Mohammad Halawany, president of the Saudi Student Association at Idaho State University, says he wants his organization to increase its efforts to become involved with the Pocatello community to dispel misconceptions and improve communication.
Photo by Michael O’Donnell
POCATELLO — Although the number of students from Saudi Arabia may be down slightly at Idaho State University, the president of the Saudi Student Association says he wants to see Saudis make a greater effort to contribute to the community.
Mohammad Halawany is a third-year electrical engineering student at ISU and was elected to lead the Saudi Student Association earlier this year. He lives in Pocatello with his wife and son.
“We should get more involved with the community here so they can know more about us,” Halawany said, adding there are a lot of myths that need to be dispelled.
When Halawany first came to ISU as a freshman three years ago, he said it was because he had friends attending school who recommended the small Pocatello university.
“They said it was a good university and a good community,” Halawany said.
With a population of just 50,000, Pocatello stood in stark contrast to Halawany’s hometown of Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and home to 3.4 million — or twice the population of the entire state of Idaho.
In addition to getting used to the rural setting, Halawany said he had to adapt to the entirely different culture he encountered. The fact there were several hundred students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait attending ISU made the transition easier.
“Classmates and instructors were really willing to help and get you involved in class,” Halawany recalled about his early experiences at ISU.
He said that open climate of support in the community has changed some in the past two years, and he attributes that to the rise in news coverage about terrorist attacks in the Middle East and a growing suspicion of Muslims in general.
“Two years ago it was better and easier,” Halawany said. “Now it’s getting harder.”
He recalled an incident last year where his wife was shopping at a local grocery store and a man stepped up to her and said, “You’re not welcome here. Go home.”
Halawany said the fact his wife was wearing a hijab to cover her head made her easy to identify as someone from an Arab culture. He said the incident upset her, and she was unable to sleep that night.
However, the ISU student said that incident has now been put to rest.
“Everywhere in the world there are people like that,” Halawany said about the rude behavior.
Halawany said one of the reasons some Arab students have chosen not to return to ISU involves the continued inability to secure rental housing. He said there are several students who are living in motels and hotels because of it.
To combat what he calls myths about Arab students and the Muslim religion, Halawany said he’s hoping to have members of the Saudi Student Association spend more time interacting with Pocatello community members. The association is also planning to have a guest speaker, Saudi professor Dr. Tarig Al-habib, come to the university in December to give a talk on cultural differences.
Halawany was quick to say he has not yet secured the permission of ISU for the guest speaker.
The president of the Saudi Student Association said he has reacted with humor to some of the misconceptions he has seen from non-Arabs in the Pocatello community. For example he said the notion that there are no women who attend the new mosque on South Fifth Avenue has been given life because local newspaper photos inside the mosque only show the room where males pray. The women pray in a separate room.
He said the addition of a new mosque in Pocatello has been welcomed by all Muslim students.
“We like to gather there,” he said. “We like to worship God and feel like we’re home.”
Halawany said the entire Muslim community was touched when the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship visited the mosque last year.
“They made us feel welcome,” he said.
The notion that all Arab students roll around town in sports cars is something that also brought a smile to Halawany’s face.
“Everyone thinks we drive Camaros or Mustangs,” he said with a laugh. “I drive a Ford, and it’s an older one.”
Halawany explained that because American sports cars such as Camaros and Mustangs are much cheaper in the U.S. than in Saudi Arabia, a lot of the students purchase them here and then ship them back to their home country.
“It’s good business,” Halawany said.
The student leader said he realizes some Saudi students struggle with the academic challenges at ISU, and he would like to see his organization work more closely with the university’s administration to develop workshops to help Arab students succeed.
“A program to help with academics might be beneficial,” Halawany said.