February 07, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — When Mirzana Coralic asked the primary school in her Sarajevo neighborhood whether they would enroll her deaf son, teacher Sanela Ljumanovic volunteered without thinking much about it.

Then September came and 6-year-old Zejd was there, silently sitting on one of the school’s benches, his eyes wide open. At the time, no one at the school, not even Zejd, knew sign language. “We have to come up with something here,” Ljumanovic remembers thinking.

She tried to develop her own tricks and signs to communicate with Zejd but a parent had another idea, proposing that the whole class learn sign language with him. Three months later, the first-graders of class 1-2 at Osman Nakas primary school in Sarajevo have mastered the basics of sign language to communicate with their classmate.

“Zejd,” said Uma Nadarevic, 6, crossing her arms to sign his name. “Please,” she then put her palms together as if she would be praying. “Can … you …show …me …our …homework …in … math?” Uma waved the signs with her little arms as she slowly pronounced each word.

Zejd grabbed his notebook out of a bag and showed her the circles and squares he drew at home. Uma signed “Thank you” and Zejd bowed a “you are welcome.” In 2003, Bosnia adopted laws that allow children with disabilities to be fully integrated into society, including schools. Children with special needs are supposed to have professional assistants who sit with them in class, translating or otherwise helping them participate. But in practice, impoverished Bosnia barely has enough money to keep normal schools functioning and children with disabilities are left to the care and imagination of their parents and the good will of school staff.

Zejd was lucky — and his teachers say the effort being put in by all is boosting his self-esteem. “He looks forward to going to school,” said his mother, who tried to learn the sign language with him before school started but says he was not very interested in it. “Now he is happy and motivated.”

Still, Zejd is an exception in Bosnian society, said Anisa Setkic-Sendic, the sign language teacher who teaches the class. “When he sees how much others insist on communicating with him, it is motivating,” she added. “This should be normal.”

His classmates are embracing the challenge of a new language. “I like to learn Zejd’s language so I can talk to him and to other deaf people,” said Tarik Sijaric, one of Zejd’s best friends. “It is fun.”

“I like this language and I also think it will be useful when I grow up,” added student Anesa Susic. Zejd is fitting in now and the new language is spreading beyond the classroom, said Ljumanovic. Children are teaching their parents at home.

“We are all happy as we are learning a new language,” she said. “The goal, however, is also to teach Zejd to read lips … he is a good kid, a smart kid.” Ljumanovic said she would introduce sign language into the curriculum not only to enable communication but because it helps children become more sensitive toward those with disabilities.

Setkic-Sendic said she should be paid for her work by the Ministry of Education but there are simply no funds right now. Instead, she is being paid by contributions from the parents of children in the class. Not all can financially participate. Only Ljumanovic knows who can’t pay, who does and how much. And she won’t tell anyone — that’s the deal.

“We are finding ways,” said Setkic-Sendic. “The children are growing, we can’t wait for better times to come.”