Mahbuba started learning sign language after arriving in Chicago from Afghanistan
Mahbuba started learning sign language after arriving in Chicago from Afghanistan. Her family fled the country after the fall of Kabul amid a wave of refugees. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

The year Mahbuba found her voice

The young refugee from Afghanistan arrived on the doorstep of a Chicago school. She was deaf and had no previous exposure to formal sign language. What happened next was transformative.

Mahbuba started learning sign language after arriving in Chicago from Afghanistan. Her family fled the country after the fall of Kabul amid a wave of refugees. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ
Mahbuba started learning sign language after arriving in Chicago from Afghanistan
Mahbuba started learning sign language after arriving in Chicago from Afghanistan. Her family fled the country after the fall of Kabul amid a wave of refugees. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

The year Mahbuba found her voice

The young refugee from Afghanistan arrived on the doorstep of a Chicago school. She was deaf and had no previous exposure to formal sign language. What happened next was transformative.

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Mahbuba loves recess. Sitting in front of an overstuffed toy bin, the 6-year-old Afghan girl picks out a small collection of wooden dolls. She gives each doll a name that she signs with her hands.

A year ago, this level of play was unthinkable. Pushing back her royal blue headscarf, Mahbuba begins moving the dolls across a two-dimensional playground that she’s sketched on a notepad. In a busy daytime scene, two dolls fight over the swingset, a drama she relates through pantomime. Another kid sits on the bench. Mahbuba, who was born deaf, is fastidious in her telling — every character is introduced and their plot arc complete.

Mahbuba moves two figurines across the page and places them on a series of drawn squares meant to represent a school climbing wall. Oops, one falls, a fumble she illustrates by plopping the doll face first on the page. She then holds her hands up to her eyes and shimmies her fingers down her face. The boy, she communicates with a mournful look in her eyes, is crying.

Mahbuba plays with a toy and some string.
Mahbuba narrates a story about her first adventure on a Chicago school bus. In rural Afghanistan, Mahbuba did not attend school. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

As she narrates, Mahbuba dexterously weaves between drawing, imaginative play and American Sign Language (ASL), building a theatrical, pocket-sized world that is both exacting and slightly berserk. The 45-minute saga ends when a pink doll, one she’s chosen as her own avatar, gets on the bus home.

When she finishes, Mahbuba leans back in her chair. She holds up both her hands and spreads her fingers apart, the sign for “finished.”

In a matter of seconds, she’s returned to her storyboard and delves into another tale, one that unfolds in the lunchroom. While the insatiable second grader has a seemingly limitless appetite for story, Mahbuba’s ability to tell them is relatively new. Before landing in Chicago, Mahbuba had never told such a story. She’d never recited any kind of story at all.

“I never lost my hope”

In November 2021, Mahbuba arrived in Chicago amid the wave of refugees who fled Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul. Like most of the tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated and relocated to the United States, Mahbuba’s family had ties to the American military and staying in Afghanistan put all their lives at risk. After a month in a military base-turned-refugee shelter, Mahbuba and her family landed in Chicago, a city — and world — completely unknown to them.

Mahbuba poses with her eldest sister, Bibi.
Mahbuba poses with her eldest sister, Bibi. Before coming to Chicago, Bibi would communicate with her younger sibling through simple signs that their family created. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ
But for Mahbuba the change was hard twice-over: Not only was the girl new to the city and country, she had arrived without any formal language. Mahbuba was, in other words, doubly displaced.

How Mahbuba transformed over the following year captures the singular alchemy that comes with finding language; the power in knowing and naming things. Her story also reflects the difference that just a few people — including public school teachers and aid workers — can make, despite limited resources. Because of the lengths a few Chicagoans have been willing to go, an Afghan girl is finding her voice and a new start.

Born in a small village in rural Afghanistan, Mahbuba was the only child among five who was deaf. In a country where there’s little understanding of disability, and many of the 10,000 deaf children live at the fringe of society, Mahbuba’s future, says her father, was a bleak one.

