Improve your Amharic

A new task force for migrant workers

Sunday classes with students, Janie Shen on the right. Picture by Alex Shams.

Anas Kadjo and Abakr Khalil Addoumah came to Beirut with the same goal: to escape violence and economic hardship in their home country Sudan. But, while working here has proved a temporary solution, it does little to improve the long-term prospects for them and others in their situation. Searching for a way to do that, the newly established Migrant Workers Task Force runs language classes both for and by migrant workers in Lebanon.

When meeting with Janie Shen and Alex Shams to talk about their work with the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF), they are just about to say goodbye to Hoda, a prospect volunteer who is eager to improve the situation of migrant workers in her country. Hoda is one of many new MWTF members: “We’ve had lots of people contacting us lately,” says Janie. “People call or write us, explaining that they’ve been wanting to do something about the issue for a long time, but haven’t found a way to do it.” Alex continues: “From my experiences, NGOs and the civil society don’t really have the will or capacity to involve volunteers in their work. Therefore, we wanted to create an initiative based solely on volunteering.”

“By learning English, I can improve my situation. Life here is very hard, especially in regards to work.”

It all started this January, when Alex met with Malagasy social worker Aimee Haryl. He spoke to her about what sort of initiatives would improve the situation for Malagasy and other migrants in Lebanon. “I asked her, over and over, ‘How can I help you?’ But she couldn’t give me a straight answer. So I realised that, ok, I had to find out for myself what I could do.” For Alex, what immediately came to mind was language. “It’s a very simple thing, and it concerns basic issues like communicating and being able to defend yourself.” Together with Janie and group of other volunteers he initiated the MWTF, which now has grown to include a dynamic group of people: both Lebanese and foreigners, many contributing with specific skills like theatre and drama, film making or cooking.

While the MWTF works with a number of issues already (campaigns, research, computer classes, cooking sessions), the central thing right from the start has been language classes. For two months now, the group has held courses every Sunday at Beirut’s Zico House. Between noon and 2pm, migrant workers who want to improve their Arabic, English and French skills are welcome to take part in the free classes, run entirely by volunteers. Communication-oriented rather than fluency-oriented, they are custom designed to match each student’s individual needs.

Last Sunday, during the warmest weekend by far this year, the garden at Zico House was packed with students. Attracting a mixed student body with people anywhere between the age of 15 and 50+ from countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar, Philippines, Nepal and India, the MWTF has at least 50-60 people now taking part in their classes. “All sorts of students come,” explains Alex. “Mainly those who work as domestic workers, in kitchens and elsewhere, but also people who used to be married to Lebanese and now raise their children alone: they want to learn fusha (Standard Arabic) in order to help their kids with their homework.”

“It’s amazing,” he continues: “For many students, Sunday is their only day off. Coming to class on that day says a lot about their motivation.” Having worked with the students for two months now, Alex, Janie and the others have found that the motivation for many is different from what they first envisioned. “Our original idea was to provide people with the skills they need to defend themselves,” says Alex. Janie continues: “In Lebanon, one migrant worker dies every week. Sometimes more.” In that context, MWTF was expecting many students to show an interest in learning Arabic, the language they need for communicating in society and for expressing their needs here and now. But it turned out most students have a longer perspective and are primarily interested in language skills that they will benefit from in the time to come.

“Myself, I want to use these skills when going back to Sudan. I want to start teaching these languages and make better the situation for people there.”

“I’m learning things for the future,” says Sudanese Abakr Khalil Addoumah, known by his friends as Sami. Having worked as a driver in Lebanon for six years, Sami sees the classes as a way to invest in his future. “By learning English, I can improve my situation. Life here is very hard, especially in regards to work.” While Sunday’s class is the first for Sami, fellow Sudanese Anas Kadjo has been coming to the center since it started. “I’ve been here every week since the beginning. First, I worked on improving my English, but now I’m learning French. Both are world languages, which can be used for work and when meeting new people.” Anas has been in Lebanon for five years, only returning once to see his wife and family in Khartoum. “Life in Sudan is hard. We’ve suffered many years of wars and fighting, and there are no economic opportunities at all.” He appreciates the language center: “These classes are a way for people to change their situation. Myself, I want to use these skills when going back to Sudan. I want to start teaching these languages in my home country, and make better the situation for people there.”

Alex and Janie are happy to see the project appreciated by the students. Also, they are determined to do practical and concrete things. “At the moment, the issue of migrant workers in Lebanon has gotten lots of attention,” says Alex. “It’s enough now with only creating awareness. Those, Lebanese and others, who aren’t aware of the situation at this point, choose not to see it.” Therefore, the MWTF wants to work with real issues. They are, as Alex stresses, a ‘task force’: “We want to do something different than those protesting in front of their computers.”

Besides classes catering to migrant workers, the MWTF also offers lessons in languages like Amharic, Nepalese, Malagasy and Filipino: mother tongues of some 400 000 migrant workers residing in Lebanon. In this regard, the center provides a unique opportunity for Lebanese and others to improve their skills in languages that are spoken by 10% of the country’s population and 200 million worldwide. These classes however, have not attracted much attention yet. Three people have signed up since the launch in January, all of which are Lebanese who plan to go to Ethiopia for business.

But, what is great about this part of the project is that it provides a skilled work opportunity for people from the migrant communities. In contrast to the Arabic, English and French classes which are held by volunteers, these are given by migrant workers. The MWTF facilitates the link between teacher and student, who meet in private tutoring sessions. Students pay a fee, which goes directly to the teacher. Alex hopes to attract more students with an interest in these languages: “This project is just in an early phase now: we’re working on expanding and involving more teachers and students. With more people, we can do more things.”

Last Saturday, the group organised their first fund raising event, a Nepalese New Year’s celebration raising money to the Non-Resident Nepali Association in Lebanon (see an earlier Mashallah News article about the association’s chief advisor Dipendra Uprety). Alex: “I’m extremely happy with how it went. People were surprised by the Nepalese food and dance and the Nepalese liked the Lebanese music, so I really think people learned a lot from each other.” Janie continues: “It really was an amazing achievement for the MWTF. We organised the event in one week – a unique occasion showcasing Nepalese culture in Beirut – and managed to exceed our target of raising $1000. And, towards the end of the party, the dancing went wild. Even the bartender, who said he’d never danced in his life, was on the dance floor. He asked us if we could come back the day after and do the party again!”

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