Fr. Roberts: “The Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak”

by Helen Breen
photos: CNEWA files

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Music drifts across the room as the costumed dancers lift their feet at the appointed moment and gracefully move in synchronization. But these dancers do not hear the music for they are deaf and move to the vibrations of sound.

The Foyer Dancers as they are known throughout the Middle East and Europe are students at The Home in the Hills, Harissa, Lebanon. Founded in 1959 by Fr. Ronald S. Roberts, who died on Easter 1983, the school is unique in Lebanon.

For 24 years, Fr. Roberts cared for deaf boys in an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and affection. His progressive ideas and his burning ideals were admired by some and considered excessive by others. He believed deaf pupils should be integrated as soon as possible with hearing children and he encouraged deaf pupils to participate with hearing children in art, dancing, sports and other activities. “The general idea is that deaf children should have a class (and a trained teacher) attached to a normal school, instead of being perpetually cut off from the normal community,” he once wrote.

Throughout the Middle East there is an almost biblical feeling that it is disgraceful to be suffering from a handicap. The boys came to the Home deprived in the true sense of the word. They were despised at home, uneducated and unable to communicate. Fr. Roberts accepted the boys and created a family atmosphere because, as he wrote: “There is no substitute for the healing warmth that grows out of mutual concern and loving care of a real family.”

As a British army chaplain stationed in Lebanon during World War II, Fr. Roberts grew to know the Lebanese people and their problems. On his return after the war he acquired a crumbling mountain villa in the town of Harissa outside of Beirut and intended to establish a home for the incurably ill.

Soon after he began operating the villa, a simple action changed the course of Fr. Robert’s life. One day he opened the door to a five-year-old homeless deaf and mute boy. When he realized that no one else was filling the desperate need to educate the deaf, Fr. Roberts could not turn his back to their plight. Once the word spread throughout Lebanon that there was a priest in Harissa who accepted deaf boys regardless of financial situation or religion, the Home in the Hills was inundated.

Soon the deaf outnumbered the incurably ill and eventually the Home accepted only deaf boys. Since he knew very little about the education of the deaf, Fr. Roberts returned to Europe to learn. Once back in Lebanon he recruited teachers, bought and borrowed equipment. A small, stocky, husky man who did not suffer fools gladly, Fr. Roberts had a great deal of patience with his young charges. He trained his assistants and patience was something he instilled in them.

During the first few months, Fr. Roberts relied on God and the goodness of others. Food was scarce, rent was hard to find and blankets and clothes were almost nonexistent. An often incongruous mix of people were instrumental in helping The Home in the Hills survive. When a group of sailors came to help paint walls and fix floors they managed to leave a trail of toys in their wake. Doctors and dentists from Beirut cared for the boys without charge and a group of Lebanese women donated the proceeds from their annual Christmas bazaar to finance the purchase of land for an additional building.

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