Interview and photographs on behalf of Audiovisability by Stephen Iliffe
“Hey, I’m Spiderman!”
Six-year-old Lawand climbs his bedroom walls.
Because, in their dreams, deaf children can do anything – except hear perfectly.
As an asylum seeker, Lawand Hamadamin dreams of a future here in Derby – 3,230 miles from his birthplace in Chwarqurna, northern Iraq.
For 18 months ago, his family fled overnight from war-torn Iraq to seek safety here, with just passports and the clothes on their back.
As a reporter for the Audiovisability project, I meet the Hamadamins in temporary accommodation in a Derby backstreet. Naked light bulbs, bare walls, mattresses on the floor. But it’s home. For now.
Polite, smiling yet nervous, father Rebwar (35) and mother Golbahar (33) offer me a traditional welcome – a tray of black tea and baklava pastries. As we sit cross-legged on the floor, I promise the boys – Lawand (6) and brother Rawa (7) – that once I’ve finished interviewing their parents, we’ll play football in a local park. They agree, grab some toys, gifted by local volunteers, and race upstairs.
Rebwar stresses that refugees are ordinary people like you and me.
“Trust me,” he says. “No-one easily leaves their country, culture and language. My family lived in Chwarqurna for six generations. I had a tile fitting business. We had our own house, a car. We’d take the boys on day trips to the mountains (above). We were happy there.”
But then their lives were turned upside-down by the war. United Nations (UN) began to file reports of genocide, slavery, rape: “Just imagine,” says Rebwar, “no longer feeling safe in your own home. At nights, I’d hear a bang or noise and wonder what was about to happen? When I saw my kids asleep in their beds, I knew for their sakes that we had to leave.”
The Hamadamins made a dangerous trek through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Germany – arriving at France’s infamous Dunkirk refugee camp (below).
In Dunkirk, the Hamadamins swapped one hell for another: “Conditions were so bad you would not leave your dog there,” says Rebwar.
“Floods, disease, rats. It was bad enough for adults, imagine how frightening for kids. And all this when Lawand should have been starting school.”
“We had to wrap Lawand’s cochlear implant in a plastic bag to stop water getting inside,” adds Rebwar. “Then it ran out of batteries and later broke. It was so hard for me to communicate to Lawand why he wasn’t at home doing the normal things.”
Amid outbreaks of police brutality and typhoid disease, the Hamadamins were dramatically rescued by Deaf Kidz International volunteers who bundled them to safety in the back of a lorry heading towards England.
Deaf Kidz facilitated Lawand’s enrolment at Derby’s Royal School for Deaf Children. It was his first sustained exposure to sign language. He took to it like a fish to water.
“When Lawand arrived at school, he had no means of communicating with anyone, even his own family,” headteacher Helen Shepherd told the Daily Mail. “He’s now making exceptional progress here. He is signing incredibly well and has made good friends. He has grown physically and in confidence.”
“It’s my dream that when I’m older, I can play for my deaf school’s football team” says Lawand.
The family’s relief didn’t last long: the Hamadamins were given blunt notice by the British government’s Home Office that they are to be deported back to Germany.
The decision makes no human sense: Lawand’s education would go back to square one. German and German Sign Language are completely different to English and British Sign Language. At a stroke, a year’s progress would be wiped out.
There was an immediate public outcry with media headlines. A 38 Degrees petition gained over 12,000 signatures. At the 11th hour, a solicitor forced the Home Office to delay proceedings until a High Court judge considers their case.
“I fully understand that some British people feel asylum seekers have no place here,” says Rebwar. “Yet so many people have been welcoming to us too.”
That some feel the Hamadamins don’t belong here is illustrated in graphic terms in the comments thread below the Daily Mail article:
“Being deported to Germany is now a “devastating blow”? Really?”
‘I bet the kids getting all the benefits! They are living like kings!’
‘Hopefully the deaf boy didn’t hear the 11th hour reprieve and left for the airport……’
The online trolls are misinformed. Rebwar despairs: “If we return to Germany, the same thing could happen there too. Using the same EU rules, they might simply deport us back to Greece. Another country, another language, another education system. Every time, we get moved on, Lawand would suffer from the lack of continuity in our lives.”
And, contrary to popular myth, government benefits for refugees are modest: “Just £5 per person per day” says Rebwar. “I have to juggle food and transport costs within that. When you have a child with special needs, there are additional costs. We are deeply grateful to the support of the British Red Cross with donating things like toiletries. But if we go past an ice cream van and the boys ask, we simply can’t afford it.”
Home Office rules prevent asylum seekers from paid employment until their leave to remain is granted, so the family has no other means of supporting itself.
Why should Britain take Iraqi refugees?
Let’s rewind back to 2003, and the US-British invasion of Iraq. An Iraqi regime that had no “weapons of mass destruction” to threaten us was toppled by our armed forces with little thought to the longer-term consequences.
Arrogant US-British officials then installed puppet rulers who were predictably unable to govern Iraq. This unleashed a chain reaction that would eventually lead to extremists filling the political vacuum. Ten of thousands died, more than 3 million driven from their homes.
As The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins argues: “Britain broke Iraq. We can’t turn our back on its refugees.
“The reason given for the invasion was ‘humanitarian’,” says Jenkins. “Given the lack of military threat, humanity was all there was. Now humanity comes knocking on Britain’s door. It is hypocrisy for a British government to say “we declared war on your country for the sake of your humanity. Don’t come to our shores because we screwed up”.”
