Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New Askar Refugee Camp

I have been given a few classes in a Community Centre in 'New' Askar Refugee Camp. I went there yesterday with my local volunteer, and it's just on the edge on town, a ten-minute taxi-drive.

The ubiquitous group of young men hanging around inside turned out to be the coordinators of the centre, and they were very welcoming. We were shown to a room with two young girls in. Free English lessons are advertised at the Centre, and anyone is welcome. Lessons can therefore vary in numbers, levels, ages and abilities. Today it was two young girls, 13 and 14, who are supposed to be learning English at school, but whom I quickly ascertained were complete beginners when it came to speaking.

No matter: we pressed ahead with the lesson, with me asking my local volunteer to only translate into Arabic if absolutely necessary. I firmly believe it is possible to teach a new language to someone without resorting to their native tongue, in fact I am convinced that doing so distracts from their concentration and ability to absorb new sounds and meanings. It also dilutes the attention of the class, as they switch between what I am saying in a foreign tongue, to the local who speaks in a language soothingly familiar. To learn a language you have to be willing to put yourself into uncomfortable places, to make mistakes, to say things that sound bizarre, to try, literally, to get your tongue around new syllables. An hour later the girls could say the English words for various parts of the body. I'm sure they will go far with this information.

'New' Askar was set up in 1950, on '209 dunums of land' according to Wikipedia. I don't know what surface area a 'dunum' represents, but the camp sprawls over the side of a hill. It was expanded in 1960 (no progress there then...) and the population is approximately 31,000. Food rations are distributed to about 2100 families. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) still make regular incursions into the camp, mainly to interrogate people they suspect of anti-Israeli activities.

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