Deaf Refugee Advocacy

photo of DRA picnic group

Tri-city DRA picnic

Deaf Refugee Advocacy’s (DRA) beginnings stem from a spur of the moment inquiry among friends at a deaf vegetarian pot-luck dinner gathering. Diana Pryntz, the host of this gathering, asked the group if anyone knew anything about deaf refugees. The plight of refugees had been in the news for months but there was never any mention of deaf refugees. Rochester has the highest number of deaf people per capita in the USA, and the group thought there had to be deaf refugees here. When it was clear that no one knew anything about this topic, they looked to the Internet and discovered that one group in Syracuse was helping deaf refugees. Diana wrote to this group and one thing led to other. In a matter of weeks she was in contact with Robert Tawney, a deaf man, who had taught American Sign Language (ASL) to one deaf refugee at Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services (RRRS) and served as an advocate for a Deaf Refugee family for a couple of years.

To fully understand the plight of the deaf refugees, Diana, Robert, and Marta (Robert’s wife) met with various groups in Buffalo and Syracuse that had programs specifically designed to help deaf refugees. They also met with Rochester organizations that worked with refugees in general (including RRRS). What was learned from the meetings was that services designed to help the refugee population were not accessible to the deaf refugees in Rochester. Unfortunately the Rochester organizations working to help refugees were at a loss on how to help the deaf refugees. Hiring ASL interpreters were not sufficient. Consequently, many of the deaf refugees’ needs were suppressed, not addressed appropriately, or ignored.

Many of the deaf refugees come from countries where there were little to no educational opportunities to learn their native spoken/written language and their native sign language. As a result of this language deprivation, they have a hard time expressing their thoughts and have difficulty understand some abstract concepts. They are not able to learn a new language easily, including American Sign Language (ASL). Their thinking and logical decision making skills are impaired as a result. Also, due to cultural differences, many of the deaf refugees’ families thought their deaf member had no real future in terms of becoming independent and self-sufficient.

As a result, Deaf Refugee Advocacy was formed with the goal of becoming an organization to serve the unique needs of deaf refugees. Within a span of 2 to 3 months, DRA was officially established and operational. DRA’s mission statement is as follows:

We recognize that deaf refugees have unique needs that are best served and assisted by the general Deaf community. Our mission is to collaborate and serve as a bridge with current organizations and agencies to ensure assimilation of Deaf refugees into our Rochester Deaf community and into general society by providing assistance as they strive to be self-sustaining neighbors while still retaining their own cultural heritage, identity, language, and religion.

From their modest beginnings starting this past June, meeting with a few deaf refugees in the library two times a month to now providing: literacy classes two times a week, monthly social/networking workshops for not only the deaf refugees but for their family members, high school equivalency preparation classes, large events that include Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester deaf refugee social events, driver’s education, deaf mentorships, paperwork assistance (bills, mail, and forms), citizenship preparation, communication assistance technology (video phone technology, cell phone communication apps), and alert systems (doorbell light systems, fire alarm light systems). Their most significant contribution is their advocacy. The deaf mentors are wonderful role models for the deaf refugees and their families. The refugees are learning about empowerment and are witnessing their American deaf peers in very capable roles in American society. This is an invaluable lesson and the growth of the deaf refugees become more and more visible every day.

photo of DRA volunteers

DRA volunteers

DRA’s next immediate goal is to be able to provide educational classes 5 days a week and to expand their mentor program. DRA isn’t doing this alone. They have had a lot of support from RRRS and are collaborating with various Rochester organizations. A few of them are: Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), DePaul, Catholic Charities, HCR Home Care, Legal Aid, ARC, and Center for Refugee Health, and Catholic Family Center. Various Deaf organizations have also been very supportive.

For more information please go to their web site: www.deafrefugeeadvocacy.org or to their Facebook page. To contact DRA, call 585-286-3440 (VP) or send them an email here.