“I didn’t see any future for her,” says the girls’ father. “I was worried about that.” (WBEZ has agreed to withhold his name to protect family members still living in Afghanistan, since they may remain in danger under Taliban rule.)

An Afghan flag hangs in the family's Chicago apartment.
An Afghan flag hangs in the family’s Chicago apartment. The family fled Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

Mahbuba’s father remembers the moment he understood that his daughter was deaf.

“I had a motorbike that I would take to work and my children knew I had returned home when they heard the sound of the bike outside our house,” he said, speaking through a Pashto translator. Unlike her older siblings, Mahbuba, who was around 2 at the time, did not react to the sound of the engine. “I thought, ‘She can’t hear it.’ ”

Eager to find another way to announce his arrival to his youngest child, Mahbuba’s father taught her to feel for the vibrations that rattled the floor when he revved the bike’s engines. “The vibrations were how I told Mahbuba that I was home.”

Over the next few years, Mahbuba’s family created a series of basic home signs. Hunger, for example, was suggested by placing a hand on the belly and rubbing it back and forth. The sign for water was formed from a hand holding an invisible cup up to the mouth. Tea took the form of the index finger meeting the thumb as though demurely holding a teacup handle. And an egg, a common ingredient at home, was suggested by an upward-facing cupped hand.

But as Mahbuba got older, the gulfs in communication grew larger.

Mahbuba poses with her parents.
In Afghanistan, Mahbuba’s parents worried her future would be a bleak one. But thanks to her Chicago school’s deaf education program, their outlook has completely changed. WBEZ agreed to not picture her parents’ faces since doing so could threaten the safety of family members who remain in Afghanistan. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

“Mahbuba would try to explain things to us and she’d start crying and yelling,” her father says. “It was so hard because I couldn’t understand what she wanted, what she was feeling.”

That frustration and fear often came out at night. There were many, says Mahbuba’s father, when the girl would wake up, her heart racing, and scream and cry inconsolably. Those moments weighed heavily on Mahbuba’s father.

“I never thought that she’d talk to us,” he says, “but I never lost my hope.”

“I had never started with a kid at zero”

When Mahbuba first arrived at Bell, an elementary school with one of 36 deaf education programs in Chicago Public Schools, everything was new. She had never been inside a school nor a classroom filled with strangers. Girls who grow up in rural Afghanistan have little access to school. As a deaf child, Mahbuba had none.

Lisa Hoffman poses with her arms crossed.
Before teaching at Bell Elementary, Lisa Hoffman worked as a deaf interpreter for seven years. But until she met Mahbuba, the teacher had not encountered a student who enrolled in school with no previous exposure to language. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

She had never sat at a school desk nor been introduced to the rhythms of a school day. Even the letters on the wall that spelled out the school name were unfamiliar to the girl.

Her first teacher was Lisa Hoffman, who specializes in deaf education and spent seven years as a deaf interpreter before beginning her job at Bell in 2020. Hoping to make a connection with Mahbuba, Hoffman introduced herself in ASL. Developed in the early 19th century as a way for deaf Americans to communicate with one another, ASL uses the same vocabulary as spoken English, but relies on gestures and facial expressions and its own grammatical logic.

But the girl’s eyes remained blank and Hoffman quickly realized Mahbuba did not know sign language, either.

“I had never started with a kid at zero,” Hoffman says. Even Hoffman’s students who began at low language levels had some familiarity with letters and numbers. Mahbuba, however, had none.

Teacher Lisa Hoffman uses her hands to sign words with her student.
Lisa Hoffman still remembers the first sentence Mahbuba signed. The girl arrived late to school and signed ‘Bus. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Nothing. Dad drive.’ Filled with pride, the moment brought Hoffman to tears. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

Though Bell’s deaf education program stands among the largest in the city, Hoffman knew no existing curriculum would work for Mahbuba. The teacher had to start from scratch.

