Arabic Spoken Here

Language lessons create common ground in a Detroit elementary school.

At the front of the classroom, a tiger asks a monkey how the day is going.

"Marhaba," says the tiger.

"Shloenak," the monkey answers.

"Zain," the tiger says.

The exchange is the classic "Hello," "How are you?" "Fine" that comes in the early stages of learning a new language -- in this case, among puppet-wielding 4th graders at Detroit's Greenfield Union Elementary School. Here, children learn letters and colors and rudimentary Arabic words for everyday objects under a program created to teach "a less commonly taught language" to elementary-level students.

The lessons being taught in this northwest Detroit classroom are broader and deeper than those usually covered in a world language class. Almost by accident, the language experiment has evolved into a program that breaks down walls between children of Detroit's African American and Chaldean communities, in the heart of an urban neighborhood that has suffered longstanding tensions between the two groups.

The Chaldeans -- Christian Arabs, mostly from Iraq, who speak the Chaldean language -- are a minority within a minority. Numbering around 50,000 in Detroit, Chaldeans constitute one-quarter of the city's Arab population, which is among the largest in the country. (Arab peddlers began plying the streets of Detroit a hundred years ago; the booming auto industry attracted a new wave of Arab immigrants a few decades later.) Both the Muslim and the Christian Arab communities are concentrated in predominantly black northwest Detroit and the nearby suburbs of Dearborn and Southfield.

Metro Detroit has a history of regressive racial attitudes and remains one of the most segregated urban areas in the country, according to an annual survey by the University of Chicago. This civic personality has long made it difficult for immigrants to find acceptance. For the Arab-American community, the problem became particularly acute during the Persian Gulf War.

Relations between Chaldeans and blacks have suffered in recent years from an increase in robberies and murders in neighborhood convenience stores. The stores often are owned and operated by Chaldean families; most of the suspects have been young African-American men.

"When Chaldean shopowners are being killed by African Americans, and they live in the same communities, naturally you are going to have some animosity," says Shirley A. Summers, who took over as Greenfield Union's principal in 1988. "When I first came here, there were [continual] fights between Chaldean and black students. I mean knock-down, drag-out fights. But I can't remember the last time we had a fight between an African American child and a Chaldean child. This program has helped them to understand that they're more alike than they are different."

Greenfield Union's Arabic initiative is one of six model world language programs implemented through grants from the State of Michigan and the federal government. The intent is to expose children to Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Russian -- languages outside the usual course offerings. The result, in this case, reaches beyond academics into down-to-earth matters of how communities get along.

In some ways, setting up Greenfield Union's program was an act of forced creativity. The Detroit public school system, with 180,000 students, has a large and often unwieldy bureaucracy. Dr. Alice Herman, the district's foreign language coordinator, applied for the grant specifically for Greenfield Union without telling anyone at the school. Principal Summers learned about it when Herman (who has since died) told her the grant had been awarded.

Despite her apprehension, Summers worked with Herman to develop the program and selected a staff member -- Samira Hamame-Bassir, a Palestinian fluent in her native Arabic as well as English -- to teach the classes. Summers says she chose Hamame-Bassir in large part for her outlook.

"She has the personality to make the program work," Summers says. "So many teachers don't have that personality. They have the attitude, 'I know what you don't know, and if you don't listen to me, you won't learn it.' If you aren't interested in the people you're teaching, you just can't make it work."

The original grant provided for teaching Arabic to 3rd graders. According to the plan, more advanced classes would be added in the 4th and 5th grades as the first group of students moved up.

Early success, however, and some providential problems in scheduling led principal Summers to expand the program in the second year to the entire school. She cancelled the school's art program, under the theory that art would be covered within the multicultural program, and converted the art room into an Arabic language center.

"You have to make decisions sometimes that might make you a little leery," Summers says. "But that's what life's all about -- taking chances."

In this case, supporters say, the chance paid off. The Arabic classes have had such a positive effect that Summers decided to continue the program after the grant expired at the end of the 1995-96 school year, incorporating the costs into the general budget.

Hamame-Bassir's immediate challenge was to try to find teaching materials -- Arabic-language flash cards, posters and other supplies. She found few and ended up making many of them herself, including a poster of the Arabic alphabet, word cards and maps. She also enlisted members of the larger Arab community to come in for presentations and workshops.

As the program developed, an unexpected benefit surfaced. Chaldean children in Iraq speak Chaldean at home and often don't learn Arabic until they go to school. Hamame-Bassir discovered that she was teaching a language foreign to both black and Chaldean students, while reinforcing a culture that was familiar to one of the groups. Suddenly, the classic problem of integrating new students dissolved. Instead of being viewed as outsiders, the Chaldeans were being perceived as new resources, fresh avenues for learning about the Arab culture.

