The Arab student population has been growing at Western Illinois University in recent years even though Macomb can feel like a completely different world for those coming to WIU from the Middle East.
That was the case for Hashim Al-Rikabi, an international student from Baghdad, Iraq. He learned English from Western’s English as a Second Language program and this spring he will graduate with a Master’s degree in political science.
Al-Rikabi recently started a new student group on campus called Western’s Organization for Arab Students. He said all too often international students end up sequestered from the rest of the community. He hoped the organization will help bridge that gap.
Al-Rikabi said his friends had talked about starting a group for Arab students and felt a sense of urgency following the November election of President Donald Trump.
He said recently a lot of stereotypes have been circulating about Arabs and Muslims. Al-Rikabi wants the community to know more about the Arab culture so they are less likely to believe any negative stereotypes they encounter.
At the group's first meeting in December, Macomb Mayor Mike Inman and WIU President Jack Thomas both encouraged the several dozen people in attendance to speak up if they encounter any negativity.
Al-Rikabi said Macomb has always been welcoming. He said he hopes his group will play a significant role in preserving the diversity at Western.
“A lot of students in the Arab community fear they will face negative attitudes. Up until now we have not had such a negative encounter,” Al-Rikabi said.
He said one of the stereotypes he’s encountered is the belief that all Arabs are Muslims. He said Iraq is home to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and local religious groups only found in his country.
Another misconception is that Arabs hate America and the American culture. He blames the media in part for focusing on violence and creating a fear of interacting with Arabs.
“I think we need to do some work to show them we don’t hate America. We respect them and this is why we came to university to learn from the US and their prestigious universities,” Al-Rikabi said.
Al-Rikabi said Western has worked to attract international students by visiting many Arab countries. He said typically, Arab students like to go to communities where there are other Arab students to help with the potential language barrier they will encounter.
Additionally, he said much of the WIU community has been welcoming to Arab students, “A lot of people when they first meet me, welcome me to the U.S. and ask where I am from. People like to interact with international students, they like to know about our culture and they respect our identity. This is very important to us and I believe one factor why Arabs come here,” Al-Rikabi said.
Al-Rikabi said the Organization for Arab Students plans to host several cultural discussions during the spring semester. Everyone is welcome to attend, although leadership positions within the group are reserved for Arab students.
He said the group will also host volunteer opportunities in the community.