“She had a 6-year-old brain,” Hoffman says, “but no internal monologue to articulate a thought. It’s so hard to understand what that would even be like.”

The impact of language deprivation — or, the lack of exposure to language at an early age — reaches far beyond a limited vocabulary.

“It really affects our ability to think,” says Rachel Mayberry, a professor of linguistics at University of California San Diego whose research focuses on language acquisition among deaf people. “When a person does not have language, it’s hard to understand beyond the here and now.”

Abstract concepts such as the passage of time, for example, or religion are difficult to describe without language.

“How do you talk about things that don’t exist?” Mayberry continues. “How do you explain why we have them?”

Mahbuba looks at a box of crayons to draw a picture.
For Mahbuba, who started learning sign language just one year ago, gestures are only one form of communication. She also will illustrate her ideas and can easily spend hours drawing portraits and stories. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

Hoffman spent the first few days sitting with Mahbuba on the floor of her classroom and playing games — mostly Jenga. She showed her toy houses where Mahbuba could play with plastic dolls and animals.

“I was really just trying to help her feel safe,” Hoffman recalls. “I could feel her fear.”

Over time, the teacher started to introduce numbers and colors. They slowly worked their way through the alphabet, both written and in sign. She used cards to begin to teach Mahbuba everyday objects, food and words to describe her day at school.

But before any of that, Hoffman introduced Mahbuba to a concept both simpler and far more profound: her own name.

Hoffman started by showing Mahbuba her written name, which the teacher had drawn on various items including schoolwork binders, a supplies bin and her classroom mailbox.

“I think it was her first time seeing those letters,” Hoffman recalls, “and she started to mirror them almost like she was drawing, like copying each image.”

At first, Mahbuba’s lines were shaky and backwards, but Hoffman says the girl was determined to get it right. “She just wrote it over and over again.”

Mahbuba arts her own name in construction paper letters.
One of the first words Mahbuba learned was simple and profound: her own name. Now, the girl seizes any and every opportunity to write or sign her name and share it with the world. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

Hoffman also showed Mahbuba how to spell her name in sign. The next step was giving the girl a name sign, or a unique way to identify herself in ASL. Typically, name signs reflect a personal characteristic. Hoffman’s name sign, for example, is the letter “L” pressed against the apples of her cheeks because she has dimples.

Since name signs are usually given to a person by someone in the Deaf community, Hoffman asked her students to find one for Mahbuba. One boy suggested the letters “M,” which is shown by folding the fingers at the knuckles and tucking the thumb between the ring and pinky fingers, and “B,” created by four fingers pointed up and pressed together and the thumb tucked across a flat palm.

When the class gave Mahbuba her name sign, Hoffman saw a shift in her new student.

“That was really the first moment where she realized there was this whole world of kids that have the same abilities she does,” Hoffman says. “It was like she understood that you can use your hands to speak.” From that point on, “it’s like she’s never stopped.”

Mahbuba and her family go for a walk.
Mahbuba and her family go for a walk. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ
Mahbuba’s lessons in ASL accelerated. She soon came to understand that every person, place and thing carried its own unique name. Scissors, bus, apples — Mahbuba wanted to know and name any item or idea she encountered. Within a few months, Mahbuba was able to sign short, simple sentences. Her first remains emblazoned in Hoffman’s memory.
Mahbuba smiles in the sunlight.
‘I think she can do anything now,’ Mahbuba’s father says. ‘She will be a powerful woman.’ Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

It was late in the morning and the school buses had dropped off the students for the day. As kids began trickling into the classroom, Hoffman noticed that Mahbuba was not among them. She found that strange as Mahbuba rarely missed school without warning.

A few hours later, Hoffman was called to the front office. There, she found a flustered Mahbuba, who had been stranded at home by the district’s persistent bus issues. Looking directly at her teacher, Mahbuba signed “Bus. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Nothing. Dad drive.”

