Ten-year-old Christopher Gobrial can speak in perfect English about being a deacon at his church, how his little sister lost her two front teeth and why he likes his fourth-grade teacher at Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City. But when it comes to his native Arabic, he is at a loss for words.
"I can't speak it really well," he said. He can write a few letters and pronounce the names of his favorite foods. But when his friends bug him to teach them phrases, Christopher, whose family is from Egypt, says he is no help. "I can't really teach them how to say stuff."
Though his mother, Eveit Gobrial, worries about her children not learning Arabic, she is even more concerned about bridging the cultural gap between her family and the public school system in Howard County.
The Gobrial family was among more than 100 parents and students who attended the county's first Arabic Family Night on Monday to learn how to navigate the school system and share their culture with school officials. Young-chan Han, an outreach specialist for immigrant families in county schools, said the exchange might be overdue.
"They were so glad that the school system initiated this," she said. "Perhaps the Arabic families were waiting for something like this."
Howard County has seen an influx of immigrants over the past decade. The school system has responded in the past by increasing translation services and holding information nights for Hispanic and Korean residents. But until recently, little attention has been focused on reaching out to the growing Arabic community, Han said. The idea for the family night was born about two months ago during Han's conversations with Maha Abdelkader, an Arabic interpreter for the school system and long-term substitute teacher for students who speak limited English. Initially, the event was planned only for the 32 Arab students who are enrolled in English as a Second Language programs at their schools. But word of the event quickly spread, and dozens of bilingual Arab families also signed up.
Abdelkader, who is from Egypt, said many Arab families in Howard are well-off financially and highly educated. Although they may not have trouble understanding English, adjusting to American culture can be difficult "because of the concern for the conservative society they are trying to maintain," she told a crowd of school officials Monday night.
Parents are often surprised at the casual interactions between students and teachers, she said. In Arab countries, the relationship between students and teachers is "formal" -- students do not even make eye contact with their instructors, she said. The notion of parents dropping into a school to volunteer is nonexistent, Abdelkader said.
"It's just very awkward," she said. "They don't know where to begin."
Parents also peppered school officials with questions about everything from textbooks to whether their children must attend school on religious holidays. One mother wondered why she did not automatically receive a copy of her son's curriculum. A father asked if his son would be allowed to leave school for midday prayers at a nearby mosque on Fridays. Other concerns were more mundane, such as another father's question about bus service for after-school activities.
"There were a lot of questions that were not raised in their schools," Han said. "I felt they needed a place where they could raise those questions."