ABU DHABI // Samia al Farra has spent her career helping bring cultures together. "But I am an Arab, and I am proud of being an Arab," says the newly appointed chief education officer of Taaleem, the UAE's second-largest private school operator.
Dr al Farra underwent a formative experience in 1977, when, after six years teaching in Kuwaiti public schools, she landed a job at a new private school in the state capital. Its mission was very much ahead of its time - to bridge cultural divides and produce bilingual graduates. Al-Bayan Bilingual School was only the second in the Middle East to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, originally developed in 1968 at the International School of Geneva.
While there, she observed similarities with the work of her father, who was chief officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency distribution centre that provided food and shelter for Palestinian refugees in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip. "Our mission was building bridges. That's why I joined. It reminded me of my father's mission - which was the UN's mission - building bridges among people, and human rights."
The IB curriculum, now used in hundreds of schools worldwide, has a strong ideological bent, with an emphasis on world literature and history, and requirements for community service. While academically rigorous, part of the IB's mission is to produce "global citizens" who do not turn a blind eye to issues such as poverty, conflict, and human rights. "The philosophy of IB goes in line with my philosophy in education and what I'm trying to do," Dr al Farra said. "You are building bridges, and with building bridges, you are bringing about peaceful life and societies."
It is no wonder that Dr al Farra was captivated by the IB when Al-Bayan adopted the curriculum in 1986. The IB has its roots in the UN, and Dr al Farra credits her father's international worldview with having shaped her own. "I am proud to be an Arab but I am also proud to have been raised in an international setting," she said. "I would say I am a person who cares for others, I am international in my thinking, and I thank God for it."
In her new position, Dr al Farra remains equally committed to the cause of bilingual education and hopes to help the company strengthen its existing Arabic programme and, perhaps, help Taaleem open bilingual schools in the future. "For us to survive as Arabs we need to have more of these schools whereby our kids as Arabs are exposed to other parts of the world," she says. Amid a sea of profit-making private schools that are quintessentially Dubai in nature, Taaleem has set itself apart by carving out a sophisticated niche. The group prides itself in its commitment to promoting multiculturalism and the Arabic language in its schools.
Most Taaleem schools run the IB curriculum. Those that do not have adopted elements of it, placing an emphasis on global perspectives in the classroom and requiring students to take part in community service. In a nation where thousands of Arab children attend private English-language schools, and public school graduates coming from Arabic medium schools struggle to enter state universities without first taking remedial English classes, bilingual education has been the subject of heated debate.
Few truly bilingual schools exist in the UAE and many Arab parents complain that the trade-off for a good education is that the children lose their native tongue. But for Dr al Farra, bilingual education is about more than just language proficiency - it is a means of connecting cultures. "With language comes culture, with culture comes values, and with values you realise that 90 per cent of the values are shared values in this world," she said.
She argued that the values that international schools promote are in line with the teachings of the Quran. "If you are a true Muslim, you are to respect the other," she said. "That other could be a Hindu, could be a Buddhist, could be a Muslim, could be a Christian, could be a Jew, could be whatever." For Taaleem, hiring Dr al Farra was a coup. "Samia has a unique standing within the international education community, having pioneered internationalism within national systems," said Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications and marketing for the group. "She brings an unparalleled depth of global experience and local understanding."
Dr al Farra, 59, was raised in the Palestinian Territories, in "a big family", she said, "with two parents who were very supportive". At an early age, she recalled, her parents instilled in her the value of education. "My mother would say 'Oh, I haven't opened a book for a week. Will you read to me while I wash the dishes?". As a young girl, Dr al Farra visited refugee camps in Gaza with her father, another experience she credits with shaping her worldview.
"My father would make us go, my sister and I, with him to see how people were living, how they were living a miserable life," she said. As a high school student, Dr al Farra did volunteer work in Egypt, overseeing the library of a secondary school, among other things. "It taught me responsibility, it taught me caring," she said. "I have always valued volunteer work, that's part of the reason why I was hooked on IB."
Growing up, Dr al Farra thought she would study medicine at university. "My parents wanted me to be a doctor. But then we had the 1967 war," she said. "With the war and the changes, I studied science and I loved it." After college, she became a teacher. Her love of teaching had been there since she was a child. At 12, she would fill in when her teacher was busy pursuing her own studies. "I used to teach them, to examine them. I used to make tests for them at 12 years old. I liked to teach, I loved teaching."
Dr al Farra left Kuwait in 1991, when the Gulf War erupted, for a post at the Amman Baccalaureate School in Jordan, another IB school that teaches English and Arabic in equal measures. In almost two decades there, she gained a PhD in education from a British university. She was a founding member of the Middle East International Baccalaureate Association, has worked with the Council of International Schools, and has served as an adviser to the Jordanian Ministry of Education.
Now Dr al Farra hopes to bring some of the lessons she learnt in Kuwait and Jordan to the UAE. "I would like to ensure that, at least for the nationals, I would like to guarantee there is that bilingual education and not one language dominating the other language," she said. "I would like to see some kind of balance of both cultures, whereby the child feels proud that he has both." Dr al Farra's arrival in Dubai could not be more timely. Half of all Emirati pupils in Dubai attend private schools.
In August, Dubai's education authority announced that schools would be asked to place more emphasis on Arabic and Islamic studies classes. This was after school inspections discovered that many private schools were not complying with requirements for the amount of time students are supposed to devote to the two subjects. While Taaleem schools are among the few international schools that place an emphasis on Arabic, the group acknowledges that finding quality Arabic and Islamic studies teachers is challenging.
Part of Dr al Farra's work at Taaleem will be to improve provision in the two subjects, for Arab children and expatriates. "We need to look seriously at what we offer kids in Taaleem schools, to make sure we are not alienating them from their culture," she says. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org For more profiles from this series, go to www.thenational.ae/people