The Lost Deaf Men (and Women) of Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—The men (and occasionally, a woman) show up at the entrance of Deaf Development Programme, standing uncertainly by the corrugated steel gate, downcast eyes on their feet, as the person who brought them to DDP speaks to the elderly guard at the painted wooden desk just inside. They are often picked up from the streets, mostly by the riverside, by a good Samaritan who then bundles them into a tuk-tuk to bring them to DDP.

Other times, they are sent to DDP by organizations in Phnom Penh, such as LICADHO, a human rights NGO, who found two young deaf men in one of Phnom Penh’s notorious police-run detention, or rather, “re-education” centers, after one of the street-sweeping campaigns conducted on a regular basis by the government to “beautify” Phnom Penh. However these people find their way to DDP, they don’t know their names, where they came from, or where they can find their families. They arrive not being able to write in Khmer and without a signed language.

Kosal was given his name when he arrived at DDP from a “re-education” center after being swept off the streets by a “beautification” campaign ahead of an ASEAN summit. He doesn’t know his name or where his family lives. Do you know who this man is? DDP is still trying to find out who he really is. All we know is he likes food and cameras, especially mine. He understands sign language but prefers not to respond. Photograph by Erin Moriarty Harrelson.

On an annual basis, DDP takes out an advertisement in the newspaper with their photographs, somber faces peering out, “Do you know who this is? Where are their families?”

Very few of these students find their way home, but when it happens, it is by serendipity. One —> Read More