Saudi Arabian student finds new perspective in the U.S.

Ammar Alruwaili, 26, is a social butterfly. Having been an introvert most of his life in Saudi Arabia, he felt like he was ready to come out of his shell. Moving to America gave him that platform. Today, the WKU accounting senior can easily strike up a conversation with a stranger at a library or a restaurant. “I found freedom here,” he said. 

With a smile on his face, a backpack around his shoulders and a coffee cup in his hand, Ammar Alruwaili sat down in the science fiction aisle of Barnes and Noble. As he thumbed through George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” he said he has the liberty to read whatever he wants in America.

“I like being in this country,” Alruwaili, now a senior accounting major, said. “When I came here, I found freedom.”

Alruwaili, 26, traveled to the United States in June 2011 from Saudi Arabia. What started out as a step to receive a degree from a foreign university turned into a voyage of self-discovery, self-identity and social freedom.

Life in Saudi Arabia was “normal” for Alruwaili. He would hang out with friends, go to family dinner meetings and walk to the nearest mosque for prayers with his siblings. His life was simple, but there was a sense of unknown he said that he had within.

“I felt lost,” he said.

After completing high school, Alruwaili said he was not sure what he wanted to do. He had no aim in life and said he was not sure what he wanted to go to college for. After nine months of pondering, he finally went out on a limb and decided to move to the U.S.

Because he grew up watching Hollywood movies and shows, Alruwaili said the culture was not a shock to him. In fact, he said he was excited and nervous for what the new journey would bring him.

After being in America for over a year, Alruwaili started school at WKU along with his older brother Yazeed Alruwaili.

He said that his main focus from the get-go was to excel in his academics. He said he would spend hours at the Helm-Cravens library without a break just to get the best grades in his class. As months rolled by, Alruwaili said he started to warm up more and more to American culture.

“I could suddenly think what I want. I could do what I want,” he said. “In Saudi Arabia, I felt separated in the society. I found a kind of freedom.”

Alruwaili’s stark change in attitude and personality surprised his brother Yazeed.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia meant that life had to be led a certain way, Yazeed said. Therefore, people try not to do things that would offend the collective society.

“Because of America’s high levels of social freedom over other countries, Ammar was able to craft an identity for himself,” he said.

Being around the same group of people and doing the same exact things each day made Alruwaili claustrophobic in his regular life, he said. He said he felt like every other person walking the streets of Dammam and that he somehow lacked a sense of uniqueness.

“Before, I would care about myself and my immediate family members,” he said. “Now, I care about everyone no matter their religion, color or gender.”

Alruwaili’s attitude and perception changed to the extent that he was not afraid to mingle with people from cultures other than his own.  

By his second semester, he had found new friends from brand new cultures who appreciated him and his culture.

Whitney Davis Kinslow, 25, was Alruwaili’s first American friend on campus. Kinslow said that from day one, she felt comfortable with him because he was a warm and accepting person.

“Initially, he was very strict on himself and what he would allow himself to do,” Kinslow said. “But, after a while, he started to loosen up, and now he can strike up a conversation with an American person as graciously as he would with a Saudi person.”

As a young child growing up in Saudi Arabia, Alruwaili said he would often wonder why the Mosque elders would emphasize on the “others” being bad and why everyone who was of a different faith was an “infidel.”

He said the idea of not wanting to appreciate people of other cultures was acceptable to him when he lived in Saudi Arabia, but in Bowling Green, he realized people of other cultures are people too.

“They are so nice,” he said. “They should not be going to hell.”

Moving abroad for education helped him find an identity that he feels comfortable with and gain a worldly perspective about the good, the bad and the ugly, he said. Alruwaili said he now practices his understanding of the quote “hurt no one, help everyone.”

“This is much better than me in the past thinking that infidels are bad and everyone who is not like me are bad,” he said.  

International Student Office adviser George Dordoni said international students who come to study in America from vastly different and possibly repressed cultures and sheltered upbringings often change their perceptions of themselves.  

“Some international students would have this feeling of not belonging at home anymore and not fully belonging to the United States either,” he said.

Alruwaili expects to graduate this May. After he graduates, he plans to go back to Saudi Arabia to be with his family. He said being with family is going to make him happy, but adjusting to the societal norms will be difficult.

“By hanging out with like-minded people in Saudi would make that transition much easier,” he said. “I will learn to adapt once again.”  

Features reporter Srijita Chattopadhyay can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected].