Why It Matters to Make Refugees Feel Welcome in Philadelphia

It’s easy to take things for granted. A few months ago, I was stressing out about writing my college thesis, not having “enough” clothes, and having to adjust my budget to spend less on luxuries like my daily latte. It’s not that I consider my lifestyle extravagant to begin with, but -truth be told- there is a lot that I do not have to worry about in terms of financial security, safety and general stability.

That’s why my visit with Al-Bustan to the Nationalities Service Center was so eye-opening for me. I always considered myself fairly cognizant of the injustices around me, but hearing first hand about how refugees who have fled their homelands to the United States really put matters into perspective. Like many refugees before them, the Iraqis and Syrians who arrived to the United States this year had fled war zones and brutal living conditions, and we can only imagine how traumatic their endeavors have been.

But making it out of political madness is not the end of these refugees’ struggles. Many of them escaped overseas to the United States hoping to be taken into the welcoming arms of the American Dream, not knowing that this idealized notion has become just that – an elusive fragment of what was once a mostly accessible lifestyle to American citizens, that is now rendered to a systematic privilege that even the everyday-American can barely grasp a hold of.

Regardless of whether the refugees had drastically downgraded their lifestyles during the process of their escape, or whether they had already fled a similar lifestyle outside the context of political unrest, the fact of the matter is that many of them seem to be undergoing major culture shock. Instead of spacious homes surrounded by picket fences, many refugees are doing the best they can with smaller apartments that barely fit their family members with the level of comfort they are used to. At the end of the day, they do have roofs over their heads without the constant fear of impending attacks. For now, at least they have some sense of comfort and safety, but their wellbeing and stability are indefinite, as some struggle to pay rent and access basic living necessities. They are faced with challenges even outside of their new places of residence: Many refugees are not fluent in English or barely speak it at all, making it a struggle to simply communicate in a city where having at least beginner-level English language skills is necessary, not to mention having to adjust their interactions with others to what is considered the norm in America in order to fit in with the people surrounding them.


Refugee families enjoying  arts and crafts at an Al-Bustan event organized with Nationalities Service Center – photo by Dave Tavani

Many adult refugees have also had to compromise in terms of how they would support themselves financially by taking jobs that they are technically overqualified for, but unable to pursue in their new environment. When it comes to families, refugee parents are especially determined to make sure their children receive an American education that will enable them to seek opportunities while they are still within reach.

These are only some of the underlying issues we learned about through speaking to people working at the Nationalities Service Center as well as through talking with the refugees, and we can only imagine what else they are struggling with when they are back in their new households. That is not to mention the distress that has come about with the recent outcome of US elections and the effects it will have on existing refugees as well as prospective ones.

Bearing all of this in mind, it only strengthens my belief in our mission to promote intercultural communication and cross-cultural exchange, and that trying to ensure that respect and understanding are the minimum requirements to creating safe spaces for diversity in our communities. Knowing that our efforts are not limited to collecting donations and material needs, but also expanding to creating forums that welcome Arab refugees to the Philadelphia community, gives me hope that we are part of a dynamic that is representative of Philadelphia’s mosaic and Arab hospitality.

— Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow


An Overdue Appreciation for Arabic Musical Heritage

Love it or hate it, pop music has a way of highlighting the trends and themes of the era in which they are produced in, a characteristic which can take us back to unexpected trips down memory lane. Such is the case with me, a person who 1) seldom listens to Arabic music and 2) pretentiously says pop music generally is not that great… despite my having some guilty pleasure songs on my playlists.

A large portion of my adolescent years consisted of my older sister blasting different pop hits from the stereo, both in English and in Arabic. I also spent a lot of time with my cousins, who enjoyed bursting into their favorite Arabic pop anthems whether the occasion called for it or not. My interest in music was limited to pop-punk and alternative, almost all of which were in English. I had no interest in the Arabic songs that my family members and many of my Arabic-speaking friends enjoyed so much. In fact, I recall that my opinion on Arabic music was that they were all sappy love songs that used the noun “habibi” far too much to the point where the word lost its meaning in the midst of the musicians’ trying to create relatable and catchy tunes.

Halfway through my undergraduate studies, I discovered a genre of Arabic music that actually spoke to me – Arabic rock. I was totally caught by surprise when I realized how beautifully the language blends next to a hybrid of rock instruments and Middle Eastern ones. The truth is, I had always been slightly fond of oud and takht sounds, but never cared much for the lyrics that often accompanied them. Since then, Arabic rock bands such as Mashrou’ Leila and JadaL had made it to the list of my favorite artists by having created sounds that I love along with lyrics that I could relate to. I also found myself becoming intrigued with the culture of amateur remixes on YouTube, where people would combine Arabic and Western sounds to create fascinating sounds that, to me, sounded even better than the original songs.

