Global Action

Learning Arabic in Alaska

December 2015

Qatar Foundation International

William Scannell was six years old when he told his dad that he wanted to learn Arabic. The family had just got back from a holiday in the Middle East, so the request made sense. Except that the Scannells live in Anchorage.

“He’s a kid from Alaska whose family is Boston Irish, so learning Arabic struck me as useful as an Egyptian taking up the language of the Yupik Eskimos,” recalls William’s dad, Bill Scannell. So Bill enrolled his son in an online Arabic course, confident he’d soon drop out.

Except he didn’t. In fact, William, now ten, has completed seven semesters of Arabic through Johns Hopkins, four Arabic summer camps at Concordia Language Villages, an immersion program with the Middlebury Monterrey Language Academy, and a month at a Palestinian elementary school in Jerusalem.

“William can now read, write, and speak Arabic: it is part of who he is,” says his dad. “He’s become a life-long learner of the native language of close to half a billion people across the Middle East and North Africa; and the religious language of Earth’s billion-plus Muslims.”

No wonder William Scannell recently became the youngest ever recipient of a grant from Qatar Foundation International (QFI). Two years ago, he participated in QFI’s winter clothing drive, which led to Alaskans sending more than half a ton of clothing to Syrian refugees. And, last year, he launched Any Refugee, a program that encourages children across the world to send postcards to refugees.


“Empathy is what makes us better human beings. My son’s love of Arabic helped him connect with the very real problems currently playing out in the Levant.”
― William’s dad


William says that sending clothing or a postcard to a person you’ve never met is a gesture to show them that someone cares: “[The cards] fill them with happiness, because they didn’t even know the person and yet they still got a postcard,” he adds.

This year at the 27th Annual Alaska Philanthropy Day Awards Luncheon, William was recognized as Alaska’s Outstanding Youth for his humanitarian work. “William has been charting his own course toward adulthood. For him, studying Arabic has been not just an end unto itself, but a tool he uses to express his greatest quality, which is his empathy for others,” says William’s dad.

As William said to his sixth-grade classmates while they were painting postcards, “Refugees can be anyone. Albert Einstein was a refugee.”