Third-year Film & TV student Cherée is a recipient of the Critical Language Scholarship from the US Department of State, which supports students learning Arabic, Swahili, Korean, Russian and other languages. We caught up with her to learn more about it and how learning Arabic supports her goal of creating social change through film.
Please tell us a little about yourself!
Hi! My name is Cherée, I'm a third year student in Film and Television from Philadelphia. As of this year I have minors in Public Policy and Management as well as Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.
Congrats on the Critical Language Scholarship! Can you tell us more about it?
The Critical Language Scholarship is a program funded by the United States Department of State that supports students’ endeavors in learning languages such as Arabic, Swahili, Korean, Russian and other languages deemed as critical to national security and economic prosperity as well as less sought after for study by American college students.
Personally, I have no desire to learn Arabic to work in national security, and I never will. Before Covid-19, the program took students abroad to host countries of their target language for six to ten weeks for intensive language instruction and cultural enrichment experiences. However, this year the program is completely online. Although I was disappointed not to have the cultural immersion students usually receive when studying in Tangier, Morocco, I looked at this opportunity and believed the opportunities provided outweighed not having this experience in person. Best of all, in the span of just eight weeks I will have learned the equivalent of two semesters at NYU, moving me closer to my aspirations in fluency.
Tell us about your experience working with refugees in Greece -- how did that influence your decision to study Arabic?
Last year, I spent time in Greece volunteering at community kitchens, schools for asylum seekers and distributing personal protection equipment. People always ask me about the museums, beaches, and landmarks in Greece, but I didn’t visit any of those places because the friends I made in Greece weren’t allowed to travel to some of those places -- simply because they’re asylum seekers and/or undocumented.
One of the most salient experiences I had in Greece that solidified my desire to learn Arabic had to be the people I was meeting on the streets there and this sense of community I felt through a shared struggle. On multiple occasions, I would talk to young girls in community centers, and they’d ask where I’m from. In one instance, in our limited proficiency in each other's language I had a conversation with a young girl and we exchanged names. She told me she was
from Iraq and I told her I was from America. She looked at me and tilted her head. Finally, she said, “You say America but your skin says Africa.” I’d never been in the position where someone looked at me and thought I looked different until I was surrounded by people who weren’t used to seeing a Black American girl. This also extended to adults, and I found myself continuously trying to explain my extremely kinky hair, my skin color, and my racial origin. To most, this may have been a harmless interaction, however, for me it was a painful reminder to embrace the person I tried for so long to suppress.
Growing up I didn’t embrace my darker skin and I feared the community of refugees I found in Greece may also have the unspoken prejudice of the people who speak ill of Black people on the news. However, this was not the case: together, we were able to express distrust of authoritative figures as a result of police brutality, we were connected in our struggles for equal opportunity in education, the end to mass incarceration of our peoples, the desire to be treated as equals in our society, and an overwhelming rejoicement in our respective cultures in spite of our plight. Despite these sometimes difficult conversations on race and identity, I realized how my struggle in America as a Black person was very similar to what asylum seekers in Greece were feeling, and I understand who they are through their language as a guest to their community, without language barriers.
How do you see this scholarship supporting your future goals, including as a filmmaker?
As a Film and Television major with minors in Public Policy and Management and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, I aspire to create social and political change through my films.
It wasn’t until I met Tony, a Lebanese boy living in Greece as an unaccompanied minor did I realize I also needed to learn Arabic to do this. In one of his times of need he said to me, “You have to learn Arabic so we can speak better.” In the time I’ve known Tony, I’ve watched him be shuffled through shelters, prisons, and camps, and try my best to be supportive through every upheaval. Our conversations about his experiences are clouded by my inability to understand his life through his eyes, but rather seeing them with my own. Originally, I was afraid to ask Tony to create a film about him; when I finally asked he said, “You will take this film to America and all the people will know my story and my name.” During his first move, I asked Tony to record a video reflection of his experience as an unaccompanied minor. He spoke of missing his family, wanting to go to school and wanting a new life. I believe from my interviews with Tony and other asylum seekers, that systemic change could be made if we were to learn their stories.
I’m specifically interested in documenting the lives of people affected by education, incarceration, and immagration. I hope to one day start my own nonprofit that teaches refugees how to tell the stories they want to tell through film. Through the Critical Language Scholarship I’ll be equipped to begin advanced Arabic at NYU and be prepared to translate critical documents for refugees, translate my own documentaries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as speak without bias towards education levels. I’ve always been interested in how incarceration, education and immigration affect people, in documenting the lives of people who are impacted by these experiences, as well as inspiring and empowering them to tell their own stories through film. As a Black woman, I understand how important storytelling is and being in control of your own narrative. Due to the inherently exploitative nature of documentary filmmaking I decided I want to shift the perspective and create an NGO that gives asylum seekers the opportunity to tell the stories they want to tell through film.