“How many Arabic countries are in the world?” Nermeen Aboughoneim, PSJA ISD’s sole Arabic teacher, asked a room full of students at Zeferino Farias Elementary School in Alamo earlier this month.
The answers were varied, students asking more than declaring their responses. Three? Five? Ten? A 120?
“A 120, that’s very precise,” Aboughoneim laughed.
The correct answer was 22. Aboughoneim, who joined PSJA ISD this year to teach Arabic at Memorial Early College High School in Alamo, says it’s not uncommon for students to know little to nothing about the Arabic speaking world, a problem she’s trying to remedy in her classroom and at events like the presentation at Farias Elementary School.
At the presentation, Aboughoneim told students about herself and her home in Egypt, speaking about the Arabic language and Arabic customs. The presentation was one of several this month at PSJA schools.
“My program is not only to teach students the language but the culture of where I come from,” Aboughoneim said.
Aboughoneim, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, arrived in the Valley in August and began teaching Arabic at Memorial ECHS this semester through the Teachers of Critical Languages Program. Over 7,000 miles away from home, Aboughoneim is still adjusting to teaching in the United States.
“They have completely different classroom norms,” she said. “What’s appropriate here is totally inappropriate in our country, and vice versa.”
Aboughoneim says she joined the program to serve as a cultural ambassador for her homeland.
“I want to clarify things that are not clear,” she said. “Most people do not know where Egypt is. Some of them know that it’s full of wars and terrorists and stuff like that, and that made me feel sad. I just wanted to join the program and introduce a better version of my country.”
Since the semester started, Aboughoneim’s students have learned the rudimentary Arabic and the fundamentals of Egyptian culture.
“It’s the very basics, because obviously, we’re barely starting off,” said Angie Rocha, a senior at Memorial ECHS and one of Aboughoneim’s students.
The class has been revelatory, Rocha says.
“I think it’s amazing, honestly,” she said. “All my life I had just been taught to speak Spanish, that’s my other language, but when I found out that I could learn a different one, it was just this opportunity opening up for me.”
Rocha says the class has inspired her to master Arabic.
“In college I’m hoping that they’ll offer some Arabic courses,” she said. “But if not, then I’ll just have to download an app or buy some books. I already started learning it and I’m enjoying it, so I might as well continue with it.”
Memorial ECHS Principal Rowdy R. Vela says he believes that enthusiasm for Arabic will translate into opportunities after high school.
“Arabic is one of the newer languages that different corporations are looking for when they’re hiring and it really opens the doors for students and gives them opportunities when they graduate from high school and go into the workforce,” Vela said.
Aboughoneim’s term at Memorial ECHS will expire at the end of the school year, but the program has been so well received that Vela said PSJA ISD is hoping to permanently add Arabic to its curriculum.
“The district is looking at how we can support that and sustain it, so the district is looking to hire a permanent Arabic teacher,” he said. “They could be teaching up to the more advanced classes; right now she’s just teaching the basics.”