Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ree Reh's Smile

There are few people who I have met that always have a smile on their face. Every time I see Ree Reh, he smiles, gives me a hug, and jokes with me. He will go up and talk to anyone and just start joking and smiling. His smile and good looks are contagious, and makes all those around him smile as well. The interesting thing about his jokes though is that I have never heard them. Ever.
Ree Reh is what I would call one of the ultimate minorities. Maybe he isn’t a Helen Keller, but close.

The Karenni are a minority group in Burma, about 1% of the population (reliable numbers are hard to find). They speak their own language, Karenni, and unlike their cousins the Karen, most of them don’t speak Burmese. They are about 90% Catholic. Burma is about 70% Burmese, and 90% Buddhist.

Because of their Christianity, among other things, they have been attacked, had their villages burned, and forced to flee from their homeland. Via refugee camps, a portion of those million or so Karenni people have made their way to the United States, and a portion of those to Utah. Here in Utah there are about 100 or so Karenni in a state of over 3 million, the only ones that speak their language. Ree Reh is one of them, but he is a small minority of those 100, he is deaf.

When Ree Reh came to America a few years ago he could not read or write any language. He was 14. He could limitedly communicate to his family through signs, who could in turn communicate with approximately 100 or so individuals who could speak Karenni. Needless to say, there was a communication barrier.
Fortunately, through the amazing efforts of people like my brother Andrew, Ree Reh can now read and write English. He can speak American Sign Language decently, and so communicate with an ever growing number of people. And this last Saturday, through holding up his hand next to my brother’s mouth to feel how the air comes out, Ree Reh triumphantly said “How are you?” to my family.

His is a story of optimism and cheerfulness in the face of all obstacles. I would find it difficult to be cheerful if I could not hear and not communicate with most anyone around me, I know this because when I arrived in Uruguay and couldn’t communicate well it was difficult to be cheerful. Ree Reh, however, never stops smiling.
Why someone would want to hurt someone like this, I will never know, and cannot imagine. But just that happened about a month ago, when two 18-20 year olds (who remain unidentified) took to punching Ree Reh in the face and back. One had brass knuckles. And after knocking him partially unconscious, they threw him in the Jordan River, on one of the coldest nights of the year. He had to climb through the snow and over fences, dripping blood along the way to get back to his apartment without running into the “men” (for how could they deserve such a title?). My brother interviewed him about the event and it is on his blog, here (the interview is about half way down, the whole article is interesting though).

The first time I saw Ree Reh, a while after the event, his face was still cut up and his back still had scars. He greeted me with a smile.
This photo was taken last saturday (you can see how quickly he has recovered, see Andrew's blog for pictures just after the incident). Here is messing around with my brother and some friends. He is in the middle in the white t-shirt with blue letters.

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