As an English teacher in Cape Town, I have had the singular pleasure of meeting and teaching many Arab students.
One of the most striking observations has been their unfailing optimism and enduring sense of hope for the future.
Based on their attitudes and through conversations with these students, I find them to be socially aware and insightful. They know that Arabs are sometimes negatively portrayed in Western media and yet through their social interactions with people in a milieu such as Cape Town, they challenge that stereotype.
The youth are often charged with being blase and jaded. Having taught at different universities and language schools, students from Europe seem to be less engaged about their future, as their lives are set up in such a way that they will have jobs and the future that they envisage.
It may well be that this is a feature of developed economies, where employment and prosperity are not as uncertain as in developing countries.
Students from countries with developing economies have different challenges to face. Young Arab men and women are hopeful about their own futures and that of their country.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the changes set in motion by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have added a new dimension to the positive outlook for the future of the Kingdom.
Saudis whom I have met are ready to be part of the future that the crown prince foresees. And while the changes bring about high levels of uncertainty, the general attitude is one of quiet hopefulness, optimism and a desire to return to the Kingdom after their time away. They express their wish to contribute positively to expanding the economy and so wish to apply the language skills and education that they have learnt abroad.
Arab students are acutely aware of the misconceptions about their country and culture, and they offer a counter-narrative to these misconceptions in a gentle and meaningful way. They matter-of-factly correct their classmates and cite examples from the reality of their life and society.
For many Arab students, their time in Cape Town is the first experience they have away from their family and culture. It’s interesting to observe how these students appreciate the new culture and their sense of independence.
After the first week or two students have fully acclimatized to the new culture, learning environment and weather. The Cape Town rainy season has them in joyous awe. They easily navigate the city, but, more importantly, also handle the complexities of diverse social situations which are marked by people with different viewpoints and sociopolitical backgrounds. These interactions indicate their ability to be resilient and adaptable.
I will be remiss if I do not acknowledge the contribution of mothers and fathers, since it is through their vision that they afford the Arab youth the opportunity to have meaningful experiences away from home.
The Arab youth I encounter are engaging, motivated and able to navigate the world.
If most of the youth in the Arab world share this sense of hope and optimism, the future is definitely theirs.
• Il-Haam Ahmed is an EFL teacher at the University of Cape Town. She has worked at many language schools in South Africa and Turkey.