At Home in Idaho
Safe, friendly community offers welcoming environment to U of I’s Saudi Arabian and Muslim students.
Mohammed Allehyani knew that Moscow, Idaho, would be small.
Just how small was perhaps hard for him to anticipate.
With a population of around 24,000, you could put about 84 Moscows inside Allehyani’s home city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia — which boasts a population of more than 2 million, plus the millions of pilgrims who come annually to the holy city.
“When I first got to the United States, I came to Washington, D.C.,” Allehyani said. “After that, I went to New York for five days. And then I flew all the way to Seattle, and stayed there for 45 minutes. I got off my flight to Moscow, and I was shocked. We knew that it was a small city. We didn’t imagine it was as small as we saw it.”
But it’s exactly Moscow’s size that makes the city so appealing for Allehyani, and the many other Muslim students who come to the University of Idaho (U of I) each year.
Coming to Moscow
Allehyani came to the United States in October 2011. He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Umm al-Qura University (UQU) in Mecca in 2010, and worked for three months for an electricity company in Saudi Arabia. He then accepted a teaching assistant position at University of Tabuk. The university gave him a scholarship to complete his master’s and doctoral degree, after which he will return to teach.
Allehyani heard about the Palouse — an agricultural region that consists of north-central Idaho and eastern Washington — from another professor who was originally from Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Washington. He recommended the electrical engineering programs at WSU and U of I to Allehyani and his colleague and childhood friend Husam Samkari.
Allehyani and Samkari applied to the English language program at WSU and came to the U.S. together. While attending WSU, Allehyani became familiar with the work of U of I electrical engineering professor Brian Johnson. The friends both applied to U of I’s master’s program in electrical engineering and were accepted at the same time.
“Mohammed is an active member of a vibrant international community we have in the College of Engineering,” said Johnson, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Endowed Chair in Power Engineering. “Mohammed hopes to focus his doctorate research on integrating renewable energy sources into the power grid — something that has great potential for his home country of Saudi Arabia.”
During his master’s study at U of I, Allehyani published two papers as an author and a co-author. In June 2016, Allehyani and Samkari defended their master’s theses. In fall 2016, they will begin their doctoral programs.
“I was very happy to be accepted to the doctoral program,” Samkari said. “We were magically accepted together.”
A Place for Families
In 2014, Allehyani got married and brought his wife, Rawan, to Moscow. Last year, they welcomed their daughter, Shahad.
Samkari was also recently married, and the two families often spend time together.
The University of Idaho offers a strong community for Muslim students, and Moscow is a safe and welcoming place for families of all backgrounds.
“We like having all kinds of people here,” said Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert.
“Moscow has really been a perfect place for my family. It’s very safe. That’s the most important thing.”Mohammed Allehyani
Lambert has lived in Moscow for nearly 40 years. He moved to the city to manage a grocery store, and the town’s friendly atmosphere and strong community convinced him to stay.
Now, his own children are adults with families, and also have chosen to stay in Moscow.
“One of the reasons I stayed here is that I wanted my two sons to be exposed to the diversity that the university has to offer,” Lambert said. His children still treasure the friendships they made with children from other countries while attending one of Moscow’s many public schools.
The University of Idaho draws hundreds of international students, along with visiting faculty, to Moscow each year from about 80 countries. Many students bring their families with them, or get married and have children during their time as students at U of I.
All first-year students are required to live on campus, and the university offers apartment-style housing for married students and those with children. The apartments are conveniently located on campus, within walking distance to shopping and downtown. U of I’s Children’s Center offers on-campus childcare for students.
“Moscow has really been a perfect place for my family,” Allehyani said. “It’s very safe. That’s the most important thing.”
“I think a person could be as safe here in Moscow, Idaho, as anywhere in the country,” Lambert said.
Allehyani’s wife said she also enjoys the city, and spends time walking with her daughter among the dozens of parks in Moscow. In the fall, Shahad will begin attending the Children’s Center as Rawan begins taking courses to complete her bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
Maged Mohammed, a doctoral student in traffic engineering, agreed that Moscow is very safe. Originally from Libya, Mohammed received his bachelor’s from Benghazi University before receiving his master’s from U of I. He returned to U of I in 2013 to complete his doctorate. With him are his wife and two children, ages 5 and 4.
“I love the community. They are so friendly,” Mohammed said. “It is safe for my family. The school itself is also really good, compared to a lot of schools in the United States, especially in traffic engineering.”
U of I’s International Programs Office (IPO) goes above and beyond to make all international students feel comfortable and at home at U of I.
Tammi Johnson, director of International Student, Scholar and Faculty Services, is the university’s primary designated school official and has worked at the university for 16 years. She helps students with paperwork, filing documentation with the Saudi Arabia Cultural Mission, and helping students connect with the resources they need to be successful.
She also becomes something of a stand-in mom for the students, whom she warmly calls “my kids.”
Most international students start out in IPO’s American Language and Culture Program, an intensive English language-learning program to help them get ready for academic study in the U.S. IPO also offers a thorough orientation program for all its international students.
