Archive for Saturday, September 22, 2001

Growing number of Mideastern students leaving

September 22, 2001

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— A small but growing number of Middle Eastern students are withdrawing from U.S. colleges and returning home some to comfort worried parents on the far side of the globe, others to flee an environment they fear is turning hostile to young foreigners.

At American University here, 32 students mostly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrew this week. About 25 left the University of Missouri, and about 24 from North Africa or Arab states have left the University of Colorado at Denver.

Many other universities report only a few foreign students leaving; some report none at all. But the departures have raised concerns for college officials who take pride in nurturing safe and diverse campuses.

Many foreign students, meanwhile, are debating whether to go, weighing the pleadings of their parents against a desire to keep their studies on track, ever mindful of reports of harassment and violence against Muslim and Arab students across the United States.

Ibrahim Alhammadi, 19, a freshman chemical engineering student at Missouri, said he will fly home Sunday to the United Arab Emirates.

He made friends with many of his American classmates and had always felt safe. But now he's frightened by the stories about attacks on Muslims elsewhere, he said, and his grades are starting to suffer. Last weekend, he joined other Muslims for a vigil at a local mosque and was upset to hear passersby yell, "Terrorists!"

"It's not like in the past, where I can do what I want, go where I want," Alhammadi said. "I am not in a good mood to study here."

In the days since the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, universities have rushed to respond to students' fears by holding vigils and public forums, while also offering support and protection.

The number of students withdrawing represents a fraction of the nearly 40,000 students from the Middle East and other Arab states studying in the United States. Some universities with significant foreign populations have had no withdrawals.

Those that have lost students may be suffering from a domino effect, said Jeanne Hind, director of the Spring International Language Center in Denver, which has lost almost all of its dozen or so Middle Eastern students.

"I think panic sets in," Hind said. "One family calls their children home, and another one thinks, 'Maybe they know something.' "

Officials at colleges where Middle Eastern students have left are quick to say that few of those students have experienced threats or harassment on campus. At American University, many of the departing are graduate students who lived off-campus with spouses and children and feared for their safety, said Fanta Aw, director of international student services.

"Many were very sad to leave," Aw said. "I cannot tell you the number who said, 'I don't want to leave; the only future I have is if I have my degree.' "

Julia Rose, director of international student affairs at Western Illinois University, has received phone calls from concerned parents in Korea, Brazil and Japan, in addition to those in Arab states. "Mothers are worried, and they want their children with them," she said.

Students and university officials have been barraged by conflicting advice. According to a Reuters report, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwaiti governments are taking steps to fly their students home. Students sponsored by oil companies, though, are being told to stay. Some embassies are urging their students to go to class but keep a low profile.

Most withdrawing students have registered for classes in the spring. But university officials are concerned that heightened security or possible new visa restrictions could make that difficult.

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