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We’ve all seen the images on the news: a war-torn Syria, streams of refugees escaping their country and the horrors of war within, the hardship and sorrow of a life uprooted. Nemah Morganeh and his family have ‘been there, and done that’. It’s quite a remarkable story.

 

Belgium: from visitor and honeymooner to refugee.

 

In 2009 Nemah and his wife Diana came over to Belgium for their honeymoon. Nemah had been to Belgium before as a tourist and had fallen in love with the place. The honeymoon destination was an obvious choice for the newlyweds. Little did they know that 4 years later they’d be back in Belgium but in entirely different circumstances. 

Nemah is 40, and has a Bacherlor’s degree in English Literature from Aleppo University. For a while after graduating he worked in the family business – a shop selling mostly clothing, but it wasn’t long before he set out as a teacher. In 2005, he was teaching English as a second language and by 2012 he’d set up his own private school, working with 4 other teachers, teaching four languages, but also courses like computer science. 

 

Then the war in Syria broke out and life for Nemah, Diana and their 2 year old son Nivon got too dangerous. There were no supplies, no water, no electricity and with a small child, this was untenable. Nemah had family in parts of Europe and decided to leave Syria. He applied for a visa to Sweden and Belgium and when a choice had to be made, it was made quickly: Belgium. The small family travelled precariously to the border and into Turkey. A truly perilous and scary journey, not without incident.

 

Eventually, on 21 June 2013, they arrived in Belgium.

 

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Nemah is 40, and has a Bachelor's degree in English Literature from Aleppo University.

Back to school, in every sense.

 

It took more or less two years to settle in. Through friends and relatives, they quickly found an apartment and after four months they started learning first French and then Dutch, to be able to get a job. Or jobs, as it turned out. Nemah worked as a chef, did voluntary work with the ‘foyer’ in Brussels and Antwerp, helped with translation work at the Committee of Museums of Brussels, and did some Arabic language teaching. What he really wanted to do however, was to go to university again and study for a Master’s degree in Linguistics.

 

In 2016, while following a VDAB course, the option of doing a master’s degree at the VUB came up. After sorting out the palaver of getting the equivalence of the Syrian diploma, Nemah got admitted to the Multilingual Master in Linguistics and Literary Studies in the summer of 2016.

 

In September of the same year, he met Sami Azar. Sami works at the VUB’s International Office and is also a Syrian refugee. He set up the Arabic Language Classes project in Brussels on behalf of the university with the collaboration of the Scholengroep and UCOS. The project aims to provide children in Brussels aged between 6 and 15 with a neutral platform to learn Arabic. The children come from a variety of backgrounds but before this project existed, the only way for them to learn Arabic was through the mosque.

 

The VUB wanted to provide this neutral platform to teach Arabic but at the same time give it full academic support from linguistic experts from within the university.

 

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What he really wanted to do however, was to go to university again and study for a Master’s degree in Linguistics.

Teaching

 

Those who teachthe Arabic language classes are, like Nemah, refugees and they have so far been doing the work on a voluntary basis. The university is currently looking for funding to be able to continue to support the classes, which have proved to be immensely popular. They started in 2016, and 164 children obtained their certificates in May after completing this first year. This school year there are 300 registrations, and even a waiting list, and an extra location has been added in the centre of Brussels to supplement those lessons already taking place in Schaarbeek, Anderlecht and Laken.

 

The classes are set up to not only provide lessons in Arabic language, but also to look at societal themes and intercultural values. They also help to foster a positive self-image among the children attending the schools with regards to their own cultural identity, given that most are from a refugee background or 1st or 2nd generation immigrants who often have a fragmented and incomplete knowledge of Arabic, making it difficult for them to relate to their culture of origin, speak with relatives back home, or sometimes even with their parents.

 

Nemah found it enriching. It brought him back to his original goal job-wise: teaching. He was not just volunteering for the Arabic language classes in Brussels; he also taught in Antwerp, was a full-time chef, and all the while following his Master’s degree courses. 

 

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Nemah found it enriching. It brought him back to his original goal job-wise: teaching. 

The latter was through the university’s welcome refugee programme, which is meant to facilitate refugee-students in picking up their education again, or finishing it. The programme is undergoing a change and has recently been relaunched under a new name: InCAMPUS, “InClusive AcadeMic Programme for University Students”. The students enrolling within this new framework will first go through a preparatory year where they will receive intensive language classes (English or Dutch), cultural orientation courses, training on education methods and psychological support. After this prep year, they will start their academic studies, while still receiving linguistic and psychological support. In addition, they will also be able to attend monitoring and info sessions, and receive mentoring through a buddy system. Nearing graduation, special workshops will be organised for them with special guidance to enter the work force. 

 

The future

 

Nemah says going back to university has made a massive difference to him: to be able to continue his studies and obtain a Master’s degree. The future looks brighter for him and his meanwhile two children: Nivon is now 7 years old and Antoine, who was born in Belgium, is 2 and a half. On the day that we meet Nemah for this interview, he has just signed a part-time contract with the VUB’s International Office to continue teaching the Arabic classes. He’s the first one to be signed up, with the project still looking to hire 4 more teachers.

 

Nemah’s aim? To teach again, full-time, after finishing his Master’s thesis. One day, he would like to return to Syria and continue his teaching career there. He doubts his children will go back – they will be fully Belgian and their life will be here, but he is hopeful that they will one day be able to return to their home country and see it rebuilt once again.

 

More information www.vubfoundation.be/arabischetaallessen  

 

All support is welcome on account number BE51 001367793562 with the reference GIFTPR4 Arabic Language Classes.