Young Kiwis are being given the opportunity to learn Arabic thanks to a new language school in Wellington.
“Together we overcame the lack of teachers, venues, books and finances to achieve our dream for our Arabic children,” says founder and principal, Mohammad Hilal.
Classes are run by a team of volunteers. All are native speakers of Arabic. Students are children and teens from families who have migrated from Arabic-speaking countries.
Mohammad says there are many Arabic-speaking people living in Wellington, mainly from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
“Most have come to New Zealand as migrants or refugees. But many don’t have the time to give their children formal lessons in Arabic, especially in reading and writing,” Mohammad says.
Important for the future
“We are all aware it is so important for the future and to keep them bilingual and for the grandparents,” Mohammad says.
“When the children reach their teens, it is important for parents to be able to communicate family values in the native language, rather than a second language,” he says.
For some children they hope to eventually read the Quran, which was written in classical Arabic.
“At the Arabic School of New Zealand, we strive to teach Arabic children their heritage language and common human values to produce a bilingual generation with a clear sense of identity, healthy self-esteem, mental resilience, and strong communication and cross-cultural skills,” says Mohammad.
“In doing so, we will help maintain communication and affinity between these children and their parents, we will introduce them to Arabic families with similar interests and we will help them integrate effectively within the wider Kiwi society.”
Refugees from war-torn Syria
Mohammad, his wife Fatima and their two young children came from war-torn Syria to New Zealand, via Malaysia, as refugees. They arrived here in 2017.
After a short stay at the Refugee Resettlement Centre in Māngere, they moved to Wellington where the Red Cross helped them settle in. Mohammad had studied English in Syria but took classes at English Language Partners before studying IT at Victoria University.
The couple soon realised there was a need for formal classes where the children of Arabic-speaking parents could study the language.
Began as Future Blossoms
In early 2019 they started Friday after-school lessons called Future Blossoms to teach children to read and write in Arabic.
Due to growth, the Arabic School of New Zealand was established, a charitable trust formed and trustees appointed.
Currently, classes are held at three sites (central Wellington, Johnsonville and Lower Hutt). Students are aged 5 to 15 and total about 200. Most already know a little Arabic but don’t know how to read or write it.
Some students are taught in English, others in Arabic.
Mohammad says the students benefit from the social connections and hearing other children speaking the language. It also helps connect them with their culture.
Student enrolment fees and donations cover rent, stationery and other costs. These include the purchase of annual student memberships to the award-winning internet platform I Read Arabic.
They also use technology and modern teaching strategies to provide an interactive learning experience. Technology in particular came to the fore during the Covid lockdown.
A particular achievement was when the school and its students represented Wellington at the International Arabic Reading Challenge based in the United Arab Emirates.
Mohammad was one of five finalists in the education section of the 2020 Wellingtonian of the Year Awards (the Wellys).
Arabic one of the world’s major languages
Arabic is one of the world’s major languages. Some rankings list it as high as the fifth most commonly spoken language.
It is spoken (in various dialects) in more than 20 countries across the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, the north of Africa (from Morocco on the west to Ethiopia and Somalia on the east) and some parts of Asia.
It developed from the Aramaic language a little less than 2000 years ago.
Mohammad has a bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature and linguistics from a Syrian university. He says the language is particularly rich with many words, all with slightly differing meanings, compared to just one as in English.
For example, Arabic has 25 words that mean love. It is also a tonal language, which means pronunciation is important and it is best learned from a native speaker.
In 2019, Mohammad was invited to join the national ethnic advisory group for English Language Partners.
Helped by English classes
Soon after he arrived in Wellington, he had taken their English for Employees Course, which helped learners in full or part-time work improve their English skills for their job, learn more about Kiwi workplace culture and communicate well with customers and staff.
English language is the key for a better future,” says Mohammad.
“The classes were in the evenings, which worked well for me. Lessons were very good and tailored to learners’ needs.”
Members of the English Language Partners ethnic advisory group are Kiwis from non-English speaking countries. Their work informs the chief executive and national board about refugee and migrant issues.
“It was my pleasure to accept,” he says.
“Every ethnic group has different experiences and different needs, and we benefit from working together.”
Mohammad finished his master’s degree in software development in 2020 and is now working part-time as a software developer.
Fatima previously worked as a teacher-aide but is now busy at home with the couple’s third child, their New Zealand-born daughter.
She continues her English studies and hopes to become a primary school teacher.
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