“They did a great job on the orientation. I imagined it was like being a kid going to the kindergarten,” Allehyani said. “I really appreciated that. It really helped me with everything. Even the police were there. We asked them some questions. It was very helpful. It helped us adjust ourselves so we can focus on just the studying.”
In addition to helping students master English, IPO helps them learn U.S. culture and share their own by connecting them with American students and organizing cultural events. The annual Cruise the World event showcases all of the countries represented at U of I, and students share their food, art and music with the community.
IPO’s Friendship Families program connects individual students with U of I employees and community members for one-on-one interaction. U of I’s President Chuck Staben and his wife, Dr. Mary Beth Staben, participate in Friendship Families.
“Mary Beth and I get to know students from all over the world, including the Middle East,” Staben said. “It’s a firsthand look at what U of I does well, and where it can improve. And we build relationships that are important and long-lasting.”
IPO has events geared toward Muslim students, such as an all-women’s swim time at the U of I Swim Center, and an all-women’s tea. The swim features female lifeguards and all female staff. No men are allowed to enter the facility during the event, which is held every other Sunday.
“It offers a nice comfortable place for women, and they don’t have to cover,” Johnson said. It’s also open to community members and male children younger than 8, so moms can enjoy time with their children and get to know other women.
U of I also has a strong Muslim community. Ahmed Abdel-Rahim, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of U of I’s National Institute for Advanced Transportation Technology program, has been the advisor for the Muslim Student Association (MSA) for the past 10 years.
Originally from Egypt, Abdel-Rahim has worked at U of I for 16 years. He helps the MSA organize activities, as well as advises students with any struggles they may be having adjusting to life in Moscow. The group has anywhere from 30 to 80 members, depending on the year, with members joining from a variety of Muslim countries.
“We work with the Dean of Students Office and with the university president and IPO to really improve processes and make the U of I a very welcoming place for Muslim students,” Abdel-Rahim said.
Libyan student Mohammed is a member of the MSA. He says the group works to educate the community about Islam, though most people are very accepting.
“We believe that the Moscow community is very welcoming to international students in general. We haven’t had a significant number of the types of complaints that may exist in some other places. We have very, very few incidents here.”
state also is supportive of the Muslim community — Abdel-Rahim says he receives frequent contact from the Idaho State Attorney General’s Office, which reaches out to make sure students are aware of their rights and protections and what they should do if they feel they have been the victim of discrimination.
Muslim students in Moscow can worship at the Islamic Center of Moscow or in Pullman at the Pullman Islamic Center. As students request it, Abdel-Rahim said the group has also worked with the university to designate spaces on campus for Muslim students to pray. Alice’s Room — a designated meditation space in the Idaho Commons — is also available for prayer.
The Moscow and Pullman Muslim communities often come together for celebrations, such as at the Eid Al-Fitr event marking the end of Ramadan. Staben was honored to attend the event in July, and makes an effort to be available for a variety of community celebrations.
“As U of I's president and a parent, I believe we should be treating these students just as we'd want our children to be treated if they were studying in another country.”University of Idaho President Chuck Staben
“Attending the Eid Al-Fitr celebration was an opportunity to experience diversity but also show solidarity with and respect for a major world religion,” he said. “The Palouse is filled with opportunities for people from all cultures and backgrounds to feel like a part of the community.”
U of I also has an active Saudi student group. Samkari is vice president of the organization, which launched an Arabic language class last year to teach U of I students and employees more about the culture. The group will continue to offer the hour-a-week course this fall.
As a member of the club, Samkari attended a dinner for international student leaders at the Staben’s home.
“He cares about international students,” Samkari said. “He’s a very good guy.”
“In getting to know students like Husam, I’ve realized that these young people aren’t so different from my own kids,” Staben said. “It’s so important that they feel at home here. As U of I's president and a parent, I believe we should be treating these students just as we’d want our children to be treated if they were studying in another country.”
The student group also celebrates Saudi National Day, participates in Cruise the World and offers community for the families of U of I’s Saudi students.
A New Home
For Allehyani and his family, all of these resources and activities add up to one thing: Moscow has become like home.
“The different countries, different cultures — everyone is very open,” he said. “I’ve had lots of people asking me about my culture. They’re very interested. I’m really happy to answer any questions.”
The community is part of what convinced Allehyani to stay on at U of I for his doctorate. He visited several other schools around the U.S. before deciding to stay.
“I went to Virginia Tech, and I really liked the university, but I felt like, ‘No, I want to stay in Moscow,’” he said. “I went to Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t like the city. The people were very friendly, but it was a noisy, big city. I went to Chicago. I finally realized, no, really, why should I change? I feel safe, comfortable, I like the professor. Why should I move?”
His family feels the same, he said: “My wife was begging, ‘Don’t move. We want to stay here.’ I’ve been here for almost three years, and I really feel home. I have nothing to worry about.”
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications & Marketing