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Saudi Students: In Their Own Words

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After 9/11, and the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the flow of students from the desert kingdom to the United States largely dried up. Now the U.S. and Saudi governments are cooperating on a program to encourage more Saudi students to come to the U.S. for college. TIME's Jeff Chu went to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where the Saudi contingent now numbers more than 30. Here are some of their thoughts about life on a U.S. campus, and Americans' view of their homeland.

Ahoud Alqahtani

Even in my dreams, I never thought I could get a scholarship to America. This is my first time here. I was surprised how friendly the people are, because I didnít think that they would be. It goes back to the stereotypes: I heard from people at home that Americans donít like Arab people. After Sept. 11, I heard that Saudis were not welcome in America anymore.

People donít know much about Saudi Arabia. My neighbor, who is a graduate student, he asked, 'Are you riding camels at home?' Someone said, 'Did you bring your own oil with you?

But I like everything here. I like the teachers—they care about us. Itís not just about learning English. They consider our feelings. They know we can be depressed. They say, If you just want to talk, come to us. You donít need to talk about anything important.

I think I will grow while I am here. I will become a better person. Everyone wants to go home at the end, but I want to stay and be a diplomat. I want to work in Washington to give a good picture of Saudi Arabia. People criticize our culture and our religion. But we have made a civilized country out of nothing—out of the desert.

Hatim al-Garzaie

"A lot of Americans took 9/11 as Saudi. But the terrorists were individuals. They did not represent our government or our Saudi Arabia. We are 25 million people. Look, you have the Ku Klux Klan here. Do they represent America? These are extreme organizations. You will find them in any society.

"I would be lying if I said it doesn't bother me. It's not a good image. But I understand that Americans don't know Saudi Arabia that well. They think everyone in Saudi Arabia thinks like those 15. You can't blame them — the U.S. is so big. The American has his own world. He doesn't have to look outside. I have been watching the American news, and I have no idea what is happening in Saudi Arabia.

"I do feel I have to prove something — that I am an honest guy, that I deserve to be your friend. There is a phobia of Arabs. I know I was raised a little different, but I'm really just like any other person.

"The American educational style is known in Saudi Arabia as a fun style. It's not as serious. I can talk to my teacher like he's a friend. It's a cultural thing. There, the teacher is not there to be friends with you. Respecting your professor is something sacred. We respect them even if they are not nice. Maybe it's the same goal, but I prefer this system. It takes a lot of weight off. Also, you can't go to university in Saudi Arabia looking informal. People here, they wear their pajamas to class. There, they would say, 'What's up with you? Don't you have any clothes, man?' It is very informal.

"I'm trying to be a good Muslim here, but it's a bit harder because of the temptations — I see everybody drinking or hooking up with girls. That's a temptation. Back in Saudi Arabia, that's not happening. Here it's more in your face. You see a lot more temptations that could make you not be a good Muslim. You try to stay away, find other things to do."

Hamad Almusai

"When I came to the U.S., I was scared. People said when you go to America they will have special rules for Saudis. People in Saudi Arabia said to me that the people in immigration would not be friendly. But everyone has been friendly. When Americans see the TV news, I still think maybe they won't like Saudi Arabia. But they don't know Saudi Arabia.

"I didn't know anything about America, but I always wanted to come. I always thought it would be the best — for studying, for being happy. I thought all of America would be more like New York. When we talked about America in Saudi Arabia, it was always big things. I thought each town would have a downtown with big buildings and a big airport. Not this small town. But from the beginning, I liked Marshall — nice student center, nice library, nice campus — and I will have time to see other places.

"When I came here, my language was nothing. I could say hello. I could say 'How are you?' But my English was very weak. When I studied in Saudi Arabia, we didn't care about English. We had to take three years. There was no talking. We spoke Arabic in English class. The tests were very easy. They were multiple choice, and I was lucky.

"In Saudi Arabia, we have money, so not a lot of people think about democracy or politics. The government gives us so much. I don't worry about politics. I just like to see whether the dollar is going up or down, because the riyal goes up when the dollar goes up. I think about business. I think about the stock market. I think about the future — how can I live a good life? How can I have a good family?"

Zaid al-Hussain

"My father owns a gold shop in Saudi Arabia. He studied in the U.S., and he told me it would be good for me. He said I should go to the small town, not the big city. When I study, I thank God for this environment. Huntington is a quiet place. There is no place to go, nothing to do but study.

"When I got here, I was surprised the students drink so much. They drink too much. I was scared about that. I've seen this in three apartments now. My first apartment, I had three roommates. They were friendly. I watched TV with them, but I felt I could not make relations with these guys. I stayed there for four days, and they drank and drank all the time. They put the empty bottles around the living room, in the kitchen, everywhere. But I don't drink. It's against my religion. I thought if they drink too much, it would affect me to live with them. When I woke up and saw all these bottles, it made me angry. I wanted to stay in my room. And I can't improve my English with drunk people.

"If people ask me about Saudi Arabia, I say, wait, what's the image you have of Saudi Arabia? One guy said something about the hajj. I was surprised he knew about this. He also knew about dates — the fruit — and he knew that Saudi Arabia has a good soccer team, because he was a soccer fan. But people don't know that the technology and the economy have developed very much. The last 20 years in Saudi Arabia, many, many things have happened, and many Americans don't know that. They don't know about other countries —they focus on America and on themselves."

Talal al-Dehaim:

"My father is a military attachť in Rabat [Morocco]. He studied in California. When I said I want to go to the U.S., he said, OK, no problem, but if you go, you must study very, very hard.

"When I saw the name 'West Virginia,' I thought that would be in the west of Virginia. I thought it would be a big city. But then I said, if it's a small town, it will be easier to study.

"When I was coming to the U.S., I was thinking one thing: that after 9/11, American people would get nervous about Saudi people. Before I came here, that's what my friends said.

"Last semester, I was living in the dorm. The first and second week I called my father all the time. I wanted to go home. I didn't know anybody. I was alone. I missed my family. I was so homesick. I slept maybe four hours. If I wanted to go any place, I would get lost. I only knew two places — my room and the Student Center. And McDonald's! I know fast food. People here like fast food very much. In my country, maybe you eat fast food once a week. Here it seems like they eat it all the time.

"My roommate in the dorm was a redneck. He wouldn't talk with me. The only things he would say were two sentences: 'What's up?' And when he went outside, 'See you, man.' He never wanted to speak with me, and when he did speak with me, if I said, 'I don't understand; can you speak more slowly?' he would say, 'Oh, how can I say it?' And then he would stop talking to me.

"But I don't want to make a small thing big. It's a new experience for me. I am here, first, to study, and second, to know the culture here and to know the difference between the cultures here and there. Everyone else has been very friendly. I was surprised. Some of my friends asked me about Marshall, and I said it's a lot of work. If you want to study, come. But it's cool. The people are very friendly. They help you if you need help."

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