Sahar Machmouchi grew up in rural Lebanon challenging societal expectations all the way to her master’s degree. Now she hopes her students can do the same.
Lebanon’s population has grown by a third since 2011, as more than 1 million Syrian refugees—including nearly 400,000 school-aged children—have fled there to escape a brutal civil war. The nation’s ministry of education and international relief agencies have taken steps to accommodate the influx—the ministry extended the school registration deadline this year by a month to ease access for newly displaced students, and many refugees have been provided with book bags, supplies, and even temporary schools. But for educators like Teach For Lebanon fellow Sahar Machmouchi, incredible challenges remain as she leads students from diverse educational backgrounds, impacted by the trauma of warfare, and sharing poverty as a common denominator. “The language that these students are using to describe their pain, you would think it was a 20-year-old talking,” says Machmouchi, who teaches Arabic and drama in the city of Saida, about 30 miles south of Beirut. “They’ve had to mature very quickly given the hardships they’ve seen.”
TIM KENNEDY: Tell me about your students.
SAHAR MACHMOUCHI: I have about 150 students from kindergarten through sixth grade. They’re from all over the region—Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt—but the consistent factor for them is poverty. In wealthier areas, schools take it upon themselves to do fundraising, but in poor areas, that’s not as prevalent. One example is extracurricular activities—they were nonexistent at our school until I started the drama club. And that’s been so important to students’ happiness in school to be able to work with them outside of the classroom.
Machmouchi’s school is in Saida’s Old City, home to a large and mostly poor population of refugees from around the Middle East.
Machmouchi’s passion is for the Arabic language and its potential to improve society by raising students’ standards for news and dialogue.
TK: Your school is all-girls, except for some mixed-gender classes in the early grades. How does this impact your teaching?
SM: Given the poverty in the area, education is valued a bit more for boys than it is for girls. A lot of girls end up leaving school after sixth grade—they stay home and help their parents, or take a job, or they even get married. Part of what’s really difficult for me is trying to change perceptions—to get them to see themselves in education long term. I talk about how I struggled and worked two jobs to finish my master’s degree in journalism. And especially in the older grades, I try to incorporate a lot of gender conversations to prepare my students for the dynamics in higher education settings. With sixth grade drama students, I include a boy character in every sketch we perform. It’s a conversation point in my classroom.
TK: Most of your students’ parents aren’t highly educated. How do you work with them to support this shift in students’ perceptions?
SM: I often go outside of the bounds of my teaching. For example, I’m a coordinator with the World Human Rights Forum—an international group of human rights activists and organizations—and I work with the community that way. I also work with friends—one of whom works for the local government, and another who leads parent workshops on topics like positive discipline. Because many of the parents are not educated, they don’t necessarily know how to support their own children’s learning. Through the work, I’ve seen a lot of parents open up when they see how attached their students are to me as a teacher, and to their schoolwork. They ask, “How did you make this happen?” That’s an opening to talk about positive ways to get kids to study and want to learn.
TK: You teach formal Arabic, as opposed to the colloquial Arabic used for daily interactions. What’s the value of formal Arabic, which is incredibly difficult to learn?
SM: Formal Arabic is the language of the media and the government. If you turn on the news, or pick up a book, no matter what country it’s from, it’s going to be the same. It can be drastically different from spoken Arabic—it can feel like a different language. But without it, we can’t be active citizens. We can’t be well versed in other languages or navigate a global world if we don’t have a grasp of our own language. I truly believe that the more we raise the quality of our own language, the better the quality of society. The output we show to the world will be of a better quality.
This interview was originally published in Teach For America’s One Day magazine, Spring 2014 issue. Story by Tim Kennedy (Delta ’11) with translation by Amal Muna and photos by Nour Ayoub.