By Anna Lawson
When Fares Al Huraibi was driving to the airport in Saudi Arabia in May of 2013 he felt like he was missing a piece of himself. He had been planning his move to the United States for some time, but leaving his family, especially his mother, was no easy task for the 20-year-old.
He nervously boarded his flight and landed 32 hours later at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The first thing he noticed when flying into the U.S. was how green it was.
“Everything was so brown in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Here everything was green. It seemed so much more alive.”
Fares was full of hope and, even though this was four years ago, that hope stays with him today. However, since that time he has seen some harsh realities in the land he calls home.
Between 2014 and 2015, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose from 16.3 percent to 22.2 percent, according to the FBI’s hate crime statistics report. Mark Potok, who works at the Southern Poverty Law Center said this is the highest the number has been since 2001, according to a CNN article.
In 2016 the number of hate groups rose to 917 from 892 in 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Anti-Muslim hate groups rose from 34 to 101 last year as well. All of this happened while now-President Donald Trump was running for office and began employing what some saw as anti-Muslim rhetoric. The number of anti-Muslim hate groups since Trump launched his campaign has tripled, according to the SPLC.
Since in office he has proposed a travel ban that would not allow travel from six predominantly Muslim countries. Omar Ghani, the Executive Director of the Lexington Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, believes many Muslim people feel uncomfortable in the U.S.
“Islam is sort of seen as something foreign to America,” he said. “It’s sort of on the other side of the world, and there are some people who believe that’s where it belongs.”
Fares and his brother, Abdullah, grew up in Jeddah, which has a population of 4.2 million people. They lived in a large house with a front yard in a diverse neighborhood. Their neighbor was Christian and invited them over to celebrate Christmas every year, although they are Muslim.
Even though the two were born and raised in Saudi Arabia, their nationality is Yemeni. Both their parents lived in Yemen, and they were never able to get it changed to Saudi Arabian.
Growing up, the brothers felt they were discriminated against because they were Yemeni. Every nationality other than Saudi Arabian is discriminated against, even though they were born Saudi Arabia.
They are both very close with their mother, Shadia. Their father, Abdulhameed, worked through most of their childhood.
Fares said he didn’t blame his dad for not being around, rather he was proud of him for supporting the family.
“My dad was a workaholic, but I know he was trying to do his best,” he said. “I barely remember him when I was a child. But I don’t blame him, I respect him.”
Fares said what he was lacking from his father he received from his mother. She quit her job to raise Fares, Abdullah, and their siblings.
“My mother is everything,” he said.
Fares and Abdullah grew up watching American movies. Their favorite character was James Bond, but they always wanted to watch Disney movies.
“I didn’t get to watch a lot of Disney shows,” Abdullah said. “But when I did I would be really happy.”
Abdullah also listened to a lot of American music. Growing up he would listen to Linkin Park. His favorites today are Metallica and Guns N’ Roses.
Fares and Abdullah, along with their older brother, Muhammad, and younger sister, Tomi, had grown up with American media all around them. However, at the time the U.S. was just a far off place their dad visited for business.
The Middle East looked at the U.S. as a place of racism and discrimination, according to Abdullah. Around the world, many Muslims do not feel respected by Western civilizations, according to a recent Gallup poll. The same poll found that 52 percent of Americans agree that the U.S. does not respect Muslim societies.
Fares’ parents were excited when Fares decided to go to the U.S. for school, however, they were also scared of the violence that would be around him. They were not only concerned about the Islamophobia in the country, but also gang violence.
In order for Fares to study in the U.S., he had to undergo a long process. To apply for a student visa, Fares and later his brother, Abdullah, had to start about six months ahead of time. The application consists of paperwork and interviews that tend to be thorough and extremely detailed. Each year the brothers have to reapply for their visas and return home for around six months because their visas only last for a year.
After this initial process, Fares came to the U.S. for the first time. When he walked outside he was surprised to see that the U.S. wasn’t all he expected. Fare’s first impression of the U.S. was cold. In Saudi Arabia, the people were more generous and helpful, he said.
