Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

I just spent an invigorating hour with M., a refugee language teacher from Syria. I found him through Chatterbox, a social enterprise that matches refugees with a talent for teaching with language students like me. Fantastic idea.

I haven’t spoken Arabic properly since the last time I was in Egypt in January 2010. That’s a heck of a long time for a language to lie dormant, but I was surprised by how easily some of came back to me, and M. was amazed – ‘You’re half Egyptian,’ he very much joked.

He told me a little of his story, how he started a newspaper in his home town in North Syria and got into trouble when ISIS took control. M.’s pro-democracy, pro-free speech rhetoric didn’t go down well and he was branded an enemy of Islam, ‘and other bullshit.’ After several of his colleagues were killed, M. decided to leave the country.

Now he teaches Arabic, drives his motorbike around town at night doing Uber deliveries and is trying to get hold of his academic papers so that he can return to university to do a masters in Education and Development. When he’s done that, he’ll go back to Syria to help rebuild the education system. The poor state of education in his country was why, M. says, when the people got a taste of freedom, they didn’t know what to do with it.

Over a cup of mint tea, we chat about Arab hospitality. During my travels in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Palestine I experienced countless expressions of hospitality, large and small. From the time I got a motorbike escort through post-revolutionary bandit country in Tunisia, to the lavish home-roasted pigeon dinner served up by a stranger I met once in a cafe in Cairo. (Okay, so that’s large and large!)

It’s that hospitality which partially inspired my first forays to the refugee camps of Calais: an amorphous urge to show at least some semblance of solidarity with the people who had shown me such kindness. (The rest of the inspiration was bone-idle curiosity and Daily Mail baiting.)

M. himself was in Calais in January 2015. (I wonder if he came to our New Year’s Eve party…) He remembers the kindnesses that he received on his way to the UK. It does mean something, he insisted. It might not seem much, hanging out, bringing food or blankets, but it does mean something, knowing that in your darkest days someone, at least, still cares.

Now he’s doing what he can to return the favour.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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