Invisible victims: bringing sign language to the forefront in times of crisis

Sign language interpreter takes it to the next level following the earthquake in Syria

May 14, 2023

Farah participating at the Ten Boot Camp for effective inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community

©UNDP - Syria

"The house is shaking. What is happening? Is it a bombing? Are we under attack?" frantically signed Ahmad, an 18-year-old young man with a hearing disability from Aleppo, as he went live on Instagram.

Ahmad was one of the many Syrians with hearing disabilities who found themselves in panic and confusion when the earthquake struck. The tight-knit deaf community joined the live stream on Instagram, as they usually do when something happens. When Farah, a sign language expert, could finally join the live conversation from Damascus, fear and confusion were very visible on everyone's faces. 

"It is an Earthquake," she calmly gestured in sign language.

"What is an earthquake? What is that?" many signed, while others stared at the screens in confusion.

In February 2023, multiple earthquakes, the strongest being 7.8 in magnitude, hit southeast Türkiye and Syria. The earthquake had a devastating impact on several governorates in the north, central, and western parts of Syria, including Aleppo, Hama, Idleb, Lattakia, and Tartous. Over 5,900 deaths and 11,200 injuries were reported, affecting an estimated 8.8 million people, with thousands displaced [1].

Building damaged and roads blocked in Aleppo as a result of the earthquake

©UNDP - Syria | Adeeb AlSayed

"They did not know what an earthquake is. They have never been exposed to it before. It is not in their vocabulary," Farah explained. "The deaf community is very vulnerable to misinformation. We saw that during the COVID-19 pandemic and now with the earthquake". 

Farah, from Damascus, was studying to become a biologist in her first year of university when she saw a sign language interpreter on television. "I do not know what it was. I was immediately fascinated by sign language. I wanted to learn everything about this language," said Farah. More than ten years later, Farah is a sign language expert. She is one of only seven accredited experts in the judiciary system in Syria and a sign language news interpreter. "I started as a volunteer with an NGO. I volunteered in as many activities as I could. I became very involved with the deaf community. Unfortunately, it is a closed-off community. There is an inherent doubt and mistrust in the hearing world, and the lack of access to information is alarming," She added.

After the earthquake, from her home where she lives with her parents and brother, Farah published a video on her Facebook page signing in simplified scientific language what an earthquake is, what to expect afterwards, and how to react when it happens. The video was widely shared by the deaf community. "Many rumours were spreading around. I could see that panic was taking over," Farah recalls.

Syrians with hearing disabilities faced significant challenges during the earthquake. Misinformation was widespread, and the lack of access to information made matters worse. "The rumours did not stop as more news kept coming about persons with hearing disabilities who lost their lives or were injured, either because they were left behind or due to heart attacks during aftershocks. One heart-breaking video that went viral within the community is of a young Syrian man with a hearing disability trapped under rubble and asking for help in sign language. Fortunately, he was rescued shortly after, but sadly, his entire family did not make it".

Farah is constantly present in many UNDP projects and activities in Syria. Starting with the Peace Lens in 2017 - Ten Boot Camp - Farah is a founder and a lead contributor to the UNDP-supported Dal platform advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities. She also coached CreaDeaf, one of the winning teams in the 2020 Generation Unlimited Global Challenge, where she still supports them when needed. She is also an active member of the Youth Leadership Programme (YLP) network and the Youth Empowerment, Engagement and Knowledge project, SHABABEEK.

Farah quickly mobilized resources to support the deaf community in Syria. Her efforts included working with relevant entities and associations to create simplified sign language guides, develop capacity for rescue teams and health professionals, and increase awareness for affected families, especially those with disabilities.

"Their most asked questions are how can we find our way in the dark if we cannot hear anything? How will they find us if we get trapped? How can we call for help" she said.

Farah and her colleagues researched what other countries did in similar crises and how they could help with their limited resources. "One helpful advice is to always keep a whistle around their necks, even when they go to sleep. At least it assures them they can call for help if trapped," she added. 


Farah participating at the Ten Boot Camp for effective inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community

©UNDP - Syria

Over 5% of the global population lives with some form of hearing disability[2], with higher numbers estimated in Syria due to poor health services, labour and post-labour complications, and injuries caused by the war. Lack of access to accurate statistics and assessments remains a significant challenge. Lack of access to psychosocial support is another challenge faced by the community

"I do volunteer my services whenever I can to accompany some urgent cases to psychologists, but no matter how professional I am, it is difficult for them sometimes to express some of their issues in front of me," said Farah. UNDP is exploring several solutions to facilitate the access of persons with disabilities to Fadfada, an online psychosocial support service. 

"Unfortunately, we are also noticing a significant increase in gender-based violence (GBV) cases and an increased need for protection [3]. Women with hearing disabilities are particularly vulnerable to GBV and extortion. We are working on raising awareness among the deaf community. Recently, I am proud that a brave young woman came forward and reported a perpetrator who had been blackmailing tens of women in the community. Thankfully he is now behind bars," exclaimed Farah.

Farah's upcoming cooperation with UNDP is to incorporate sign language in the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), which aims to improve youth access to employment opportunities through career counselling, life skills, and vocational and entrepreneurship training.

"The gap is wide. I still have a lot to learn. I wish I had a magic wand to erase the imaginary barriers preventing persons with hearing disabilities from taking the opportunities they truly deserve to play an active role in their communities. They have a lot to offer," said Farah.

Farah is working on her second bachelor's degree in Special Education, in addition to biology. "I have a lot of faith in the young generations. They are much more open and curious about the world. They are increasingly interested in the International Sign language adopted by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), not just the traditional Arabic sign language," Farah concluded.

[1] OCHA Situational Update – 12 April 2023