At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Muhammad Elhabibi has developed and is directing an Arabic language-for-beginners program for the broader community. Register file photo

Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University offering language course for those welcoming Syrian refugees

By 
  • March 11, 2016

Retired lawyer Bob Doherty has no illusions about becoming fluent in Arabic but he’s taking a language course at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax in order to ease the transition for the Syrian refugee family his parish will soon welcome.

“I’m learning Arabic to provide some degree of courtesy and welcome for the new family when the family arrives,” he said. “I want not only the arriving refugee families to feel welcome after their ordeal but also to bridge the cultural gap.”

Doherty is part of a new program being offered to the public in response to Canada’s acceptance of 25,000 Syrian refugees. The university’s four-week Arabic course has been running since January and the first two sessions attracted a surprising amount of interest from the community.

“I’m hoping there will be a third course,” said Muhammad Elhabibi, course instructor and curriculum developer. “Canada is a land of immigration. It is not only the local people, the English-speaking people, it is people who come from all over the world.” 

Elhabibi says there are more than 20,000 Arabic speakers in the Halifax area, making Arabic the second most spoken language in the port city. The first course attracted 36 mature students who paid $150 each. About two-thirds of them returned for part two. 

“The interest in this course was unexpected,” Elhabibi said.

Students who completed the first course “grasped all the letters and they could write some words,” as well as speak some common phrases, such as greetings. 

“They are very happy with the amount of language that they learned from the first course,” Elhabibi said. 

Even a limited grasp of Arabic can help a volunteer make a Syrian refugee feel more welcome.  

Doherty, 71, who has worked with the Halifax Refugee Clinic, said he is taking the course to close the culture gap for the family that his parish, St. Patrick’s, has jointly sponsored with St. George’s Anglican Church. He said it’s been difficult but rewarding.

“I am not expecting to be conversant in Arabic,” he said. “But I believe I will be able to communicate with an Arabic speaker.” 

Nova Scotia Immigration Services says that language barriers are among the biggest challenges refugees face in Canada. Nova Scotia has more than 570 Syrian refugees and the province’s Immigration Services expect that number to rise.

“They will integrate more easily into the society” if they can still communicate in Arabic, said Elhabibi. “If you go to another country and you don’t speak the language, if you find someone who speaks English and you can communicate with them, that will be psychologically great for you. You will have confidence and you’ll feel at home.” 

Although the course is open to the general public Elhabibi said he had social-service workers in mind when developing the curriculum. 

“In many public services, in churches as well, they need to know some Arabic to be able to communicate with the people who frequent these places,” said Elhabibi, whose his wife is a translator at a Halifax hospital. 

Saint Mary’s is also operating English classes for refugees. 

“We’re trying to take the refugees to another lifestyle,” Elhabibi. “This will give them a sense of assurance. Language can ease the situation.” 

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