Arab nation students find rare freedoms, surreal change of pace from life or death conditions

August 22, 2012

Asma Al-SammarraieLisle, Illinois ~ Asma Al-Sammarraie is a personable 20-year-old woman pursuing a medical degree. The slender, unassuming articulate student is outspoken about health care and women’s rights. However, she is also street smart and knows what she says during discussions in America might very well get her killed in her home country of Iraq.

 “Back home you fear for your life a lot because you are different from the others. And everyone is different back home. You will always find people that consider you their enemy and might attack you, hurt you,” said Al-Sammarraie, who is a participant in the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) at Benedictine University – one of only six U.S. universities to host this program, which is aimed at training students as leaders to advance social reforms in the Middle East and North Africa.

During mid-summer, Benedictine hosted 22 students from the Middle East and North Africa for an intensive program of leadership training and civic responsibility in a democratic society. They partnered with Benedictine students in classes aimed at providing opportunities to explore issues related to democracy, leadership and American culture, said Carol Swett, assistant to the Provost for intercultural education at Benedictine.

Al-Sammarraie copes daily with the potential of violence toward her by being savvy with whom she communicates and how she communicates.


“You try to steer clear of turbulent waters. You try not to pick quarrels with other people.” she said. “Be a bit open minded and acceptable toward other people even though they might not be as acceptable of your ideas. You might find a lot of them unhappy with who you are. It’s not the way it is in the United States. Everyone accepts other people for who they are and they never try to enforce their own beliefs.”


However, MEPI participant Najma Koursi, 21, of Tunisia, was quick to challenge Al-Sammarraie’s utopian view of America.


“You are saying it like it was heaven here. What I saw was that people here did not want health care for other people. It’s not heaven here as people think it is,” said Koursi, who added that Tunisia provides free health care for all its citizens. “Not great health insurance but it’s health insurance. Since we like each other, we don’t want each other to be dead or sick,” Koursi said.


The zealous discourse between MEPI participants is a reflection of the deep political opinions each brings with her from countries steeped in division and revolution. It also demonstrates the freedom each feels to openly express opinions while in America – a freedom that is nonexistent or precarious in their home countries. The brief but respectful disagreement between MEPI students reflects the same sense of divisive politics present in the United States – perhaps minus the respectful part.


The well-informed students were aware of the dissention between Republicans and Democrats and President Barack Obama’s administration and Republican leaders. Students used this knowledge to put into context the turmoil and positive change in their regions as a process – saying that even in America, not all people are treated equally and fairly.


“Actually, it’s not really equal (within the United States).” “I heard that President Obama was giving a speech, and someone shouted ‘It’s a lie!,’” said Karim Saade, 22, of Qatar, who believes the rude gesture was because of racial inequality. “Even all around the states they are still looking for people with black skin to be scientists or professors…I don’t think that black and white are really equal.”


The person who shouted was South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (R) who yelled out "You lie!" during Obama’s 2009 speech to Congress on the universal health care law, which was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Though the interjection was largely condemned by both parties as disrespectful, it helped set the tone for the current toxic relations between the president and opposing parties in America and has trickled down to its citizens. Thus, the distinctions between the revolutionary views and happenings in MEPI students’ home regions and the daily politics in America have a jarring commonality – albeit America being spared the large-scale violence prone in many of their home regions.


A mixture of both religion and ethnicity creates a volatile situation on a daily basis in many Middle Eastern and African countries. The lack of freedoms for women in these regions and the stark contrast in America is brightly illuminated for MEPI students at Benedictine.


MEPI 07-06-12 (60)“Here (in the United States) there are less restrictions. Restrictions are a big problem back home in Iraq,” said Safa At-Tai, 23. “Ladies do not have the same freedoms as men. It is not OK for us to go out at night or go out alone…we need to have an escort with us – a father, a brother, an uncle.”


Even though it has been nearly six years since the fall and execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, At-Tai said as far as the restrictions on women being lifted, “It needs time. We need to make people more aware of (needed) freedom but when Iraq becomes more safe, freedom will come back, so we need time.”


