Local High School Students Embracing Arabic Language

Seattle Times

Seattle Times staff reporter

As the fortunes of the United States and the Arab world grow ever more intertwined, the need in the U.S. for Arabic speakers becomes more acute. The trouble is, the language typically isn’t taught in public schools.

Until now. A new program organized by the Seattle nonprofit OneWorld Now! has launched after-school Arabic classes at four Seattle high schools, and 70 students have signed up. More have put their names on a waiting list.

“We were recruiting in all the schools, and asked (students) their preference, Arabic or Chinese,” said Kristin Hayden, founder of OneWorld. “Arabic was wildly popular. We have four Arabic programs and one Chinese. … ”

Hayden said she started OneWorld after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, with the goal of increasing youths’ understanding of global issues and to improve the image of Americans abroad.

The idea has taken hold at Ingraham High School, in North Seattle, where 15 students yesterday filed into Arabic class at 2:30 p.m. It is their second week with instructor Asmahan Sallah, and they have made obvious progress in reading, writing and speaking the language.

Student Nabila Aliyee, a Muslim whose parents speak Arabic at home, said she already reads and writes Arabic but joined the class because she doesn’t speak it well.

“The dialogue is difficult,” she said. “But it’s fun. I love the class.”

The Arabic program is modeled on a successful Chinese class that began last year at Garfield High School. Arabic also is offered there, as it is at Cleveland and Roosevelt.

Those after-school language classes are linked to programs in leadership training, foreign study and community service. Any student may enroll, but Hayden said OneWorld is particularly interested in attracting economically disadvantaged students.

“Why economically disadvantaged? The program includes study abroad; it’s usually only privileged students who get that opportunity,” Hayden said.

To make it all happen, OneWorld relies on a grant from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and help from the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

Other nonprofit organizations have been tapped for help. Leadership training is under the purview of the local Mavin Foundation; which helps multi-racial youths and families. The American Cultural Exchange, a Northwest group dedicated to language instruction, recruits instructors, while the Experiment in International Living, an international group that promotes intercultural learning through study abroad, manages foreign study. The United Negro College Fund also is a partner.

OneWorld, though on a shoestring budget, nonetheless has some well-known people on its board of directors. Among them are Seattle businessman Aaron Alhadeff; Katherine Bullitt, of the Bullitt Foundation; Samir Belyamani, Boeing Commercial Aircraft’s marketing director for the Middle East and North Africa; Felicia Hecker, associate director of Middle East studies at the Jackson School; Matt Kelley, founder of the Mavin Foundation; Bob Walsh, who is active in humanitarian causes; attorney Hunington Sachs; Paula Clapp, a founder of Global Partnerships and the Washington Women’s Foundation; and Rita Zawaideh, a businesswoman and the founder of Arab Film Distribution, the Salaam Cultural Museum and the Arab-American Coalition.

Kelley, of the Mavin Foundation, said some students who enrolled in the leadership program last year already credit it for their personal success.

One of them is Ingraham senior Xiao Wang, whose family came to the U.S. from China when he was 5. He said he enrolled in the Chinese program to improve his reading and writing, and he joined the leadership program even though he hadn’t considered himself a leader.

“I started with public speaking, and it’s really helped me,” Wang said. “At first I was not used to it. But after, I ran for student president — and I won the election.”

Ingraham principal Steve Wilson considers the Arabic program a success already. He said students are fascinated by the Middle East, and 43 Muslim students are enrolled at Ingraham.

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