UT Arabic students mentor AISD refugees

By Deenah Kafeel

Colorful motivational posters line the walls of a room in Janis Guerrero Thompson Elementary School — a room filled with the chatter of broken English and Arabic, where native speakers try to convey their thoughts in a language foreign to them. Some words may be lost in translation, but smiles and laughter are not.

A couple days a week, UT Arabic students visit Austin schools and hold conversations with native Arabic-speaking refugees. The symbiotic relationship helps refugees learn English, allowing them to feel more welcome, while UT students practice their dialects and hone their comprehension skills by listening to native speakers.

This collaboration between UT’s Office of Middle Eastern Studies and AISD comes at a time of increased refugee resettlement in Austin due to the international political climate. According to Austin Refugee Services, the city has about 12,000 refugees, with a majority of the recent influx hailing from Middle Eastern countries.

“They deserve a chance,” said Molly Cravey, anthropology senior. “They need extra help because they’re coming from a very difficult situation and a language disadvantage.”

Cravey took her fourth semester of Arabic and was one of the voices among the chatter at Janis Guerrero Thompson Elementary School. She says she’s started looking forward to working with the children every week, and cultivated deeper relationships than she expected.

“I came into the program just wanting to refine my Arabic, but I left with a deeper understanding of the culture,” said Cravey. “The children really grow on you.”

The AISD students echoed similar sentiments.

“I like when the college students come because I get to have fun with them,” said Faizah Shah, a student in the fourth grade. “Sometimes their Arabic is really funny but that’s okay because my English is too.”

This program is one of many that emphasizes language immersion offered by the Middle Eastern Studies department.

“The program is great because students get to become accustomed to the specific dialects of the natives, which is something you can’t quite teach in class,” said Olla Al-Shalhi, Arabic professor. “Listening to native speakers is very different than a professor talking at a slower pace. You have to use context to understand the other person, and be faster at it too.”

Overall, students and professors call the program a success.

“We also started implementing a ‘pizza lunch with refugees’ during the school year, because we saw the success of this program,” said Amber Ahmed, undergraduate coordinator for Arabic. “Once a week, we meet up off campus and invite Arabic students of all levels to come out and talk to the community, to sit and learn from each other.”

The collaboration with AISD allows students like Cravey to continue with the same students she worked with for the next year, allowing deeper friendships to be forged.

“I love them now,” Cravey said. “They’re my friends, my buddies.”