MERIDEN — At 12 years old, Kaoutar Tayoubi and Allaa Arbach arrived in the U.S. speaking only Arabic.
The two girls quickly became best friends at Washington Middle School and with the help of their English as a Second Language teacher Mary Lou DiPaola, they learned about U.S. culture while sharing their culture with others.
The threesome reunited via Facebook and met last week for the first time in 16 years at the Wood N’ Tap restaurant on Route 5 in Wallingford.
“I connect with my students all the time,” said DiPaola who is now retired. “This is our first official meeting, it’s beautiful.”
Arbach came with her family to the U.S. from Syria in 2000. At school, she met Tayoubi , now Tayoubi-Elidrissi, who left her family in Morocco and arrived in the U.S. with only a sibling.
“Being homesick was very challenging,” Tayoubi-Elidrissi said. “Knowing (Arbach), I got to know her parents. It was like a family.”
DiPaola founded the English as a Second Language program at Washington and taught both girls English using oral listening, before venturing on to reading and writing.
“It took about two years, Arbach said.
Tayoubi and Arbach, now 30 and 31, became best friends in those years and remained so until adulthood. They participated in Washington Middle School’s International Ambassadors Program, where they taught other students about their Muslim culture.
DiPaola, who is fluent in Spanish and Italian, worked closely with the girls on the English-language skills needed for them to complete the middle and high school curriculums.
“That is very difficult for an international student,” DiPaola said. “It is so important that the student has the support of ESL teacher so they can develop English skills.”
DiPaola became a favorite for both girls and they would make her gifts in their woodworking class. Tayoubi-Elidrissi made DiPaola a wood carved Santa Claus one year. DiPaola brought it to the reunion to remind her.
“This was her first project in woodworking,” DiPaola said. “She made a Santa Claus for me and she’s Muslim.”
DiPaola left Meriden Public Schools in 2005 and worked with refugee students in New Haven until her recent retirement.
She’ll never forget her two Arabic-speaking students who relied on her and each other after finding themselves in a new country, she said.
“This is so amazing,” Tayoubi-Elidrissi said while greeting DiPaola.“I love you.”
Both Tayoubi-Elidrissi and Arbach also reunited after separating for a short time to have families of their own.
“She is my best friend,” Arbach said.