Peace is not a gap between fighting or a space where nothing is happening. Peace is something that lives, grows, spreads and needs to be looked after. Peace begins with you.

At the beginning of the year, Hamame-Bassir teaches each child the Arabic-language equivalent of his or her name. The results can be surprising: "A lot of the African-American children already have Arabic names," she says. "One boy in my class is named Ahmad, a version of 'Muhammad.' Kadija has the name of the Prophet Muhammad's wife. When I teach the Arabic word for 'generous' -- karema -- they all look at their African-American classmate who has that name."

Establishing small cultural links in her students' minds is one of Hamame-Bassir's first goals. "Children want to know about other places," she says, "but all they know at this age is what they see on TV. We talk about their images of the Arab World and of Africa, too. The African-American children think all Arab people ride camels. And both groups think that Africa is one big jungle. When they learn that several countries of Africa are Muslim, where people speak Arabic, they're amazed."

Hamame-Bassir downplays grammar and formal construction in the Arabic lessons, choosing to focus on conversational skills. "Experts in the past stressed grammar," she says. "At the end of four years, the students can read and write the world language, but can they speak it? No. So now they learn the second language the same as the first -- by speaking it, then learning the grammar. We do it through games."

Dangling from crisscrossed strings overhead in Hamame-Bassir's classroom are more than a dozen animal hand-puppets. The walls are covered with numerals, colors and maps labeled in English and Arabic. A set of construction-paper Middle East flags, made by students, tops one bulletin board. A large poster, in English, bears a quote from children's author Katherine Scholes: "Peace is not a gap between fighting or a space where nothing is happening. Peace is something that lives, grows, spreads and needs to be looked after. Peace begins with you."

During a 4th grade class, Hamame-Bassir asks students to come forward in twos, select puppets and then engage in a conversation in Arabic. She tells them the puppets don't speak English. To take part, students must have them converse only in Arabic. Although there are more Chaldean children than African American (the ratio runs about 3 to 2), Hamame-Bassir tries to form mixed pairs.

The first two children this day are both volunteers -- Sabrita, who is black, and Nabi, a Chaldean. Each girl picks a puppet from the string, and they begin softly speaking.

"Kam omrak?" says Sabrita the monkey, asking "How old are you?"

"Omri ashara sineen," answers Nabi the tiger, who is 10 years old.

Hamame-Bassir and the rest of the class watch and listen, but Hamame-Bassir doesn't interfere with the conversation. If one puppeteer doesn't know a word, she must find a way around it or get help from the other. After a few minutes, Hamame-Bassir ends the conversation and, as the class applauds, selects two more students.

One unavoidable problem confronts Hamame-Bassir on a regular basis: turnover. Greenfield Union School is located in a working-class neighborhood with a high number of rental units. Families are continually moving in and out of the community as immigrants arrive, leases expire or new jobs open in another part of town. As a result, classes routinely contain children just getting their first exposure to the language and the program. Bassir tries to team new children with students who have been around for a while, in a classroom version of the old swimming-pool "buddy system."

Another, more ominous, problem she faces is keeping prejudice at bay during class. While the younger children play and learn together comfortably, many of the oldest students in the school -- the 5th graders -- are already beginning to reflect grown-up suspicions and divisions.

During one class, several students -- both Chaldean and African American -- posed the kind of persistent discipline problems associated with 12-year-old rambunctiousness. Out of Hamame-Bassir's earshot, one African-American student kept joking with the Chaldean children sitting across from him about "Chaldeans taking over." In the neighborhood, this phrase is commonly uttered with angry fear by blacks and with ethnic pride by Chaldeans.

Hamame-Bassir says she walks a fine line through such incidents by diverting attention to more positive interactions. In the greater scheme of the program's design, such problems are minor. The exchange among the 5th graders wasn't tense, she points out. They were, in effect, making light of differences that formerly might have brought them to blows. Still, Hamame-Bassir and her colleagues are vigilant in monitoring signs of friction. The 5th grade classroom teacher, who sits in on the Arabic class with his students, ordered one child to blot out a bold "C.T.O." -- for "Chaldeans Taking Over" -- inscribed on his homemade Arabic dictionary.

"What we're trying to do," Hamame-Bassir says, "is create peace and harmony between the two groups. We're trying to make them feel at ease dealing with each other."

Edith Davis, an African-American mother who is chair of the Greenfield Union Parent-Teacher Organization, adds, "I can see it becoming a real important part of helping the community, and the kids' awareness. This program puts the kids together, whereas they wouldn't be otherwise. It makes a connection."

