Walking through the front gates of the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, we were immediately surrounded by children. The complex was built around a central courtyard, which at the time of our arrival was full of children. The normal sounds of laughter and chatter emanated from the different bunches. For foreigners such as ourselves, who spoke little to no Arabic, the sounds of the playground could be mistaken for some other spoken language that our ears were just not tuned to understand. A closer look revealed the movement of children’s hands jabbering away in Jordanian Sign Language.
“Unlike most people who do nothing when they talk, when these students speak they are creating movement and with movement comes action,” explained Brother Andrew, the Director of the Institute. His words struck me as prophetic today as we toured the Institute. What movement do we make with our words? What actions do we make with our movements?
Brother Andrew gave us a tour of the facilities that over the last 40 years has developed into a collection of seven different educational and research departments. The Institute, sponsored by the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Jordanian Royal family, is a unique institution in the Middle East, where students who are deaf and deafblind receive education and rehabilitation. In addition to what people in the U.S. would consider special education, religious education is also offered—Islam for the Muslim students and Christianity for the Christian students.
We played with many of the 150 students who live there, train in vocational work, and teach each other about special education. The hopes and smiles of these children, many whom would be otherwise rejected by society, were heartwarming.
Focus Interview: Brent Stutzman, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—Serving and Learning Together (SALT) Program.
Yesterday I was fortunate enough to visit with Cindy and Daryl Byler, the MCC office staff for Iraq, Iran, Jordan, and Palestine. The Bylers graciously welcomed me into their office and spoke with me at length about MCC’s programs in the Middle East. While I hope to touch on specific pieces of their work in later entries, Cindy and Daryl shared with me a bit about two programs that allow young people to volunteer for 11 months (renewable up to two years): International Volunteer Exchange (IVE) and Serving and Learning Together (SALT).
IVE sponsors the volunteer placement of young Jordanian women in places of service throughout the U.S. and Canada. SALT sponsors the volunteer placement of young men and women from the U.S. in places of service throughout the world. I’m more familiar with the SALT program because a friend of mine from Earlham served in South America for two years as a community music teacher.
The Bylers told me there were four SALT volunteers presently in the Middle East and today when my group arrived at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, Brent Stutzman from Hutchinson, Kans., was already there. A little over a year ago, Brent answered a MCC volunteer advertisement. He had recently graduated from Bethel College and was exploring post-graduate options. The SALT program resonated with him so he applied. But the position for which he applied was nothing like the work he ended up doing.
Brent began his service at the Institute with an assignment working with deafblind students. The Institute has eight deafblind students and may be the only school in the Middle East that provides education and services for the deafblind. Upon arrival, Brent expected to work teaching English, helping out with administrative duties, and doing some manual labor. Instead, without knowledge of sign language or Arabic, Brent was asked to assist in deafblind education by being a one-on-one teacher for one of the deafblind students. Brent was introduced to Mohammed and 11 months later, the two of them are inseparable.
Brent has spent a considerable amount of time learning Jordanian sign language and Arabic. “I just have to stay one step ahead of Mohammed,” he remarked. Brent communicates with Mohammed by taking his hands and signing while Mohammed feels the language. The two of them laugh, argue, and engage deeply in learning. Mohammed has developed enough language skills to communicate intelligibly with the other deaf students but, “I hog most of his time,” joked Brent.
When asked what he was thinking of doing after his two-year SALT term limit was up, Brent replied that he was investigating graduate programs in deafblind education: “American deafblind education has been in development for almost a century while Jordanian deafblind education is barely ten years old,” Brent explained. As a graduate of biology, Brent never expected to find his life pointing in this direction and expects the last year of his SALT program to be as transformational as the last.
first published at the blog of Friends Journal