Born hard of hearing, the child of two deaf parents, the Rev. Debbie Buchholz — pastor of a church for the deaf and mother of seven adult children, four of whom are deaf or hard of hearing — parked her SUV up along the circle drive of her Olathe home.
It’s a stately place with a four-car garage and, in the backyard, a full-size lighted basketball court.
“We built half of this ourselves to save money because we have seven kids,” said Buchholz, 56, inside the foyer and beneath an inscription above the front door: As for my family we will serve the Lord.
Before heading out, she retrieves plastic bags filled with toothpaste, soap, toothbrushes and shampoo that she’d purchased herself for the day’s students.
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They are seven men and women, all recent immigrants to Kansas City, Kan. — refugees from the Himalayan country of Bhutan, plus one from Myanmar — and most of whom spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal.
All are deaf. Nepal has one of the highest rates of deafness in the world, a result of infections, genetics and lack of health care.
None of the refugees have ever been to school. When they arrived in the United States a few years ago, they were illiterate in English as well as their own language, having never heard it.
All Buchholz could think about was how isolated they must have been. They had no way to really communicate, no way to express their true needs or precise thoughts.
Then, suddenly, they were cast into a new country where everything was strange.
“Just to be an immigrant is difficult,” Buchholz said. “These people were born in a country with political unrest. Then they got to live in unhealthy conditions in a refugee camp. Then they are brought over here — and to be deaf…Think of what a scary and lonely place that would be to be in.”
To be sure, Buchholz knows the issues surrounding immigrants and refugees have become highly politicized and divisive since the 2016 presidential campaign, with calls from the Trump administration to place limits on both.
“Listen,” she said, “I love to have a good dialogue with people with the understanding that it isn’t my way or no way, or your way or no way.
“That said, I am a person, a person who authentically believes that people are people are people. And regardless of politics and what people are feeling and thinking, these people are here. They’re here. They need me. They need our volunteers. They need help. They’re human beings and I’m going to do what I’m going to do even if there are people who are opposed to it.”
So, on a recent Tuesday, Buchholz headed out.
“Bye. Enjoy your day!” she called to her adopted son, Levi. He is African-American, 20, with autism and cerebral palsy, and has an at-home aide.
Besides their three biological sons — all of whom are either deaf or hard of hearing — Buchholz and her husband Allen, who is 65 and owns an insurance agency, adopted four special-needs children years ago.
“We watched a show on ‘20/20’ 30 years ago, literally 30 years ago,” Buchholz said. “They had a show on orphanages in Eastern Europe that had special-needs children. It was life-changing. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I kept asking my husband what we could do about it.”
The result was the adoption of a 3-year-old son from Korea, now 27, who has autism. Two adopted daughters came later, one at the age of about 10 and the other at age 8. Both are now 28. One is East Indian and is deaf. The other, from Bulgaria, has behavioral problems.
“We all have a special need we need to work on,” said Buchholz, pastor of the Deaf International Community Church, which convenes its services in space rented at the Center of Grace, 520 S. Harrison St. in Olathe.
Buccholz climbed into her SUV and, over the next 40 minutes, made her way through Kansas City, Kan., pulling up to the homes of two students. The first was Sin Sin, who is unsure of her actual age. Many in the refugee camps don’t know their birthdays, often choosing the same default date when they get to the U.S.
“They all say their birthday is January 1,” Buchholz said.
Certainly in her early 20s, Sin Sin arrived with her parents and two sisters from Myanmar about two and a half years ago.
Next, Buchholz picked up Thari, who is from Bhutan, maybe in his 30s or older. He arrived 18 months ago from the Nepali refugee camp and lives with his brother, sister-in-law and their children.
The church set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for a 15-person van to pick up the refugees and take them to dentists, doctors and their sign language classes, but in the last year the page has reached only about $900 in donations. So Buchholz and volunteers pick up the students and take them to Mission Adelante, a Christian-based community organization for immigrants and refugees at 22 S. Eighth St. in Kansas City, Kan., where Buchholz and other church volunteers hold classes.
