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Speaking the Same Language

His immersion in Arabic became a lesson in empathy

Brendan Work ’10 jokingly tells his students that they are learning “an enemy language.”

“They sometimes ask, ‘Why is there so much politics in Arabic class?’” says Work, a high-school teacher in Missoula, Mont. “Well, when you’re learning Spanish or French, there just isn’t an international conflict with the U.S. that involves those speakers now.”

This is important context for his students, who must work through so much history and tension tied up in the study of the language through class discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Iraq War, and Syrian refugees. He seeks to offer them a point of view beyond bias or preconceived notions that he honed as a reporter.

“I knew I wanted to find employment at the intersection of Arabic and journalism,” says Work, who studied the language at the College as a comparative literature major. “I was looking for the big story, so I bought a one-way ticket into the occupied territory,” at a time when Palestine was submitting its statehood bid to the U.N.

Work secured a job at a small press agency in Bethlehem where he improved his language skills in-house—“It was no secret I was Swarthmore’s worst Arabic student for all four years,” he laughs—before heading into the field as a reporter and photographer. As Work detailed the struggles of those in the conflict zone, he realized the Arab narrative was often told from a limited perspective.

For example, while covering a planned protest near the West Bank wall on the day of the statehood bid, a clash escalated and a Palestinian teen was struck by a tear-gas canister. (A Reuters photographer captured an image of Work aiding the boy moments after the violence.) Denied access to the nearest hospital because it was on the other side of the wall, the youth ultimately lost his eye. 

Later, out of concern, Work met with the teen’s parents.

“You’ll see in comments sections, ‘Why didn’t these parents keep their kid at home?’ That feeds into this historically prevalent idea that people we’re warring against don’t care about their kids,” Work says. “That idea that human life is somehow more sacred to us—that we would protect our kids— harshly came into contact with reality after hearing those parents: ‘We encouraged him to go, he’s our son and he’s our hero, and we agree with him.’

“Their thinking was, ‘Resistance is our reality. In America, I thought, protests happened out of a sense—rather than a reality— of injustice.”

Work brought this empathy back to his Montana hometown, where an Arabic teaching position opened shortly after his return. In the classroom, he encourages students to see past stereotypes and to instead learn the cultures and customs of Arabic speakers. In fact, Work is planning a visit to Morocco this spring—the first Missoula school trip to an Arab nation.

Compassion, he teaches, is key. He and his students were instrumental in helping two Syrian families resettle in Missoula, mere weeks before President Trump’s refugee ban.

“The community wanted to do something, they contacted the International Rescue Committee, and they convinced them to set up an office here,” Work says. “It’s really a great example of what concerned moms can do in an isolated place like Missoula.”

The prospect of refugee children attending public school in Missoula excites Work. So does the idea of building a community of native Arabic speakers from whom his own students can learn. Already, his young charges are challenging their families to consider the many sides of the Arabic—and ultimately, the human—story. 

“They enjoy the responsibility of being their family FAQ,” he says. “When their dad sees something about Iraq on the television, they love being in the room so they can say, ‘Here’s what I learned in Arabic today.’”