In a small Halifax apartment far away from war and refugee camps, young Syrian children are finally getting the chance to learn about their Arabic language and culture in a safe environment.

Families come all the way from Dartmouth, Bedford and Herring Cove every Saturday and Sunday to have their kids study Arabic and learn more about their Syrian heritage at the Syrian Arabic school. 

The school opened its doors in September and now has six teachers and more than 120 students ages six to 12.

Many of the students and teachers experienced trauma before coming to Canada. Some lost family members or went on long and difficult journeys as they fled from Syria to Jordan on foot.

"This is a school of hope and healing, a new chapter in our lives, so in here we are trying to forget," Loai Al Rifai, the school's founder, said in Arabic. 

Protecting language, culture

The school was created after Al Rifai and a group of Syrian newcomers noticed some Syrian children were losing their identity.

"We didn't want them to lose their mother tongue and we wanted to make our ancient culture a part of the children's lives," said Al Rifai, who came to Canada in 2016 and previously worked as a surgeon in Syria.

"This will help them create a new culture that is both Arabic and English, which will benefit us and the wider community," he added.

Arabic Teacher

Children at the school get to learn about their Syrian heritage and practise speaking Arabic. (Aya Al-Hakim/CBC)

Al Rifai said the Syrian children are their biggest hope.

"They will be the one to raise us and it will be done by making their education our priority."

Seeking help

Anyone who wants their children to learn Arabic can enrol them in the school, he said.  

It costs $10 to enroll a child and the money helps cover the cost of school supplies, Arabic books and other materials.

The school's principal, Maamoun Masalmeh, who used to be a French teacher in Syria, said the money is not enough to maintain or to improve the school's current curriculum.

Members of the school

Left to Right: Ahmad Al-Masalmeh (parent), the school's founder Loai Al Rifai and principal Maamoun Masalmeh. (Aya Al-Hakim/CBC)

As someone who studied child psychology, Masalmeh believes the school should offer not only Arabic classes, but also arts and crafts to help children work through their traumas and to de-stress.

"The problem is we still don't know how to reach out for help from communities that aren't Syrian," said Masalmeh in Arabic. "How do we let people know that we are here and are in need of support?"

Being more than refugees

The people who teach Arabic and history at the school are mostly doctors, engineers and teachers who are not able to find jobs in their field of work.

"This school brings back our dignity and make us feel that we are doing something worthwhile," said Al Rifai. "People just call us refugees, and forget that we are also doctors, engineers, and teachers who are passionate and skilled at what we do."

Class 2

Arabic class for students who are in grades 4-5. (Aya Al-Hakim/CBC)

Al Rifai and Masalmeh say the school is going to expand its focus and will start offering English and computer classes for adults in the coming weeks.

People who would like to volunteer can visit the school on Saturdays and Sundays at 61 Glenforest Drive or call Al Rifai at 902-809-9550.