Can you imagine picking up and leaving everything you’ve ever known behind? Well, 25-year-old Fahad Al Aqeel would know a lot more about that than one might think. Al Aqeel is a magical person who charms seemingly everyone he comes in contact with here at Springfield College.
Perhaps it is that glowing way he has about him, or his great sense of fashion that draws people in. Whatever the reason, Al Aqeel is the kind of person that when you meet him, you are forever changed.
Al Aqeel is originally from Zulfi, a rather touristy city in Saudi Arabia where it is “warm and beautiful,” according to him. Weather, however, is not the only difference Al Aqeel has encountered since he made the decision to come to school in the States. Al Aqeel is a practicing Muslim.
“In my religion we respect women. So, I cannot do to women what I can do to my guy friends. I can punch my guy friends and stuff like that, but girls have to be respected. They have more rights than men do,” said Al Aqeel.
Where Al Aqeel comes from, everything is separated by gender. Schools, stores, even hospitals are becoming separated by gender, because in his culture women are treated with the utmost respect.
During our interview, Fahad told me, “This is bad in my religion [speaking to me]. In my country if a woman approached me and said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ I’d have to say, ‘I am sorry, I can’t speak with you; it is against my religion.’”
Coming to the United States to study, Al Aqeel realized he was in for quite a cultural shock, to say the least. He chose to leave his father, a retired soldier, his mother, a retired teacher, and everything he has even known behind to get his education at Springfield College.
“I miss my family. I call my mother and father every day,” he said.
He finds some comfort in the fact that he is not alone here in the States. His big brother is married and living in Colorado with his wife, and his two sisters and his other brother are living in Texas because Fahad’s oldest sister is seeking breast cancer treatment there.
Al Aqeel ended up at Springfield College after a friend, Rakan Almahmoud, told him how awesome the school was. Almahmoud and Al Aqeel had met the summer before Almahmoud started school here and became quite close.
“Fahad was preparing for his job and I was preparing to come here,” recalled Almahmoud.
Al Aqeel had graduated from high school and landed a job at an oil factory. He told Almahmoud that if things with his job didn’t work out that he would come to school at Springfield College with him.
As it turned out, Al Aqeel disliked his job and chose to come to Springfield College and study in the Health Service
Administration major. He was assigned to live in the Lakeside residence hall with his roommate, Dylan Kessler.
Kessler, being half-Jewish, was a tad apprehensive about living with Al Aqeel, a practicing Muslim. However, the two hit it off almost instantly and after a little prodding and some time, Al Aqeel began to break out of his shell and do things with Kessler and his friends.
“He fit right in. He sticks to his traditions though, he prays five times a day in Arabic and does what he is supposed to do,” Kessler said.
For Al Aqeel, being a part of Kessler’s friend group meant accepting the fact that Kessler’s friend, Chelsea Ammerman, was going to be around quite a lot.
“Chelsea was a big issue at first because she would always come over and hang out and he doesn’t talk to women, so he had no idea.
Like at home he can’t talk to women so here if he saw them out and about he would deal with them, but never really chat with them. So when Chelsea was over he wouldn’t start conversation with her, but if she asked him something he would answer,” explained Kessler.
Kessler said that he could tell Al Aqeel desperately wanted to be Ammerman’s friend, but he would never say it. He would just call her a sister. Al Aqeel explained to me that his issue with Ammerman was due to the fact that she was a female.
“I like her personality. I didn’t find it, until now, in any of the guys here. If she were not a girl she would be my best friend. She is like my sister here,” said Al Aqeel.
Going to school here, Al Aqeel had to learn how to interact with women because things are much different than they are at home. There are no male and female clerks at the store, he has female professors and he’s forced to speak with women every day here – it is inevitable. Al Aqeel has come to terms with the way our culture is.
“This is kind of breaking the rules, but no one is perfect. I break rules every day, but I pray and ask God to forgive me. Sometimes I have to break the rules,” he said.
Al Aqeel will tell anyone who asks that he is not a good Muslim by any means, but he tries to be.
“I knew before I came here that it was a different culture. Many of my friends came here and we saw it in movies. We studied about everything,” said Al Aqeel. “I trust myself. I said come on Fahad let’s do it. I know it’s a different culture, but am I going to whine and be like I miss home? No.”
Al Aqeel handles all the little hurdles with a smile on his face because he firmly believes that everything happens for a reason. He told me that he stays true to who he is and what he knows because, “if I lose my step I will lose myself.”
It’d be easy to say that Al Aqeel’s everyday challenges end there, but that is not the case. He explained how much he loves when people ask about his culture and about him in general. However, early on Al Aqeel learned that people weren’t so open to the cultural differences and tended to shy away from him because he is different.
“It is hard with different language and culture because no one knows it, so no one wants to be close to you,” Al Aqeel said.
He has this underlying feeling that because he is from Saudi Arabia no one really cares. It is hard to own up to the truth in that statement because we hold ourselves to a higher standard at Springfield College. We are supposed to be one big family, and we are, but families have their struggles, and intermingling cultures is definitely a struggle here.
Kessler pointed out that this divide stems mostly from a language barrier and shyness. People that know and love Al Aqeel are the people like Chelsea Ammerman, who weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions and get to know him.
It is so important to make people feel at home and comfortable, and it is also such a great learning experience for everyone. Everyone that has come in contact with Al Aqeel will tell you how much he or she has learned from him. He enriches people’s lives and has helped people grow and understand the world in a different light.
In fact, when Al Aqeel went home for Christmas he brought back gifts for all of his friends in an effort to teach them about his culture and who he is. Ammerman said he brought her a burka.
“I think that he did it because he wanted to show me what women look like there. As soon as I put it on he said, ‘There, beautiful.’ But not in that kind of way, he wasn’t attracted, but purely saw me as beautiful like a flower,” she said.
He also brought back Shumagh’s for his guy friends and a Koran in English for Kessler.
“I was confused at first as to why he brought me that until I realized that the Koran means more to him than anything in the world; that’s his No. 1 and he wanted to share his favorite thing in the world with me. I was so honored that he brought me that,” said Kessler.
Al Aqeel realized that Kessler loved to read and he wanted him to read the Koran and make use of it, whereas if he brought him a Shumagh he realized Kessler would never use it.
This level of observation is the norm for Al Aqeel. He is the kind of person that notices the little things about people. Just the other night, Al Aqeel called a group of 20 people together for pizza and a surprise.
Well, when he arrived all 20 people were more than excited to see him. Four pizzas and an hour of laughs later, Al Aqeel finally was ready to tell us why we were there.
He went over to his backpack and began to present little gag gifts to all of his closest friends, starting with the men. The gifts had real thought behind them and proved that Al Aqeel paid attention to who his friends truly are. When it was time for the women to receive their gifts Al Aqeel said, “I know girls like the little things.”
All the girls received watches in all different colors. I was presented with a beautiful red watch. Al Aqeel had only seen my room a few times and was able to pick up on red being my favorite color.
All these gifts and kind gestures require more than a thank you.
However, Al Aqeel hates to be thanked. He doesn’t like compliments and he would rather us not say thank you. So I have learned to say, “Fahad, thank you, but not thank you,” because he will accept that without much complaint.
At the end of the day Al Aqeel is the glue that holds it all together. He is that friend that people can depend on and put their trust in.
“I’m sure in Fahad and everything I want to do I ask Fahad to give me his opinion before I do it,” said Almahmoud.
Fahad Al Aqeel has taken the massive divide between different cultures and mended it in a way that only he could with his attention to detail and true thoughtfulness for people. His light shines so brightly at Springfield College, and similar to many of the international students, everyone should really take the time to get to know him.