Starting in 1890, and continuing throughout the 20th Century, generations of Arab immigrants came to London, Ont., to establish a new life for themselves and, in turn, to build a community that continues to flourish today. Many of the original names from those early immigration waves still resonate: Hasan. Barakat. Said. Aziz. Hajar. Fadel. Shoshar. Sala. Hejazi.
Perhaps quite familiar to the Western community, Philip Aziz was a well-known member of one of these families. With a father from Lebanon, Philip grew to become a professor at Western and have a street named in his honour.
These families have succeeded in countless areas. But across the years, it was a deeply rooted respect for the history and future of the Arabic language that united this community and created a lasting legacy for native speakers to pass along to the next generation.
In 1950, the community organized the first Islamic Benevolent Society to care for newcomers by assisting with language, local customs and cultural issues. This promoted ties of friendship and cooperation with the non-Arab, non-Muslim members of the wider community. The society built bridges of understanding that integrated the new arrivals into the heart of their adopted land.
As time passed, the Arabic-speaking community institutionalized the learning of their mother tongue. They reached out to friends in surrounding communities for support. More than a thousand people – from London, Toronto, Windsor and Sarnia – attended the first conference of Arabic native speakers. They expressed their wish to strengthen cultural ties, and encourage future generations to preserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of their common roots.
As more immigrants came to Canada from Muslim and Arabic-speaking countries, the importance of Arabic was a concern felt among many of the more educated members of the community. Worried about the loss of their Arabic roots, and the identity of their children, parents donated for the construction of a modest location for prayer. This also served as a space for speaking Arabic for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and inspired a broad desire to learn the language.
The efforts of this latest generation of immigrants eventually resulted in the construction of a small mosque on Oxford Street in 1957. This was an important milestone in building bridges of cultural and religious understanding, and allowed civilized intellectual exchanges to occur between the members of this generation and the host population. The building was destroyed by fire in 1962. The community rallied to rebuild the structure and renovate the area. In 1964, a new foundation was laid in the same place as the previous building. The new mosque became the London Muslim Mosque.
The mosque on Oxford Street is the second largest mosque in Canada. The study of Arabic at the London mosque received an open-hearted welcome, given the urgent need for the children of the immigrants to learn the language of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Evening study classes were established in addition to weekly Saturday and Sunday lessons. Muhammad Jamaah was the Arabic teacher entrusted with the preparation of these lessons.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a new wave of immigrants arrived in London from predominantly non-Arab Muslim countries. They mixed easily with those born and living in London. All were certain the study of Arabic, both written and spoken, should be a requirement in their children’s formal education. The bonds and ties of religion and language are unbreakable and were always evident. They lobbied the members of the Board of Education to establish a dedicated program for the study of the Arabic language, permitting courses to be entered on report cards. In 1983, the board agreed, mandating a minimum three-hour classroom period on Saturdays at H.B. Beal Secondary School. These classes were delivered at all different levels of proficiency.
The community feared their children would lose touch with their heritage, especially the generation born in Canada. In order to address this concern, the community established the first accredited Islamic School in London in 1996. Recognized by the local school board authorities, the school sought to preserve Islamic identity, as well as safeguard the spoken and written proficiency of the Arabic language within the community. Additionally, the school presented the provincial Education Ministry’s’ required curriculum in English.
A dedicated group of individuals emerged from London and the surrounding communities to collect and provide the books and programs that would ensure the proper teaching of Arabic, finally realizing the hopes of the community’s parents.
Many of the new immigrants came from an Arabic-Christian background. They built churches for themselves where they could worship and carry on the life of their community, and revive the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood between individuals. Among these first churches is the church of St Paul (Anglican) and the church of St Elias (Maronite Catholic). The new Arab immigrants cooperated with each other, despite coming from different religious traditions and denominations in their homeland. The welfare of all benefited by the strengthening the ties and bonds of their common heritage, and the use and study of Arabic among later generations continued to expand, owing to the efforts of many.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, Western included courses in the Arabic language in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. These courses were subjected to continuous development and revision in an effort to address the needs of both heritage and non-heritage speakers. Children of the immigrant community readily enrolled in these university courses; however, it was clear that a significant number from the wider community began to appreciate the importance of learning Arabic. The university opened additional sections, at a higher level of proficiency, in order to meet the demand.
During the last two years, the Arabic-speaking community and refugees have been grateful for the support and settlement assistance offered by the federal government, following the calamitous situation occurring in Syria. London was quick to embrace 3,000 Syrian refugees and provide them with a new life. In London, the Arabic-speaking community provided a number of competent English translators. The London Arabic community has continued to grow, at the present numbering more than 25,000.
The community has continued to flourish and contribute to the advancement of their society and the prosperity of Canada. Their descendants have become pioneers and competent specialists in every field of Canadian endeavour. The cherished hope of the community is that their children become ambassadors of peace and love throughout the world. At the same time, they preserve their determination to study their language and heritage, thereby encouraging the interaction and advancement of their common ancestry.
Today, the Arabic language is well established beyond London. In fact, it is one of the most widely spread languages among the immigrant communities of Canada. The latest report of Census Canada shows Arabic to be the most-common second language among immigrants.
There are those who are trying to equate Islam with terrorism. Such claims could not be further from the true principles and teachings of Islam, which promote only harmony and mutual respect. It is certain that proficiency in the Arabic language will help students not only to better understand the peace-oriented civilization of Islam, but introduce the serious student to the rich heritage made by Islam to all fields of human knowledge.
Fortunately, Western has undertaken to shoulder the load for internationalization, including the resurgence of academic interest in Arabic. I hope this will continue and further the positioning of this language to take its rightful place in academia. Furthermore, let’s not forget Arabic is the language spoken by more than a billion people the world over, and in recent times, interest in its study has been continually growing.
Yahya Kharrat is a professor of Arabic at Western. He has taught a wide range of language courses for non-native speakers as well as heritage speakers. His areas of interest include Arabic literature, applied linguistics, and pedagogy of Arabic as a second language.