Maram Elmhashhash, 20, of Libya, agreed that not much has changed since Libya experienced a revolution in 2010.


“I can’t say we are seeing a real change because it is still early to judge,” said Elmhashhash, who was very disappointed she did not have the funding to travel to Washington, D.C., to vote in the July elections for Libya’s first elected government since deposed tyrant Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi came to power in 1969.


“These elections are the ones that are going to rebuild the country. The people who we are electing now are going to write the constitution of Libya and rebuild the country. The process of the change is still going. We can’t really judge and say that a huge change has happened. The change that has happened was taking down the tyrant, which was the most essential. Taking him down was the best thing that has ever happened to my country but we still need more. We need stability, security and to fix all the things that have been broken in his era,” Elmhashhash said.


Haid Faqihi, 23, of Saudi Arabia, was encouraged by what he viewed as largely positive change in the Arab regions.


“On the (Saudi Arabian) government side there is still not that much change, but on the social side we are turning from a very closed and conservative society to getting to understand the people coming from different regions and different religious groups. This is a huge change. Now, with the social media that enables us to experience our opinions in a way that if you tried to experience it four years ago you would end up in jail. People now can say whatever with their real names,” said Faqihi, who was part of one of the first groups to start blogging in Saudi Arabia and saw some of his friends go to prison for the views they expressed online.


However, a female MEPI student was quick to remind Faqihi that women are still not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Both agreed just having the discussion without fear of reprisal was a positive step.


Revolution within the Middle East has not seen a seamless transition to democratic rule, particularly in countries like Egypt and Yemen, which held elections but continue to endure public outcry over its new leaders’ policies.


“After the revolution, we have this temporary government and they’re not doing well and they are not achieving what they promised,” said Marwan Al-Magedi of Yemen. “Now the people are depressed and it’s about to be messed up everywhere. No one can trust anyone.”


Additionally, the regime and rebel fighting in Syria is creating dangers and instability for neighbors like Lebanon, which accused Syria on July 23 of violating its territory when a blast and shelling from Syria hit a home and villages along the shared northern border.


The Syrian situation threatens to exacerbate poor living conditions for many in Lebanon, which already experiences electrical shortages in its rural regions and is seeing its promising scholars leave the country for opportunities abroad, said Zalpha Hoballah, 22, of Lebanon.


“Sadly, what the media does not present, is that a lot of people are suffering from a lot of problems. They are deprived from their basic rights. One of the major problems is that we don’t have electricity (consistently in all regions). Some people don’t get to learn at school,” Hoballah said.


Although the MEPI students at Benedictine learn how to be future leaders, they also learn about American culture and how to distinguish reality from preconceived notions while helping dispel negative stereotypes of people from their regions. Negative views of Muslims have intensified since the 9/11 attacks on America when many collectively branded Arabs and particularly Muslims as terrorists – something MEPI students say is also perpetuated in Hollywood movies and TV shows.


Some students said Westerners seem to believe Arabs or Muslims live in tents with camels in the dessert. To combat these untruths, students suggested improving communication between American and Middle East youth and increasing the number of study abroad opportunities for American students to the Middle East and North Africa.


“We just need to talk. We need to talk with each other as teenagers, as students, because we are the future,” said Jordanian Essa Bataibeh, 20, an architecture student.


Not only has the MEPI program at Benedictine allowed students the opportunity to freely discuss ideas and learn leadership skills that will enhance their careers and hopefully provide an impetus for positive change in their homelands, it also has given natives of Arab nations who live on the border of one another ironically a first opportunity to engage one another. Many Arab nations have a cultural divide that limits interaction.


“This program makes me delighted. Actually, I am sad and happy at the same time,” Bataibeh said. We live in the Middle East and North Africa and we are so close to each other – we speak the same language, a lot of us are the same religion, but our countries do not give us the opportunity to meet.”



Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission ( For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, or visit

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