Arabic crash course: Learning a new language to help refugees

In Waterloo Region, a crash course in conversational Arabic is available to residents and several have leaped at the opportunity to learn new language while becoming more useful to those arriving. ​

Sponsors, volunteers want newcomers to feel welcome after leaving Syria for Canada

Zainab Ramahi, a co-ordinator with Muslim Social Services, helps one of the students with pronunciation at the Arabic crash course. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Many Syrian refugees have already arrived and more are coming to the Waterloo Region, leading some to wonder about what we can do to make these people feel at home in a new country.

In Waterloo Region, a crash course in conversational Arabic is available to residents and several have leaped at the opportunity to learn new language while becoming more useful to those arriving. ​The workshop is meant to teach private refugee sponsors and volunteers.

An organization known as Bring Back Hope, which was founded by Iman Arab, is working in association with Muslim Social Services to put together the four-hour course. The sessions are facilitated by Dr. Amir Al-Azraki, who teaches Arabic at the University of Waterloo and is also a lecturer and playwright. 

Leanne Brown works with Carizon Family and Community Services as a school mental health co-ordinator and told CBC's Melanie Ferrier that the opportunity to help others makes her feel really good.

"I'm here to learn Arabic because of the new refugees coming into our city and just to know how to make them feel welcome," Brown said. "It's pretty easy, actually. And I guess for me, learning a new language is very exciting."

We want to show that we respect their culture and language and are trying to learn it even if we look foolish.- Tom O'Connor

​Sergiane Fernandes is a computer database developer at Manulife who said she would like to volunteer with refugees and figured knowing a few words would be a good way of expressing kindness. 

"They will have to learn so many things about Canada, I think it's just a little thing to do that we can do to make them feel better here," she said.

"Learning a little bit of Arabic to say 'hi' to a refugee means that they count, they're not just a number. They are somebody that you're there to meet. They're a person. And we are taking a little bit of effort to make them welcome," Fernandes continued.

John Lochead has been supporting a refugee family since Oct. 22, 2015, and says he would like to learn useful Arabic phrases. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)
John Lochead said he is attending the course at 65 Hanson Dr. in Kitchener because he is sponsoring a family that has been in Canada since Oct. 22, 2015.

"I'm here to pick up useful Arabic phrases," Lochead said.

The more he learns, the easier he can make life for those he is supporting. Plus, he said that when he speaks Arabic, the newcomers definitely appreciate it.

"They're very happy and they make replies that are sometimes difficult to understand," he added.

'Respect their culture'

​Tom O'Connor, who is now retired but used to teach at Wilfred Laurier University, is also attending the course.

"I'm taking this because our parish is sponsoring a Syrian refugee family and we want to learn some Arabic words," O'Connor said, admitting that he is having some issues with pronunciation and is just trying to learn the basics.

"This is a challenging language, I just find it hard to say the words," O'Connor said.

"We want to show that we respect their culture and language and are trying to learn it, even if we look foolish," he continued before breaking into a laugh.

"I'm sure they're going to feel foolish learning English, too."

Iman Arab, founder of Bring Back Hope, gives some over-the-shoulder advice during the class at 65 Hanson Dr. in Kitchener. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

With files from Melanie Ferrier


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