Saudi students at Clark have much to teach

As a holiday gift, club offers an introduction to a complex, sometimes surprising culture

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



About Eid al-Adha

• What: Muslim holiday, one of holiest religious celebrations of Islam.

• Also called: The Feast of the Sacrifice, the Greater Eid.

• Who celebrates it: Muslims worldwide.

• When: In the Islamic month of Dhu-al-Hijjah; this year, it began Oct. 15.

• What it commemorates: The end of the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) in Saudi Arabia; it also marks the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to obey Allah (God) and sacrifice his first son, Ishmael. Allah provided a sacrificial lamb for Ibrahim, and Ishmael’s life was spared. The story also is told in the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah. Christians and Jews know Ibrahim as Abraham, and say he offered his second son, Isaac, for sacrifice.

n How it’s celebrated: Prayer, sharing meals, giving gifts, women decorating their skin with henna calligraphy; in some countries, families slaughter sheep, cows and goats, often donating one-third of the meat to the needy.

International Programs at Clark College

• Number of international students: 95.

• Number who are Saudi citizens: 27.

• New club: Saudi Student Club at Clark College.

• On the web: Learn more about International Programs.

Ahmed Biladi, 18, knows about being stereotyped. When he flew from his home in Jeddah City, Saudi Arabia, to the U.S. to attend Clark College, he was "held up for interrogation at the airport. I have two passports stamped together," he said. "I travel a lot."

For the first time in Clark College history, the largest number of the 95 international students at Clark College are Saudi citizens. Many of the 27 Saudi students realized that Americans were misinformed about modern life in Saudi Arabia. So the students asked to start the Saudi Student Club to dispel the myths of people riding camels, herding sheep and living in tents pitched in the desert.

"People confuse our modern culture," said Biladi, who, like the other students, wore contemporary American clothing.

Biladi and most of his fellow Saudi students hail from Jeddah, a thriving metropolis of 5.1 million people. That's much larger than the population of Clark County and the Portland metropolitan area combined.

Tuesday, the new Saudi Student Club hosted its first event at Clark to introduce students, faculty and staff to modern Saudi culture through videos, food, music, Arabic calligraphy and more.

The students had just screened a video contrasting popular misconceptions about life in contemporary Saudi Arabia. On the screen, tunic-wearing Saudis herded camels through a stark desert landscape. The next shot showed a bustling streetscape of Jeddah City's skyscrapers, sports cars, an amusement park, a shopping mall.

Students Marilyn Bordea, 29, and Little Eagle Whittington, 20, both from Vancouver, sat together eating rice piled with lamb. "I didn't anticipate it to be so industrialized," Whittington said. "I expected it to be like what you see in pictures of war zones. You know. Clay huts. Lots of sand. Very Third World."

Bordea first met some Saudi students while she was working in the Student Life office on campus. They invited her to hear about their culture.

"It's educational. I wanted to learn, to get past the stereotypes," she said. "The food is great. The music is great."

Biladi had been offered a King Abdullah Scholarship from the Saudi government to study abroad; he declined to accept it.

"I'm not in need of financial assistance," he said. "Better to let someone who needs it use it."

Many of the Saudi students are attending Clark thanks to the King Abdullah Scholarships, said Jane Walster, director of International Programs.

The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission is working with Clark College and many other colleges and universities to give Saudi students opportunities to study abroad, she said.

Walster and her staff meet with new international students at the beginning of each quarter to inform them about the ins and outs of Clark College, immigration policy and life in the U.S. on F1 student visas, the most common visa at Clark.

"Our job is to support international students to help them be successful," Walster said.

Saeed Nasser, 20, and Rakan Sulami, 21, both of Jeddah City, sang traditional songs in Arabic. Then people lined up to try basbousa, a Saudi sweet cupcake, and to have their names written in Arabic by a Saudi student. Still others posed on colorful cushions placed on the floor to have their photos taken.

Biladi noted that contemporary Saudi homes have modern furniture, just like in American homes.

"This is how people usually think we live," he said. "Most of Saudi Arabia is modernized."