ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Fr. Roberts: “The Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak”

A school for deaf and handicapped boys in Lebanon provides hope for a brighter future.

Music drifts across the room as the costumed dancers lift their feet at the appointed moment and gracefully move in synchronization. But these dancers do not hear the music for they are deaf and move to the vibrations of sound.

The Foyer Dancers as they are known throughout the Middle East and Europe are students at The Home in the Hills, Harissa, Lebanon. Founded in 1959 by Fr. Ronald S. Roberts, who died on Easter 1983, the school is unique in Lebanon.

For 24 years, Fr. Roberts cared for deaf boys in an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and affection. His progressive ideas and his burning ideals were admired by some and considered excessive by others. He believed deaf pupils should be integrated as soon as possible with hearing children and he encouraged deaf pupils to participate with hearing children in art, dancing, sports and other activities. “The general idea is that deaf children should have a class (and a trained teacher) attached to a normal school, instead of being perpetually cut off from the normal community,” he once wrote.

Throughout the Middle East there is an almost biblical feeling that it is disgraceful to be suffering from a handicap. The boys came to the Home deprived in the true sense of the word. They were despised at home, uneducated and unable to communicate. Fr. Roberts accepted the boys and created a family atmosphere because, as he wrote: “There is no substitute for the healing warmth that grows out of mutual concern and loving care of a real family.”

As a British army chaplain stationed in Lebanon during World War II, Fr. Roberts grew to know the Lebanese people and their problems. On his return after the war he acquired a crumbling mountain villa in the town of Harissa outside of Beirut and intended to establish a home for the incurably ill.

Soon after he began operating the villa, a simple action changed the course of Fr. Robert’s life. One day he opened the door to a five-year-old homeless deaf and mute boy. When he realized that no one else was filling the desperate need to educate the deaf, Fr. Roberts could not turn his back to their plight. Once the word spread throughout Lebanon that there was a priest in Harissa who accepted deaf boys regardless of financial situation or religion, the Home in the Hills was inundated.

Soon the deaf outnumbered the incurably ill and eventually the Home accepted only deaf boys. Since he knew very little about the education of the deaf, Fr. Roberts returned to Europe to learn. Once back in Lebanon he recruited teachers, bought and borrowed equipment. A small, stocky, husky man who did not suffer fools gladly, Fr. Roberts had a great deal of patience with his young charges. He trained his assistants and patience was something he instilled in them.

During the first few months, Fr. Roberts relied on God and the goodness of others. Food was scarce, rent was hard to find and blankets and clothes were almost nonexistent. An often incongruous mix of people were instrumental in helping The Home in the Hills survive. When a group of sailors came to help paint walls and fix floors they managed to leave a trail of toys in their wake. Doctors and dentists from Beirut cared for the boys without charge and a group of Lebanese women donated the proceeds from their annual Christmas bazaar to finance the purchase of land for an additional building.

When this help materialized, Fr. Roberts was rarely surprised. “We are always amazed at Harissa, at the astonishment expressed by so many Christians over our confidence in Christ.”

In 1966, The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, through the donations of its generous contributors, began providing the daily running expenses of the Home.

The 50 students, who are divided into classes according to age, have a rigorous academic schedule. They are taught Arabic, French and some English in addition to mathematics, history, geography, science. The school curriculum is practically the same as that of hearing boys of their age. Because they are surrounded by classmates with the same handicap, the boys are motivated to succeed academically as well as socially.

Each child is instructed in lip reading, sign language and speech therapy. There are also courses in watchmaking, hairdressing and tailoring for the older students who are preparing to enter the workforce.

One recent graduate, Khalil Nehme works at the American University of Beirut as an expert draftsman with engineers and architects. Khalil came to the Home at the age of 13. At the age of 10 he was working because his father was dead and with his brothers and sisters in an orphanage he had to support his mother. When he entered the school he was profoundly deaf and knew very little.

By the age of 22 he and another student were the only profoundly deaf students in the Middle East to take a public exam in the same conditions as hearing students. In the diction part of the examination Khalil lip read English and the other student lip read French. Their first language is Arabic. They both passed the exam with grades of 90 percent.

Another student, Said, came to the school at 18 where he learned how to read and write. Because he entered the school so late he has difficulty speaking. He taught his classmates how to sew and now earns a living as a master tailor.

A set of false teeth with a plastic tongue is one of the biggest aids in helping the boys learn to talk. The instructors move the tongue around the “mouth” to show the boys where the tongue goes when certain sounds are pronounced. Mirrors, amplifiers, microphones and earphones are also used extensively.

