Syrians and Canadians trade languages at weekly U of T workshop

At a weekly University of Toronto workshop, Syrians newcomers aren’t just learning English — they’re also teaching students how to speak Arabic.

Language lessons an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange

Callan Furlong and Asmaa Alzoubi teach each other their languages and share cultural knowledge at this U of T workshop. (CBC)

On a Saturday afternoon in Toronto, two young people are teaching each other how to say "archeology." 

Asmaa Alzoubi pronounces it in English, and helps Callan Furlong say it in Arabic. They laugh as she corrects him: they're not just each other's language teachers, they've also become friends.

At this weekly workshop, Syrians newcomers improve their English — but they're also teaching University of Toronto students how to speak Arabic.
Karam Jamalo, from Lebanon, says the language workshops have led to new friendships. (CBC)

"It's a really helpful workshop because we can learn some English and we can teach others Arabic. It's really fun," said Karam Jamalo, who came to Toronto from Lebanon last April.

"We're making friends every Saturday, new faces every Saturday. They are really funny, really amazing."

Weekly field trips

For the last eight months, University of Toronto students and young Syrians have been meeting every Saturday.

They teach each other words from English and Arabic, share a meal, then go on trips to different places in the city, like a Blue Jays game or Toronto Island. This Saturday they went to the Royal Ontario Museum.

The group of Syrians and students at the Royal Ontario Museum on Saturday. (CBC)

"They've been together since March and they are really close friends now, they go hang out after the workshop," said Rasha Elendari, a PhD student who helped start the program last year.

"I'm so happy, I love it. I feel like this is a special community, created between the Syrians and the Canadians."

Started at Plaza Hotel

The program started with students meeting refugees at the Plaza Hotel, and has since moved to the university.

The University of Toronto covers the newcomers' transportation and lunch costs, and funds the weekly cultural excursion.

Asmaa Alzoubi, who came to Toronto from Syria a year and a half ago, calls the program "awesome."

"There are lots of opportunities to meet people, to make friends and also to communicate with the University of Toronto students," she said.

University of Toronto students and young Syrians have been meeting every Saturday since March. (CBC)

Alozoubi, who's 20 years old, also wants to study at university eventually. She says the workshops are also a great way to better understand the Canadian post-secondary education system.

'Amazing' integration into Canada

Elendari said she's seen the Syrian newcomers integrate incredibly well into Canadian culture, and credits the workshops with a big part of that.

"It's so beautiful to see their changes, because we have met them the moment they moved here, and now their language, their style, everything has changed," she said.

PhD student Rasha Elendari helped start the language workshops. (CBC)

"It's amazing. They are integrating very well and I feel the workshop is helping them a lot in their integration and meeting friends."

Culturally, not so different

U of T student Sarah McMillan has been coming to the workshops for the past eight months.

She's taking Arabic courses in school, and says learning from the Syrian refugees is incredibly helpful.

"It's a no-judge zone," she said.

"My Arabic is extremely poor compared to their level of English at the moment, so they know when they walk in that it's a free space to try and learn without fear of what they do not know."

One student says the language workshops are a judgement-free way to improve her language skills. (CBC)

McMillan said that aside from learning language skills, becoming friends with people in the workshop has helped her realize that people from Canada and Syria really aren't so different.

"We look at it as a big cultural divide, right, like we have western liberality and then it's their culture, but it's really not," she said.