The Syr­ian poet in Hamil­ton: Aghyad Al­shawaf’s Ara­bic school

Peace, safety and pur­pose are re­dis­cov­ered in the base­ment class­room of a Hamil­ton home

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - MAGGIE MACINTOSH Special to The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

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.

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