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, the largest refugee resettlement agency in the state, alerts the church when deaf refugees arrive. Eleven students typically take the class. Five others, plus three church volunteers, were waiting inside when Buchholz, Sin Sin and Thari arrive.
There are Dambar, 55, and Til, 36, a deaf couple from Bhutan who live with their hearing son and daughter. There’s Rupa. She’s 36, expressive and smiles often. There are Chandra, 37, and Guman, 35, brothers and refugees from Bhutan and the Nepali camp who arrived about three and a half years ago.
Lives for refugees can be incredibly difficult, and even harder still for those who are unable to hear. Culturally, deaf refugees can face discrimination and financial mistreatment even by close family members who see them as lesser individuals.
“All deaf refugees lead different lives, just like no snowflakes are the same,” Micki Keck, one of Buchholz’s volunteers, said by email.
Keck, who is deaf, is an independent living specialist for the MidAmerica Alliance for Access, which helps individuals with disabilities, including deaf refugees, get access to disability resources. She said she had witnessed moments of profound hope but also of despair for deaf refugees, like family members misappropriating disability money.
“I had one adult refugee taken out of one family due to abuse,” Keck said.
On the other hand, she said, she has seen deaf refugees blossom once they begin to learn basic sign language.
“When they are in the room together, I can see the stars in their eyes,” she said.
Some classes are more advanced, but this one is fundamental, a beginner’s class of single words and basic sentences in American Sign Language. The students, sitting in a circle, practiced introducing themselves and spelling their names in sign language
“My name is Rupa.”
“My name is Thari.”
“My name is Til.”
They moved on to other simple sentences. “I like to eat …”
“Pizza,” Buchholz signed.
“Sandwiches,” Rupa signed.
Buchholz translated as Thari signed. “I like to eat tree…tree?” Buchholz questioned. “No. You eat tree?”
He tried again. “Egg,” he signed.
To show how far the students have come, Buchholz translated a story from Guman about monkeys in the Nepali camps.
“I’ll translate as best I can,” she said, reading Guman’s signs as he plunged into his tale with smiling relish.
“So, in Nepal, we have trees,” he began about the monkeys. “And they would come in and they would eat things. And they would take it, and they would take it out of our tents and our camp in Nepal and they would take it away and they ate it. And the elephants would come and they would take my bed. And they would twist it up, our bedding, and they would take it on our legs, and they would pull us away and it would be dark. And they would come into the camp and they would take everything. And in Nepal, the monkeys and the elephants they would just come into our beds and our camps and our tents and would just take everything…”
Buchholz said that when Guman arrived, he sat in silence. He had no way to express himself.
“He arrived here in our class not able to say his name,” she said. “Now, in four years, he can express that whole story. He can express all the stories that happened to him in Nepal. And they’re great, beautiful stories.”
The ability to express oneself “is freedom,” Buchholz said, and especially for the deaf. Buchholz’s mother, who died when Buchholz was 13, became deaf from spinal meningitis. Her father’s profound deafness was genetic, which Buchholz inherited. She has difficulty discriminating between words and some tones. Two of Buchholz’s biological sons are hard of hearing and the third’s hearing loss is profound, again from genetics.
The rest of the refugees’ class involved building basic vocabulary, the sign language for words such as pencil, table, fork, clock and lamp. Buchholz wrote each word on a white board and then showed students a picture and taught them the sign.
It’s impossible to determine to what degree knowing the most rudimentary sign language has changed the students’ lives, as they can’t yet express themselves at that depth. Buchholz is helping one to prepare for a driver’s license test.
They faithfully show up for class. Volunteers also pick them up on Sundays for church.
“It is just immersing them at this point,” Buchholz said, plunging them first into American Sign Language and then, through sign language, into English. “And so, it is a matter of immersing them on having them be around 80 deaf people who drive, and get married and have a family and have a job, so they can see that they are equal to hearing people, that they are somebody of value and worth — that they deserve to get an education; they deserve to learn; they deserve to have what everyone else has.
“That’s our goal.”