In a classroom inside of Richwoods High School, the written words in textbooks are read from right to left. To the English as an Only Language crowd, the alphabet is an unrecognizable and seemingly random series of squiggles and dots. Many of the sounds the spoken words create come from a place deep within the human throat.
Students are learning to read, write and speak in Arabic.
"It's a real challenge," said Lamia Khoury, who taught an Arabic class for both semesters of the 2016-2017 school year at Richwoods High School. "Especially for my students, who come to Arabic with no experience from their homes."
In 2016, Khoury, who also teaches high school French, approached school administrators with the idea of offering an introduction to Arabic course. The curriculum already included advancing levels of the more traditional French and Spanish classes, but Khoury, who was born in Lebanon, thought there would be value to teach the language that was very much a part of the global picture in the 21st century.
There are people whose primary language is Arabic on the news nearly every night. Some are American allies. Others are American enemies. Regardless, there is a need for people who can translate Arabic into English in the business world and in government.
"I know the government pays more money for people who speak different languages, and right now there is a need for people who speak Arabic all over the world in Saudi Arabia, Egypt Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and more," Khoury said.
Khoury made her pitch directly to Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, the superintendent of Peoria Public Schools. She agreed to a pilot program teaching Arabic. Forty students signed up.
Each student signed up for the class for their own individual reason, although several wanted to enhance their knowledge of the language that is spoken to varying degrees at home.
"There is just one formal language for Arabic, but dialects are different," Khoury said. "I have in my room Palestinians, from Sudan, from Syria and I have from Lebanon. I have four different dialects in my class."
Freshman Ameena Patel's parents are from India. She's learning Arabic to better read and understand the Quran.
"You can read the (English) translation of the Quran, but the original book is always going to be in Arabic and that's the way it was put down into words. The way that people read it and recite it is in Arabic," Patel said.
Patel's family moved to Peoria from the Chicago area. Last year was her first year in a public school, which coincided with the district's first attempt to teach Arabic.
"This class is great," she said. "It helped that I could already read and write Arabic, but this helped me out with learning to actually speak it."
Senior Viviane Eldaravi's father is Lebanese, and she has heard Arabic all of her life.
"My dad spoke it around the house, but I didn't really know it very well. I've had to work and practice a lot. I want to be able to speak with my family. But learning a new language, that's kind of fun, too."
Junior Brady Pierson's reason for taking Arabic could not be more different.
"Last year I signed up for Spanish. But, Arabic came along, and my goal is to work in the defense industry, either in the government or overseas, and right now Arabic is sort of a strong subject because what is happening overseas. So I thought I'd give it a shot."
It's harder than he first thought.
"It's a lot different than Spanish or French," he said. "It's a whole different alphabet, different writing techniques and you write backwards."
"In Arabic you don't say backwards," Khoury interjected. "It is English that is backwards."
The pilot program concluded at the end of the last school year and won't be offered again in the upcoming school year. But Khoury believes it will be offered again.
"That is our hope," she said.
Khoury, who has also taught Arabic at Bradley University, said the value of her class goes beyond simple instruction in a foreign language. It brings students from different cultures together.
"Diversity is something I love and enjoy," she said. "Richwoods is a great place to be because of its diversity and the number of classes it offers. In the classroom, you can see that you can live with people who are different from you."