It isn’t just about the money. It is also about the stories.
“Oh, gosh! You’re the first Saudi person I’ve ever talked to in my life,” a middle-aged American tells me on election night. Under the garish billboards of Times Square, I search her face for a sense of judgment or fear. Not this time, thankfully. “You’ve probably talked to many,” I calmly respond, “but you didn’t realize it.”
Having these conversations is critical at this time. But also scary.
The FBI has reported a surge in hateful attacks against Muslim-Americans in the last week since Donald Trump was officially appointed as the Leader of the Free World. Just days before that, on Halloween, a Saudi student was brutally killed in Wisconsin, outside of a pizzeria. Currently, Saudi students represent the fourth-largest group of international students at U.S. universities. Not only do they contribute significantly to the college towns in which they tend to reside, but they also offer huge benefits to the U.S. economy as a whole. The tuition for foreign students is almost triple that of in-state, so that is significant money. In addition to paying rent and utility bills, many of these students also tend to dine at restaurants, watch movies at the theater, purchase cars and go on shopping sprees—all money that would be lost in local economies.
With Islamophobia and anti-Saudi sentiments echoed by many U.S. politicians at an all-time high, that could mean that we might experience the lowest dip in Saudi students in the US since the current scholarship system was introduced in 2005. That slash in funding could be detrimental to the communities which populate the Saudi students, but also widen the gap of misunderstanding between the two countries. If we aren’t around to offer authentic Saudi voices in an American classroom speaking about the Middle East, we could risk abandoning decades of cultural exchange between the nations. Some incoming foreign students are already reporting fears of enrolling in Trump’s America, citing hateful language that has been spewed their way. If missing out on intellectual conversations isn’t enough of a reason to be worried, losing the slice of Saudi tuition money should.
The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been allies for half a century. During that time, regular Saudis became fluent in U.S. pop culture, but that transaction seemed to be unidirectional. Since America is 240 years old and Saudi just celebrated 86 years, there is an age gap as well as a cultural one. Most Americans I meet focus on what Saudi lacks: Human rights, arts and sports facilities, freedom of speech and other things. In contrast, most Saudis focus on what America has: The opposite of that.
Like many New York transplants, I’ve long focused on where I’m going rather than where I came from. But when you live in the U.S. and come from a place as politically-loaded as Saudi Arabia, it is evident that almost any conversation becomes political. This election cycle shows us that we should, as residents of America, aim to toggle between our identities and vocalize our journeys. Otherwise, voices—that may not represent our voice—will speak on our behalf.
It’s not just about 09/11 or 11/08. People in the U.S. need to realize that Saudis aren’t all mythical characters from a faraway galaxy, where veiled women are chained to keyboards and aggressive men randomly swing swords over body parts for fun. Education is power and not everything will be taught in a classroom. Sometimes, we learn more just by having a discussion, like the one I have with that stranger in a congested midtown Manhattan street.
“You made me realize that Saudis are human,” an American security guard told me last night. Opening up about my Saudi-ness during this political climate is not always a comfortable thing. But it seems even more uncomfortable to not have these talks at all.
It is clear that President-elect Trump doesn’t have the same fondness for the Saudi ruling family as some previous presidents. But like when parents fight, the children tend to suffer the most. Classrooms in the U.S. teaching world geography, economics or history will risk becoming even more divided, or worse—silent. We need students from all backgrounds to enrich the conversation. That way, we all learn.