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Most Arab students stay put

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As America prepares to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, some students of Arab origin who attend Utah schools are choosing to return home, but the majority are staying, college officials say.

As of Thursday, 22 students from the University of Utah and 10 from Weber State University had dropped their studies to return to the Middle East, but others in institutions of higher education across the state are apparently staying.

Some 40,000 college students from Arab countries enrolled at American institutions are facing tough "stay-or-go" decisions. Many families, fearing their students face discrimination or retaliation in the United States, are pressuring them to come home. Fears that the Arab students could be stranded in this country in the event of all-out war add to the concerns.

The New York Times News Service described the dilemma for foreign students at Washington State University in Pullman:

"Every day at 6 a.m. my mom is calling me," said Hisham Taha, a freshman from Beirut who is studying electrical engineering. "She is crying: 'Please come home. It will be safer for you in Lebanon than in Pullman.' "

But for now, Taha has decided to stay. To which his mother pleads, "Just don't go outside then."

Khaled Karash, a Washington State sophomore in business marketing, gets similar calls from his mother in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. "She's watching TV every day," Karash said, "and she says: 'It's just not safe. Why take a chance?' "

Karash is leaving for home this weekend.

The same emotional debate is going on in Utah. The 22 students who left the U. this week represent about a tenth of the contingent of Arab students at the Salt Lake school. Deseret News efforts to contact members of the student Muslim organization were unsuccessful.

The 10 students who left Weber State apparently were responding to suggestions by the embassy for the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C., that they go home, said Diann Stewart, director of services for international students at the Ogden school. Others, including students from Pakistan and Bangladesh, have chosen, at least for the moment, to stay here, she said. WSU has about 40 students from Arabic countries, studying in a variety of fields such as computer science, engineering and health sciences, she said.

Students from the UAE countries are sponsored by their governments and may feel more obliged to respond to pressure from their embassy than those who have private resources, said U. Dean of Students J. Stayner Landward. The departing students at both the U. and WSU expect to return next spring. They must do so to keep their student visas intact, Stewart said.

At Utah State University, which has a large contingent of international students (more than 1,050), "Not a single one has reported they are leaving," said Pat Terrell, vice president for student services.

Terrell credits "a supportive community in Cache Valley" for the decisions students are making to continue their studies at USU while the tense international situation sorts itself out.

Enoc Florez, director of International Affairs at Brigham Young University, said Thursday he has talked to "most of the students from Arab countries" and "they feel comfortable to stay here." BYU has some 30 to 35 students from Arabic countries, he said. There have been no campus incidents indicating a sense of retaliation against those who are believed to have perpetrated the attacks on America and "absolutely no indication" that any of the Middle Eastern students anticipate leaving prematurely.

Hoping to encourage Arab students to remain on campus, most universities are taking extra steps to see that these students feel safe and welcome. A few isolated incidents of hostility have been reported — "mostly just comments," said WSU's Stewart.

At the U., "minor incidents, no injuries" have been dealt with, said Landward. The university is capitalizing on a well-attended and emotional candlelight service, held soon after the attacks, to discourage any negative acts, he said. Buttons sporting a candle and warning "zero tolerance for intolerance" are being worn by many faculty, staff and students. Large posters with the same motto and an expanded message that the U. administration and student association are united against any evidence of anti-Arab antagonism are posted strategically across the campus.

Use of hate language or harassment are clear violations of campus policy and can result in "educational efforts" or suspension if they rise to that standard, Landward said.

"It is my observation, actually, that our students are going out of their way to smile and reach out to our Arab students," he said.


E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com