Culture shock no more

by Nathan Warner

Contributing writer

Anya Anderson may not be the most obvious student of Arabic, having spent most of her early life at St. Andrew’s Catholic School in Elk River, but she was determined to get a grip on the language this past summer while staying in the Al-Waha Language Village, the Arabic language village of the Concordia Language Program in Bemidji.

Anya Anderson tries on a "hijab" the traditional head-covering of Muslim women, while at the Al-Waha Village.

“Before high school, I really didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic,” she said, “but that all changed when I enrolled at Fridley Middle and High School a few years ago.”

In Fridley, Anderson experienced a bit of a culture shock, encountering hundreds of people of varied religions, cultures, and ethnicities.

“One thing that struck me right away as I climbed off the bus was a group of girls walking to class wearing colorful head scarves,” she recalled, “and I wondered why they had their heads covered and why they were dressed like that. I quickly learned they were Muslim.”

Many of those same girls became her friends and helped fuel her interest in Arabic and Islamic culture, which she soon channeled into her education.

Students at Al-Waha Village are immersed in traditional sights, sounds and smells to learn Arabic. This picture was taken from the Concordia Language Villages website for the Al-Waha camp.

Last year, Anderson was designated a Scholar by Qatar Foundation International (QFI) for her academic achievement and strong desire to learn Arabic. QFI is the Washington, D.C.-based affiliate of the Qatar Foundation, an independent, private, nonprofit charter organization based in Doha, Qatar, an Arab Emirate in the Middle East.

The organization’s literature states that it is “dedicated to advancing QF’s mission and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser’s vision of connecting cultures and advancing global citizenship through education.”

A far cry from the Middle East, Anya has spent most of her life in Zimmerman with its seasonal contrasts of spring green and blizzard whiteouts, but she and her family recently moved to New Brighton to be closer to Totino-Grace, Anya’s new high school where she is striving for academic excellence in preparation for college.

Anya (second from left) and class share a laugh about the shirts they made to immortalize a beloved Arab hat, called a fez.

Anderson says she plans to attend college after high school, double-majoring in Arabic and Islamic studies, but according to her, only about five colleges in the entire United States offer that combination of programs.

Next summer she intends to visit the University of Texas in Austin, which does offer the double-major and may be a good fit for her.

“From there, I want to get my Ph.D. and become a professor,” she said, “so I can teach Arabic and the facts on Islamic theology in an Arabic country.”

She isn’t sure where yet, but is pretty certain it will be one of the more westernized nations such as Morocco or Dubai that are less fundamentalist and more open to women in positions of authority.

“Right now, I’m just focused on my academics and learning the language,” she said, “so I have a ways to go yet.”

Al-Waha Concordia Language Village teaches Arabic to students through immersion techniques, including during meal times.

This summer’s experiences, however, gave Anya a jump start when she received a scholarship from QFI to attend the Al-Waha Village.

“QFI awarded $100,000 for the Al-Waha Village,” Carl-Martin Nelson, director of marketing and communications for Concordia Language Village said. “Fifty thousand dollars of that went to teachers and $50,000 went to students throughout the state, which included Anya.”

Concordia Language Villages is a program of Concordia College in Moorhead, and was launched in 1961 with a two-week language immersion program in German attended by only 75 young people.

Fifty years later, they now offer programs in 15 languages year-round to all ages.

Sites are located throughout the north woods of Minnesota and annually attract nearly 11,000 participants from all 50 states and many countries.

At the Al-Waha Village, students experience a simulated visit to an Arabic country.

On arrival, Anya passed through “customs” and was issued an imitated passport before exchanging her American dollars for Jordanian dinar (the currency of the Arabic country of Jordan) and adopting a new Arabic name. Once out of the “customs” office, she was immediately immersed in the Arabic language and culture through large and small learning groups, authentic foods, holiday celebrations, re-enactments of historic events, songs, dances, crafts, games and everyday conversations.

“I made a lot of new friends,” she said, “and the food was simply amazing!” The menu included gyros, schwarma, tabouleh, hoummous, baklava, and an Arabic butter cookie called ghrybe. “The baklava was the best!” she laughed.

Anya Anderson (on the far right) and friends do a skit in Arabic for new camp arrivals.

Among her favorite Arabic words she’s learned so far are “fuzzfizz” which translates “to jump lightly, very many times” and “dubduba” which means “teddy bear.”

By interacting with staff from all over the world at the Al-Waha Village, Anya said she and her fellow students learned about the many global opportunities available to those who speak more than one language.

“It was an incredible place,” Anya said. “I feel I’ve learned more than I can fully realize yet and I’m determined to pass through customs one day carrying the knowledge I’ve gained from my visit to the Al-Waha Village!”