Deaf student overcomes cultural, emotional barriers with help of family, school and sports

Classic New Mexico magnet Deaf student overcomes cultural, emotional barriers with help of family, school and sports

June 8, 2013

By James Barron

The New Mexican

In American Sign Language, Immanuel Neubauer introduces himself as “Immanuel 12.”

In his first year as a student at New Mexico School for the Deaf in 2006, it seemed that everywhere he went at the school, he was asked two questions:

“What’s your name?”

“How old are you?”

After a while, he just automatically added the 12 to his name. With his hand in a fist, and his palm facing outward — rather than inward, which is standard — he would flick out the index and middle finger to indicate the number 12.

And, “it stuck,” said Amanda Lujan, a teacher at NMSD who interpreted for Neubauer in an interview.

Now an 18-year-old junior, Neubauer still introduces himself as “Immanuel 12.”

That he is able to introduce himself at all is seen by some as an incredible feat, given his history. Neubauer spent the first 10 years of his life with his family on a farm in Ethiopia. He received no education and had difficulty communicating with anybody. After running away from home, he was eventually adopted by Lori Neubauer, a 58-year-old woman with two older sons who worked for an Albuquerque program that provides services to the deaf community.

Until the moment she brought him to New Mexico, Immanuel Neubauer was lost in the vast sea of the hearing world, not knowing that he could swim in it.

“I don’t think he realized he wasn’t the only one [who was deaf],” said Lori Neubauer, who adopted him from an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when he was 12. “He felt like in his life, he was the only one who was deaf.”

The faculty, staff and students at NMSD knew bits and pieces of his story — that he was from Ethiopia and he was adopted — but they didn’t know the rest.

Then again, Immanuel Neubauer isn’t always forthcoming about his past. Even as he bridged the communication gap by learning American Sign Language and then learning to read in English, there are pieces of his life that even his mother is still learning.

“I’m surprised with Immanuel of his stories of the past, still,” Lori Neubauer said. “He doesn’t dwell on it, but every once in a while, he tells me he went fishing or rode a donkey or he climbed a tree and got fruit from it.”

But there was more to the story than just that. All it took for him to open up to the rest of the world was an occasion to celebrate.

• • •

Sports were a pathway for Immanuel Neubauer to immerse himself in the deaf community, and he jumped into the deep end of the pool. He was a two-year starter in football and basketball for the Roadrunners, but he excelled in track. As a sophomore in 2012, he was a part of the 400-meter relay team that finished in second place at the Class A State Championships, and he took fourth individually in the 400 meters.

Coming into the state meet in May, Immanuel wanted to win a gold medal, something that hadn’t been done at NMSD. He accomplished that in the 400-meter event, winning in a time of 49.81 seconds. Ronald Stern, the superintendent at NMSD, offered to take Immanuel and his family, along with fellow coaches, athletes and other faculty members who were at the meet, to a restaurant to celebrate.

It turned into something much more meaningful.

“We were sitting at one long table, and some of us were asking him about his background and his life,” Stern said through Lujan. “And he just started giving us information we had never heard before. He just opened up.”

His mother, though, wasn’t surprised by Immanuel’s choice for his revelations.

“For some reason, that is a comfortable environment and he talks about his life,” she said. “When we take him out of his day-to-day routine, he loosens up and talks about his life.”

It’s a history that, while still incomplete, already has been full of twists and turns.

• • •

Immanuel Neubauer doesn’t know where he was born in Ethiopia, only that he lived on a farm with his parents and three brothers and three sisters.

His father raised corn, while his mother grew sugar cane, bananas, oranges and tomatoes. He did his part to help, but he also enjoyed playing soccer with friends. While he remembers donkey rides, climbing trees and fishing, there are other memories that aren’t as serene.

No one in his family had gone to school and none of them were up to the challenges of raising a deaf or hard-of-hearing child. Immanuel Neubauer doesn’t even know his name or the names of his family or friends. He communicated in a most basic form: through gestures.

The barrier between a deaf son and a hearing family created friction, and Immanuel Neubauer always felt communication problems were his fault. The final straw came when he was 10 and his mother blamed him when a lion killed and ate one of the family cows.

“I felt like that was not my fault; it was not my responsibility,” he said.

So, he hopped a train with a friend and set out on a journey that had no destination.

The train was his home for the first few days, as he, his friend and other runaways banded together to see where the rails led them. At almost every stop, the group would get off and take measure of their surroundings. Immanuel Neubauer estimated that he took four or five trains.

“I never went to school, so I didn’t know the names of the towns,” he said. “It was a really long trip. Some trains were seven hours long, some were eight. And then I arrived to that big city.”

The city in question was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

“I remember a statue,” he said. “I saw a lot of people who were Muslim, and I wasn’t used to that. I was exposed to that culture for the first time.”

Homeless, he roamed the streets with his friends, finding various ways to survive. Others in his position would shine shoes; some got involved in gangs. But Immanuel Neubauer’s deafness saved him from those fates.

“Gangs wanted influence on him and he couldn’t communicate with them,” Stern said. “So they left him alone. That was his main getaway.”

That might have been the end of his story, if not for an unfortunate push that opened a door — and a new world of opportunity.

The homeless boy had been playing with a friend along the side of a street when he was pushed into the path of an oncoming car. The car ran over his foot and he spent three months in the hospital. The injury permanently raised the toes and the ball of his right foot slightly off the ground.

Since no relatives visited him, hospital staff treated him as an orphan and contacted Layla House, the local orphanage. He didn’t even have a name to give staff members, so they called him “Immanuel.”