After moving to Philadelphia from the Arabian Gulf region nearly three years ago, listening to Arabic rock/alternative artists had been one of the few things in my daily life that still tied me to my heritage. While I still mostly limit my taste in music to English-language rock anthems, I was caught by a pleasant surprise when I found myself nodding bushraa-150x150engagingly along to a choir of students performing Fairuz’s Nassam ‘Alayna al-Hawa earlier this year. Observing Hanna Khoury’s #iSingArabic sessions was not only pleasant on the ear, but his teaching the background behind each song the choir performed redirected my interest in the meanings behind certain classics. I even recall telling one of my Fairuz-fanatic cousins about the experience after I had come back from an #iSingArabic session, to which she was incredibly amused by how drastically my interest in Arabic music had shifted within the course of a few sessions: “I have been trying to get you into this kind of music for years! Who knew you needed to travel halfway across the world and listen to a live performance was all it would take to pique your interest!”

Alaa Wardi’s Evolution of Arabic Music video went viral several months ago, and I may not have enjoyed it as much had it not been for my newfound appreciation for Arabic music. While a part of my enjoyment may sneakily come from that nostalgia factor and the presence of certain songs during my childhood, I still feel that learning about the historical, social and political contexts of those Arabic hits is what makes me replay that video frequently and of my own volition.

-Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow

Reflections on the Power of Intercultural Exchange

On the last day of Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture Course for Educators, we prepared for and performed our recital. Through the teaching of Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain, and the direction of Nora Elmarzouky and Max Dugan we pulled off an incredible performance that really demonstrated what we learned from the course. We performed pieces that showed our skills in Arabic percussion, ensemble instruments, and singing. The pieces were selected to emphasize Andalusia; so, we sang poems from that time, as well as instrumental music.

Participants with Hanna Khoury, Kinan Abou-afach, and Hafez Kotain at the final performance.

 After the culminating recital, I was able to reflect on my experiences during this Professional Development course, and what knowledge and growth I obtained from these experiences. While interning during the week-long course, I was not only able to learn about Arab music, but its history and culture as well. I left the recital feeling like we all accomplished something great and that I had a better understanding and appreciation of other people and cultures. Throughout this course, I was able to expand my knowledge in music and gained a powerful insight on another culture through music. It also gave me more of an understanding of what it means to be a music teacher, and how to incorporate other


Participants and faculty in Al-Bustan’s professional development course

cultures and styles of music into a classroom. This is powerful because we live in a world where there is so much hate and violence merely because we are unable to truly understand the virtues of our differences. The teachers that participated in this course now have the ability to try and take a step towards fostering more appreciation for one another by using music as a method of connection among cultures and education.

Ashley Geisler, Al-Bustan Summer Intern


Out of Andalusia and Into Our Classrooms

On the third day of Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture Course for Educators, Nora Elmarzouky, director of education, gave the morning lecture.  Nora discussed the culture, ways of life, and contributions of Andalusia. We learned that a major focus during this time was the atmosphere of coexistence and being able to learn from each other and understand our differences rather than isolate ourselves. The Andalusian people emphasized finding strength in cultural differences as well as a common ground on which they could relate and discover similarities. They sought to overcome the oversimplification of racial, religious, and ethical identifications through education and cooperation between all people. At the end of the day, we watched Out of Cordoba, a film documenting the history of Andalusia and a man’s journey in search of information on this critical time period in Arab history. The film and Nora’s lecture connected well, as they emphasized similar points and supplemented the course with more knowledge on Andalusian history. This film also stressed the question of coexistence. Can Muslims, Christians, and Jews live in harmony and cooperation as they once had? Or is it a concept to be left in the past?


The instrumental ensemble working with Music Director Hanna Khoury and Percussion Director Hafez Kotain


A primary goal of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture is to foster coexistence through education and exposure to Arab culture. During this course, I have been able to experience this first hand. I learned more about Arab culture, history, and music every single day, and through this, I am able to become a more global person. By observing and taking notes throughout the various classes, I also gained an insight on what it means to be a music teacher and how to use music as a way to introduce new cultures and create a welcoming environment for people from all walks of life. Using music as a unifier, we hope to make people less deterred by their social, ethical, racial, and religious differences, and rather express interest, respect, and understanding. Through the Professional Development course, we are giving the teachers the tools to help educate their own students on Arab culture and our message, and to expand the concept of coexistence and appreciation for our differences.

