By Carine Allaf, Senior Programs Advisor
Hundreds of people around the globe are on the move, some by choice and others due to violence or unsustainable conditions in their home countries or regions. Qatar Foundation International (QFI) works in and with primary and secondary public/state-funded schools across the Americas, the United Kingdom, and Germany. In every classroom and with every group of students and educators we work with, issues related to migration and displacement are unavoidable.
Founded in 2009, QFI focuses on student-centered learning environments that foster a deeper understanding of the Arab world through the teaching of Arabic language and about the region’s societies and cultures. We partner with primary and secondary schools, universities, multilateral entities, and other philanthropic organizations to ensure that our programs advance students’ global competency and acquisition of 21st-century skills. With the ongoing increase in the movement of peoples globally, students and educators require more nuanced views of other peoples and cultures, as well as connections with peers in other locations that offer a deeper and more meaningful understanding beyond news headlines and sound bites. As such, QFI works in three main program areas: we focus on learning a language (Arabic Language), studying about another part of the world (Arab Societies and Cultures), and bringing together students, academics, practitioners, and others in-person and virtually to learn about each other and to share strategies and common successes and challenges related to our work in these areas (Connected Communities).
Today, as we celebrate International Migrants Day, in addition to UN Arabic Language Day and Qatar National Day, it is important to reflect on QFI’s work in today’s society and how the work we do with our students and educators globally is more relevant and critical today than ever before. With migration and displacement only increasing, the importance of learning about the other – be it via learning a new language or learning about a new part of the world – in-person or virtually serves the vital purpose of normalizing differences and highlighting similarities among people in an increasingly divided world.
In December, QFI partnered with Salzburg Global Seminar on the program titled Education and Workforce Opportunities for Refugees and Migrants, along with ETS, Microsoft, Porticus, and Lego Foundation. Illustrative of our work under the Connected Communities program area, Salzburg Global Seminar gathers like-minded scholars and practitioners on topics QFI cares about and allows them time to share about their work, learn about others’ work, and debate and discuss issues of relevance. QFI’s partnership with Salzburg Global Seminar, now in its fourth year, facilitated the attendance of nine of the 66 Fellows to this year’s program, including representatives from NaTakallam (an organization you will read more about below) and Give Something Back to Berlin whose work is driven by the need for integrating migrants and refugees with the host community via music and cultural workshops in addition to language classes.
Because of the topic of refugees and migrants of the Salzburg Global Seminar program and in celebration of International Migrants Day, we can spotlight QFI’s three program areas and how the work QFI does is critical to raising awareness of migrant rights and to recognizing the contributions made by millions of migrants and displaced people to the economies of their host and home countries.
First, in all of our Arabic language classrooms there is a clear mix of students from Arabic-speaking families and those who are learning Arabic as a foreign language. In fact, the majority of our students are actually those interested in learning Arabic as a foreign language. When asked why students are choosing Arabic, we get a variety of answers from being interested in that part of the world, to wanting to use Arabic when they enter the work force, to its complexity and different alphabet felt like a challenge that they were intrigued by. And we hear stories of students who have used their knowledge of Arabic to make someone else in their community who is an Arabic speaker feel more at ease. Language learning, after all, is a window into the ‘other’ and allows learners of Arabic to see Arabic-speaking migrants and refugees as their own counterparts. NaTakallam is one of our partners that links displaced people with students using accessible technology platforms such as Zoom or Skype. NaTakallam locates displaced persons and trains them to become Conversation Partners, and compensates them for their time, and then allows school groups or individual students to sign up for either language or cultural awareness lessons. Primary students in New York City were able to speak to a Syrian refugee currently residing in Iraq to discuss their journey; or secondary students learning Arabic in Missoula, MT practiced their Arabic with a Syrian refugee living in Italy. Without students needing to leave their own communities, NaTakallam facilitates these exchanges and empowers displaced people to share their own narrative.
Second, under our ASC program, we run the Teacher Leadership Program (TLP) whose goal is to train a cohort of educators who have a strong understanding of various issues related to the Arab world to equip them to not only teach about the Arab world in their classrooms, but also to work with other teachers to help bring this increased level of understanding to their classrooms. The TLP focuses on current events including migration and displacement from and in the region. The push-pull factors, concepts as to what causes migration and displacement, what the different types of migration are, and the impacts of migration are on the country they leave from and the country they go to are all discussed in detail. The first cohort of 20 teachers hailed from 15 states and as a result of their training 14 teachers had presentations accepted at the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) conference. This tripled the presence of presentations on the Arab world at NCSS over the last few years. Teachers from this cohort are also presenting at the Progressive Education Network Conference, the National Council for Teachers of English Conference, the National Council for History Education in addition to state social studies conferences including in Wisconsin and Colorado. The next cohort of 15 teachers from 11 different states will begin in 2020.
Lastly, under our Connected Communities area of work, we undertake research on issues that are important to our community. Starting a few years ago, QFI began being approached by public schools on how to best welcome and work with the influx of Arabic-speaking students arriving from conflict-affected countries. In partnership with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, QFI designed and implemented the Study of Adolescent Lives After Migration to America (SALAMA) that looked at the mental health and psychosocial well-being of Arabic-speaking high school students (aged 13 years old and older). Findings that emerged from one public high school in Harrisonburg, VA and from two public high schools in Austin, TX included: adjustment challenges mainly related to learning English; how community and school supports were immensely important and useful in addressing trauma, learning about new structures and systems, and feeling welcomed and part of a great community; the stressors families placed on their own children to on the one hand integrate and do well, and on the other hand to not lose their own cultural and religious identity; and although peer support was not formally institutionalized in schools, students saw peer mentors as vital to their acclimation. Data collection is continuing in the Detroit Metropolitan area in Michigan and in Chicago, Illinois and findings across all these sites will not only help improve practices of including students from these backgrounds into public schools but also shed light on good practices taking place that are critical for public investment and on-going support.
As we enter the next decade of our work, QFI remains committed to these three program areas that allow us to continually challenge ourselves to hearing many perspectives, supporting and empowering displaced and vulnerable populations, and bringing high quality educational resources and voices to classrooms around the world.