- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

VERGAS, Minn. (AP) — It’s one of the rituals of the summer camp experience: young campers starting each morning with a group song. But at Al-Waha, it’s not the standard “Camptown Races” fare.

The children warble not in English but in a guttural yet soothing Arabic, the language they’re learning in a two-week session on the shores of northwestern Minnesota’s Leek Lake.

As they sing, Al-Waha’s dean, Ghazi Abuhakema, translates: “My world is beautiful, and wrongdoing will not happen. A villager I am. Our caravan keeps moving forward in a big, long procession.”

Al-Waha has the usual summer camp activities, from rough-and-tumble sports matches to arts and crafts sessions. But at the newest of Concordia College’s summer language camps, it’s all in Arabic, led by bilingual counselors from places such as Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon teaching young, mostly American children about Arabic language and culture.

Al-Waha, which translates to “oasis,” is Concordia’s 14th summer language camp, the latest in a program that dates to 1961 and has drawn students from around the world to learn languages as disparate as German and Chinese, Finnish and Korean.

With 200 million Arabic speakers worldwide and more than 600,000 in the United States, officials at Concordia, located in nearby Moorhead, said it was a natural choice for their newest camp. But recent world events, they said, make the camp and its mission of fostering knowledge and understanding of Arabic language and culture all the more important.

“Our kids are meeting their counselors and seeing they’re young people, just like them. They’re not terrorists; they’re not rich; they’re not driving around in the Mercedes,” said Mr. Abuhakema, who is Palestinian, and a professor of Arabic and international studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.

From the moment campers arrive, all the scheduled activities are in Arabic. The rustic cabins are named after major cities in the Arab world, with signs in the right-to-left script of the language’s alphabet.

“They speak everything in Arabic,” said William Justin Chittams, a 16-year-old camper from Washington. “You have to figure out a lot of it from their hand movements and body language. You get better slowly, a little bit each day.”

Several Concordia officials said they hope they’re on the leading edge of an increase in Arabic instruction in U.S. high schools. Such a trend would help to fill a growing need for Arabic skills in U.S. military and intelligence circles, in diplomatic and higher education settings and even in corporate America.

“I bet that the Pentagon and the CIA and the State Department are chomping at the bit for kids like these,” said Sheldon Green, a Concordia official. The college funds the Arabic village in part from a $250,000 grant from a U.S. State Department “critical-needs” language program.

The children at Al-Waha aren’t spending that much time thinking about the future. Mostly, they seem to be just enjoying summer camp.

Sherin Mahrat, a 13-year-old Chicagoan, answered fast when asked about the best part of her camp experience.

“I made a lot of really good, new friends,” Sherin said. “I know I’m going to cry when it’s all over.”

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