Saudi Students in US suffer harassment despite community support

Sunday 29/01/2017
Memorial for Hussain Saeed Alnahdi at University of Wisconsin-Stout

Jeddah - When Bassma Barna­wi, a Saudi post­graduate student at the University of Texas, was shop­ping recently in San Antonio, an elderly man scolded her for not speaking to him.
Barnawi said the man told her: “Probably you are not even speak­ing English or an illegal immigrant.”
“Before I even realised what he said, another lady in the store who was shopping defended me and told the guy that his behaviour is unacceptable,” Barnawi said.
Her encounter is relatively mild compared to other incidents in­volving Saudi students in the Unit­ed States reached by phone, but it is part of a pattern many interna­tional Muslim students say they face.
Barnawi said she had a support system to help her.
“I have many non-Muslim friends who I can count on for any­thing I need,” she said.
A similar support system was available to Saudi students attend­ing the University of Wisconsin- Stout in Menomonie, after a Saudi student was killed last October. In the aftermath, about 750 com­munity members attended a din­ner prepared by Saudi students to demonstrate their support.
It was a spontaneous reaction to the death of Hussain Saeed Al­nahdi, who was assaulted and died on October 31st. Residents in the town of 16,000 see international students integrating well into the community and appreciate the economic benefits they bring. There are about 150 Saudis among the 350 international students at­tending the university.
“Overall, the international stu­dents here do a nice job of integrat­ing into campus and the commu­nity, so they know first-hand it is a very welcoming, friendly place,” said Michael Lee, international student adviser at the university’s Office of International Education. “They know the recent tragedy was an anomaly in an otherwise very safe community.”
Cullen Osburn, 27, of Minnesota, was charged with murder stem­ming from the attack. Police said the incident did not appear to be a hate crime.
There is an underlying unease among many Muslim international students of a darkening mood di­rected at immigrants following the election of Donald Trump as presi­dent.
Jaylani Hussein, executive direc­tor of the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Rela­tions (CAIR), said about 100 anti- Muslim incidents were reported to CAIR since the election. He cited the proliferation of anti-Muslim or­ganisations for the increase.
“There is a great deal of Islamo­phobia,” Hussein said. “There are a lot of verbal attacks but not at the level of taking a life. I think there is a great deal of sympathy in the com­munity, but we have seen a spike, particularly in high schools where there is more bullying against Mus­lim girls.”
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate crimes, reported that from November 9th — Election Day — through December 12th, an esti­mated 112 anti-Muslim incidents occurred.
The rise of alt-right white nation­alist leaders drawing crowds on university campuses and gaining media attention since the election has escalated hate incidents, the SPLC said.
Although communities in many university towns have shown sup­port for international students, not all students in the United States can such treatment.
Saudi and Kuwaiti students at Idaho State University had their cars vandalised and apartments burgled. Notes were left on the ve­hicles demanding they leave the country. Some community mem­bers complained to the university that Arab students raced their cars, destroyed property in their apart­ments and made unwelcome ad­vances on female students.
Hussein said there was no excuse for the attacks, noting that there was no provocation.
“All of those things are not a rea­son to be attacked,” Hussein said. “They (students) are not neces­sarily having a conversation with someone before an attack. There is nothing that precedes an attack. Hate crimes that occur involve two people who do not know each oth­er.”
Idaho State University expects a $5 million loss in revenue for the 2016-17 academic year, as Saudi stu­dents transferred to other schools.
Rabia Harris, founder of the Mus­lim Peace Fellowship and member of the advisory council for the As­sociation of Muslim Chaplains, said acts of ignorance should be met with magnanimity.
“The scale of ignorance about Is­lam and Muslims in this country is absolutely astonishing and the best pathway that can be opened for knowledge is the establishment of warm human relationships,” Har­ris said. “Muslims ought to take the initiative in this regard, not merely wait to react.”
Perhaps one of the biggest chal­lenges for CAIR is accurately iden­tifying hate crimes. Hussein said law enforcement agencies are “learning themselves” how to re­spond and identify such crimes but victims often do not recognise the motives.
Neither Alnahdi’s death nor the recent beating of Saudi student Mohammad Zaid al-Fadheel in Morehead, Kentucky, has been classified as a hate crime.
“There certainly is a bias but vic­tims are often not clear about why they were attacked,” said Hussein, noting that two-thirds of all hate crimes go unreported.