Where am I?
Saudi Arabian Siblings Find Comfort Far from Home
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Tableaux, the alumni magazine of Fontbonne University.
There are many reasons American students study abroad — it’s a chance to immerse themselves in a new culture and way of life, to become fluent in a foreign language and to experience the true independence that comes from being so far away from home.
Saudi Arabian students share those goals, but they also believe they can get a better education abroad. And so, despite the distance — some 7,500 miles — 71,000 students came to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program in 2013, many planning to stay and study for four or more years. Fontbonne University has welcomed some 90 Saudi students, including two families — the Aljebreens and the Alzahranis — who have made studying here quite the tradition.
“It was important to my father, and to me, too, that my siblings and I get our degrees outside of Saudi Arabia,” explained Jebreen Aljebreen, a business administration major. “For me, if I was leaving Saudi Arabia, I wanted to be in America.”
Jebreen, whose family lives in Al-Quwaiiyah, Saudi Arabia, had his sights set on the U.S., but he needed to find the right university. After speaking with Rebecca Bahan, Fontbonne’s director of international affairs, who told him about life in St. Louis and Fontbonne’s rigorous academics and strong campus community, Jebreen knew Fontbonne was the perfect destination for his American education. He began taking English courses at the university in 2009 and enrolled in academic classes in 2010. He loved his new home almost immediately.
“Everyone was so nice,” Jebreen said. “I really wasn’t sure what to expect. But the people here accept me for who I am. They do not judge me on where I came from.”
Jebreen was so happy with his new life and new home that he convinced his older brother Raed to transfer to Fontbonne in the summer of 2010.
“It was great,” Jebreen said. “We lived together, took classes together, we studied together. As much as I loved Fontbonne, I had been homesick, and having him here allowed me to enjoy the experience even more.”
It was around this time that Fatmah Alzahrany and her siblings, from Taif, Saudi Arabia, began exploring educational options outside of their home country as well. With their eldest sister, Sofy, already in St. Louis, Fatmah did some research on universities in the city, and found that Fontbonne had an excellent education program, her choice of major.
“Having my sister already in St. Louis made me feel much better about making the move,” Fatmah said. “I knew it was a safe environment with wonderful universities. I was excited to start.”
Within six months, other members of the Alzahrani family joined Fatmah and Sofy, including their sisters Safiah and Sarah, and their brother Kahalid and his wife, Asia.
“We were homesick for each other — us in St. Louis and them in Saudi Arabia,” Fatmah said. “We loved St. Louis, and we needed to get our degrees, so our family joined us here.” With the family reunited, the sisters could focus on their education and enjoy their experience in the U.S. to the fullest extent.
“St. Louis is different from home,” Fatmah said. “But the differences aren’t bad. People are accepting.”
“Yes, everyone is so friendly,” Asia agreed. “And Fontbonne is an amazing university. It’s not always easy to catch everything in class when English is your second language, but the professors are always willing to work with us.”
Jebreen and Raed had also started to encourage their friends and family to join them. Their younger brother, Yazeed, and Jabreen’s wife, Najla, joined them in St. Louis in 2011. About a year later, Raed’s wife, Mannera, came too.
Yazeed, who is working toward a degree in cyber security, admitted that he was hesitant about his big move to the U.S.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I was excited, but really scared. And then, when I got here, I was totally surprised. Everyone was very accepting.”
Distance and Differences
Of course, moving 7,500 miles away from home isn’t without its challenges.
“Sometimes, when a big group of us are speaking in Arabic, we’ll get looks from Americans who pass by,” Yazeed said.
“I hope everyone knows that we are not speaking badly of them — it’s not so that Americans do not understand us,” Jebreen added. “It is polite in our culture to speak in your native language when with other native speakers.”
The sisters agreed that while most everyone is accepting, there are those who have questions about their religion, their customs and even the way they dress.
“I was a little scared to wear my hijab,” Fatmah said, referring to the veil that is primarily worn by Muslim women and covers the head and chest. “Many people are curious. They will ask, ‘What’s your religion?’ and ‘Why do you wear it?’ We don’t mind the questions. But we’ve all been asked in the year-and-a-half we’ve been in St. Louis.”
For the most part, both families are enjoying their time in St. Louis and learning about American people and culture. There’s one difference between St. Louisans and Saudis that both families noticed almost immediately: In St. Louis, everyone smiles all the time.
“When we first got here, I kept asking Fatmah why everyone was smiling at me,” Safiah said.
"That is a big cultural difference between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.,” Jebreen also noted.
“Everyone smiles at you all the time. At first you don’t know why, and then you realize that’s just the culture.”
“Why don’t we smile more in Saudi Arabia?” Yazeed looked to his brother, who shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe because it is so hot? It’s not that we’re not happy there. We’re very happy. But it is so hot it is hard to smile!”
Raed graduated in the fall of 2013, and he and Mannera returned to Saudi Arabia, as it is a provision of the student visa that they do so immediately upon graduating. They, along with Jebreen, hope to return to the U.S. to attend graduate school. Yazeed will be on campus until May 2017, and he will be joined this summer by the Aljebreen’s youngest brother, Hamad.
“Hamad is so excited to be coming to Fontbonne,” Jebreen said. “He is nervous, but he has less unknowns than the rest
of us did. He’s going to love it here.”
And the family tradition continues.