Source: The Washington Post
By Perry Stein
Hallie Martinez stood in front of a large easel reading foreign letters that, a few months ago, would have looked like just a bunch of random squiggly lines to her.
But now, Hallie, 5, was singing the sounds of those Arabic letters aloud to her kindergarten classmates.
“Monteza!” the class responded, telling her in Arabic that she had done “excellent” work.
The students at the District’s H.D. Cooke Elementary School, in Adams Morgan, are learning Arabic as part of a State Department-sponsored exchange program that places teachers from China and Egypt in classrooms throughout the United States to teach their native languages — languages U.S. officials say will be increasingly important as the country competes in a global economy.
Tamer Elsharkawy ventured from Egypt to the United States for the first time to work at Cooke, leaving his own students and classroom behind for the year.
During a presidential election cycle that has included vitriol against Arabs and Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks, Elsharkawy says he wants to expose the young D.C. students to his religion and culture, showing them that a practicing Muslim should not be equated with militant Islamic extremism.
Along the way, he has found that the United States — or at least its capital — isn’t quite what he expected. Cooke is a majority-Hispanic school, and many of his students don’t speak English at home. Outside the classroom, he found a mosque that he regularly attends, and he has met people from a broad spectrum of nationalities and religions.
“I was nervous to teach in a place to students where it might be the first time in their entire lives to hear about Egypt, to hear about the Arab world,” said Elsharkawy, 34. “The city is so diverse, acceptance and tolerance is high here.”
He focuses on the Arabic language with younger children, and he has more discussion-based lessons with the older students, where they talk about Arab culture and Islam. Elsharkawy recalls how some of the children laughed when he showed them a picture of himself dressed in a traditional Egyptian Jellabiya — a single piece of clothing that covers the whole body — when he was explaining what he wears to mosque and for occasions with friends and family.