We sat down for a chat with Co-founder & Chief Culture Guide for LoveArabic Waleed Nassar. We wanted to know more about this initiative and show you the wonderful work happening in Toronto to increase diversity and breaking barriers between neighbors.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at LoveArabic?
My name is Waleed. I’m the Co-founder and Chief Culture Guide of LoveArabic, which is a social enterprise based at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation. I moved to Toronto in 2012 with my wife and 2 children from Egypt. We came to Canada because my wife was accepted into a Master’s program at the University of Toronto and it was important for us to be together.
The idea for LoveArabic came to my wife and I a few months after living in Toronto. We realized that our children’s Skype calls with their grandparents became shorter and shorter as they had started to forget their native language. After speaking to other Arabic-speaking families it was evident that this was a common problem. So we wanted to start a project to help maintain language fluency for the Arabic speaking community in Toronto.
My wife and I partnered with a Canadian-Sudanese friend of ours and we launched LoveArabic in October 2014. We started by a mail-order catalogue for Arabic children’s books that were originally written in Arabic. We sold out our first two issues of the mail-order catalogue. We were so excited about the positive feedback and messages of encouragement from people who heard about our project. But our success was also accompanied with suspicion.
“Why are you teaching Arabic?” and “what are you really teaching?” were the most common questions that we were frequently asked. “Why do people learn Mandarin or Spanish and what do people learn from a language?” was the answer that I commonly responded with.
The suspicion did not go away and we quickly realized that there is a perception issue towards people who speak Arabic in Canada.
At first, it was unmotivating for us to know that there was, and still is, an implicit bias towards people who look a certain way, or have Arabic names. But we saw this as an opportunity and not an obstacle .
We saw it as an opportunity for us to become figures which would bridge Canadians with Arabic culture in Toronto, and to become culture guides to a language that we are familiar with. This resulted in us changing our focus from selling books to organizing events to bring people together, and to make the Arabic language accessible to everyone in Toronto and to all Canadians.
LoveArabic is a social enterprise, why did you chose this particular type of enterprise?
We explored different types of structures by talking with other Centre for Social Innovation members who were leading other projects with a social mission. We knew that we wanted to approach this problem with a non-traditional solution. We felt that a social enterprise would allow us to be more creative and have bigger opportunities to collaborate with more people and organizations who supported our mission.
Why are knowledge and empathy so important to your social enterprise?
Although we live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and have free and uncensored access to information, people still find themselves surrounded by information bubbles and filters that are created by the area we live in, the websites that we visit or the news channels that we follow.
We believe that the best way to effectively burst these bubbles, that shape our perceptions of others in our community, is by bringing people together. By uniting people of different cultures it provides an opportunity to learn something new about our neighbors, and allows people to create direct connections.
If we learn a new language together, try a new food or learn a new dance,
this new knowledge will replace our bias with
empathy, and knowledge that we are all the same.
What has been the most rewarding experience since you started LoveArabic?
We feel rewarded after every event we organize because we experience Torontonians, that don’t usually interact with each other, exchanging conversation and laughing. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that our interactions have lead us to collaborate with creative people and produce artistic designs that embody what we are trying to do.
Some of the our recent collaborations that we love are the Degrees of Love pins that we made with Olga Petrik, a Toronto-based designer and Maha Elhindawy, a Toronto-based Arabic linguist.
The Arabic language has at least 14 words that describe the meaning of love. We created a pin for each word because we felt it was a cool way to show how the Arabic language is deep and full of emotions. We’ve also worked with Islam Elshazly a Calgary-based designer and Geoff Doner a Toronto-based designer and came up with messages that invite people to be curious towards things that are unknown to them. The design is a combination of English and Arabic script intertwined with each other.
The design communicates this message Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity. This design was featured at the lounge of the Centre for Social Innovation last month.
How do you think your initiative can help Canada be more inclusive?
Since 2010, there has been a significant increase of Arabic-speaking immigrants and refugees. Canadians have been very welcoming to refugees but there’s been an unjustifiable fear towards Arabic-speaking Canadians. We believe that our initiative and initiatives like ours, build bridges and connections between people that are really important for a Canada that is inclusive for everyone.
What LoveArabic projects are on the horizon?
We have our LoveArabic Exchange – It’s an Arabic/English language exchange for anyone who wants to learn conversational Arabic from native speakers in dialect Arabic. It’s going to be a lot of fun! LoveArabic provides the food, music and a social and safe place to learn a new language. It’s a pay-what-you-can event and anyone can RSVP from our website.
How can individuals help support LoveArabic?
Anyone can support us by going to one of our upcoming events or buying one of our support pins.
Our website has all the details: https://lovearabic.ca/
It was a pleasure learning about LoveArabic and the impact they are having. Don’t forget to check out their next LoveArabic Exchange meet up.
Kitty Shephard is the director of communications and outreach for Welcome Home TO