Is just chatting really valuable? YES!

AnelaMalikPicture“No matter how well implemented, a classroom environment can only teach you so much about a language …programs such as Banaat Connect offer a chance to fill those gaps.”



By Anela Malik (Fall ’16, Winter ’17, Summer ’17 Participant)

Arabic is a difficult language, nobody can deny it. In part, it’s incredibly frustrating for the very same reason that it remains so fascinating. Classical Arabic is different than Modern Standard Arabic is even more different from dialects that vary by region or even city. Most US based college Arabic programs offer a chance to learn Arabic using an established method. Namely, in a classroom, with structured lessons that utilize textbooks and online resources. No matter how well implemented, a classroom environment can only teach you so much about a language. After months in a classroom language students often find themselves at a loss during their first face to face interactions. Classroom language education has an important place, but it quickly becomes evident that there are gaps in comprehension and production that cannot be filled in a classroom. Those gaps are quite acute in Arabic, given its dialectic nature and diversity. 

Language partner programs such as Banaat Connect offer a chance to fill those gaps. Stumblingly, haltingly, and at times laughingly, students can connect with a native speaker, practice a dialect widely understood in the Middle East, and start to utilize those dusty fragments of the language that they’ve learned in their classrooms. Over two sessions with the program, my ability to understand everyday speech and interact with fluidity and flexibility improved dramatically. I went from dreading everyday social interactions in Arabic to embracing them, knowing that I could wade through without too much embarrassment. Arabic will always be an ongoing journey for me as a non-native speaker, something I can work on and improve upon. Throughout that process I’ll just keep chatting, as language partners catalyze progress in a demonstrable and quite rewarding way. 

My Transformative Experience

RebeccaLewis“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.


A Rekindled Connection


By: Costanza Maio
(’16 Fall, ’17 Winter, ’17 Spring, ’17 Summer)

As Ramadan comes to a close, I am reminded once again of my favorite memories from my travels in the MENA region: preparing iftar with my host family in Tangier; waltzing around Amman at night with my host sisters; stuffing my face with ma’amoul; watching Ramez every night; taking in the beauty of this holy month.

I hold on to these memories dearly, as I have not had the opportunity to return to the MENA region since graduating college. Before finding Banaat Connect, Ramadan continuously served as a reminder of my distance from this world I love so deeply.

But Banaat Connect changed all of that. With this wonderful program, not only can I keep practicing my spoken Arabic, but I can continue to make friends in this beautiful part of the world. I can keep connected with Arab culture and learn about a native’s perspective on issues in the region. I can gain insight into the experiences of women in the Jerash refugee camp, the many injustices challenging their lives, and, most importantly, the ways in which they find empowerment in the face of these obstacles.

I am in awe of these women, who generously invite me into their lives and, despite the distance, lovingly care about mine.

I cannot speak highly enough about Banaat Connect, which has rekindled my relationship with the Arabic language and the Arab World. I plan on continuing with the program for a long time, and I cannot wait to return to Jordan someday and finally meet my incredible speaking partners in person, inshallah.

New Perspectives

AliBlogPost“This program has not just been an excellent way to develop both teaching and linguistic skills, but an opportunity to explore someone else’s world and learn from the experience.”


By Ali Hall (Winter ’17, Spring ’17 Participant)

Hi, I’m Ali and I’m an incoming fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia. I began participating in Banaat Connect in January 2017. As the program continued, not only did my Arabic speaking confidence improve tremendously, but I quickly and genuinely became good friends with my partner, Isra’a. When our first session ended we immediately made plans to continue to the next session together, and we plan to once again in the fall! I’ve never been naturally apt at learning new languages, though I enjoy them, which has always made it difficult for me to persevere through language classes in school. However, not wanting to disappoint my friend who believed in me and provided encouragement, kept me motivated to give each meeting my best effort.

In April of this past year, my “Examining Sustainability in Place: The Environment of the Middle East and Southern Asia” class’s final project was to investigate an environmental factor in the region. After having developed a relationship for four months with Isra’a, who lives in the Jerash refugee camp in Jordan, I decided to investigate the availability of water resources for the residents who lived there with her. The director of the Jerash facility, Amna Abu Zuhair, graciously agreed to an in-person interview over Google Hangouts to assist me in my research. I spent a few days simply gathering information from the interview, United Nations reports, news articles and more. Shockingly, I learned that an underground sewage system within the camp was a recent development.  The previous conditions were not just inconvenient, but unsanitary and unsafe. In addition, residents seeking refuge from Gaza rarely hold Jordanian citizenship, and therefore lack the rights and voice associated with such. As an extremely water-deprived country, all of Jordan’s inhabitants face a challenge for fresh drinking water, and the summer particularly proves to be an unfailingly strenuous experience.

Given this, I gained even more respect and admiration for all of the women participating in Banaat Connect, and am so grateful to have the chance to hear about their lives, interests, and perspectives. This program has not just been an excellent way to develop both teaching and linguistic skills, but an opportunity to explore someone else’s world and learn from the experience. If you are considering joining or simply learning more, I cannot emphasize enough the special place this program and my partner has had in my life. You won’t be making a mistake!

Mutual Language Learning, Genuine Relationships

By Jamie Fico (Spring ’17, Winter ’16, Fall ’16 Participant)

I’ve studied Modern Standard Arabic for four years now, and I can proudly recite classic poetry, write with impeccable grammar, and remember more words useful for diplomats than common knowledge such as foods.  However, the classroom has ill-prepared me for what I really want to use my language skills for, to connect with people.  My first time abroad in the Arabic-speaking world was last summer in Morocco on an intensive language program.  Shyly, I walked into restaurants and rode in taxis speaking to Moroccans in fusha, and receiving chuckles over the formality.  Many replied in French or darija, Moroccan dialect, two languages I was useless in.  After thousands of hours spent on wajibats, flash cards, and grammar drilling, I was the laughing stock of the Magrib; an American speaking formal Arabic during a casual drive to the beach.  If the sides were flipped, I would probably laugh at myself too.

Fusha, or formal Arabic, is understood throughout most of the Middle East, but daily interactions, market shopping, and conversations with friends and family are done in dialect.  This language is meant for those close to you, while fusha is for the politicians, scholars, and imams.  After returning home to Virginia from Morocco, I joined Banaat Connect, a budding online language program initiated by my friend Lilly.  I’ve continued participating in the program for three sessions now, two of them with my current partner Isra.  We started off speaking in a combination of broken fusha and English, but (very) slowly, I am picking up Palestinian dialect.  It took time, many months, but now our conversations have transformed from a weekly chore to joking, laughing, and sharing stories about our lives.  We’ve become friends, and we’ve never even met in person.

Building off of weekly conversation topics, Isra and I ultimately decide what we want to discuss, and we inevitably flow into a casual conversation about our friends, work, and hopes for the future.  We have a lot more in common than it first appeared.  We share many of the same beliefs about family, relationships, and feminism.  She continues to surprise and impress me every time we talk.  Her life has many more obstacles than mine.  As a Palestinian refugee living in Jordan, it’s difficult to find work or enjoy state benefits.  However, she also overturns common misconceptions about refugees.  Isra has a college degree and is a primary school teacher.  She works long hours every week for little pay, and she lives at home with her parents and siblings.  Regardless of this, she always finds time to talk to me every week. 

It is her commitment to the program that pulls me out of bed in the morning twice a week for our sessions.  My goal has always been to travel to the Middle East and use my language skills to build relationships with people.  I know that one day if I ever make it to Jordan, I will already have one friend waiting for me in Jerash with open arms and a beaming smile.