Hoffman watched Mahbuba in shock. Here was a girl who had started the school year in this same office frozen with fear and now signed an entire sentence with attitude and an eye roll. The difference brought Hoffman to tears.

“I thought, who is this child? What just happened here?,” the teacher recalls. “It was mind-blowing.”

“I want to fly, I’m so proud of her”

The living room floor inside Mahbuba’s Rogers Park home is a tapestry of sweets on a fall afternoon. A collection of small plates hold candied nuts, dates and several kinds of baklava. An Afghan flag hangs over the North-facing window and a shaft of afternoon light casts a subtle green glow on the room.

Mahbuba surveys the splendor and begins to count the collection of treats. “One” she signs. Then “two.” Her efforts are cut short by her baby sister who bulldozes through the spread. When the baby reaches out to grab a hot tea kettle that sits on the floor, Mahbuba signs “Stop!”, holding one palm flat and hitting the other against it in a chopping motion. She then lets out a yelp, a shrill burst that gets her mother’s attention who yanks the baby back. Crisis averted.

The children play an afternoon game.
The children play an afternoon game in their second-floor apartment in Chicago. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

Over the next hour, Mahbuba’s siblings cycle in and out of the room. They fight over cell phone games and drawing markers. Each interaction is unique and Mahbuba, a protean communicator, relies on whatever gestures, faces and sounds will best articulate her point. In one moment, Mahbuba insists her siblings sign the word for share, a gesture that involves brushing the edge of one hand along the ridge between the thumb and index finger on the other. In another, the bossy 6-year-old resorts to an elbow jab.

Mahbuba’s family takes weekly sign language classes at Chicago Hearing Society, a nonprofit that offers free ASL classes. The class, like many of the services they received, was recommended to them by Melissa Janisch, the youth program manager at the refugee resettlement agency RefugeeOne.

Janisch, too, is learning ASL in order to communicate with Mahbuba.

“We don’t have consistent access to an ASL interpreter,” says Janisch, who has grown close to Mahbuba and her family. While refugee resettlement agencies equip new Americans with many resources when they arrive in the United States, consistent ASL interpretation is not one of them. “There was no other way than to just learn alongside her.”

Mahbuba plays with her younger sister, Malika, and Melissa Janisch, an outreach worker at RefugeeOne. Janisch is learning sign language, too.
Mahbuba plays with her younger sister, Malika, and Melissa Janisch, an outreach worker at RefugeeOne. Janisch is learning sign language, too. Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

The lack of resources for deaf refugees resettled in the United States is an issue Pam Kefi wants to address. She’s the associate vice president of People Inc., a nonprofit that works with deaf new Americans in New York.

“The federal government should take a closer look at developing some standards around resettlement for deaf refugees,” says Kefi, who notes a similar shortage of services for other new arrivals with disabilities. She suggests such interventions as interpreters and better connections with deaf schools and the Deaf community.

Later in the evening, Mahbuba’s father returns from the Mosque where he’s spent the afternoon in prayer. He soon settles into the floor, his children forming a small circle around him.

When Mahbuba’s father talks about his daughter, his voice swells with joy.
When Mahbuba’s father talks about his daughter, his voice swells with joy. Thinking about Mahbuba’s transformation he shares an Afghan idiom, which roughly translates to ‘I’m so happy I can’t even fit into my clothes.’ Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

“In Afghanistan, Mahbuba could not understand me,” Mahbuba’s father shares. “Now, I can tell her, ‘You are my lovely daughter’ and she can understand.”

The thought makes him smile; the two have always had their own private world. Despite his long hours working at Eli’s Cheesecake Factory, Mahbuba’s father remains perhaps the most enthusiastic ASL student among his family. “I want to fly, I’m so proud of her. It’s like my feet don’t touch the ground.”

Just then, Mahbuba looks up at her father and smiles and a mutual tenderness passes between them. Mahbuba and her father may now share more words, but they don’t always need them.

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.” WBEZ’s Melba Lara voiced the story for broadcast, and Justin Bull produced it.