The Church: Deaf International Community Church in Olathe, Kansas
The Challenge: Teach deaf refugees English, American Sign Language and basic life skills
One Big Idea: If deaf refugees can see their worth, they can pursue their lifelong dreams.
Three years ago, Debbie Buchholz, senior pastor of Deaf International Community Church in Olathe, Kansas, met Guman, a deaf refugee in his 30s who had a limp and cerebral palsy.
“When I first met Guman, he would simply sit and stare,” she recalls. “He had suffered terribly in the refugee camps and had no formal schooling and no language. He would try to express himself by pointing and grunting, but it was frustrating trying to communicate in that way.”
Buchholz soon learned that Guman wasn’t the only deaf refugee who needed help. So, she started a class to teach this community American Sign Language, English, and basic life skills—an ambition that is no easy feat.
“Experts say that if you’re not exposed to language by age 7, the language center in your brain is closed,” says Buchholz. “Some of these guys are in their 40s and 50s, but we can’t give up. No matter what science or statistics say, language is everything. Language is freedom.”
The average deaf church draws between 20 to 25 members. Deaf International Community Church, however, averages 80 attendees on Sunday mornings and has 130 members, making it one of the largest deaf churches in the world.
Buchholz also is the co-founder of Deaf International, an organization that includes a community of Christians who promote human rights for deaf people around the world. Their largest project is the Deaf Refugee Center, which currently serves over 52 refugees and their families. Though Buchholz and her team of volunteers help refugees navigate the citizenship process, their first priority is making sure their students learn to communicate their most rudimentary needs.
“We needed to make sure they could tell us if they were hungry or in pain. We needed to teach them how to recite their name and address in case they got lost,” says Buchholz, noting that they even tackle common-sense issues such as looking out for cars before crossing the street.
The Deaf Refugee Center supplies the refugees and their families with hygiene products and would like to eventually provide clothes, household furnishings and mattresses.
“We have had terrible issues with bed bugs because if they see a free mattress, they grab it, not understanding that it’s likely infested,” says Buchholz, noting it all goes back to the importance of language acquisition.
One day a week, Buchholz holds formal instruction for the deaf refugees on reading and writing English. On Sundays, they practice their socialization and signing skills at church. In addition, one day a week Buchholz takes them to run errands.
After years of patient work with Buchholz, Guman no longer sits and stares. Though he may not construct perfect grammatical sentences, he now can share his stories. And that makes Buchholz wildly proud.
“These people come from a culture where they think being deaf is a curse and makes them less than,” says Buchholz. “We are here to build them up as much as possible. Each of them has dreams, but they had to push those dreams aside long ago. I want them to start dreaming again.”