SALEM - As a little girl, Suja Hamida fled with her family from Somalia after civil war broke out in the African nation.
She traveled through Ethiopia before settling in Saudi Arabia, where she lived for several years. Hamida went to school in Saudi Arabia and even learned to speak and write Arabic, the native language. It turns out the little girl from Somalia had a facility for languages.
"I love languages," said Hamida, now a Salem State College junior. "Languages just come easy for me."
But after moving to the United States about a decade ago, she forgot a lot of things - including some of her Arabic. That explains her excitement when Salem State began offering classes in Arabic last year and, in part, why she transferred here from another college.
"That's why I came," she said.
Hamida, a biology major, is one of several dozen students who have signed up for Arabic at Salem State over the past two years. The courses were first offered as independent studies by Michael Weber of the history department and have grown into a full-fledged language program.
This fall, a total of 20 students, the maximum allowed in a language course, signed up for Arabic 101. They came for a variety of reasons.
There are some Muslim students who wanted to read the Quran, an official said, but that's not the only reason for the interest.
Rachel Emelock, a junior, plans to go to graduate school to study history and sees Arabic as a key to learning about an important region of the world. She also likes the challenge.
"I'm taking Arabic because it's different and it's fun," she said.
Sophomore Christine O'Connell is considering a career as a diplomat.
"I have this kind of lofty ambition," she said. "I want to work at an embassy. It would be really cool if I worked at an embassy where I could speak the language and interact with the people."
The emergence of Arabic at Salem State mirrors a national trend. Enrollments have more than doubled on college campuses over the past five years, and Arabic recently made the top 10 list of most-studied languages at American colleges and universities, according to a November survey by the Modern Language Association.
It is no coincidence that the growing interest in Arabic, Islam and Middle Eastern studies followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officials say. Many college students, and Americans in general, want to know more about that part of the world.
"After 9/11, you could see the demand to learn the Arabic language and to learn about Islam rise up," said Abdelkader Berrahmoun, a native of Algeria and the Arabic instructor at Salem State.
"After 9/11, they wanted to learn more about the religion and this part of the world they didn't know about. It was also an opportunity for students to learn about people from the Middle East. It's good because it opens up the minds of (students) on the language and the culture."
Although a lot of students have signed up for Arabic at Salem State, a lot also have dropped the course. Arabic 101, which started with 20 students, was down to 14 by the end of the semester.
"I think the main dropout is after elementary (Arabic 101 and 102)," Jon Aske, chairman of the foreign language department, wrote in e-mail. "Learning a language is very time-consuming, and learning Arabic very much so."
For most students, Arabic really is a foreign language. The 29 letters and several symbols aren't like anything they have encountered in French, Spanish or German classes.
"It's a difficult language to start with," Berrahmoun said. "Everything is different. ... It's difficult, but it's beautiful at the same time."
There is another reason, though, for the relatively high dropout rate at Salem State. Arabic classes are taught at the South Campus, which is off Loring Avenue and some distance from the main campus. For students without a car, it's a long walk on a cold winter day.
"That won't happen again," Aske said of the remote location.