PHNOM PENH, Cambodia–During a respite from agonizing about how to pack for a ten-day trip to Laos that included a meeting with representatives from the Laotian Association of the Deaf, a three-day Laotian wedding, and sightseeing in scorching heat, I sat down on my couch, idly scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed.
The first inkling of a devastating event for deaf people in Cambodia was the appearance in my newsfeed of a photograph of a young man, laying on a hospital gurney with his eyes closed, intubated, arm dangling and covered in bandages, blood seeping through the linen. This gruesome image, posted by his sister, was accompanied by a desperate plea, “Please, brother, please live!”
I didn’t know who this person was or how this photograph came to be on my newsfeed. It is common for Cambodian media to post graphic photographs of bloody and broken bodies on the pages of their daily Khmer-language newspaper. Sharing gruesome photos with dire warnings is representative of how many Cambodians use social media. I dismissed it as yet another gruesome image posted by a friend of a friend but then I recognized some of the names in the comments, which ranged from emoticons of crying bears, “RIP” and “I am so sorry.” Scrolling through these comments, I realized that the man in the bed was a member of the deaf Cambodian network.
Wondering what was happening, I closed my laptop and stuffed it into my backpack. I continued to throw things into my suitcase, checking and double-checking to be sure I had my toothbrush and toothpaste.
I went downstairs to meet Sovannaro Kong, my regular tuk-tuk guy, who is also deaf. He usually greets me with a bit of gossip or information but he was quiet, signing simply, “Airport?” I nodded and he threw my bag into the tuk-tuk then straddled his motorbike, intent on getting myself to Phnom Penh International on time for my 6 p.m. flight to Vientiane. He took a different route this time, quicker but dustier and bumpier. As we bumped through the billowing red dust, I studied the back of his head, and every so often, glanced over to his grim face in the mirrors hanging off the roof of the tuk-tuk.
We pulled around to the front of the airport and Sovannaro heaved my bag out of the tuk-tuk. As soon as the bag thudded on the pavement, Sovannaro signed to me, using a name sign I didn’t recognize, “My friend, [name sign] dead. I grew up with him. Now, I’m going to his house to meet his family. ”
I asked him, “What happened?” Sovannaro didn’t know the details, signing, “Motorcycle accident. When I go to his house I will know more.” We were both quiet for a moment, standing and looking at each other–a circle of stillness amidst a bustle of people swirling around us.
Sovannaro broke the stillness, signing, “He was almost finished with university. He was studying architecture.” He turned back to his tuk-tuk, straddled his motorcycle, made eye contact with his mirrors and pulled away with a slight nod.
I didn’t learn any more until I returned from Laos and saw Sovannaro again. Kiry Danh was a member of the first cohort of students at Krousar Thmey. Krousar Thmey established the first and only K-12 school for deaf children in Cambodia in 1997 and the members of the very first class of deaf children are just now arriving at the university level. Krousar Thmey has worked steadily from its earliest days in the late 1990s with the goal of sending deaf students to university. Today, 15 students from Krousar Thmey are now in university in Phnom Penh and Battambang, studying Architecture and Information Technology.
Kiry had completed four years and was close to graduating—one of the first deaf students in Cambodia to do so. According to Sovannaro, also a Krousar Thmey graduate, many deaf people in Cambodia are grieving and angry. Kiry was hope; he represented the future of deaf people in Cambodia.
Kiry was leading the way for the deaf people behind him but he died before he could receive his diploma. A shining beacon of possibilities for deaf people in Cambodia, extinguished by a traffic accident, which is all too common in Cambodia.
Research has shown that Cambodia suffers the highest motorcycle fatality rate in Southeast Asia, with an average of five people dying everyday, according to a report by the Cambodian Government and Handicap International. About 80 percent of accident casualties are in the “economically active” portion of the population and the peak age group is 20-29 years old, catastrophic for the future of Cambodia as a whole, but especially the most vulnerable.