The Signs Don't Translate Here

Deaf immigrants not only lack a fluency in spoken Hebrew, but are also cut off from Hebrew sign language, which is completely different from Russian sign language. As a result, the estimated 1,200-2,000 deaf immigrants are also unable to communicate with their deaf peers who are native Israelis.

A few months ago, Iliya Markov was traveling by bus from his home in Ashkelon to a Hebrew ulpan in Netanya. Suddenly, the bus stopped at the side of the road and all of the passengers quickly disembarked. At first, Markov didn't understand what was happening and remained alone on the bus. After a long hesitation, he understood that he too should get off the bus. People around him were panicky and shouting. Then a police sapper arrived and took care of a bag a passenger had left on the bus. "I sat there completely cut off," Markov says about this incident, "I felt awful. An Israeli deaf person could have at least read lips and understood what was happening. I didn't understand anything. I was cut off."

Markov, 33, deaf since birth, is not used to this deep feeling of detachment. In Ukraine, where he lived before immigrating to Israel a year and a half ago, he completed a bachelor's degree in managing centers for the deaf and directed a center that had over 500 members. In the grandiose Soviet spirit, the center was called "Palace of Culture for the Deaf." In keeping with the Soviet society's respect for the deaf and other handicapped people, the center provided a solution to all of their needs. There was a communications therapist, drama club, psychologist, special dance teacher and 12 clubs in various branches of sport. Markov, the director, had a translator assigned to him and he never felt limited.

"This difference is a symptom of the society's attitude toward those with handicaps," Markov says. The conversation is conducted with the help of Tikva Wasab, a translator of Hebrew and Russian sign language and the daughter of deaf parents who immigrated to Israel eight years ago. This fluency in two sign languages is a key to survival. Deaf immigrants not only lack a fluency in spoken Hebrew, but are also cut off from Hebrew sign language, which is completely different from Russian sign language. As a result, the estimated 1,200-2,000 deaf immigrants are also unable to communicate with their deaf peers who are native Israelis.

"The vocabulary in Hebrew sign language is very meager," they say. "There are basic words like `father,' `mother,' `eat,' and `sleep' that have identical signs, but the Hebrew sign language is limited and confusing. Some words, such as `correct' and `innocent' have the same sign and it's difficult to understand what is being communicated. Also, everything related to electricity - `electrician,' `socket,' `plug' - has one and the same sign. We don't understand each other and don't have the ability to understand the words even if they are spelled in sign language."

Sometimes this linguistic and cultural difference also creates embarrassing or amusing situations. The sign in Hebrew for "continue" (rubbing the fingers of the right hand in the palm of the left hand) means "pig" in Russian, mimicking the way a pig digs into the earth with his snout. Wasab says at the beginning she felt insulted during conversations with Israeli deaf people because she thought they were calling her a pig. Another example is the Hebrew letter "taf," whose sign in Hebrew is the middle finger, which means something else entirely in the Russian context. The expression "I object" in Hebrew sign language is also a rude and insulting gesture in Russian.

These minor issues and larger problems were discussed last week by four deaf immigrants at the clubroom of the Ashkelon branch of the nonprofit organization "Yedid - Rights Centers in the Community." Geri Makrov, 63, Iliya's father, seems the most depressed. In Ukraine, he was a sports teacher and director of the camping and mountain climbing club of the Palace of Culture for the Deaf. Once he even climbed to peak of the Mount Elbruz in the Caucasian mountains. Here, he looks like a caged lion, thinking all the time about leaving Israel. "I'm bored here," he sums up in simple words the transition to a lifestyle that provides him no challenge.

Forget about Russia

He also cannot find a job. With undisguised longing, he talks about the big factories in the Soviet Union that employed mainly deaf people and how those who could hear also learned to communicate with sign language. This was in addition to a state law requiring every large factory to allot 15-17 percent of its jobs to people with handicaps. "Here there is nothing," they complain. "The moment they see a deaf person, they fear him like cancer."

Each of them experienced a short period of employment that ended during the first round of layoffs, as they were both newcomers and deaf. "In Ukraine, the law stipulates that the handicapped are last in line to be fired in every factory," says Marina Irov, 29, who immigrated to Israel three and a half years ago and was fired from her factory job at Bagir. Tikva Wasab chuckles bitterly that during one of her visits to the National Insurance Institute she was told, "Forget about Russia."

