- Cat Cutillo
- Mona Tolba teaches Arabic-English bilingual story time at Winooski Memorial Library while Zahra Mohamed and her son, Khalid, attend the event.
When Zahra Mohamed and her 3-year-old son, Khalid, arrived at Winooski Memorial Library for Arabic-English bilingual story time last month, they joined other families sitting in child-size chairs at tables lined with drawing paper. Also on the table in front of Khalid was a wooden Arabic alphabet puzzle. Immediately, he took it apart, then put it back together.
Instructor Mona Tolba circulated among the kids, who ranged in age from preschool to fifth grade. She helped them spell their names using the puzzle pieces and then write them in Arabic on the drawing paper. Arabic, she reminded them, is written from right to left. As the kids named letters, Tolba told them how to position their tongues to enunciate each sound correctly.
“I love it,” she said. “This is my own language, the language of the Koran. As an Arabic person, I feel proud that I speak this language, and I would like to teach it to others.”
- Cat Cutillo
- The group learns to write their names in Arabic.
Tolba began running the monthly story times in February after the library got a federal grant, which also allows her to teach a weekly Arabic class at the library for teens and adults.
The programs were library director Nate Eddy’s idea. “Within the Winooski community there’s a number of native [Arabic] speakers,” he said, “and we really wanted to introduce the language to other community members who might not be native Arabic speakers as a way to create a language bridge between different community groups.” Ray Coffey, the city’s community services director, said that 17 native languages are represented in the Winooski student body. Five families are native Arabic speakers, while others speak Arabic as a secondary language, Coffey said.
Mohamed attended the first story time by herself and brought Khalid to the second. “It’s very nice because I grew up learning Arabic, and now I don’t have the time to teach him,” Mohamed said. “This is the perfect opportunity to start to grow into the [Muslim] religion’s language.”
It also has given Mohamed the opportunity to reconnect with her heritage, she said. “I’ve kind of been distant from my religion.” But, she said, something inside of her shifted while listening to Tolba in February. “Once she just started with the first letter, I started to think about my God. It’s so beautiful,” Mohamed said, “and I started tearing up.”
During the March story time, Tolba read the picture book Am I Small by Philipp Winterberg and Nadja Wichmann. In Arabic and in English, it tells the story of a girl who goes on a journey to find out if she is small by asking the animals she meets.
- Cat Cutillo
- Mona Tolba reads Am I Small while Grayden Lavigne listens.
Diane Lavigne of Winooski was there with her two grandsons. They had attended the February event as well. Lavigne said her 11-year-old grandson, Grayden Lavigne, “was amazed at learning a different language” and wants to attend every month. Grayden even volunteered to help with a written demonstration in front of the group.
Tolba grew up in Egypt and has doctorates in food science and veterinary medicine. She taught food microbiology at Cairo University, worked as a researcher at the University of Vermont and now teaches Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Islamic Society of Vermont in South Burlington.
Bilingualism, she said, offers lifelong benefits, including a sharper memory and a lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s. But, Tolba continued, learning Arabic is vital for Muslims. The Koran is written in Arabic, she said, and Muslims must be able to read it in order to pray.
A $2,685 grant pays for the library’s Arabic programming. It comes from the U.S. Department of State’s Teachers of Critical Languages Program. Winooski resident and former State Department employee Steven Berbeco worked with the library to apply for the grant. He has studied 30 languages, and he taught Arabic in Boston for seven years. Some of his Winooski neighbors are native Arabic speakers.
“It’s important that we learn to understand each other better through language and culture, through shared experience,” Berbeco said. He brought his 6-year-old son to the March story hour and is excited that his son already has a favorite Arabic letter.
- Cat Cutillo
- Mona Tolba works with Grayden Lavigne in front of the group.
In addition to story time, the grant funds Let’s Speak Arabic!, a weekly class for teens and adults that started April 5 and runs through June 7. The grant also paid for two Arabic-English library kits that families can check out to continue their studies at home. Each kit includes five picture books and an alphabet block set.
“Language is part of culture and sometimes you don’t understand the culture until you know what is the language of these people,” Tolba said. “You learn a little bit of this language to understand people.”
Hearing Americans speak Arabic sends a deeper message as well, Tolba said.
“If my neighbors at least know how to greet me in my language, I will feel that I am important. I’m trying to learn the language of the country I’m living in. But it will mean something very big to me if someone says ‘Assalamou alikum.’ This is our greeting,” Tolba said. It translates to “peace be upon you,” but Tolba said it more closely means, “I am coming with peace, and I want to live in peace.”
When a neighbor takes the initiative to learn this greeting, which traditionally begins and ends Arabic conversations, the gesture sends a separate message that they are “respecting me and saying I’m welcome here,” Tolba said.
“I want people to come and learn with me,” she continued. “ Let’s do it together. I’m learning your language. You’re learning my language,” said Tolba. “Let’s show each other how we care about each other by learning about my culture, and I’ll learn about your culture.”
Arabic-English bilingual story time, Winooski Memorial Library, 10 a.m. on the fourth Saturday of each month through June 25. The next sessions are on April 23, May 28 and June 25. All ages welcome. Free. Let’s Speak Arabic! class for teens and adults, Winooski Memorial Library, 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through June 7. Free. winooskivt.gov