The arrival of hundreds of Syrian families since 2015 has presented an opportunity for cultural exchange on a scale rarely seen in New Brunswick.
As newcomers learn English and integrate into the workforce, New Brunswickers are also learning more about Arabic and Syrian culture, according to UNB College of Extended Learning program assistant Sandy MacKay.
"I kept getting calls from people who were working with newcomers asking if we offered Arabic," he said.
He lined up qualified Arabic-English translator Lina Gharbiya as an instructor, and advertised the course: a dozen people showed up for the very first class.
The warm response was unusual.
"Usually it takes a while to get a new class going," MacKay said.
Start with alphabet
The College of Extended Learning now offers two classes every term: Arabic Level I, II, and III, MacKay said.
In Arabic Level I, students learn "the alphabet, and how to write a little bit, then simple conversation," Gharbiya said. "By the end of the term when they were talking, and they know how to read and write a little bit, they want to continue."
Students come with varying levels of skill — from no exposure at all to the language, or rudimentary conversational skills gleaned, in large part, from interacting with the Syrians families they've met through volunteering with YMCA Newcomer Connections.
Many New Brunswickers already have another advantage when it comes to learning Arabic.
"The grammar is more like French, so if you know French very well, it makes more sense," said Gharbiya. "There are some sounds that are not in the English language."
"But the people try so hard, and they are awesome."
When students try out their new Arabic skills with their Syrian friends, Gharbiya said, many of them "were absolutely thrilled."
"They keep talking about the generosity of Saint Johners," she said. "They are really happy to interact with them."
The new skills have obvious benefits for students, too.
"So many students commented on the increased connection with their [Syrian] families," MacKay said, "and increased empathy that they felt for newcomers learning a new language."
The next Arabic Level 1 class in Saint John will be offered Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Saint John Social Enterprise Hub at 139 Prince Edward St. from July 13 to Aug. 17. The cost is $160 and participants can register online via the UNB Leisure Learning website.
In Fredericton, Everyday Arabic & Culture runs Wednesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. from May 10 to 31. The cost is $85 and students can register through the UNB College of Extended Learning website.
So, if you're interested, learn the Arabic language. Or, expressed another way:
تعلم اللغة العربية