“At home, if you ask someone for help anyone will help you,” he said. “I could stop anyone on the street and they would give me money. People don’t help you in America.”
However, he decided to stay positive and try to learn more about the American culture.
“It really was like what you see in the movies,” he said. “I wasn’t as scared as I had been. I was hopeful”
Fares’ first stop was New Haven, Connecticut. He attended the ELS Language center there. This center deals with mainly young adults who come to the U.S. for school. They teach the students English and in some cases help them find colleges after they graduate from the program.
Asha Kansal, the academic director at ELS, worked at the center as a senior instructor when Fares, and later, Abdullah, attended. She said the brothers were unlike most of the students she taught from the Middle East.
“Sometimes the students we get from the Middle East are a little bit quieter,” she said. “Right away they seemed a little bit more open to the diversity and they interacted with the other students in our classroom.”
She said it was easy to speak with Fares and connect with him immediately, as he seemed more aware of American culture.
Kansal said the brothers enjoyed the freedom that the U.S. brought. She said many of the Saudi students enjoy being on their own for the first time.
Kansal, who works with Middle Easterners every day, said the travel ban proposed by President Trump left her feeling sad that her president doesn’t feel the same way she does.
“I was heartbroken,” she said. “We have a President who is so closed-minded. I deal with people from the Middle East for so many years, every day, I see the beauty in their culture and in their hearts.”
Kansal blames the Islamophobia in the U.S. on a lack of exposure.
“They just don’t understand their culture and why they’re different, so they just lead it with hatred or disrespect,” she said.
While Fares and Abdullah didn’t experience discrimination while in New Haven or Bowling Green, it is something that they read about every day.
About a year after Fares came to the U.S., he had finished at the ELS school. It was now time for his younger brother, Abdullah to come.
When the 17-year-old first got off the plane he was scared and overwhelmed. He was greeted by a huge line at the immigration office, filled with people from many countries. It was more diversity than he had ever encountered and while it was something he never saw before, he became hopeful. Abdullah is generally a nervous person. However, at this moment he decided he would push those fears away and dive into American culture.
“As a starting point I just didn’t want to be nervous anymore,” he said.
However, one thing did make him nervous when he came the United States: guns.
“I haven’t seen anyone holding a gun in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Abdullah didn’t know what to expect when he came to the U.S. All he knew about the U.S. was what he saw in movies he watched as a kid. He was expecting to see grass and green everywhere when he arrived. However, it was late January and he was greeted with snow and ice.
“When I got out of the airport my face froze,” he said. “I had never had this feeling before. It was the coldest most shocking day ever for me. I had never seen snow before.”
In New York, the brothers thought most of the people were very rude.
“Nobody talks, nobody talks to you,” Abdullah said.
Abdullah attended the same English center his brother did. While doing this the two lived in a motel for about two months with some friends. They met some eccentric characters. They lived in between a woman selling crack and a prostitute.
Kansal said Abdullah did just as well as Fares at the ELS school. She said he was curious and excited to dive into the American culture. She connected with him right away and they quickly became friends as well as teacher and student.
For the first few months in the U.S. Abdullah missed his family.
“At first it was really bad,” he said. “I was never used to leaving my family. I missed them so much.”
Fares and Abdullah struggled to meet people when they first arrived in Connecticut. It was easier for them to make friends back in Saudi Arabia. They said they felt that Americans judged them for being from the Middle East and Muslims.
“They think you’re not going to be an awesome friend, ‘You can’t comprehend whatever I’m saying, whatever joke I’ll be telling,’” he said. “That’s the boundary with the international community.”
Fares said Americans only look at the differences between them.
“They think we’re not going to dress like them, or we’re not going to party the same way,” he said. “They think it’s a cultural barrier that’s stopping us both from enjoying the life of college.”
Fares said coming to America was not only about achieving a goal but also to become part of the community and learn about the culture.
Abdullah said he thought he wouldn’t need any friends in the United States. However, when he got here he felt like he had no one.
“It was shocking because I had no one to talk to and nothing to do,” he said.
