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June 26, 2003

Teen, deaf sisters navigate cultures

From: San Jose Mercury News, CA - Jun 26, 2003

By T.T. Nhu
Mercury News

Naseema Ahmadzay, flanked by her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, wept quietly as Wagma, her daughter, was honored again and again for her accomplishments at the California School for the Deaf graduation.

Wagma's name was called five times during the ceremony this month to receive academic and career awards, achievements even more notable because of the cultural and language barriers she's had to overcome.

''I grew up with several cultures and am part of deaf, Afghan and American culture,'' said Wagma, speaking through an American Sign Language interpreter.

Wagma and her two sisters, who are also deaf, must navigate a host of language and cultural barriers every day. They deal with communication problems at home, cultural differences at school, and perceptions of their deafness in traditional Afghan society.

If the Ahmadzay sisters had remained in Afghanistan, they might have been confined to their home because of their gender and disability, family members say. But in the United States, they have enjoyed opportunities unknown in their homeland.

''Wagma is the first child in our family to graduate from school,'' Naseema Ahmadzay said. ''Had we been in Afghanistan, none of this would have been possible.''

At home, their mother devised her own sign language to communicate with Wagma, 18, and her sisters Waheeda, 16, and Nageena, 14. Neither she nor her husband, Hayat, can use American Sign Language, and their English is very limited. The girls know American Sign Language and English, but not their parents' native Pashto.

It is Bobby, the youngest child, who is fluent in all the languages used in the home: English, Pashto, and American and Pashto sign languages. He mediates between the world of the hearing and deaf, Afghan and American. ''It's been more interesting to have deaf sisters than just having a boring, ordinary life,'' said Bobby, who alternately enjoys being the interlocutor and chafes at this duty.

''My dad doesn't even try to speak to the girls, and I hate it that he won't even try,'' Bobby said. ''He'll speak to me in Pashto, and I ask him, how do you think it makes them feel when you won't make the effort to learn sign language?''

The family lives in a sparsely decorated house in Hayward, with deep red carpets and a few Muslim religious icons adorning the wall. The father owns a body shop and sells used cars.

The sisters were born deaf, perhaps the result of a hereditary condition. A great uncle was also deaf. The family lived in Logar, Afghanistan, before the war drove them to Pakistan.

In 1988, the family resettled in Arizona, then came to Fremont in 1990 to enroll the three girls at the state's deaf school.

At first, the girls were not conscious of being different from others in the deaf community.

''I was able to speak and communicate comfortably as I was young, but as I got older, I found it much harder because I was increasingly aware of being a Muslim,'' Wagma said.

After Sept. 11, it became even more difficult.

''It's hard enough being a Afghan, and it's especially hard being a Muslim after 9/11,'' said Bobby, who was often teased at school for being ''Osama's cousin.''

Wagma is planning to attend Ohlone College in the fall. Her goal is to get a degree so she can eventually teach the deaf in Afghanistan.

She wants to set up an organization to support deaf children in Afghanistan.

''I want the deaf there to have the same respect and opportunities that hearing have,'' Wagma said. ''When you think about it, hearing schools are rare in Afghanistan, so that must mean that deaf schools are needed more than ever.''

© 2003 Mercury News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.