THEY may be living away from their motherland, but the strings of their hearts remain overwhelmingly attached to the country, which embellished them with intrinsic values, and then bid farewell with a filial affection that continues to daunt them away from home.
For Azhar Ibrahim Kurdi, a Saudi student in the US, the challenge of living away from her beloved homeland is exacerbated by how unfairly the Western media portrays her country, attacking it with false stereotypes, exaggerated tales and even worse, nasty labels of a country with “extremism” and “oppressed women”.
Kurdi is determined to unveil the truth, to show the world what lies beneath the portrayals is a beautiful country embedded with rich cultural heritage, Islamic values and warmhearted souls.
She grew up in Madinah, memorized the Qur’an by the age of 15 and then worked as a service manager at Wall Street English before traveling to the US to pursue higher studies in 2013, with strong support from her father. She is currently enrolled in MBA program at the University of San Francisco, School of Management, as part of the 8th stage of King Abdullah Scholarship Program.
Living in San Francisco provided Kurdi a great opportunity to mingle with people from diverse cultures, beliefs and backgrounds. “I gradually noticed that Western media focuses only on the negative and controversial issues about the Kingdom, despite a lack of information. I don’t believe in painting a utopic picture, whether we’re talking about Saudi Arabia or any other country, but I believe my country is awfully misrepresented in the Western world and this issue needed to be addressed,” Kurdi told Saudi Gazette. She added that even though as foreign students, they are trying to remain positive, yet misconceptions about Arabs, especially after the recent terrorist events, have invited negativity.
“They accuse us of intolerance, but I come from the peaceful city of Madinah, where people from different races and diverse backgrounds have been living together in great harmony for decades. I want the world to start seeing Saudi Arabia the way we see it,” she said.
“As a habit that I was taught in my country, I share food with friends sitting around me, which they found a very unusual practice. They were impressed when I explained that this is a norm widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and that we simply can’t eat without sharing,” said Kurdi.
She also engaged in an impactful class discussion about Islamic finance and the “No interest loans”, which drew a lot of interest, especially with regard to the US debt and student loan issues. The professor then researched how Islamic finance works and concluded that the world could have avoided the 2008 financial crisis had they adopted the Islamic financial system.
Such events made Kurdi realize that Saudi Arabia and its Islamic culture are like deep treasures, which need to be extracted and shared with the world.
Last year, Kurdi joined “Saudis in USA”, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 by Saudi students to help and support their colleagues in the United States. She volunteered to work as a social media specialist for the group, which was doing exceptionally well in terms of reaching out to people with more than 220,000 followers on Facebook and 139,000 on Twitter.
And hence, sparked the idea of using social media as a platform to showcase the rich and bright side of Saudi culture. She proposed the idea of “Saudi Insider”, a series of weekly posts that would highlight accurate, interesting and exclusive information about Saudi Arabia, such as harmony across diverse cultures in different parts of the Kingdom, hospitality, traditional arts, modern monuments and other positive aspects of the country that remain untouched by Western media.
“I thought why not use social media as a tool to expand beyond the goal of serving students, and encourage intercultural dialogue by helping our readers share the posts about the rich Saudi culture to the world,” she said.
Her first post on Facebook, which highlighted the culture of Saudi Arabia, received more than 500 “likes” and 180 “shares” within two days and the positive response has made her very optimistic about the outcome of her project.
Kurdi explained that “Saudi Insider” will not discuss political or economic aspects of the Kingdom, but rather on culture, values, customs, celebrations, artists and achievements as a nation. “I simply want to show the world the human side of Saudi Arabia and I hope that this small contribution would create a positive image of our country before the world,” she said.