- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

Syrian-born Nawal Alrefaie’s face lights up when she mentions Baghdad in 1970, the year she graduated from the Al-Ehkaa College of Education, recalling how wonderful the city was before Saddam Hussein’s regime. Her family now lives in this country, but the memories of that time are with her daily.

That is understandable because she is a full-time language teacher at the District’s Rock Creek International School, where she instructs children ages 3 to 11 in Arabic, her native tongue.

The school’s summer program, open to children of all faiths, is believed to be the only one of its kind in the area — especially for this age group — billed as a secular program. Emphasis is on cultural enrichment rather than any national or religious orientation.

Modern standard Arabic is taught in three three-week sessions between June 23 and Aug. 22. The cost for each session is $695, in addition to a $100 registration fee and $10 for the camp T-shirt. (Spanish, French and English also are offered at the school’s summer camp.) Called an immersion language program, it is hands-on and age-appropriate in every way.

The presence of a native speaker helps bring home to the very young a sense of the varied people and cultures in the Arab world. Students get to see for themselves how Arabic-speaking people shop, cook and entertain. Tomorrow, they will visit the Egyptian Embassy, where they will learn about life and customs in that country. At the end of every session, the students put on a performance for the school to show what they have learned.

The students — only a few of whom are enrolled at Rock Creek during the regular school year — come mainly from families in Washington’s international community of businesspeople, educators and diplomats, but at least one family has no connection to the Arab world. The parents simply want their child to know about diversity in the broadest possible way — through understanding another language.

At Rock Creek, cultural enrichment comes in many forms, some of it unplanned and spontaneous.

On the second day of the first session, the nine youngsters in Mrs. Alrefaie’s class boarded a school bus to go to the Mount of Olives, a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean grocery and clothing store in Falls Church where they were welcomed by Palestinian-born Fadia Shaat, the owner-manager, and his daughter Dalia Shaat. The large self-service emporium is located in a minimall near Baileys Crossroads. Its neighbors are Jerusalem and Bread & Kabob restaurants.

“Kabob is Arab,” piped up Hassan Al-Dairi, 6, peering out the window as the bus pulled up to the site. Mrs. Alrefaie’s grandson, he already speaks Arabic and is in the class to shore up his skills.

“It smells funny” was the reaction of one of the girls upon entering and catching a whiff of the spice-scented air.

“It smells Arabic,” Hassan countered.

They accepted offerings of sugar-coated almonds and sweet gum candies and walked around shelves holding pottery from Tunisia, tins of palm nut oil from the Ivory Coast, dried figs from Turkey and coffee from Syria, among numerous other goods. The bakery displayed platters of baklava; the meat counter held a special lamb sausage called megez that is made on the premises.

The butcher waved them into the cold locker to show them a whole halal — or kosher — lamb hanging from a hook. “LaHan,” he told them, using the Arabic word for meat.

It was when the group reached the dry goods section that their energies went into high gear. The boys laughed excitedly as they tried on the hijab caps and jelabahs, traditional clothing worn in the Arab world, and they played with piles of white fur skins while glancing at themselves in the mirror. The girls danced around in delight as they dressed themselves in caftans and beaded scarves with the encouragement of Miss Shaat.

Forty-five minutes later, the adults in charge decided to end the fun, but not before class members were given portions of baklava and cans of cold fruit drinks to take with them. Miss Shaat told them they should feel free to return. “Come anytime,” she said.

Part of the last hour leading up to the 3 p.m. close of lessons was spent practicing Arabic letters. Mrs. Alrefaie pointed to each one and sounded it aloud, moving right to left in front of an easel that held a picture chart of the alphabet. Colorful representations of everyday objects with Arabic names covered the walls of the cheerful, light-filled room.

That same morning, before lunch, the class had spent time writing their names in Arabic. The names were pasted on balloons that Mrs. Alrefaie turned into window decorations. She addressed students in basic Arabic, even when they spoke to her in English. The school’s director of education, Carole Al-Kahouaji, an American married to a Syrian, stopped in to say hello. She urged the students who already knew some Arabic to help others who didn’t.

“Remember, we’re all learners, and that is why we are together,” she told them.

The school’s year-round policy is to prepare students to speak and read in at least two languages, even though a few students come from homes where up to four languages are known or spoken occasionally. The idea for an Arabic program, which is offered during the regular school year as well, grew out of an experimental after-school class that was then incorporated into the curriculum to meet the needs of what staff saw as growing interest on the part of families applying to the school. (A Hebrew enrichment class may be available as an after-school option this coming year.)

“Because we speak Eurocentric languages, we felt to be a truly international school we should have something different,” says Mrs. Al-Kahouaji, who ran an international school in Damascus, Syria. “You have to think a different way when you speak another language.

“Arabic has its own peculiarity, as do all languages,” she notes. “Each country has its own dialect or vernacular that can contain words that are extremely different in speech and writing. The standard Arabic is a written language that connects all Arab-speaking countries, and everyone can understand it.”

Mrs. Al-Kahouaji, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Damascus and a master’s degree from Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., is mindful, too, of the advantage of encouraging positive attitudes toward Arab cultures at a time when she says she sees much negativity surrounding the subject.

“Students are exposed to seeing Arabic in a real setting,” she says. They are expected to try speaking Arabic all of the time except during afternoon swimming breaks.

Doing so with very young students makes sense, she says, because children absorb language differently in early grades.

“They don’t really know what it means to translate language,” she says. “They will repeat what you said in a language different from the one you used. Before seventh grade, they are acquiring language naturally. After that, they see it as a project imposed from above. That’s a function of adolescence in a situation where you have to take a foreign language and can’t see any meaningful purpose.”

For more information on the Rock Creek International School, visit www.rcis.org.

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