There’s no use arguing – the Qatar Debates were a success.
From March 20-26, a team of students from Lindblom Math & Science Academy traveled to Doha, Qatar to compete in the Qatar Debates, or the International School Arabic Debating Competition. Senior Lacharro Hawkins, junior Karina Reyes, and sophomores Brenda Macias and Erin Nwachukwu traveled thousands of miles accompanied by their ustath (teacher), Fadi Agbughoush, and Tyler Blackwell, the director of CPS’ partner organization, the Center of Arabic Language and Culture (CALC).
The single representative from the United States, Lindblom was one of only four non-Arab countries to participate in the debates. And even in these countries, most students had foundations in Arabic or had studied the language since youth. By contrast, the Lindblom team had a collective 13 years of Arabic study between them, much less than any other competitor.
“A lot of the students over there knew English pretty well,” said Karina. “They told us they had studied it since first or second grade. But we’ve only been studying Arabic for 3 or 4 years. Imagine how our Arabic would have been if we’d started at an earlier age.”
As in American-style competitions, students were given a list of possible topics before the debates. But unlike in the United States, these debates were conducted entirely in Arabic. Lindblom students debated against teams from Singapore, Algeria, Libya, the Comoros and Djibouti, and covered such issues as government surveillance on social media and allowing students the freedom to choose their own academic paths.
“It was challenging for our students, because they had to translate topics to English, form their arguments, then translate them back to Arabic,” said Mr. Agbughoush. “For other teams, it was a much easier process,”
Prior to this school year, none of Lindblom’s team members had any experience in debate, Arabic or otherwise.
“I was more nervous about the debate than I was about leaving the country,” Lacharro said. “It was scary to think of speaking in front of everyone in Arabic in the debate.”
Team members were chosen based on Arabic proficiency, ability to debate and form arguments, commitment to the debate and general excitement for the opportunity. They began their preparations through an Arabic Debate Colloquium at Lindblom, eventually increasing their practice sessions to 3 hours after school every day.
“It was a lot of stress beforehand and we didn’t really have time to interact as a team,” Karina said. “But we’re like a family now. With all we went through in the debates, we created a bond.”
Though the team did not place in their events, they were given an award from the organizers and received many accolades from their judges and fellow competitors.
“One of the judges told us in Arabic that he was amazed by us,” Brenda said. “He told us that we inspired him to challenge himself more. That really meant a lot.”
In addition to participating in the debates, the team was able to explore the city of Doha, taking trips to the Museum of Islamic Art and the Al Shaqab equestrian facilities and enjoying the food and culture. They made many friends, and have kept in touch through Facebook, Instagram and email.
“The experience really broke a lot of the stereotypes and misconceptions I had,” Karina said. “I thought a lot of the people wouldn’t accept us, but they were really friendly and interested in our culture. One boy from Syria told us he was really honored that we were out there, but really, I was the one that was honored.”
The members of the Lindblom team have been named “Arabic Debate Ambassadors” and will assist in preparing CPS students for future competitions. The Qatar Debates are held every two years, so only Brenda and Erin will have the chance to compete again. However, Erin will be returning to Qatar much sooner, as she recently received a scholarship to attend an intensive study-abroad program in Doha this summer.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’ll be there for three weeks and hope to just better my Arabic skills and grow as a speaker and learner. I want to understand the Arab language and culture more.”
This year, over 3,000 CPS students are taking at least one Arabic course. Roughly 325 of those students are from Lindblom, which currently has the largest non-heritage, for-credit Arabic program in the nation. The Lindblom CALC is the only Arabic language and culture center in the United States, and has held numerous events to raise awareness of its programs, including an evening of Arabic poetry and music at the Chicago Cultural Center and an education show at Whitney Young High School, both of which were held earlier this year.
“If Chicago is going to continue to be a global city, its students have to be the foundation for that,” said CALC Director Tyler Blackwell, who hopes to see the Arabic debate program spread across more CPS schools before the next Qatar Debates. “They need exposure to Arabic culture and experiences like these students from Lindblom have had.”
For the Arabic debate team from Lindblom, the experience proved to be not only a lesson in debates, but in life.
“What better way to understand the world than learning through language and culture?” said Brenda. “By going to Qatar, I broke boundaries and understood more people. More people in America should go through that.”