Davis says that school interaction extends beyond the classroom and has begun to spill into the neighborhoods. "In this particular block, many of us have been here for awhile. We [adults] see each other … we speak to each other. As far as interacting, going to each other's house, maybe occasionally, but not often.

"But the kids, they do it a lot more than the adults. That's because [the school program is] targeting the kids. And I think it will help in the long run. The more they are together, trying to get an education, the more they interact, the more they'll get along."

Hamame-Bassir, too, sees the benefits her class offers filtering slowly but steadily beyond the classroom walls. "I cook a lot in class," she says. "If I cook an Arab dish that's delicious, the African-American children will want to try it at home. That means they might get their mom or dad to go into a Chaldean market for the first time, or into an Arab-owned restaurant. When an African-American child walks into a Chaldean business and says, 'Marhaba,' you just see everybody smile."

Although her Chaldean students are Christian, a number of Hamame-Bassir's African-American students are Muslim. This example of cultural overlap helps reinforce the themes of her class. As a member of the Nation of Islam, Maurice Sisco is pleased that his three children at Greenfield Union are learning the rudiments of the language of the Koran. He has been taking Arabic courses himself through the school, under a separate continuing education program.

But the best part of the program, Sisco says, lies in the social skills it teaches, helping children to look beyond cultural differences to find common ground. "They're learning how to communicate with each other," he says, standing in the noisy, echoing hallway of Greenfield Union. "They play with each other. They walk the dogs together. They exchange phone numbers and play at each other's houses. They are communicating."

Barat, a Chaldean 4th grader, explains it this way: "Arabic class helps me play games and sing songs with people. Instead of getting into fights, you talk it over. And you be friends."

Arab Americans in Focus

"The pattern seems to be that whenever there is a crisis in the Mideast, the incidence of hate crimes against Arab Americans increases," says Wingfield, coordinator of conflict resolution for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, D.C. "It becomes even more pronounced when the United States is involved directly."


The backlash, Wingfield notes, is simply one manifestation of centuries-old misperceptions in the West about the nature of Arab culture. Colonial arrogance, he says, fostered stereotypes of Arabs as camel-riding hedonists and devious traders. The more modern stereotype of the "Muslim terrorist" led initially to false assumptions about the Oklahoma City bombing.


Another offshoot of this arrogance, Wingfield points out, is the tendency of many white Americans to view other broad segments of the population as homogeneous. References to "the black community," for example, ignore the diversity among African Americans and their interests. Similarly, "the Arab World" is vast and varied. Most Arabs speak Arabic, and most are Islamic, but the Chaldeans prove that neither attribute is a prerequisite for "Arab-ness."


Part of the ADC's mission is to help combat stereotypes and reduce anti-Arab hate crimes through educational and political programs. A large part of this effort involves encouraging Arab Americans to play higher-profile roles in their communities.


The ADC has prepared guidelines for community activists to follow in trying to increase the presence and awareness of Arab culture in school districts. Called "Working With School Systems," it describes various scenarios for involvement, ranging from volunteering at the classroom level to lobbying for district-wide curriculum development. One notable success occurred in Portland, Ore., where Arab American activitists persuaded the local newspaper, The Oregonian, to include a special Mideast page in its annual "Newspapers in Education" issue.


"Our program is multifaceted," Wingfield says. "It's not a curriculum that can be taken into the schools. Instead, we have many different people doing many different things. We encourage people to take actions on their own horizons."


In metro Detroit, several programs through public schools and nonprofit organizations work to bridge differences between Arab Americans and the broader community. An organization called Arab-Jewish Friends runs an annual contest in which Arab and Jewish high school students co-write essays. It helps the students break down their own stereotypes by working with students from cultures with whom they have historically been at odds.


"We have them write about issues that are important to Arabs and Jews," says Jeannie Weiner, one of the contest's founders. "It's good for them to put these thoughts down in writing. And it's good for us because we can use the essays as tools to show what the kids are thinking."


Another project, directed by Wayne State University's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, brought together students from high schools in suburban Dearborn, where metro Detroit's Arab Muslim population is concentrated, to negotiate a contract for behavior among Arab and non-Arab students. They quickly found common ground in their dissatisfaction with the district's multicultural programs and petitioned school officials for classes in such topics as world religions.


Little came of the demands, but the students learned that they have more in common than they thought, says Mickey Petera, assistant director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Department. While she supports programs that break down barriers among older students and adults, Petera says she is particularly encouraged by Greenfield Union's efforts to reach students at earlier ages.


"We need to start at the elementary and preschool levels," she says, "and raise a generation of students that can get along."