Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Like many people in America, Abdul Alshammari has felt isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A student at the University of Dubuque originally from Saudi Arabia, Abdul has found himself separated by the disease from two things that are critically important for him. The first is his family. For many foreign students, new immigration regulations mean that travelling to visit your home country right now will make you unable to return to the U.S. Several of Abdul’s Saudi friends who left to be with family during the crisis are now unable to come back. Abdul has decided to stay in Dubuque, and this will be the third year in a row that he won’t be able to see his family.
The second thing he has been cut off from has been his ability to meet with others, to talk with them face to face. While this isolation is a challenge for most Dubuquers, for Abdul it carried a special importance: it was connecting with other people – making friends and being able to hold simple conversations with strangers – that made Dubuque and the U.S. finally feel like home. When he first came to Dubuque he was reserved and kept to himself. He lacked confidence in his ability to fit in and communicate with other students. It was only when a University of Dubuque professor encouraged him to come to a class and talk about himself and his culture that he realized the relief that comes with being able to share himself with others. Now he is eager to meet new people, to learn about them and to explain something about himself, and to build friendships built upon mutual curiosity and respect.
Abdul’s initial reluctance to share about himself was understandable, as it isn’t easy to be Arab and Muslim in parts of the U.S. In his experience, many Americans get their perspective about Arab people from movies or the media, where people from the Middle East have been largely portrayed as terrorists or extremists. When he first came to the U.S., he arrived in Kentucky to study English, and there he struggled, and at times faced open hostility. He had the police called on him the first time he went to return a rental car. He met numerous close-minded people, some of whom asked if he was related to Osama bin Laden. One time he attended a local church service to try to take in a new experience, and found that everyone thought he had come to argue about religion and convert them to Islam. His time in Kentucky was difficult, and he frequently felt like giving up and going back to Saudi Arabia.
But he understands the prejudices of many of the people he met, because he had a similar mindset when he was living in Saudi Arabia. Abdul believes that there is a lot of misinformation about the U.S. in his home country, especially since he and his friends got much of their information about Americans from movies and the media. For example, he was especially afraid of Black people in the U.S., because in the films he had seen they were so frequently portrayed as drug dealers or criminals. He and his friends bought into those negative stereotypes, and his fears grew into unfounded prejudices.
But it was those two critically important things – his family and connecting directly with others – that helped him break away from his biases. When Abdul shared his fears with his family, his father pushed him to be more open-minded. He reminded Abdul that he knew many Black people in Saudi Arabia, and they were kind and generous. Why would Black people in America be any different? Abdul’s father encouraged him to be welcoming of others, and refused to let him give in to his fears. At the time this made Abdul upset, but now he sees the great wisdom in his father’s words.
But it wasn’t until he began to meet Americans and connect with them personally that Abdul was able to push away his prejudiced ideas. He recalls one of his most humiliating memories from Kentucky, where he was mocked by a staff person at a movie theater for his poor English. As he stood there filled with shame, it was a complete stranger who came up to Abdul, put his arm around him, consoled him, and then introduced him to others as, “My friend, Abdul.” This small gesture meant the world to Abdul, and drove him to try to show the same kindness and openness to others. That stranger has since become his good friend, and they still keep in touch online. Now Abdul is eager to meet people in Dubuque, to learn about them while he shares about himself, and to show them those simple kindnesses that could in reality have a huge impact.
COVID-19 has made all of this more difficult. But that hasn’t dampened Abdul’s enthusiasm for engaging with others. He is waiting for Dubuque to become safe enough again for him to go out with his old friends, and to start making new ones. That’s because Abdul believes that once you are able to sit down with someone and share a real conversation with them, having a different culture, ethnicity, or religion won’t keep you apart, but will only make your relationship stronger and richer.