my recent trip to visit Cambodia, when asked if they would be willing to be recorded, they were more confident than some of their hearing counterparts.
One of my colleagues and a friend, Eang Kimhorn, explained that a lot of the impact of lay missioners goes beyond what happens in the office. She recalled how staff used to go out to lunch and celebrate my birthday with me, as well as how they came to my house to teach me how to make Cambodian food. She added, “If I had a problem that was really bothering me, I could stop at your desk in the morning, and you would offer me some advice that always helped me resolve the problem.”
It was those personal interactions that made the most lasting impressions on both of us. Now that I am back in the U.S., I often find myself wishing I were back in the Deaf Development Programme office, looking forward to a day of working together. And it warmed my heart to hear that the feeling was mutual.
That to me is what being a lay missioner is all about: having the privilege to build relationships with amazing, inspiring, and world-shaping individuals and working with them to help shift the environment so that they can better share their skills and wisdom with the wider communities where they live.
The major shifts I witnessed would not have been possible without a strengthened Basic Education Program, sound processes and systems, and the meeting of basic needs—with each new missioner building on the foundation left by those who came before, strengthened by the local staff who kept the efforts going.
As Keat Sokly puts it, “One of the most important things Maryknollers bring to Cambodia is sustainability. Maryknoll lay missioners come to Cambodia and work with the local staff. That means first that they contribute directly to the project activities, and second that they build the capacity of our local staff. It means that, after they leave, our local staff can continue the work by themselves.”
As a result, many deaf individuals are now able to find work in hearing businesses, and some are entrepreneurs running their own small businesses. Equally important, our hearing staff members have become better allies with the Deaf community, working as allies to help the majority culture pay attention, listen, and understand.
What this all means for Samath, Sopor, Kimhorn and many other members of the Deaf community, is that DDP has played an important role in opening space for them to flourish, to embrace their full potential, and to advocate for themselves and future generations of the Cambodian Deaf community.
All photos by Karen Bortvedt
Karen Bortvedt (class of 2013) is the recruitment and relationship manager of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. She served as a missioner with the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Cambodia from 2014 to 2017.
This is the cover story of the Spring 2019 issue of Voices of Compassion, the official magazine of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. You can read the entire magazine here: Spring 2019 Voices of Compassion.
Watch this video, in which Deaf Development Programme Co-Director Keat Sokly recounts the many contributions of Maryknoll lay missioners to the development and success of DDP.