Extraordinary bonds are forming on seemingly ordinary Saturdays as students and newcomers from Syria, Turkey, and Iraq spend the days conversing in Arabic and English at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Cultural Exchange Support Initiative (NMC-CESI) at U of T.

The NMC-CESI acts as a resource for Syrian refugees and other newcomers from Arabic-speaking countries to improve their English, while also giving its student volunteers the opportunity to practice Arabic and learn about a culture that is different from their own.

The program fosters a sense of community for the newcomers, providing them with assistance in acclimating to life in Toronto. It eases the process of settling into a new city and speaking a foreign language by creating a safe and encouraging space to learn and develop conversational skills.

The initiative also raises funds for Syrian refugees and at-risk students, and spreads awareness about the current situation in Syria and the Middle East.

Ian Costa, current PhD candidate at U of T and one of the program’s organizers, said that the weekly language and cultural workshop “is more than just a workshop. It has become a community.”

“It’s hard to put into words,”  Costa explained, “but I think it meets a need for the community, beyond being a great opportunity to improve language skills.”

Costa said that he and other Near and Middle Eastern Civilization students came up with the idea for this program before the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in Toronto last year.

The weekly workshop has taken on greater significance in recent days, considering President Donald Trump’s recent action to ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Of what is transpiring in the US, Costa said, “As far as the workshop is concerned, we try to be as lighthearted and fun as possible. But of course people are thinking about it.”

Each workshop is comprised of reading and writing portions, where participants discuss certain topics and ask each other for assistance when necessary, in addition to a fun activity, such as an outing to the ROM or a baseball game. The interactive style of the workshops transforms them from being simply a place to study language to a place for the newcomers to receive advice on adjusting to life in Toronto.

The impact of this program is felt both by the immigrants and student volunteers. Some of the younger participants, empowered by their newly acquired language skills, are applying to universities and chasing their dreams. This is another one of NMC-CESI’s goals: ensuring that refugees are able to integrate into society with the help of a university education, if that is what they wish to pursue.

The unifying force of conversation is what maintains the unique atmosphere of the program. Students and newcomers alike struggle and laugh over new words, the sounds of Arabic and English mixing, and a deeper understanding of culture and community develops between both groups. The participants refuse to allow language to be a barrier that divides them. Rather, the challenge of understanding one another is precisely what brings them together.

The NMC-CESI is open to all students, regardless of their level of Arabic fluency. For more information, visit NMC-CESI’s Facebook page.