Father Charles Dittmeier has spent a lifetime helping the deaf. (Photo by Ate Hoekstra)
Kids playing in a large suburban compound in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh greet Father Charles Dittmeier with broad smiles. And a young girl uses sign language to ask when he will be coming back.
It's one of only a few organisations in the country that helps deaf people. And it is the only one in Cambodia that provides job skills allowing deaf people to support themselves and their families.
"When I first came here in 1997, there was nothing for deaf people," 74-year-old Father Dittmeier says. “Laos and Vietnam both had sign language and deaf schools. Cambodia had nothing at the time."
Back then, the father didn't know that he would devote a large part of his life to Cambodia.
After growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, he started working with a deaf community in the US. Following 13 years of teaching and counseling, he was inspired by a colleague who worked at a school in Bangalore, India, and decided to go there as a volunteer.
"When I was a kid, I always dreamed that I would live and work in a foreign country," Father Dittmeier explains. "And that I would know the language so well that they would not know I'm a foreigner. At that time, going to Asia was like going to the other side of the moon."
After two years in India, Father Dittmeier returned to Kentucky, but he had fallen in love with Asia and joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners, an international Catholic organization that sends missioners abroad. He subsequently spent 13 years with Maryknoll in Hong Kong, where there was a parish for deaf people, working in a Catholic school for the deaf.
Cambodia was a different story. When Father Dittmeier moved to the impoverished country, government support for the disabled generally was very limited and assistance for Cambodians unable to hear was nearly non-existent.
Development of a small community started with creation of their own sign language supported by money and expertise from Finland, Father Dittmeier recalls.
"Someone would hold up a cup and ask: ‘How would you sign language this?’ That’s how it started."
There is a lack of official statistics, but those involved in the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Cambodia estimate there are around 51,000 profoundly deaf people, out of a total population of about 16 million, and half a million who are hard of hearing.
So far, the DDP and Krousar Thmey, an organization that educates disabled children, have only been able to help some 2,500 of them. This shows just how much more work needs to be done, says Father Dittmeier.
He adds that tens of thousands of Cambodians remain isolated by their affliction and often family members, as well as others, mistakenly view them as being mentally unsound.
"We have our team going around the villages," Father Dittmeier explains. "When they ask a village chief if he has any deaf people in his village, he’s like: 'No, but we got this crazy girl that makes all kinds of strange noises and who doesn't listen to her parents.' They don’t know what deafness is. And they have no idea that there is education for deaf people."
When new students come to the DDP, their lives are uplifted.
"It takes them two or three weeks to figure out that everyone else in the class is deaf," the American priest says. "Until then they just assume that everyone else is hearing. They learn to communicate; they develop friendships. They finally get a life and that is the most rewarding thing for us."
The impact of Father Dittmeier's work can be seen as the number of educated deaf Cambodians, while still small, steadily grows.
Now if members of NGOs are touring the provinces and have an encounter with a deaf person, they call in the DDP to help by sending an interpreter.
"Now some NGOs are hiring our interpreters," Father Dittmeier says. "The downside is that we then have to train a new interpreter, but it's a move in the right direction."
Father Dittmeier is constantly stretched for time because as well as his work for the DDP, he is pastor of the 900-member English-speaking Catholic community in Phnom Penh.
But he continues to enjoy his mission and is in no rush to take up the opportunity of a retirement program back in Kentucky. "If my health holds up and there is still plenty to do, I’m going to stay here."
However, he would return to the U.S. in the event of requiring medical care so as not to be a burden on people in Cambodia.
Father Dittmeier acknowledges Cambodia to be different from the type of foreign country he dreamed of as a child, including Germany, the land of all his grandparents.
"Now when people ask me how Cambodia is, I always tell them it's hot, dirty and corrupt, but it's a good place to be and I'm comfortable here," says the priest who has spent a lifetime helping the deaf.