Most boys combine speech and sign language. “We just want them to be able to communicate” wrote Fr. Roberts.

Communicating through body language has been one of the most successful ways of teaching the boys. Teaching the deaf rhythm, which is a key element of speech presents difficulties. The teachers at The Home in the Hills decided that dancing would be a fun, creative way to learn the complicated concept. Many persistent hours of practice throughout four years transformed the clumsy students into polished performers. Naming themselves The Foyer Dancers after The Foyer des Sourds Muets (French for The Home in the Hills) the boys started performing in front of audiences. They learned the Lebanese national folk dance the dakke, and some Spanish and Scottish steps.

The dancing sparked the enthusiasm of everyone in the Home. The boys that weren’t dancers designed and made the costumes. And when the dancers were invited to London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam where they appeared on television the entire home was ecstatic to be part of such a big event.

The dancing has been a tremendous way of attracting attention to and support for the Home’s work. The boys have also received a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Mime is another area where the students excel. One recent Christmas Fr. Roberts received a call from a group in Beirut that wanted a mime show for a meeting. Since many of the students who mimed had graduated, Fr. Roberts had little time for anything except school work with the younger students. Hurriedly they organized the Christmas story with the boys making the costumes and scenery.

The show was a great success and was talked about so much that a television show wanted to film it and air it on Christmas Day. The producer, who remained out of sight, read the texts referring to each scene as the boys mimed it. Fr. Roberts recalled one phone call he would never forget from a viewer. “A man said that it had given him goose pimples. It was so beautiful and sincerely done that he felt carried back 2,000 years and felt he was actually in Nazareth, in Jerusalem and finally in Bethlehem watching the actual events taking place.”

Fr. Roberts succeeded in treating the boys as individuals, each with separate characters and talents. Every child was appreciated and challenged by Fr. Roberts and almost visibly blossomed as he progressed.

An environment where deaf and hearing children could live and work together was another dream of Fr. Roberts. On the six acres of hillside high above the Mediterranean where The Home in the Hills is located Fr. Roberts envisioned a Settlement of the Three Crosses.

He planned to offer 20 boys with normal hearing a free education if they would help the deaf boys speak. Every hearing student would be put in charge of one younger and one older deaf boy and each grouping would be competing with the other groups in the school. Fr. Roberts hoped that the 20 hearing boys would develop into a resource of already trained teachers for the deaf.

The buildings housing the hearing students would be the first part of The Settlement of the Three Crosses. The second branch would house 20 students crippled by polio. Fr. Roberts intended to have the deaf boys learn to talk in return for lessons in walking, swimming or whatever level of activity the polio students were permitted to do.

To finish the settlement a church will be built. “What we hope to have finally,” writes Fr. Roberts, “is an effective interaction among the deaf boys, the crippled boys and the normal boys. The deaf will not only get actual help from the crippled boys, but will see that being deaf and mute are not necessarily the worst afflictions. Furthermore they will get immense satisfaction out of finding someone they can help. Similarly the polio victims will benefit from having a vital role in helping the deaf talk, and the normal boys from helping both.”

“In a very different sense, a very Christian sense,” says Fr. Roberts, “the settlement will be a modern example of the blind leading the blind, for the benefit of both.”

Fr. Roberts died before the Settlement was completed. It is under construction and the school is being supervised by an order of Melkite Sisters.

Religion has never been a qualification for being in the Home. The boys are Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholics, Armenians, Greek Catholics and Assyrians. Their presence in the Home is based on their handicap and their need. The Chapel is central and is open to all.

Fr. Roberts once wrote “At night before the little ones go to bed they come to me one by one and I make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. One night without thinking, I made it on a Moslem forehead. The youngster stared at me, and pointed his finger to his forehead as if to say, ‘I’m not a Christian.’ I hurriedly apologized, pretended to rub off the cross and made a crescent instead. He was quite happy then.” As the boys grew up, however, they realized that their religion was respected, and they in turn respected the religion of others, particularly of the “Abouna” (Father Roberts).

It could not have been easy for this English priest (who shared a room with no one) in the mountains in Lebanon, surrounded by his large group of deaf boys and overlooking Beirut with its explosions and bombings resounding round the valleys. But he carried on, for the work was more important to him than the discomfort or loneliness, or the pain of an arthritic body. In a war-torn country he brought a sense of peace and security to the deaf boys who will always remember him with gratitude, and through whom his work will live on.

Helen Breen is the former administrator of CNEWA’s Beirut and Jerusalem offices.

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