Saudi students message: 'Peace in the world is possible'

by: Chase Allgood,

By Nancy Townsley

of the news-times

On the eve of Saudi Arabia's National Day, about 90 people gathered last Wednesday at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ to check in with 30 Saudi students enrolled in classes at Pacific University.

Five of the students, who have been in town for about nine months, came to the microphone and spoke - in English - about different aspects of Saudi culture, from the educational system to religion and women's roles.

'Peace in the world is possible, even though we have different faiths,' said Ahmad Al Sihayih. 'The Qu'ran says, 'If God had willed, he could have made you all of one nation.'

On Sept. 23, 1932, the students' homeland was named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an Islamic state, with Arabic designated as the national language and the Qur'an as its constitution.

'Islam grants religious freedom to all,' said Al Sihayih.

The reception and dinner were hosted by the Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy and the Center for Women and Gender Equity.

'We are all fellow travelers through life, and we're glad you're here,' said Marc Marenco, director of the institute, who moderated the two-hour session.

Pacific President Phil Creighton and Hillsboro Police Chief Ron Louie added their welcomes as well.

'I hope your learning is going well,' said Creighton, noting that the students had arrived at Pacific last January to attend the campus English Learning Institute.

For one night, however, the students became teachers, providing a crash course in Saudi Arabian life and the Muslim faith. Among the highlighted facts:

• There are 27 million people in Saudi Arabia, with 4.2 million living in Riyadh, the capital city, according to Abdullah Al Salman.

• A pilgrimage to Mecca, a city of 1.3 million, is one of the requirements of Islam, the national religion, he said.

• Ramadan, Islam's highest holy observance, was due to begin this year on Sept. 25, said student Nawaf Al Sabhan. 'Muslims fast during daylight hours during Ramadan in celebration of God's generosity,' he added.

• Although Muslim women are expected to dress modestly after age nine, wearing a head covering (a hijab) and a long robe (an abayah), 'women are also pilots, doctors, teachers, reporters and lawyers,' noted Wadeeah Al Shawi. 'I am comfortable in my hijab,' she said.

• There is 'some segregation' of men and women in Saudi culture, with both genders worshiping in the same mosque but in different areas, Al Shawi said.

• Most marriages are arranged by parents or other family members, and families often live in extended groups.

• Public education, which is free in Saudi Arabia, is 'valued by the government,' Hussaid Alhashem, who is studying psychology at Pacific. 'College and university students pay no tuition, and they receive a $300 monthly stipend from the government,' he said.

Thirty years ago, Alhashem said, Saudi Arabia 'was still developing its public education system.' In 1970, there were 7,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions - today, there are 200,000.