• • •

In the spring of 2005, an email began circulating through the offices of the Community Outreach Program for the Deaf in Albuquerque about an orphan from Ethiopia in need of a family. It reached Lori Neubauer.

“I said, ‘Wow, I wish I could adopt him,’” she recaled. “So my boss [director Lin Marksbury] said, ‘Why don’t you get in contact with the agency and see if you can adopt him?’ Well, I certainly didn’t have the money, but I was interested.”

She contacted Adoptions Advocates International, an organization that assists with adoptions of children from China, Thailand, Ethiopia and Romania. One of the group’s associates had seen the boy and knew that because he was older he would have trouble finding adoptive parents.

The next step was much more difficult — raising money for a foreign adoption. Lori Neubauer, who now works for the New Mexico Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, held a garage sale and sold much of her furniture. Her co-workers donated money to help. She received a $4,500 grant from Gift Of Adoption, a national organization that provides assistance to qualified adoptive parents. Cottonwood Church gave $1,000.

“She had a very realistic idea what it would involve,” Marksbury said. “Still, no one anticipated how difficult that would be. She was very committed and very dedicated. I think she did an amazing job of making that happen.”

Lori estimated that she spent 14 months and between $12,000 and 14,000 on the adoption. But there were times she was ready to give up because of how long it took.

“I used to joke that it was a very long pregnancy,” Lori said. “It was a slow-go for me to raise money. I said at one point if they could find him a home to go ahead with it.”

But there was no one else who wanted to adopt him. When she finally raised the money, Lori Neubauer flew to Addis Ababa in June of 2006 . “It was just a thrill to meet him in person,” she said. “I had seen him in pictures, but to see him in person was just amazing. He was very shy and I gave him a hug. He gave me a little one back.”

It took five days to complete the adoption process before the pair left for Albuquerque. Then Immanuel Neubauer began to accumulate a lot of firsts.

Like his first escalator ride.

“He’d never seen moving steps before,” his mother said.

Then came his first plane trip.

“That was different,” Immanuel Neubauer said. “It was weird. I was looking down thinking, ‘Wow, this is weird, kinda crazy.’”

Yet, as tough as the adoption was, the hurdles this new-found family had to overcome were just beginning.

• • •

Lori Neubauer made it clear to her son that he was going to get an education. She started on the flight home by teaching him the sign language alphabet. In Albuquerque, he took classes at Layla House to prepare him for the transition, but he didn’t learn much because of his lack of a language or education.

“He told me, ‘No, no school,’” she recalled. “‘I am not going to school.’”

Lori Neubauer insisted, though, and they visited the NMSD campus in July of 2006. He met Stern and other staff members, many of whom were also deaf.

“I think he was shocked that there were other deaf people in the world,” she said.

When Immanuel Neubauer learned he would be going to the boarding school, he was excited. “I was like, ‘There’s so many new things, meeting so many new people!’ ” he said.

But he faced a big academic disadvantage, according to Stern.

“Neuroscience research shows that the most critical stage for acquisition of language is from birth to 5 years old, maybe 6,” he explained. “The plasticity of the brain is the greatest during that time frame. We often see that with many deaf and hard-of-hearing children it’s almost impossible to make up for lost time. And he missed out on that big time.”

The school gave Immanuel Neubauer intense individual attention to help him learn as quickly as possible. But it was a struggle.

“I couldn’t understand anyone and that was frustrating,” Immanuel Neubauer said. “People would try to talk to me and I couldn’t understand at all. It was strange for me to have to work in the classroom, because I had never experienced that.”

He ran into other conflicts because he wasn’t used to living in a structured environment and didn’t realize there were consequences for his actions.

“It never caused serious problems,” Stern said. “He wanted to learn. He was very likable. But it was hard for him to receive criticism and suggestions for change.”

NMSD set Immanuel Neubauer up with a counselor, and Lori had him see an psychologist as well. Still, the relationship was so strained after two years that he was sent to an adolescent home for the deaf in Albuquerque for a few months in 2008.

“It was time to do something because it was not getting better,” Lori Neubauer said. “He just didn’t get the family thing until he almost lost it.”
What he learned was that rules are for everybody, and the time at the group home reinforced that.

“It was all right, I got used to it,” Immanuel Neubauer said. “There were so many rules. I learned how to cope with rules.”

Back home he opened up to his mother and told him things she didn’t know before — like he had a family in Ethiopia.

“My first thought was, ‘Do I need to get him back to his family? ’” she recalled

Immanuel assuaged those fears quickly.

“I miss my family,” he said. “I think about them and hope all is well. But I’m thankful for what I have now.”

The change also showed back at school. He started to make friends as his language skills improved. Eventually, he wasn’t the shy kid in class, afraid to answer a question.

“I felt like when I was 14 or 15, in that age range, I could understand people better, I was learning more,” he said. “I felt like if a teacher asked me a question, I knew the answer. That’s when I started to feel more comfortable.”

• • •

Immanuel Neubauer’s track success opened another door for him. He will run for the U.S. team competing in the Deaflympics in July in Sofia, Bulgaria. He received an invitation from the selection committee in October and he will run in the 400 meters and possibly on the 1,600-meter relay team.

After his success at the state track meet, he also has a bigger goal.

“I’m hoping to [break] 49 [seconds],” he says. “I’m shooting for 48. Most runners in the race are running in the 49s, so that’s my goal.”

Contact James Barron at 986-3045 or [email protected]


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