In July, Calgarian Seham Hajar will pack up her three children and move them to Lebanon, where they will stay for at least a year, possibly three.
She hopes that by immersing them in her family's culture and lifestyle, they will better understand their roots and ultimately be as proficient in Arabic as they are at English.
The move will be both costly and emotional for the family, because her husband will stay behind to run their business. Hajar says it's worth the risk, but she laments that the Calgary Board of Education's move to consider offering an Arabic program came too late for her family.
"I wish we didn't have to go to Beirut. I wish there was something like this for my children when they were young. I wish there was something like this for me when I was a child," Hajar said Thursday at the public school board's open house, held to gauge interest in such a program.
Interest was indeed strong.
More than 250 parents attended and many expressed interest in enrolling a child beginning next fall, should the CBE decide to launch the Arabic program.
"I never thought this could be possible here," said Hanan Haydar, whose four children struggle to communicate with their Arabic-speaking grandparents.
"It's sad," said Haydar. "We try to teach them, but it's difficult when English language is all around us: on TV, games, commercials. You lose a lot of your culture when you don't speak the language."
If enough parents say they'd like to enrol, the program would be offered in kindergarten and Grade 1 starting September 2012.
The program would work like bilingual programs now in place for Spanish, Mandarin and German, with about 30 to 50 per cent of instruction in Arabic and the rest in English.
The private Calgary Islamic School and the Almadina Language Charter School are the only institutions that offer daily Arabic instruction for children, and both have lengthy waiting lists.
There are 85,000 Muslims living in Calgary, and 35,000 speak Arabic.
In Edmonton, two elementary schools and one junior high offer Arabic bilingual programs in the public system.
Alex Poole heard about the Edmonton program nearly two years ago and, together with a group of parents, lobbied the CBE to consider launching one in Calgary.
"Arabic is widely spoke throughout the world," said Poole, "and a program like this can be useful in Calgary for students who eventually want to get jobs in oil and gas. That, and it encourages cultural sensitivity."