A volunteer program that encourages conversations between Arab immigrants and Americans is doing more than just improving English-speaking skills. It is also promoting cultural understanding and helping new immigrants integrate into American life.
Many recent immigrants to the United States face common challenges in adapting to a new country, a new life and oftentimes, a new language. In some cases, they cannot afford to pay for English language classes and may have limited contact with Americans.
A program in a quiet neighborhood in New York's Brooklyn area is trying to change that. Arab-American immigrants meet once a week with fluent English-speaking Americans. The program is designed to improve the English speaking skills of recent immigrants.
Dolly Farah, who is from Syria, is one of the students.
"I need more conversations, because I know the grammar [and] vocabulary," she says. "I know good English, but the problem [is] I need practice to talking. I come Wednesday because we have conversation class. This special Wednesday. I want somebody talk with him by English and speak with me, little slowly not like very fast."
The conversation program is sponsored by two non-profit organizations, the Brooklyn-based Arab American Family Support Center and the International Center in New York, a private group that promotes language exchange.
Volunteers and new immigrants have been meeting and talking once a week since the program started in Spring 2002. According to the International Center, nearly 200 volunteers have participated in the conversation partnership, with at least twice as many Arab-American students joining in.
Khalid Essai emigrated to the United States from Morocco eight months ago. He says there are no limits on what the participants can discuss.
"We talk about many subjects," he explains. "Sometimes we talk about my country, my family. Sometimes, politics in America, about New York City, about museum, about the liberty statue. We are in America. We have liberty to talk about everything. "
That open dialogue is key to another of the program's goals, promoting cultural understanding. For at least one volunteer, getting to know the Arab culture is one way to respond to the influx of new immigrants. Kimberly Battaglia says her curiosity is driven by the changing face of her Brooklyn neighborhood.
"There are a lot more Arabic speaking people coming into the area and I'm curious," she notes. "And I want to get to know them and what better way to get to know them than to sit down and have a conversation and get to know their ideas about things."
Marcelle Austin, another volunteer, says the language exchange is simply enjoyable.
"I think it's a lot of fun," she adds. "I enjoy it, I think it's a learning experience, and I like when I do things and I'm learning stuff because I'm learning so much, so much. I try to be as friendly as possible to get them to want talk about things. You want them to talk about their lives and who they are."
Sometimes figuring out who they are is an educational process, as Ms. Austin discovered in a recent conversation with a Palestinian immigrant named Mohamed from Jordan. They were talking about how he would identify himself.
Marcelle: "What do you think she's going to say, from what you told her?" Mohamed: "From Jordan. (pause) Why Jordan? Citizen Jordan, social security jordan." Marcelle: "Passport?" Mohamed: "Passport Jordan. Jordan same Palestinian, different name."
Volunteers are carefully screened and then trained in some basic English-language teaching skills before they begin conversations with their Arab-American partners. The training includes a cross-cultural component as well, designed to reduce any potential misunderstandings.
Stephanie Palau, who is the director of collaborative programs at the International Center, says often the rewards of the conversation program extend beyond language and cultural interaction.
"What we find in particular at the Arab-American center, when you have a trained volunteer and an Arab-American who would like to learn English, what happens secondarily is that relationships are being developed and I think that really is probably far more important than the English language and the cultural exchange," she says. "Friendships evolve, partnerships last far beyond the 15-18 week session."
Ms. Palau adds that the weekly conversation program also gives these immigrants a chance to meet with one another and develop a sense of community in their new homeland.