One of the joys and the challenges of being a fellow in a new position is stepping into a loosely defined role. Even now that I have been at Eastern Mediterranean International School (EMIS) for a couple of months, it takes a while to describe what my job as a MENAR fellow here is like on a typical day. I sum up the various roles I take on by explaining my work falls into two main categories — teaching language and supporting the school's mission to create peace and sustainability in the Middle East. What I did not expect is just how much overlap there is between teaching English and mediating dialogues about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
At EMIS we have 190 students who come from cities all over Israel-Palestine and countries all over the world. With the exception of a handful of native English speaking students, everyone is adapting to learning not only how to do math in English, but also how to express their complex ideas and reflections in their second or third language. As we began planning our Conflict Mediation program, I talked with the staff about barriers to dialogue that the school has faced in previous years. A common issue for the students is not having the most precise vocabulary to convey complex ideas about conflict. We throw around a lot of common media words without knowing what they really mean. For example, a student was overheard saying, "I can't eat this apple because it's biased" in the dining hall, without understanding that "biased" is not a word they can use for anything that they do not like. It is challenging when we have a group of fifteen students who speak five different native languages all trying to not only express their own ideas in English but also to understand opposing viewpoints when the exact meaning and connotation of their thoughts gets lost in translation. As someone with a background in linguistics, I believe strongly in the power of words and the importance of choosing our vocabulary with care all the time, especially when we are having difficult dialogues.
I am grateful to have a complicated job description. When we engage in intense conversations at EMIS, our students face language, cultural, and ideological barriers. In my diverse roles I am able to help students strengthen their English skills so that they can share their stories with increased confidence that the words they use mean what they intend and that intent is understood by others. Finding common ground is hard enough when you have a common native tongue and even more so when there is a language limitation. I am encouraged that time spent in English classes not only helps the students pass their International Baccalaureate exams, but also that this increased knowledge of syntax and diction in English empowers them with the skills they need, so that the focus of dialogue is on getting to know the person behind the words.