Hands have been whirling about for the past two months in a kind of frenzy at Funk 'n Waffles, and not because they were making food.
Those hands belong to Bail Chol, a Sudanese immigrant who was born deaf.
Since Funk 'n Waffles opened almost three years ago, the co-owners, SU alumni Adam Gold and Kyle Corea, have had 20 employees that fit the relaxed, funky style of their restaurant. Chol is the first with a disability, they said.
Before coming to the United States nine years ago, Chol knew no formal language. He communicated with his family and friends in his home village in Sudan through a rudimentary form of signs and signals.
When Chol arrived in Syracuse, Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program referred him to the Aurora Center of New York Inc., an organization that provides assistance and support to people with disabilities. During the next three years, Chol not only learned English and American Sign Language (ASL), but also the concept of formal language as a means of communication.
“He drew pictures for us during our first conversation,” said Frida Heckman, director of rehabilitation services at the Aurora Center. “He drew pictures of his horrific experience in Sudan.”
Today, Chol communicates rapidly, effectively, and in complete silence — his hands, entire body, and facial expressions are engaged in animated movement when he uses sign language.
“Actually, he’s really good at communicating even though I don’t know ASL” said Jessica Brown, a Funk 'n Waffles employee. “When I don’t understand him, he shrugs and says ‘Ok, let’s break it down.’ I’ve met other deaf people who don’t make the effort, but he makes it easy.”
Gold said having Chol as an employee has meant learning to communicate in new ways.
“It’s a different dynamic between us and the employee," Gold said. "It’s the first time that you’re communicating non-verbally or communicating less in general."
Funk 'n Waffles hired Chol in August when Chol and his interpreter, Michele Chapman, approached the two owners for a job application.
“We went to a couple of different places and the name [Funk 'n Waffles] just stuck out at us, and we thought, ‘Oh that must be cool.’ So we introduced ourselves to Adam Gold,” Chapman said.
Chol said it was extremely difficult to find employment before he applied at Funk 'n Waffles. “I worked at Quiznos for a year, and then it closed," he said. "I looked for a year before finding a job at Funk 'n Waffles."
For Chol, a deaf immigrant with no high school degree, the employment statistics were stacked against him. The Center for Immigration Studies and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that the unemployment rate for an immigrant male without a high school diploma or GED, and a person with a disability, are both 19.5 percent.
“That’s where Michele comes in," said Heckman, director of the Aurora Center. " She’s a job developer. Almost all jobs now are requiring a high school diploma or GED. You used to be able to place someone in a restaurant or nursing home, but now they’re becoming even more restrictive. They want people to be able to read instructions and follow orders. In Third World countries, anyone with a disability is taken out of school or there is no specialized school for them to go to.”
The Aurora Center serves between 300 and 500 deaf or hearing-impaired individuals in the Central New York area, Heckman said. Out of those, 10 are immigrants.
Chol said nearly all of his education has been in Syracuse.
“I went to school a little bit [in Africa], but I didn’t know how to write," Chol said. "Here is where I was taught. I improved gradually and now I understand things better.”
Gold and Corea hired Chol through a “work try-out” program, a tax-incentive program called VESID, or Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. The state government program provides financial benefits to the employer of people with disabilities. Heckman recalled how excited the Funk 'n Waffles staff seemed to learn about ASL and to work with Chol's specific needs.
“We're all about anyone working here," Gold said. "He may be from Sudan and learning English, but he’s still just a guy looking for a job, same as the rest of us. It’s just humanity, you know? We aim to have something for everyone."
Chol agreed, saying nearly everything about his new job has been enjoyable – except maybe one thing.
“I like everything about working there…but boy, are the dishes hot when they come out of the washer.”