Ashley Geisler, Al-Bustan Summer Intern

Composing Arab Music at Al-Bustan’s Professional Development Course

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture’s week-long professional development course provided educators in the Philadelphia area with basic skills in order to teach Arabic culture to American children via the Arabic language and arts. As a summer intern at Al-Bustan who helped organize the course, I certainly enjoyed supporting the courses’ teacher-participants during the week. I would like to share with you one anecdote that summarizes the courses’ remarkable ability to provide quality Arabic language and culture teaching skills to educators during a short time frame.

In Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble’s resident cellist and music composer Kinan Abou-Afach’s workshop “Weaving Poetry into Music”, Arabic language teachers Hend and Christine learned a simplified technique of converting Arabic poetry into music. I had the opportunity to participate in this small classroom as a student-observer. Coming into the class, none of Kinan’s three students (myself included) had any musical background. By the end of the week, we set a classical Arabic couplet from the 7th century to a basic melody we each composed. Once we composed the short music pieces, we sang them before the class to the sound of Kinan’s cello. These end-of-class performances proved that with educated and patient instruction, workshop participants with no music background but strong Arabic language proficiency can effectively learn valuable Arabic music and culture at Al-Bustan.

At this point you may be wondering, “What’s the simplified process of converting Arabic poetry into music that he’s talking about?” I would like to preface my explanation by stating that the complete poetry-to-music conversion process for well-known Arabic songs like Fairouz’s Nassam ‘Alayna al-Hawa is a complex one that requires years of musical training. Kinan Abou-Afach’s week-long lesson taught Arabic language teachers without any musical background a universally accessible, simplified version of the process. First, you select an Arabic poem. Then, you think of a pleasing melody for the poem. The basic principle is simple but critical to creating a successful music-poem composition. Both Arabic poetry and Arabic music have related poetic and musical meter, respectively. The process involves creating a desirable match between the poem’s meter and musical melody, making linguistically sensible adjustments to the Arabic poem where the melody necessitates. The end product of Kinan’s composition process is a pretty Arabic poem set to music.

Now that you understand Kinan’s general process of converting Arabic poetry to music, I think that you would appreciate the poetic couplet we converted into music. Kinan chose Ali ibn Abi Talib’s (599 – 661 C.E.) following couplet for his students to convert to music,

إذا ما شئتَ أن تحيا حياة الحلوة المحيى
فلا تحسد و لا تبخل و لا تحرص على الدنيا.

If you want to live the sweet life,

Then do not envy [others], do not be skimpy/miserly [with your wealth], and do not bother yourself with the world’s corruptive qualities.

Kinan’s students Hind, Christine and I worked out the couplet’s Arabic meter and each set it to a pretty musical melody.

Thanks to Kinan’s talented musical pedagogy, Al-Bustan’s professional development course graduated three Arabic music composers by the end of a single week. All I have to say to Al-Bustan’s music program is a resonant masha’ allah! With Al-Bustan boasting such talented music educators like Kinan Abou Afach, many more teachers and students in the Philadelphia area will continue to experience the beauty of the Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern musical traditions long into the future.


Muhammed Hansrod, Al-Bustan Summer Intern
Kenyon College, Class of 2017

Al-Andalus Sparks Healthy Conversation on Ethnic Identity

On the second day of Al-Bustan’s professional development workshop, participants listened to a comparative literature lecture by Al-Bustan Arabic teacher and Princeton doctoral candidate, Brahim El Guabli entitled “Lamenting al-Andalus in the Poetry of the Prince-Prisoner in Aghmat.” Aghmat is a village near Marrakesh, Morocco. The “prince-prisoner” of interest was the 11th century Andalusian monarch ‘Abbad ibn Mu’tamid from Sevilla, present-day Spain who was held captive by an Almoravid sultan in Marrakesh. In addition to exploring the poetry of a specific Arabic-speaking Andalusian monarch-in-exile, the lecture broadly shed light on Al-Andalus’s history of great prosperity and diversity. Workshop participants learned from the lecture about the Arab-Berber conquests of the Iberian Peninsula. They also learned that Andalusian culture was as a vibrant mix of Arabic-speaking Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious communities that were influenced by European and Berber African cultures. Brahim skillfully used a single prince-prisoner’s poetic narrative to capture Al-Andalus’s fascinating past.