When he was in Connecticut he decided he decided to try to become friends with everyone he met. He eventually made friendships and still has them today.
Kansal said she noticed how personable and friendly Abdullah and his brother were.
“I just remember how easy it was to talk to them,” she said. “I just felt like I could talk to them at an even level; we were just equals.”
When Abdullah first came to the U.S. his English was a little shaky and he struggled in the English program in New Haven.
“Even when I went to the English course at first it was really hard,” he said. “Everybody knew how to write, and I had never written anything.”
Despite these hardships, Kansal said Abdullah was very active from the start. While other students would be shy when they first came to the program, Abdullah was excited and willing to learn.
The brothers applied at Western Kentucky University in 2015. They chose WKU because of the college town that surrounds it. Bowling Green, with a population of around 60,000 people, was the perfect change for the brothers. They were looking for a small town.
By May of 2015 Fares and Abdullah found their way to Bowling Green, he stayed in a hotel for two weeks then moved into Pearce Ford Tower and began taking classes. Fares decided to major in political science and international relations, and Abdullah in mechanical engineering. There are about 450 students from Saudi Arabia at WKU, according to the International Student Office.
In Bowling Green, Abdullah said he wanted to learn more about Americans and U.S. culture. He said people in Bowling Green were more friendly than he expected.
“Here everybody talks to you, even if they don’t know you they say ‘hi,’” he said. “I was surprised.”
When Abdullah went into his fist class at WKU it wasn’t at all what he expected. When he walked into the room he was shocked by how small it was. He was expecting a large lecture hall with over 200 people, but he walked into a small classroom of about 20 students. People were not very friendly to him in the class.
Abdullah said he has acclimated to the classes at WKU pretty well. However, he did struggle quite a bit with English. He was the only foreign student in the class.
“Everyone was taking it easy except me,” he said. “To me, the teacher was just killing me.”
He said he worked really hard in the class, but struggled throughout the whole semester.
However, during this time Abdullah met one of his first friends at the WKU, Michael Nelson. Nelson is friends with both Abdullah and Fares. He met Abdullah in 2015 when he was trying to sell his car. While the sale didn’t work out, the friendship did. Abdullah and Nelson, who is from Louisville, play soccer together.
“If someone does something bad to him he’ll still try to be positive and be nice back to the person,” he said. “He never takes his anger out on someone; he never retaliates.”
Before meeting Fares and Abdullah, Nelson grew up in Louisville and went to a diverse high school.
“I know some people on campus only hang out with their own people, but I think thanks to my background I was a little more open,” he said.
Nelson has noticed the physical divide on WKU’s campus between U.S. students and Middle Eastern students.
“You got a lot of people who come from more strict backgrounds, and they’re just not comfortable meeting different people,” he said. “That’s just kind of how it is.”
While the WKU international student office does not believe there is a cultural divide on campus, they do believe WKU can always keep striving to promote understanding and tolerance.
“Unfortunately, racism exists towards many different groups across the U.S.,” said Ashley Givan, an International student adviser. “However, Bowling Green is generally a welcoming city for international students and residents.”
Nelson got Abdullah a job at the library in Gary Ransdell Hall.
“I talked to my boss, I said ‘Hey, you should check this guy out, he’s a good guy, if you like me, you should like him too.’”
Nelson considers both Abdullah and Fares among his closest friends on campus.
“We’re the types of guys who see positives and negatives in everybody,” Nelson said. “We are pretty open-minded.”
Nelson said Fares is one of the most generous friends he has.
“He’s so kind-hearted, he’ll pay for you if you need it and doesn’t ask for money back,” he said. “He’s selfless, he’ll do whatever it takes to help someone.”
Abdullah and Fares have visited their family a few times since they’ve been studying in the U.S. However, Abdullah said the first time he went back home he felt different and much more mature.
“I got so bored, I wanted to go back,” he said. “I did nothing. At some point when you don’t study and do nothing, I guess you just miss it. I’m not a nerd but it’s about accomplishing something in your life.”
