The number of Arabic speakers has quadrupled in Manitoba in the last 20 years but for-credit Arabic language classes at the University of Manitoba struggle to survive.
The school says it’s up to the Arab community to raise money to fund them, as Icelandic, Polish and other communities have with other language programs. The university's Arabic language instructor worries the classes — and cultural identity linked to language — are at risk of dying.
"We have to raise money outside the university," said Rawia Azzahrawi, who's taught Arabic at the U of M for a decade and struggled to raise money for the elementary, intermediate and advanced classes. "Students are saying 'should we register for next year?' They're not sure if the Arabic class will be available."
University of Manitoba spokesman John Danakas said language courses offered through the faculty of arts need financial support from the community to sustain them. It's often a challenge to attract students and funding, he said.
Unlike Icelandic and Polish populations that arrived generations ago and are well established in Manitoba, the Arab community's roots are newer. From 2001 to 2016, Manitoba's Arabic speakers nearly quadrupled to 4,695 from 1,230, Statistics Canada data show.
"(Financial) support from the Arabic-speaking community is a struggle," said Azzahrawi. Many of the recent arrivals are resettled refugees starting over with few resources. The instructor said she has had to raise $12,000 for each level of the course that's been limited to elementary and intermediate since the advance class was cancelled four years ago. Her elementary and intermediate classes have averaged between 15 and 20 students. She fears the intermediate level will be dropped next and students will only be offered elementary Arabic.
Azzahrawi, who's a doctoral candidate at the U of M's faculty of education and a member of Manitoba for Arabic Education's board, donated $1,000 of her own money to support the classes because she feels so strongly about them. Language is linked to cultural identity, family connections and self esteem, she said, and she fears the next generation of Arab speakers will lose it.
"If they lose the language, they are losing part of their identity," said Azzahrawi. Learning Arabic helps them understand where they come from and who they are now, she said.
"They're feeling good about themselves," she said. "It doesn't mean they're losing their Canadian identity — it will strengthen their Canadian identity."
A former student of hers said Arabic classes are a sound investment in Manitoba.
"We're living in a very globalized world," said Adnan al-Olabe, president-elect of the Arab Students Association at the U of M. His parents immigrated to Canada from Syria in 1999 when he was two. He took Azzahrawi's intermediate class last year and learned how to write in Arabic. He'd take the advanced Arabic course if it was available, he said.
"Right now, economic hubs are in Abu Dhabi and Dubai," said the third-year science student, who wants to transfer to engineering.
Having Arabic speakers gives Manitoba a global edge in business, said al-Olabe. "The Arab community is growing and we're getting a lot of new people", but it's still young and doesn't yet have deep pockets or financial clout.
"Until that happens, I don't see how we can get more funding for the Arabic courses for the university," said al-Olabe.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.