Middle Eastern Students Ask, Is Idaho State Safe?

Crimes reported against Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian students have the university reeling.

April 15, 2016

About 50 Idaho State University students from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have reported that their homes have been burglarized over a period of several weeks, leading some to contemplate transferring and jeopardizing the university's flow of students from the Middle East. In some cases hateful messages were left behind in the students' homes, according to a letter the university president, Arthur C. Vailas, sent Wednesday.

Vailas noted in his letter that the home invasions follow the vandalism last summer of 17 vehicles, some of which belonged to international students. The president said that allegations of physical violence targeting Kuwaiti and Saudi students have not been verified or reported to the Pocatello, Idaho, police department.

"As we can all imagine, home invasions invoke fear, sadness, anger and bewilderment," wrote Vailas, who said that police are investigating the burglaries, all of which occurred off-campus. "Our hearts go out to these affected students as well as their peers, who worry that they may be next. These students are far away from home and family and have chosen to attend Idaho State University for its reputation for high-quality educational programs in a safe environment. As a result of these crimes, some of our students are seriously considering leaving ISU and Pocatello. This would be a devastating loss for our community and would earn us an undeserved reputation for discrimination, bias and racism."

The New York Times published an article last month on issues of discrimination and other tensions at Idaho State and the isolated city of Pocatello resulting from the rapid growth in students from the Middle East.

Idaho State hosts more than 1,000 students from the Middle East, including 587 from Kuwait and 542 from Saudi Arabia, the top two countries from which its international students come.

Patricia S. Terrell, Idaho State's vice president for student affairs, said the university is supporting its students from the Middle East in multiple ways. "We are meeting with them, asking them their perspective on what assistance and support they need," she said. "We have offered extended time for exams and tests for these students: clearly at this point in time it’s difficult for them to focus on their studies when they are fearful that their home may be broken into. We are also asking others in our community to speak up in support of our students to let them know they are valued members of our community and we want them to stay."

She continued: "We have offered escorts for any of our students who would like to be escorted; we have encouraged our students to sit down with our public safety officials here on campus to discuss additional measures to enhance their safety and security. We have had a tremendously positive response from the email the president sent out [Wednesday] evening, people writing us, calling us, asking what can we do. We’ve had people volunteer to sit or stand in front of these students’ homes."

Students have also reported receiving hateful messages on their car windshields. Seraj Almutawa, a junior from Saudi Arabia studying communication and advertising, shared images of two such messages he said Saudi students had received, including one that read, "Learn how to drive or go back to your land of camels -- raghead Muslims!"

Almutawa said that many students from the Middle East are frustrated by the lack of solutions from the police and the university. He estimated that about 70 percent of Kuwaiti and Saudi students plan to transfer. In addition to the safety concerns he said that some students feel they are being discriminated against by professors who peg them as would-be cheaters. (This problem -- of Middle Eastern students feeling that they are being broadly tarred as cheaters based on the actions of some students from the region -- was also reported in The New York Times article.)

Personally, Almutawa said, he is happy with his professors. But the quality of his program isn't enough to keep him in Pocatello at this point. He's considering transferring and has applied to three other universities.

“I cannot feel safe here," he said. "I wake up at 2 a.m. I go to check my windows because it’s not safe anymore. They come to our houses."

"I’m happy with my professors, I’m happy with my department, but I'm not happy with my university. We don’t see any reaction. We don’t see any answers," Almutawa said.

The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, which sponsors many Saudi students in the United States through a generous government-funded foreign scholarship program, has sent a letter offering to assist Idaho State students who wish to transfer to other institutions. University officials met earlier this week with representatives from the Saudi mission and plan to meet with representatives of the Kuwaiti government, which also sponsors students, next week.

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