'Mini village' to provide life skills for blind and deaf refugees

Adjusting to life in the United States is a daunting task for many refugees and low-income immigrants. It’s even harder for those who are blind or deaf.

When Mike Kirma came to Michigan in 2009, from Iraq via Syria, his English was very limited and like many blind refugees, he was unable to make use of the English braille system. But with the help of the Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF), Kirma was able to study for his citizenship test and answer the 100 questions he needed to pass in 2015.

“I still remember all the questions,” Kirma says. “It took me four months to study, but I can tell you the colors of the flag are red, white and blue."

Kirma is fiercely proud of his citizenship. He changed his name from 'Khalid' to 'Mike' and (perhaps indicating his true acclimation to the US) he says his biggest hurdle was understanding tax questions.

Now a $4 million expansion to the CCF’s premises means that residents like Kirma will be able to learn life skills—from money transactions to getting a haircut—in a much more hands-on way. A new life skills center will provide a mini-village setting, complete with a working bank, cafe, grocery store and street-scape. Kirma is particularly excited about plans for an ATM machine.

“Technology is very important for blind people,” he says. “It can make my life easier, I use iPhone voice over for everything.”

Sue Kattula knows just how important the BEAM program is for participants who visit the Chaldean Community Foundation.CCF behavioral health manager Susan Kattula says the center will provide a safe space for individuals with disabilities to hone their skills, practice interactions and gain valuable work experience.

“Many of our special needs people do not go out into the community,” Kattula says. “Perhaps because they feel afraid or actually do not know how to engage in a social setting, so it is much easier to just stay at home.”

Jhonny Kitola knows all too well what that kind of isolation feels like. He says when he left his home in northern Iraq in 2013 to come to the USA he spent the first six weeks living in fear, barely able to leave his apartment because of the anxiety he felt. It’s something he hopes the new facility would help with.

“We would like to get them to experience the community around them,” says Kattula. “To familiarize them and make them comfortable so when they have the opportunity to go out into the community they feel comfortable."

"This will also help with giving them a sense of belonging.”

Now, Kirma and Kitola go walking around their neighborhood together, helping each other navigate the challenges of day-to-day activities.

“We like going to Tim Hortons for cappuccinos,” says Kirma. “I like Sterling Heights, there’s good education and a good quality of life.”

When the CCF, established in 2006 to help a growing number of immigrants in Michigan, originally opened an office in 2011 in a small strip mall space, organizers expected to assist around 400 people in the community per year. Instead they had over 4,000 people walk through their doors in the first year. The foundation assists immigrants with education, acculturation, education and even legal advice, and has since expanded to larger premises on 15 Mile Rd. It’s not just for members of the Chaldean community, either.

“We will help anyone who walks through our doors,” says Stacy Bahri, CCF’s strategic initiatives  manager.

But of all the communities the organization helped in those first years, those with visual and auditory impairments stood out as a group that desperately needed resources. The CCF encountered many individuals with disabilities who were interested in working and continuing their education but were in need of assistance with daily tasks. So they launched two projects under their Breaking Barriers Program to help; the Braille ESL Acculturation Mobility (BEAM) initiative and the Hard of Hearing, ESL, American Sign Language, Life Skills (HEAL) project.

BEAM, a program where participants learn to speak English and read through braille, works alongside the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and the Macomb Literacy Partners, and includes technology-based lessons for iPhone, iPad, and computers. HEAL is designed to better equip members of the community who have hearing impairments to live independent lives. In this class, students learn English and American sign language and the goal for the student is to become literate.

So far the projects have served 3,894 individuals with disabilities, provided transport to and from programs for 739 people and run nearly 5,000 hours of programming. Kirma and Kitola are part of a group that meets every Wednesday morning at the CCF, where participants learn language skills, can speak candidly about their challenges, and laugh together.

“It’s great,” says Kirma. “But it needs to be more than once a week, that’s why I am excited about the new center, we can come more often.”

CCF special projects manager (and owners representative) Sam Salman says they hope to break ground on the construction for the expansion early next month, and that they are waiting on final approvals. The plans, designed by Saroki Architecture, will go before the city in May.

“In the meantime we’ve been able to obtain permits to start minor activities (i.e., tree-clearing and erosion control measures),” Salman says. “Now we are just waiting for the building permit.”

“Just knowing that we are going to build a building for this purpose—we are very excited,” Salman says. “It will be state-of-the-art.”

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at kroff@issuemediagroup.com