The Syrian poet in Hamilton: Aghyad Alshawaf’s Arabic school
Peace, safety and purpose are rediscovered in the basement classroom of a Hamilton home
When they closed my school in Jordan, I wish they killed me and not close the school. AGHYAD ALSHAWAF
Aghyad Alshawaf stares blankly. His skin turns pale while his bushy black eyebrows raise to create ripples of stress in his forehead when asked to translate the poem that landed him in a Syrian jail.
It’s as if the 31-year-old Syrian refugee is still there, having just witnessed the warden shoot the first of many men he’d see collapse to the cold floor.
“I cannot translate that; but it’s ... so bad,” he says, from the basement classroom of his Hamilton townhome.
His English vocabulary is a compilation of words he’s picked up watching “Breaking Bad” episodes with English subtitles, reading the Hamilton Spectator and attending four months of English classes. Alshawaf also relies on Google Translate. But this time he doesn’t bother pulling out his iPhone from his jeans pocket.
Sitting upright, he recalls the first time he was arrested for writing a poem about his hatred for Bashar alAssad, Syria’s tyrannical leader, in 2009. Alshawaf spent around six months, being frequently released and then arrested again, in a secret military jail during the following two years.
Alshawaf, who teaches Arabic literature out of his East Mountain townhome, is one of more than 1,300 Syrians who’ve relocated to Hamilton since December 2015. Here, he no longer has to worry about extreme censorship.
“(In Syria) they want to cut off my fingers if I wrote any new poems,” he says. “(The warden) said that.”
Yet Alshawaf can’t help but smile when he speaks of being a prominent poet in Syria. He used to write poetry every day.
Since his plane touched down at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in January 2015, he’s only written two poems.
“Life is fast,” says Alshawaf. “I don’t have time.”
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in Alshawaf ’s dim-lit classroom. Two sets of brothers sit around an oval table. The four tween boys fiddle with their plastic binders while their legs kick invisible soccer balls under the table. They don’t break eye-contact with the whiteboard.
Alshawaf draws a horizontal line across the board with an erasable blue marker. He sketches a timeline of Arabic poetry eras. Writing from right to left, Alshawaf’s hand interrupts the Arabic script to add dots to the curved lettering.
The final product looks more like fine art than a lesson.
From outside, Alshawaf’s townhouse looks no different than any other on his quiet court. There is no sign to direct students to the private Al Arabi School which he opened here in February. His students — around 30 so far — have mainly come through word of mouth.
Alshawaf graduated from Damascus University with a Bachelor of Arabic Literature in 2009.
When one of his students asks a question, Alshawaf repeats back the mispronounced Arabic syllables slowly. The exchange is followed by giggling among the boys and their teacher.
Tonight’s class — his fourth of the day — is comprised of an hour of Arabic literature and an hour of studying the Qur’an. The boys sip on orange juice boxes during a short break in between.
“The Qur’an helps them to know the rules of Muslims and to write and read,” says Alshawaf. “He who can read the Qur’an can write and read everything because it is more difficult.”
Before fleeing Syria for safety in Jordan — and throughout the following eight years he lived there — Alshawaf volunteered at the Zaatari refugee camp. He taught Arabic grammar in tents. Alshawaf was also in the midst of opening his own Arabic school until someone reported him to the Jordanian police. He was alleged to have been teaching his students “bad things” about the Jordanian king.
It was then when he was forced to seek refuge in Canada along with his wife Noura.
The four students, Abdullah, 10, Abdul Rahim, 12, and 12-year-old twins Haidar and Omar, gather around Alshawaf on the carpet in the final 10 minutes of the class.
Not all of Alshawaf’s students are refugees, but these four are. The twins grew up in Iraq and the Syrian brothers spent the majority of their lives in a Jordanian refugee camp.
He met the boys’ parents at his English classes at Circle of Friends for Newcomers, a not-for-profit which offers a range of services for immigrants and refugees. Many of his other students have heard about his services in the Arabic-speaking communities.
Alshawaf says he knows 70 per cent of Hamilton’s Syrian population.
He spends myriad time in the community, whether it be praying at one of Hamilton’s mosques or playing midfield on his indoor soccer team.
“I wish to be famous in the Muslim communities and the Arabian communities, and after that, every Canadian,” says Alshawaf.
He speaks to his students in soft Arabic syllables and subtle hand gestures. Alshawaf asks them to share one good thing they did last week with the group.
He refers to this part of his class as “psychological support. ”Alshawaf says students feel better when their teachers are close and they sit on the ground.
“When they closed my school in Jordan, I wish they killed me and not close the school,” he says. “The children need education.”
The newly installed cream-coloured carpet was a deliberate choice. Alshawaf used to play in the sand with his students at the refugee camp. He says the sand distracted the children from the pain of war.
Alshawaf has himself suffered sorrow since the war began. He says he has lost more than 100 friends.
He says the Syrian police offered Alshawaf a deal before they took him to prison. They told him that if he would write good things about the president, he’d be left alone.
“I told them a lot of my friends, they died in the war,” he says. “If you give them back, I will write 100 poems for al-Assad.”
Arabic teacher Aghyad Alshawaf writes an Arabic poetry lesson on his basement classroom’s whiteboard in March.
Above: Aghyad Alshawaf, 31, gives a student a high-five during an Arabic class in his home. Right: Omar, 12, points at the white board during a poetry lesson.