By Lisa Cipriano
Gabrail Youhana came to the U.S. in 2008 like many others to escape the religious persecution of Christians in his native country Iraq. He had more than the usual challenges of learning the language and culture of his new home. Youhana has the additional struggle of being completely blind.
That might seem like an overwhelming number of obstacles to overcome, if it were not for a special program offered by the Chaldean Community Foundation. Thanks to the B.E.A.M. project, Youhana found learning and the love of his life.
B.E.A.M. stands for braille, ESL (English as a second language), acculturation, and mobility. They are four very important focuses to help bring blind and legally blind immigrants and refugees out of the darkness of a new, unfamiliar country into the light of a more independent life.
It’s collaboration among the Chaldean Community Foundation, Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, Macomb Literacy Partners and St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church. B.E.A.M. participants learn to speak English, read through braille and learn to be more independent through classes once a week.
The project is part of the CCF’s Breaking Barriers Program and exists because of the hard work and dedication of Susan Kattula, behavioral health manager for the Chaldean Community Foundation.
The project came to life in 2014 when Sue Kattula set out to help 16 blind refugees. “I went on home visits and assessed the needs of every single one of them. I found that they all wanted the same things. They needed to learn English. They needed to learn Braille because many of them lived in apartment complexes and they got confused using the elevators. They needed to be more mobile and use a white cane so as not to always need to rely on somebody sighted to get around,” explained Kattula.
Youhana had similar needs when he enrolled in the program shortly after arriving in the U.S. Aside from not being able to see his new surroundings, he couldn’t understand anything that what was being said on the TV news and radio. “After that, I said to myself, that I have to learn it. I have to learn everything,” said Youhana. “I also can’t see the words and the spelling of the words. So it makes it even harder,” Youhana added.
Youhana went looking for a school to accommodate his special needs with no luck, until someone told him about the B.E.A.M. project. “So, I went there to learn the language, the technology on the laptop and iPhone apps that talk to me and help me, the braille and the things to help with mobility like the white cane that I never knew about,” he explained.
Recently, Kattula was able to secure a $25,000 scholarship grant to get the vital technology that comes with iPhone and iPad into the hands of 15 of her students. They benefit enormously from the helpful applications that are available to assist the blind with everyday life things that the sighted often take for granted. “There are apps that can read money. They can see if it’s a five-dollar bill or a 20-dollar bill. There is even an app that can tell them what color pants they are wearing,” said Kattula.
Aside from the unique technology services that the B.E.A.M. project has developed, Kattula is able to provide other services by creating partnerships with other state and local social service agencies such as the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and Macomb Literacy Partners. “MLP provides two tutors weekly for three hours each to teach one-on-one English as a second language course as well as group courses,” said Kattula.
In fact, many of the lessons are interdependent. “For instance, a student must be able to learn English in order to learn Braille,” Kattula explained. Blind students also are not able to take a written literacy test to assess what levels they are at. “That’s where we needed Macomb Literacy Partners to come in and work with the student’s and teach ESL in a different way so that they could build up their language skills and participate in a publicly funded ESL program,” Kattula concluded.
Volunteers, mostly from local churches, are also essential to keep the program running successfully. “We have a few volunteers that come in on a regular basis. They are assigned certain students to work with; they help them with interpretation. They also help them navigate around so that they will be safe in their environment. Kattula prefers that volunteers commit long-term in order to develop a relationship with students and keep up with each person’s goals. The project even has a dedicated bus driver to make sure that students, who don’t have someone to transport them, are safely transported to the B.E.A.M. program’s Sterling Heights location.
A total of 38 blind and legally blind students have benefitted from the B.E.A.M. program since its inception. Thirteen of them are constant students. “It all depends on each student’s individual needs and goals at the time. We have three students who are working towards achieving their American citizenship. So, they are coming in to be tutored for instance, on the civics portion of the test,” Kattula explained.
“It changed everything,” said Youhana.
The B.E.A.M. project quite literally did change everything for Youhana. It’s where he found his lifelong soulmate in another one of the project’s students by the name of Noora who also came to the US from Iraq for the same reasons as Youhana. The two participated in the program at the same time and on the same schedule. Noora would take a taxi from Novi as Youhana was being brought in from Shelby Township. On most days, they would arrive early and chat with one other to pass the time. They developed and friendship and a romance soon followed. Noora became Mrs. Gabrail Youhana in September of 2015. Their daughter, Pearla was born on August of 2017.
“You don’t have to have sight to love each other because the heart is love,” concluded Youhana.
The Chaldean Community Foundations’ B.E.A.M. project /Breaking Barriers program is seeking dedicated, long term volunteers. If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering or donating, go online to: http://www.chaldeanfoundation.org/beam/ and click the ‘Help Us Grow’ option.
Anyone who is interested in enrolling in the program should call the Chaldean Community Foundation’s Sterling Heights location at: (586) 722-7253.