Yet still the Home Office shrugs its shoulders. EU rules state asylum be sought in the country of first refuge. For Iraqi refugees, this puts Turkey, Greece and Italy in the frontline – with Britain on the far side of the European continent. This is unfair and unenforceable. Turkey, Greece and Italy never went to war with Iraq yet they absorb by far the greater number of refugees.
Take a closer look at the statistics: Only 0.24% of the UK population are refugees, asylum seekers or stateless people – that is 168,978 people, around the same size as the population of Rochdale in Lancashire.
This is just a fraction of the 749,309 refugees and asylum seekers that Germany has taken in. British Red Cross confirms that roughly just 3% of asylum applications in Europe were lodged in the UK.
For Lawand’s sake, we can’t let him become just another statistic, a political football to be kicked around Europe?
A last chance for Lawand?
Ever since birth, Lawand had the odds stacked against him. In the Middle East, deaf children outside the major cities are often abandoned to their fate – a life without school or work – by families and officials lacking in positive adult role models for what deaf people can really achieve, if given support.
Lawand was already one before his deafness was identified: “I had my suspicions” says Rebwar (above, right). “While other children chattered away, Lawand had just two words, “Mum” and “Dad”.”
Nine out of ten deaf children are born into families with no prior experience of childhood deafness. All over the world, when parents are told their new born child is deaf, the response is universal: “I was devastated,” says Rebwar. “I felt helpless.”
Yet Rebwar, a humble tile fitter, refused to accept the status quo. There are no audiologists in Chwarqurna. A two hour-drive to Erbil resulted in a hearing test that confirmed his deafness, but no hearing aids. So Rebwar dug deep into his savings and flew to New Delhi, India. Aged two, Lawand was fitted with his first hearing aids.
By British standards, where new-born babies are automatically screened for hearing loss and fitted with aids within weeks, this came late. Research indicates the first two years, as the child’s brain grows and forms neurological connections, are critical for establishing a working language. Postpone hearing aids, or sign language input, and the normal rate of development becomes progressively harder to achieve.
So, Lawand was in a race against time: On return from India, Rebwar was advised that for his son also needed a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT). Inevitably, Chwarqurna had none. Again, Rebwar made financial sacrifices and flew to neighbouring Iran. For two months, Lawand had daily appointments with an SLT using Iran’s national Farsi language.
However, Rebwar soon became aware of the futility of this: as Kurdish (the family’s own native language) and Farsi are different languages. It was only then Rebwar understood the full benefits of SLT therapy are specific to the child’s own language: an obvious point to many of us in the west, but not so to people in a country lacking public information about deafness.
So, Rebwar conceded defeat. In what felt like a final throw of the dice, he made a second flight to New Delhi and made the case for Lawand to have a cochlear implant – a surgically-implanted device that gives profoundly deaf children access to a fuller spectrum of sounds than hearing aids can deliver.
On return to Chwarqurna, Lawand began nursery class, only for fate to take another twist as northern Iraq was thrown into turmoil once more. As the family fled in panic, Lawand’s education was halted even as it had barely started.
New friends, new dreams
Northern Iraq’s future is dire. Many of its schools and hospitals are closed or barely function. Half of the region’s health workers have fled the country.
Even in peaceful times, Chwarqurna lacked the deaf community infrastructure that Derby enjoys – underpinned by the Royal School which brings together families of deaf children and young people into mutual support groups, all giving each emotional and practical support.
Indeed, Lawand’s many new deaf friends feel so attached to him, that one, 11-year old Layla (above), has uploaded to You Tube an eloquent sign language poem that captures Lawand’s hopes and fears.
The interview over, I keep my promise to Lawand and Rawa and we head out to a local park to play football. I’m struck by how Lawand’s communication skills have blossomed at deaf school. I ask who’s your favourite football team? As quick as a flash, Lawand fingerspells B-A-R-C-E-L-O-N-A. Favourite player? L-I-O-N-E-L M-E-S-S-I. Who’s better Messi or Ronaldo? And we’re getting into the finer details. Ronaldo wins more trophies, but Messi gets more goals. And, so on and on.
Like so many deaf children starved of language and communication in the early years, and still without access to his broken cochlear implant, Lawand’s quick-witted thoughts, through the visual medium of British Sign Language, are now gushing out.
As Lawand signs the names of his school friends and their hobbies, it’s clear to me that, in additional to the political, legal and moral arguments, the human case for Lawand to remain in England is exceptional.
If Lawand is deported, he will have no further access to his newly acquired British Sign language. His communication will shut down. He will suffer the trauma of being unable to enjoy a shared language with family, friends and teachers.
As we race to the playground climbing frames, Lawand resumes his Spiderman act once more. I sign to him: “Don’t you get dizzy hanging upside-down like that? “No,” he signs back. “I’m a superhero!”
Does nothing make him afraid, I wonder? Which leads me to the big question: “If you had the chance, would you like to go back to Chwarqurna?”
“No,” he shakes his head decisively. “I have nightmares about going back. I don’t want to go to a place with no deaf school, no-one I can talk to in my new British Sign Language.”
“It’s my dream to stay in Derby,” says Lawand. “This is my home. My friends are here. My heart is here.”
Fabrica Gallery, Central Brighton, 6th December 2017
Stour Space, Hackney, London 17th December 2017
Arlington Arts Centre, Newbury 15th January – 9th March 2018
Arab British Centre, Gough Square, London TBC