The brothers now share an apartment five minutes from WKU’s campus. With just a couch, chair and table in the living room, the apartment might seem a little bleak. However, it’s for a good reason.
“He chew’s up everything,” Fares said, as his 6-month-old schnauzer named Korbel jumped into his lap.
However, while the living room is bleak, the bedrooms are lined with tapestries. The bedrooms have a much more personal touch, with posters of their favorite bands hung up on the walls.
“Recently I’ve been listening to Pink Floyd; I really like them,” Abdullah said.
After living together their whole lives, Fares and Abdullah think it’s nice having one another as a little piece of home here with them in the U.S.
“It’s always nice knowing that someone is supporting you if you fall down,” he said
However, even though they have each other they still miss their family back home. With the time difference, it is hard to find times to speak with them. They try to speak with them every week.
They go back and visit from time to time. However, their parents have never visited, and they haven’t expressed interest in coming anytime soon. Fares thinks they will come when he graduates.
Outside of the classroom Abdullah plays soccer and has recently started rock climbing. Fares isn’t into that as much.
“No, he’s afraid of heights,” Abdullah said.
While the brothers love their life in the U.S. they can’t ignore the headlines they read in the news every day.
On January 27, President Trump signed an executive order that banned citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from the U.S. for 90 days. Huge protests broke out around the U.S. and a judge temporarily blocked the order. A new travel ban was announced at the beginning of March temporarily that blocked foreign nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from the U.S. However, it was blocked by US District Court Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii. The ban is still blocked and could remain blocked for weeks to come.
This ban would have affected Fares and Abdullah because, even though they’ve never been in Yemen, they’re Yemeni and their passports reflect that.
Fares said he agrees with some of President Trump’s policies. However, not his ideas about banning people from the Middle East. Abdullah said he wants to be able to leave and come back to the United States in the future.
“His decisions affect me,” he said. “I want to be able to come back to the United States.”
Abdullah said he has noticed a change in people’s attitudes since President Trump has been in office.
“They think we’re just terrorists,” he said. “People throw racist jokes and bricks at houses.”
Abdullah said while he doesn’t feel like he is directly discriminated against, he is certain it happens in the U.S. He said it is less about skin color and more about religion.
“I know that for sure,” he said. “It’s not that they hate the skin color, they hate religion.”
While these things haven’t directly happened to Fares or Abdullah it is still affecting them.
“I feel comfortable here, I just want to be sure I can come back,” Abdullah said. “If I don’t this would all be a waste.”
Omar Ghani, the Executive Director of the Lexington Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, said he sees two large issues between Islamic-American relations. The first is that Muslims are not always seen as being part of the American fabric. The second is that knowledge about Islam is not very prevalent in the U.S.
Ghani blames this on a large misunderstanding in which Muslims are viewed as being extremely different from Americans. However, this isn’t the case. He feels it is difficult for people from the Middle East who are coming to the U.S. to feel accepted due in part to President Trump.
“They are starting a new chapter and are coming to this country where the president is saying you’re not welcome here or we’re not trusting you,” Ghani said. “This travel ban, I really think it took away the idea of a home for a lot of people.You’re being viewed like you could be a potential criminal.”
Ghani said even though the travel ban has been blocked, for the time being, it gave people permission to act out against Middle Eastern.
“I think for many people this travel ban is sort of an indication for Islamophobia,” he said.
The brothers said they’ve seen many articles and blogs online saying racist things toward Muslims. However, this just makes them work harder.
Abdullah said he wants to prove himself to his American peers. He said there is a stereotype about Middle Easterners that they are lazy and don’t know English. He works hard in class because he doesn’t want to miss his opportunity.
They say that even though there have been some tough times in the U.S. they never regret coming.
“Even if it was really bad at one point, it is still an experience,” he said.
Currently, Fares and Abdullah are focused on graduating and traveling after getting their degrees.
Each week they call their parents updating them on their life. Recently, they discussed when Fares and Abdullah would be coming back. Abdullah told them soon and asked if they needed anything brought back.
Their parents said that they were doing well, and they were just looking forward to their return.