The most exciting part of the lecture session for me, aside from its academic content, was the group discussion that followed. Just after Brahim finished speaking, a teacher in the audience asked, “Are Arabs an ethno-lingual group? And are all Arabs Muslim?” This question was particularly relevant since the terms Arab and Berber kept surfacing throughout Brahim’s lecture. The issue of Arab identity is definitely more complex than it seems on the surface. A chorus of voices in the audience chimed in to contribute to a group discussion on the question. A second teacher answered, “I’m from an Arabic-speaking family but we don’t consider ourselves Arabs. We’re Coptic (Christian) Egyptians and growing up my parents would say we were descendants of Egypt’s Pharaonic past.” This was a wonderful moment to hear first-hand from an Arabic-speaking Christian about the complexity faced in considering what it means to be “ethnically Arab.” Brahim chimed in along the same lines, “I have one parent who is Arab and one parent who is Berber. My family speaks Berber at home. I speak Arabic fluently and teach Arabic, but I identify as Berber. I do not identify as an Arab. But if someone insults Arab culture, I’m the first one to oppose anti-Arab sentiment. I am however, Muslim.” What seemed like a simple question – what constitutes an Arab – only proved to highlight the multi-layered complexity of Arab identity, a question that cannot escape the complexities of geography, ethnicity, nationality, religion, class, culture, and language. “Even within the same family,” explained Nora from Al-Bustan, “you can find some people who consider themselves Arab and some who do not.” Ultimately, one’s identity is a matter of personal choice, a matter of the aspects of our backgrounds that we choose to highlight over others. Considering that the Arabic-speaking world includes a vast geographic area that has witnessed colonization from many foreign cultures over the centuries, Arabic-speaking communities have identities that are no less complex than that of other peoples.

An academic lecture on 11th century Andalusian poetry sparked a wonderful discussion on the complexity of human identity. Al-Andalus’s historical melting pot of North African Arab, Berber, Jewish, and Christian European cultures guided this 21st century group of teachers towards understanding that ethnic labels are constructed, fluid concepts. The ideas of ethno-linguistic fluidity that dominated medieval Andalusia’s diverse society guided a healthy conversation long after Al-Andalus’s demise in 1492.


Muhammed Hansrod, Al-Bustan Summer Intern
Kenyon College, Class of 2017

The Power of Song in Arabic Language Education

“Sing Wahid, Ithnayn, Thalathah,” a local Philadelphia teacher instructed the class to sing Arabic numbers with a warm smile on her face. This teacher had no background in the Arabic language but fifteen minutes into Al-Bustan Music Director Hanna Khoury’s Arabic singing class, she was able to use a basic Arabic song in order to demonstrate effective language education pedagogy to her fellow “classmates”. After this teacher sat down to an applause from her classmates, another teacher stood up from her seat to suggest a different teaching technique. This second teacher asked her peers to clap to a beat. Using a call-response technique, she called on every student to each repeat a few Arabic numbers in synchrony with the beat. After a few fumbles here and there during the group’s first attempt, they were able to recall Arabic numbers to a catchy rhythm.

This was my first day at Al-Bustan’s week-long Arab Arts and Culture Course for Educators, a professional development workshop geared towards Arabic and music teachers in the wider Philadelphia region. I sat in on classes with teachers who had temporarily exchanged their traditional roles as educators to be students of Arabic arts and culture. The goal of the workshop is to enable participants to teach Arabic arts and culture content effectively to their K – 12 students. The teachers I met were actively engaged in the language and music curriculum, enthusiastic (even at 5:00 pm, hours into the workshop!), and friendly. Their enthusiasm to learn about Arab culture made the workshop an interesting venue for Al-Bustan staff and workshop participants to exchange ideas and experiences related to the theme of Arabic arts and culture in medieval Arabic-speaking Andalusia.

The ability of teachers who had no prior knowledge of the Arabic language to begin teaching the Arabic numbers using song demonstrated to me that effective teaching depends more on a teacher’s enthusiasm and pedagogical technique than his or her depth of knowledge of experience in the material. During my first day at the workshop, song both lifted participants’ energy levels and increased language retention. Workshop participants smiled more and seemed more eager to participate when they had to sing the numbers to a beat as opposed to plainly calling out vocabulary words. Al-Bustan’s decision to teach Arab culture and language through an arts (specifically a music) medium helped some newcomers to the world of Arabic gain basic language skills on day one.