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  • Writer's pictureJulie Early Sifuentes

Proud Peace Corps Baby, Julian Moiwai

Kind, Creative. Half Sierra Leonean, Biracial. Photographer, Videographer. Deaf, Advocate. Julian Moiwai is all of these things and a proud Peace Corps baby. His mother, Stella, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone in the ‘80’s, drawn there through her passion for traditional West African dance. Julian’s father Braima was born and raised in Sierra Leone. He was a teacher in a local school, and she was an “Aggie” extension agent who worked with subsistence farmers. After meeting in Sierra Leone, they got married and settled in Durham, North Carolina, where Julian was born.

Julian's parents, Stella and Braima (middle front) in Sierra Leone

At 10 months old, Julian got extremely sick with H-flu spinal meningitis and lost his hearing. Anything that may have seemed challenging for Julian’s parents, like being an interracial couple raising a biracial kid, was eclipsed by the fact that they were unexpectedly raising a deaf child. Neither of Julian’s parents knew sign language, and so they immediately took up classes at the local community college. They enrolled him in a residential school for the deaf for his first couple of years, and then Julian went to mainstream schools in his hometown.

Life may have been less challenging for a multiracial family in a progressive community like Durham, but Julian still had the “not quite fitting in” experience that many of us do. “I grew up trying to fit in. When you are a young kid, you try to find a group, like at the lunch table, a group of kids you can sit with. I was half black and half white - too light skinned for the black group and too dark skinned for the white group.”

In Julian’s childhood, his mom Stella made efforts to nurture his connection to African culture and the local African community. She would take him to her traditional African dance classes, and Julian would play drums. They would go to the Kwanzaa festival, and Julian would wear batiks and dashiki that local women from Sierra Leone had made for them. When high school came around, Julian took a break from wearing traditional African clothing, and wore “only soccer clothes,” according to his mom.

“I think I stopped wearing African clothes because I wanted to “fit in” among my classmates in school. As an only American child of my foreign-born parents (Julian’s mom was born in Germany), I was desperate to fit in. I used soccer as my way to socialize with my hearing peers.”

Julian went to college at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where he earned a degree in Public Relations and Advertising. He was a part of the RIT National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and his connection to the deaf community strengthened even more. It was here where Julian also was able to renew his connection with his African heritage; he became close friends with several young men from different parts of Africa, such as Zambia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana.

“They held values and perceptions on life different from their American counterparts, which I appreciated because they constantly reminded me of my identity in a way. My father isn’t fluent in sign language, and that gap was closed by those African friends. They were like my siblings.” They even called Julian’s mom “mama.”

It was in college when Julian really developed a sense of pride for who he is. “I started to appreciate what I had gained through my experiences, and accept how I am different from other people, and how they are different from me. It doesn’t matter about the different color of skin, culture, or religion; you just have to accept people and try to understand where they are coming from.”

Reflecting back on his childhood and how being a Peace Corps kid shaped him, Julian talked about traveling overseas as a young child. “It had a lot of influence in my life growing up. My parents would mention issues that happened in other countries, not just USA. It influenced me to be more aware of other people, other cultures, and issues that impact communities outside US. I visited South Africa with my mom, when I was 10 years old. I saw a lot of people and the poverty and the difficult conditions, I could see it in their eyes. It made an impression on me. I think it changed my life visiting another country. It made me more politically involved and more interested in advocacy.”

Advocate for the deaf community

“Growing up deaf was quite a rollercoaster. Learning English was challenging. Since American Sign Language was my primary language, it took me until the eighth grade to finally catch up with my grade level in terms of reading and writing.” Stella found reactions to Julian being deaf frustrating and hurtful; both the pathologizing of deafness and the assumption that he was adopted. “When I would explain that he’s deaf, people would respond “I’m so sorry” and she would think “Why?!?! He does everything but hear.”

In college, Julian re-connected with his deaf identity while at RIT/NTID where there were 1500 deaf and hard of hearing students enrolled. Rochester, the city in New York, is home to an inspirational deaf community where he learned more about the deaf history and about how to be an advocate for himself and for his deaf community.

Now Julian leverages his social media presence and any opportunity he can to advocate for the deaf community. He has a lot of followers on Facebook, Instagram, as well as Twitter.  “I use video to explain situations you see in the community. For example with captions. In the real world, in the ‘hearing’ world, you often see videos but there are no captions, and we get really frustrated. It’s really impossible to read lips and understand fully what is going on. And so I’m really trying to encourage including captioning on videos to make sure that the entire audience can understand and be included.”

Recently, Julian has won a couple of competitions that have provided him even more opportunities to represent and increase awareness about the deaf community. He won a Chubbies modeling competition. Chubbies is a company that specializes in men’s shorts. There were 11 winners from 6,000 different competitors, and Julian was the first deaf winner (see the video that won him the competition).

Julian sporting a pair of Chubbies

Julian also was honored as the Deaf Person of the Month by DEAF LIFE magazine. When he talked to the editor of the magazine a few months ago about being a proud Peace Corps baby, she encouraged him to look for a group of people connected to the Peace Corps in this way. It was perfect timing, because Peace Corps Kids had just been launched, and Julian found us on Facebook.

From DEAF LIFE Magazine

“My experience as a deaf person with hearing parents in a mainstream world and as a biracial child of immigrant parents has made me realize the importance and value of building bridges across difference and culture. I am really excited about being part of a group like Peace Corps Kids that has a focus on intercultural connections.”

Julian's mother Stella recently traveled to the village where she lived when she was a Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. She was there to help with the Ebola recovery. Julian hopes that he can make the trip to Sierra Leone soon. Or who knows? Maybe he will travel there as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

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