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Volunteers Helping Syrian Refugees Take Arabic Classes At Oshtemo Library

Instructor Hend Hegab teaching Arabic at the Oshtemo branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library
Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

As of 2016, Michigan had the second highest number of Syrian refugees in the country. Many of those refugees are not yet fluent in English. This makes everyday things — like going to the doctor — that much more difficult. So people working with refugee families are trying to close the language gap. 

Starting this month, the Kalamazoo Public Library is holding Arabic language classes. This first six-week course is already full and there’s another 25 people on a waiting list.

“I now have neighbors who speak the Arabic language and customers where I work, and I think it would be great to be able to converse with them and find out what they need and to be a more welcoming presence," said Diana Rankinen, a retail manager in Portage. 

Hardy Fuchs taught German language and literature at Kalamazoo College, but in this classroom he’s a student.

“Arabic is not part of the Indo-European language family and I was curious how they do it,” he said.

Most attendees are helping Syrian refugee families, like Evan Hughes. Hughes picked up some Arabic his junior year of college while studying abroad in Beirut, Lebanon. But that was a long time ago, he says.

“I’m trying to remember what I think I remember," he said.

Now Hughes and his wife Kathy are part of a volunteer team that helps four kids in a Syrian family.

“One volunteer may do paperwork, one may drive for doctors’ visits. You know we work with the children, somebody else may do something else. So it takes more than one family to help another family,” said Kathy Hughes.

Librarian Angela Fortin says volunteers can help at a time when refugee resettlement agencies are strained.

“Because the number of refugees admitted to the United States has been drastically cut, the resettlement agency budgets for refugee assistance has also been cut," she said. "So they’re working with a lot less money and also fewer staff which is a major problem.”

According to an article by Voice Of America, more than 300 people who work with refugees were laid off last year.

Western Michigan University Arabic instructor Hend Hegab is teaching the class at the library’s Oshtemo Branch. She says Syrian adults may get two or three weeks of English classes after they move here, but that’s not enough to become fluent.

“Also we can’t ignore the pressure and the stress they are under which affects their learning abilities,”  said Hegab.

Mary Knowles is the lead assistant at the Oshtemo Branch. She’s learning Arabic along with the other students.

“I can’t read Arabic. I’m trying to learn the alphabet now, but if you don’t know it, it’s really a difficult language to learn,” she said.

The script is also written from right to left — which for English-speakers is like reading backwards. Hegab says even teaching volunteers gestures can be a big help.

"Because in the Arab culture, gestures, it’s a big deal. We gesture a lot," she said. "It’s a Mediterranean thing."

Hegab says even learning basic Arabic words can make an immigrant or refugee feel comfortable. 

“And that would be a good impact on everybody,” she said.

Angela Fortin says the library staff was surprised by the overwhelming interest in learning Arabic and hopes to offer another class this summer. 

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