“I was delighted that I would never have to read or write Arabic again…until I learned of Banaat Connect.”
By Rebecca Lewis (Summer ’16 Participant)
Banaat Connect showed me the transformational power of pursuing learning and engaging in a foreign culture.
Initially I decided to learn Arabic on a whim, a decision that, at the time, I believed I regretted. I had no previous connection to it or to the Middle East when I decided to take Arabic classes at my university. My small hometown in Virginia lacked diversity and my understanding of the world was smaller than I’d like to admit. My Arabic classes at the University of Virginia were fascinating, but I found the language and grammar so difficult that I felt constantly overwhelmed and stressed. Learning Arabic provided me a small window through which I could peek at another culture, but I constantly felt defeated, so I had little energy to explore other elements of the culture. I was terrible at speaking because I was afraid of messing up, so I avoided opportunities to practice. When I completed my 2-year language requirement, I was delighted that I would never have to read or write Arabic again. That was until I learned of Banaat Connect.
Just a few weeks later, a friend asked me if would be interested in a language exchange program called Banaat Connect. This program linked English-speaking women hoping to improve their Arabic with Arabic-speaking women hoping to improve their English. Through weekly Skype calls, Banaat Connect participants improved their conversational skills together. Over the past two years, Arabic had become my arch-nemesis, an eternal foe to be overcome. As you can imagine, my decision did not come lightly. After much deliberation, I took a chance and finally said yes.
After my first meeting with Rawan, a Palestinian refugee living in Jordan and studying to be an English translator, I knew this program offered a very different learning experience from the drills, essays, and memorization of my university Arabic classes. Rawan shattered any negative preconceptions I had garnered as a student of Arabic. She had this exuberant smile that radiated kindness. She did not know it at the time, but she was instrumental in my renewed interest in Arabic. Not only was she extremely personable, but also very well learned. Rawan was advanced in her language skills, so she walked me through sentences with endless patience, slowly building my confidence in speaking. Banaat Connect gave me the opportunity to rediscover a passion, and gave me the opportunity to interact with a great soul that I would never have met otherwise. I felt motivated to study new words and concepts so that we could converse — a drive powered not only by a desire for knowledge but also by a desire for friendship. With Banaat Connect, I found myself putting together sentences and thoughts cohesively in Arabic for the first time. I was never afraid of saying something wrong or butchering my Arabic because Rawan was such a patient teacher. I will always be thankful.
Banaat Connect gave me the opportunity to explore and question my views and beliefs. The Banaat Connect program provided questions to their participants to guide their conversations. Almost immediately, I began learning things that challenged stereotypes and beliefs I unknowingly held about the Middle East. Our conversations showed me how little I actually knew about the world I live in. Rawan and I quickly veered off the prescribed questions into other fascinating subjects that we had long wondered about one another’s cultures. Rawan was incredibly open to sharing her experiences and beliefs, so we quickly developed a relationship that surpassed ‘language exchange partner.’ Our twice-a-week Skype calls routinely spilled over into 3 or 4 hour conversations, and we often scheduled additional calls just so we could talk more. We often Facebook messaged each other questions or stories throughout the week. With the trust and mutual understanding we built, we could converse about difficult topics. These conversations routinely shattered untrue beliefs I held. At one point, I asked her about safety in Jordan and the prevalence of violence in her culture. She shocked me by saying that she had never seen any violence, except for two boys getting into a fistfight at school over a girl. We talked about our beliefs about love, marriage, gender relations, family and faith. She shared with me her experiences as a Palestinian refugee.
Our friendship provided us both a space to learn about another culture in a personal and eye-opening way. Along the way, I absorbed more Arabic than I had learned in two years of study and stress. Banaat Connect gave me something impossible to find in a classroom. It sparked an interest in Middle Eastern culture and history along with a renewed determination to study Arabic.
Rawan also inspired my academic interest in the Middle East. My subsequent classes would often spark engaging conversations between us, giving me further insight into her world. By the time Rawan and I finished our Banaat Connect sessions we had become good friends. We decided to keep in touch, and we scheduled Skype dates to chat.
Six months after I finished Banaat Connect, I scheduled my first trip to the Middle East. I planned to spend three weeks traveling around Israel and Palestine, but as soon as I mentioned this trip to Rawan, she excitedly invited me to Jordan to meet her family and visit her home. Thrilled at this opportunity, I made arrangements to travel to Jordan as well. I could not begin to describe the delight I felt seeing my friend in person for the first time. Her family welcomed me into their home and showed me boundless hospitality. They cooked a feast made for kings, and I ate until I nearly popped. During our first Banaat Connect session, I never imagined I would be sitting in her living room drinking Arabic coffee.
My friendship with Rawan sparked a fascination in learning about the Middle East. This past semester, I declared a minor in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. Nearly all of my classes now center on Middle Eastern Studies. The sights, people, and experiences I had during my travel inspired me to return this summer. I obtained a position teaching English and studying Arabic in Palestine. In this program, I live with a Palestinian family, I take classes in Palestinian Arabic, and I teach English to students. My language skills have improved immensely and I continue to gain new insight into Middle Eastern culture and Palestinian life every day. Although I remain unsure where my career path will lead, I predict it may swerve back in this direction.
One year ago, I was unable to speak or understand a language that I hated. I am now living in the Middle East, completely immersed in Arabic all summer, and enjoying every minute of it. I am studying Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at school, and I am considering a career in this region. I credit this transformation to my incredible friend Rawan, Banaat Connect, and the joy of leaning that this program inspired in me.