World

Arabic-language summer camp connects refugees’ kids to ‘the memory of the country’

It’s a little past 10 a.m., and Samira Alhamwi is leading a group of nine elementary school-age children in a jazzy version of the Arabic answer to the “ABC Song.”

It’s the second week of Arabic camp at the Syrian Community Network in Edgewater, and the kids’ enthusiasm fairly ricochets off the walls. It’s as though they’re singing a Taylor Swift hit or, better, one by the Lebanese pop sensation Nancy Ajram rather than an educational rhyme.

Alhamwi, a Syrian refugee, starts every morning with the upbeat tune. It’s a pillar in the Arabic curriculum she designed and is teaching over a new, five-week camp this summer.

“This camp is really the result of conversations with our parents,” says Nate Sivak, the education director for the not-for-profit, which helps refugees and immigrants navigate resettlement hurdles and building a life in a new country. “Syrian refugees who arrived five to seven years ago now have children who do not read or write in Arabic. We heard from a lot of families who feel their children face a disconnect and identity crisis between two worlds.”

Arabic is the official language in 22 countries around the globe. In Chicago, about 13,000 people primarily speak Arabic at home. It’s the fifth-most spoken language at home in Chicago — after English, Spanish, Chinese, Polish and Tagalog.

A classroom map traces different nationalities to their countries

When the rousing rendition of the alphabet song is done, Alhamwi turns to the board beside her. She holds up a laminated card bearing a single Arabic letter.

“Today, our new letter is the letter Nün,” she says. “What is its name?”

Nün,” the children respond in unison.

Nün. N-Ü-N. What sound does it make?”

“Nnnn,” they say.

Nün is the third of 29 letters Alhamwi hopes to teach the students over the course of the class. The goal is to introduce them to Modern Standard Arabic — in Arabic, it’s called al-Arabiah al-FusHa, which translates as refined Arabic. It’s the formal language shared across the Arab world. Modern Standard Arabic, which is based on Quranic Arabic, is used in books, academia, law, and media but rarely spoken in casual conversation.

Learning Arabic letters by coloring them during an Arabic language day camp in Edgewater.

Learning Arabic letters by coloring them during an Arabic language day camp in Edgewater.

The first activity is drawing the letter on construction paper. Each student takes out crayons and markers and begins to trace the “u”-like shape. Alhamwi and her assistant teacher, who came to Chicago from Iraq last year, go around the room. Next, she instructs the students to make paper bumble bees — nahla in Arabic.

At one table, Tala, 8, begins cutting her paper into three circles.

“Buzz, buzz,” Tala says, waving the black-and-yellow circles.

As Tala works, the nahla turns into an Oreo cookie, an ice cream taco, a hat and a relaxation button.

Tala was born in Jordan and speaks Arabic at home. Much to her parents’ concern, though, she reads and writes only in English.

“My grandma doesn’t let me speak English,” Tala says, gluing googly eyes onto her bee.

“My mom doesn’t like it when I speak English,” says Adam, 6, a Syrian boy sitting beside her. “But I like it.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Tala says.

Tala and Adam attend nearby public elementary schools where classrooms include a mix of United States-born kids and refugee families from around the globe.

Sidra, 11, and her father Mohammad Zaazaa.

Sidra, 11, and her father Mohammad Zaazaa.

Behind them, Sidra, 11, a Syrian girl, studiously builds her bumble bee. Sidra arrived in Chicago with her mother a couple of months ago after six years in Turkey. The move reunited Sidra with her father Mohammad Zaazaa, who resettled in the United States in 2016. Like many young refugees, Sidra’s education was interrupted during her years in Turkey, where the promise of resettlement in the United States kept her and her mother in limbo.

Sidra says she’s excited to make friends and learn written Arabic. Her father is equally enthusiastic.

“I stopped school when I was 9 years old in order to work for my family,” says Zaazaa, 38, who grew up making textiles in a factory before joining the Syrian army. An injury put him in a wheelchair. “For Sidra to learn the mother tongue the way it should be learned is really a dream for me. It’s how she will carry the memory of the country.”

Creating a positive connection to the more formal written language is at the heart of Alhamwi’s lessons.

“When I came to the United States, I knew I had to teach my children [to read and write] Arabic,” says Alhamwi, who has two young daughters. “And I don’t like the classic way. It’s not very interactive, and a lot of kids have bad experiences that make them hate the language, unfortunately.”

Alhamwi committed to building each language lesson from scratch. It took her six years to create the curriculum, which uses memory games, songs, picture books, art projects and videos. Though Alhamwi tailored the lessons to her two daughters, she always imagined adapting it for a classroom setting.

“It was my dream,” she says.

Students practice singing a song they will perform.

Students practice singing a song they will perform.

Inside her classroom, Alhamwi opens the book “The Missing Sheep” and begins to read. She first articulates the formal phrases written in Modern Standard Arabic — “One day Grandfather got sick.” And then she translates them into a Syrian dialect — “This grandpa got sick.” So the students connect the two versions of the language.

“I want them to see the connections and not get bored,” she says. “But it means we go through the book much more slowly.”

The morning lesson finishes with the Syrian song “The Light of My Eyes, My Country, My Heartbeat,” an anthem that celebrates and longs for Syria’s natural beauty.

After the song, Alhamwi releases the students for lunch. The meal, like everything at the camp, is free.

Sivak says the camp, which serves nearly 45 kids across three classes and age groups, costs about $20,000 to run. Most of the funding comes from an after-school grant from the Illinois State Board of Education, which pays for some enrichment programs run by independent organizations.

Students eat snacks and play soccer during a break.

Students eat snacks and play soccer during a break.

As Alhamwi cleans up the room, her elder daughter Maria, 11, slides in to a chair. She comes to camp with her sister. But neither attends the morning lessons. They don’t need to.

“I still remember the first time Maria read in Arabic,” Alhamwi says. “I started crying. I was so proud of her, and I was also proud of myself because it took me a very long time to reach that moment.”

Teaching her daughter to read Arabic was not only an exercise in literacy but cultural exploration and preservation.

“Language is our identity,” Alhamwi says. “It’s our culture. It’s what connects us to our homeland.”

Elly Fishman is the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.”

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