My Saudi Students Stole My Heart

And seeing their academic dreams ripped apart by geopolitics broke it.

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Source: Nicola Fioravanti / Unsplash

fter nearly two months into my recent “jobcation” away from corporate communications as an English as a second language instructor, three revelations have forced themselves upon me. First: I’ve dearly missed teaching and need to find a way to keep doing it, regardless of where my career takes me next. Second: after ten years back in my home country I still have mad love for Japan, and would dearly love to go back at some point in my life.

And third: the young people of Saudi Arabia are, despite the awfulness of the regime they live under, beautiful human beings.

This third realization was impressed on me this week as my wonderfully keen and engaged ESL students from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were unceremoniously yanked back to their homeland by their government in the aftermath of a diplomatic spat with the Canadian government over the detention of a handful of social activists.

As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal defender of human rights, I in principle support the hard line currently being held by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government. But on a personal level, seeing these bright, with-it, globally engaged young people’s academic hopes and dreams go up in smoke has been heartbreaking to witness. Coupled with the fact that PM Dudley Do-Right was earlier this year in the hot seat for his government’s decision earlier this year to sell more than 900 armoured vehicles to the kingdom made the move seem more than a tad hypocritical.

To be clear, nothing in this article is intended as a defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself. It’s probably safe to say that I will never visit Saudi Arabia given the number of articles to my name on subjects like atheism, bisexuality, and illicit drugs, so I will not mince words about the country’s absolutely reprehensible human rights record. This is a country that executes gays, drug users, nonbelievers, and practitioners of “witchcraft” while amputating hands and feet for robbery and flogging people for drunkenness and “sexual deviance”. Torture, human trafficking, sexual slavery, and gross violations of migrant workers’ rights are widespread. Antisemitic conspiracy theories are routinely promulgated by government media. Women are now permitted to drive cars thanks to a 2017 royal decree, but women’s rights in the KSA are otherwise appalling.

And yet, my Saudi students, male and female alike, succeeded in making me forget all that by being thoroughly wonderful human beings, and in the process made me feel awful for prejudging them at the outset of the class. The presence of these students from a country most of us love to hate in my classroom had my hackles on high alert from the first day of class, but I immediately found my preconceptions soften once I started to get to know them. The gregariousness, genteel manners, and keen sense of humour were not things I was expecting from citizens of one of the world’s most repressive countries, nor was their frank dislike for the geriatric religious zealots who rule their homeland with an iron fist.

Saudi Arabia, it would appear, is not one country but two — two diametrically opposed societies at odds with one another. On the one hand, the royal family and the religious police still exert near-absolute control over the KSA’s citizenry, and this situation shows little if any sign of changing anytime soon. Coexisting with this repression, however, is an extremely young country consisting of some of the world’s most social media-savvy people. Saudis account for an astonishing nine percent of the world’s Snapchat users and command an outsize presence on almost all other social media platforms, including YouTube, which hosts a lively Saudi vlogging scene. The Saudi youth are also consummate foodies with a thriving food truck scene — yet another sign that the KSA’s youth are a bunch of hipsters at heart.

And then there’s the dirty little secret that few if any Saudi would ever admit in public: a full quarter of its citizens, according to some apparently reliable data, are not even religious. In fact it would appear that a full nine percent of Saudis, when asked by way of anonymous phone interviews, claim to be atheist. Assuming this is the case, this means that one out of every four Saudi students enrolled at the University of Alberta’s ESL program is irreligious (a capital crime in their homeland), a statistic that is surely higher given that the young tend to be less religious. It’s one thing to dislike one’s government but still, in principle, believe in the repressive religious doctrine that underpins it. This, however, seems to be a beacon of hope that his odious regime has an expiry date.

Alas, this expiry date was not soon enough to prevent my students from having their Canadian university dreams quashed. No doubt this spat between my government and their will subside sooner rather than later, and that Saudi university students will again be permitted to apply for Canadian student visas. And hopefully these bright, congenial students who left me flummoxed and doubting my previous preconceptions about Saudi people will be permitted to return and resume their studies. Their crestfallen expressions upon hearing of their recall back to the homeland were simply saddening to see. They all had big dreams here — dreams that now lie shattered. Inshallah those dreams will eventually be realized.

These kids are what the world needs. And their student visas are worth fighting for. I hope to see them again soon.

Writer. Teacher. Grammar cop. Distance runner. Historian in the wilderness.

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