The transition to Israel was a shock for the deaf immigrants. No one prepared them for absorption into a harsh society that lacks facilities for deaf people and offers no special rights for deaf immigrants. One of the most difficult problems is the shortage of Hebrew ulpan programs for the deaf. To be able to offer an ulpan for the deaf, there must be at least 10 students who have been living in Israel for up to a year, who are under the age of 60 and have never learned Hebrew in another ulpan. In Ashkelon, there were only seven deaf immigrants who met all of these criteria. There were also 15 other deaf immigrants who have already been living in the country for 11 years, but still didn't know Hebrew before the ulpan began.

Yizhar Verdinon, the director of the Ashkelon branch of Yedid, found a creative solution: In cooperation with the Kolot nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching Jewish values, which came up with funding for the project, an initial ulpan was opened. During the ulpan's 10 class sessions, the deaf pupils studied Judaism in easy Hebrew sign language. Verdinon took advantage of the opportunity to learn from Makrov (with the help of a dictionary) how to communicate in sign language. Only later did he realize that he learned Russian sign language. The demand and success of the first ulpan led to a second course of 24 meetings funded by the Yedid organization. At the same time, Iliya Markov - on a volunteer basis - began to breathe fresh life into the local club for the deaf, which now boasts some 90 members, about two-thirds of whom are new immigrants. "It's nice to be a willing volunteer, but it's not nice to be compelled to volunteer. I'd be very happy to receive wages for my work," Markov says.

Not long ago, Markov went looking for work. Even though his academic degree is recognized in Israel, the NII sent him to be tested. They asked him to draw a house, a tree and a person. Markov apparently performed this assignment well, because he was invited to come for another test in which he was asked to answer 60 questions on a computer, including: "How much is 25 times 3?" He still hasn't received the results of this test. In all of his contacts with the authorities, Markov, like other deaf immigrants, is completely dependent on Tikva Wasab serving as a translator. Wasab can hear, speaks both Hebrew and Russian, and also knows to translate between sign languages. She helps deaf immigrants from Ashdod, Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, Be'er Sheva, Yavne and Rehovot. Sometimes they wait two weeks to receive the bit of translating services to which they are entitled.

According to the law, each deaf immigrant is eligible to receive 16 hours of translation services a year. This does not even begin to answer the daily needs for translation for the bureaucratic procedures of absorption. The deaf immigrant needs someone to accompany him or her to various government offices, banks, health clinics, landlords, hospitals and sometimes even in seeking psychiatric counseling. Without this translation assistance, they live in a double, impenetrable bubble.

Double deafness

The Ministry of Absorption's official definition of an immigrant - someone who has lived in Israel for less than three years - does not meet the special needs of the deaf, whose entire absorption process is slower due to their handicap. "We can only speak 16 hours a year," they joke, though they don't think the situation is funny at all.

Marina Irov says she looked for a club for deaf people when she arrived in Israel. Someone directed her to a club in Ashkelon, but she found the door to the club was closed. She understood from the sign on the door that the club was open between 7-10 P.M., but couldn't read the strange letters written below the hours. She arrived every evening, only to find that the club was closed. Only later did she realize that the strange letters were "aleph, bet, gimel" - indicating that the club was open on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. However, she happened to come during the week of Passover, when the club was closed all week.

It was over a year before she received an invitation to an ulpan in Tel Aviv. But the Absorption Ministry informed her that she was no longer eligible to have her transportation costs covered because she had not taken advantage of her right to go to an ulpan within her first year in the country. "And then I met Tikva," she notes, suggesting that the day she met the translator was a turning point in her saga.

The deaf immigrants from the former Soviet Union played a major role in the recently concluded protest in Jerusalem. Their circumstances are even more difficult than those of most Israeli deaf people. Their economic situation as new immigrants, who are often unemployed, makes it hard to equip their homes with the devices essential for deaf people. Their situation is also more difficult than that of other handicapped groups, such as the blind: They are not eligible for discounts on public transportation or municipal taxes (unless they're subsisting on supplementary income benefits) and they have no sheltered factories of the type that employ the blind. They are not entitled to mortgages like the disabled or benefits of army veterans because they are not drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.

They learned about the end of the strike action by the deaf via a fax sent by friends. They still haven't received the details of the accord for which they struggled. It's clear to them that the achievements that might help them as deaf people will not be able to solve their special problems as new immigrants. The Knesset Absorption Committee discussed this issue last week and decided to publish a pamphlet for deaf immigrants, outlining their rights. But this kind of decision will not help Marina Irov realize the dream she brought to Israel: To again hear a chorus of deaf people singing in sign language, like she saw in the Palace of Culture for the Deaf in Ukraine.