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MAJORITY OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDENTS WHO LEFT SCHOOL AFTER SEPT. 11 HAVE RETURNED TO CAMPUS

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, computer science major Omran Al-Qallat was more than a little concerned.

It wasn't just his family he worried about, though his mother, aunt and little sister were visiting from his native Kuwait and would eventually be delayed a week in returning home when air travel was shut down. Al-Qallat's wife and daughter were overseas, waiting for their travel paperwork to come through so they could rejoin him in Norfolk.

As news stories flooded the American media in the aftermath of the attacks, Al-Qallat began to fear for his own safety. He heard on the news about an Egyptian restaurateur who was attacked by an angry mob in a major American city. Then the windows of the Islamic Center mosque across the street from campus were pelted with rocks. Local news broadcasts he watched also were chilling.

"It was kind of funny," he said. "They asked what is the top-selling product in the U.S. right now - flags, guns and televisions. I was worried that someone might shoot me and think he was doing something good for his country."

It didn't take Al-Qallat long to come to a decision.

He, along with 23 other Old Dominion students from Middle Eastern countries - many from Kuwait - withdrew from classes shortly after the attacks, citing uncertainty about remaining in the United States at such a volatile time. While all of the students were reassured by university officials that Old Dominion would do everything possible to ensure their safety, for many, family concerns won out.

Two siblings, whose father was killed in the Gulf War in the early 1990s, were called home to Kuwait by their mother because of concern for their safety.

Now, with the situation somewhat stabilized in the United States, all but two of the students who left in the wake of Sept. 11 have returned to classes for the spring semester. Al-Qallat is back to the books for his third-year of study in computer science, but thoughts of the attacks remain fresh.

When he left, he noted that Scott King, director of international student and scholar services, "was a little bit sad at first," Al-Qallat recalled. "There was nothing going on. 'Why should we leave,' he said. But he said do whatever you must and send me an e-mail to let me know what's going on with you. He was understanding and helpful."

Another Kuwaiti student, Shaker Al-Foudari, left the country Sept. 26 with his wife and four children after his wife was harassed while driving around Norfolk following the attacks. When they learned of the ethnic profiling incident, staff members from the Office of International Programs, including international student adviser Sara Eser, contacted the family to ask if there was anything they could do for them.

"Sara told my wife that if she wanted to go to the mall she would [organize] a group of American students to go with her to help her feel safe," Al-Foudari recalled.

"When they knew I was going, they felt sorry," he said. "But they didn't want anything to happen to us. They understood."

Other Kuwaiti students, like Yousuf Al-Hendal, chose to remain in Norfolk and in classes. He briefly thought about leaving, taking his wife and three children back home, but chose not to because he said he did not sense any danger. Among his fellow students in mechanical engineering technology, he found understanding rather than animosity.

"They know that not all Muslims agree with the [terrorists]," Al-Hendal said. "We don't think they are [true] Muslims, anyway."

Added Al-Foudari, "We were shocked when we heard that it was a group of Muslims who did this. It's not part of the religion to hurt anybody, especially if they are innocent or not at war. It's terrible."

In Norfolk after the attacks, Al-Hendal said he did not feel threatened at any time. "My American friends are still my friends," he said. "Everything's cool."

When Al-Qallat went home in September, his friends and neighbors were curious. Do you live near New York, they asked. Is it safe for you in America? There was a time, he admitted, when he wasn't so sure. But after checking in with Scott King and other friends in Norfolk, and finding that his options to study elsewhere were limited, Al-Qallat determined it was safe to return. His family knew he was making the right decision.

"Everybody understands this is my future," he said. "I have to graduate from Old Dominion."

Upon his return to America, however, Al-Qallat got a taste of how things would be different post-Sept. 11. Airport security was high on his return flight to Norfolk, and baggage screeners and metal detectors were out in force.

"People were different, but in a good way," Al-Qallat said. "They were delaying everyone. I felt very normal and happy about that. If I'm not doing anything wrong, what do I have to worry about?"

King said he is pleased that so many of the students who left are now back on campus. "I'm sure a big part of the reason that they came back is that they were treated so well by all the offices they worked with here," he noted.

This article was posted on: February 11, 2002

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