CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ali Ibrahim has worked at the Walmart on 28th Street in Cascade Township for the last eight years, while his wife, Maryam, joined the team about three years ago.
Other employees couldn’t effectively communicate with them because the Ibrahims are both deaf. No other full-time employees knew American Sign Language or ASL.
“I see people every day who need to learn sign language. It’s easy,” said Ali Ibrahim.
About a year ago, Vanessa Bennett took over as store manager and saw an opportunity to connect with the Ibrahims. She started learning ASL by asking them both for help.
“When I first got here, I think there was one person who was part-time who knew some sign language,” she said. “Learning that was extremely heart-wrenching to know that you’re going through working, especially during COVID, where so many things are uncertain, and there’s a lot of communication that needs to happen, and that obviously wasn’t happening.”
Maryam Ibrahim started working at the store after losing her previous job during the pandemic. She had never worked in retail before and wasn’t sure about applying, but her husband convinced her to do it.
With the Ibrahims’ help, Bennett has gone from only knowing a few signs to being able to carry on a conversation with them.
“They are so happy and willing to help. I’ve never seen Maryam and Ali come to work without a giant smile on their face. If you take the time to ask them, they will take the time to stop what they’re doing and show you how to sign that correctly. It doesn’t matter if you forget 100 times, they’ll keep showing you again and again,” she said.
Another employee, Jacob Armstrong, has also become conversationally fluent in ASL. Bennett said it’s catching on.
“Jacob and I would get really efficient at it. If he’s 20 feet away from me, I don’t have to scream or yell. I can just sign to him. Everyone is like, what does that mean? They want to learn this,” she said.
According to Bennett, nearly all the managers have learned, at a minimum, how to sign the alphabet and the basics of ASL. This has allowed all of them to learn a lot more about the Ibrahims, including the fact that they came to this country as refugees and each knows four or five languages.
Maryam Ibrahim’s birthday was in September, and Bennett had a surprise for her, which she shared on the Walmart Facebook page. She announced that Maryam was promoted to a team lead position.
“I became a team lead because of the other managers learning ASL. It made me want to do more, being encouraged by them,” said Maryam Ibrahim.
She added that it was difficult at first but gets easier every day.
The Ibrahims appreciate the effort everyone has made to better communicate with them, but Bennett says this has had an even broader impact on the entire associate team.
Last year, the employee engagement survey placed the 28th location at the bottom of the region for employee satisfaction.
This year, Bennett said their location was number one in the 112-store region for their annual engagement score.
“When I walk into the building, I don’t have to be here in order for the associates to take pride in what they do because they care about the building. They care about their co-workers, and they care about us. When we all work together, our jobs will be a lot easier and a lot less stressful,” she explained.
Ali Ibrahim agreed with that sentiment.
“My friends, my work, it is my family. I have friends and family here at work all over Walmart,” he said.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Kent County offers ASL classes virtually and in person. The schedule for 2024 will be out soon, but the cost starts at $115 per student. Online classes meet using Zoom, but they are run with the same curriculum as in-person classes.