Conversation with a refugee

GCHS humanities students videoconference with Ghenwah Kharbeet.

LLOYD The lights are dimmed; the video screen flickers and a face turns toward students gathered in the room.

“Ask me anything,” says the woman on the screen. “Ask me about my life. Ask me about my family. Anything.”

So they do. The students, all enrolled in a humanities class at Greenup County High School, ask Ghenwah Kharbeet about her relatives, about her infant son and about her life as a Syrian refugee in Istanbul, Turkey.

Kharbeet talks about her mother — they are close — her brothers — one is serious and one is fun — and her struggles to make a life in Turkey — she is lonely but doesn’t want to return to Syria, where ongoing war presents both physical and political dangers.

She asks the students about holidays. They find themselves explaining the customs of Halloween, an observance they had assumed was universally understood.

They exchange observations about sports — the students school Kharbeet on U.K basketball fervor and learn from her that what they call soccer and consider a minor sport is known to the rest of the world as football and resides at the pinnacle of athletics.

By the end of the hour-long conversation, the students are beginning to develop a deeper understanding of Kharbeet’s culture and learning how better to share their own.

They are learning to recognize the cultural gulfs that separate people just as widely as geography and how to build bridges across them.

There are about 20 students in the class, which includes freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. The exchange is repeated in other humanities classes, with about 55 students in all participating.

The students will videoconference several more times with Kharbeet over the next few weeks in a program called NaTakallam, which is Arabic for “we speak.”

Greenup is the first school in Kentucky to use the program, humanities teacher Jill Armstrong said.

The program builds global citizenship — the links between disparate people so important in today’s interconnected world, Armstrong said. “In this day and age, with our students it will be beneficial for them to understand what’s going on in the world. The more they understand, the better they can survive in the future,” she said.

Initial  get-to-know-you conversations will revolve around culture, food, festivals and other aspects of everyday life, Armstrong said.

Other talks will center on refugee issues, human rights and other meaty topics.

The students and Kharbeet don’t have to agree with each other on every issue, Armstrong said. They don’t even have to like what they hear. But listening leads to understanding, she said.

“Speaking with others from different cultures helps you understand what they really are, instead of what other people think they are,” said freshman Robert Schmauch. “And once they communicate with us, they understand we’re not that bad.”

The website for the program is

(606) 326-2652

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