Saudi students in US suffer harassment despite community support
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.