When they first began attending Marietta College, several female Muslim students there said students were standoffish and the community members were at times hostile.
But in the aftermath of recent media attention to a third Muslim student transferring from the college, they say ignorance has turned to curiosity, opening the door for better relations with both.
Now, community members and college students say the experiences of the women can be used to foster more understanding and tolerance throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley.
When 19-year-old Kuwaiti student Hawraa Kamal arrived at Marietta in the fall for her freshman year as a petroleum engineering student, she was not the first Muslim student on campus. But she was immediately noticed.
“We were the first ones to wear hijabs. Everyone was shocked,” said Kamal of herself and fellow freshman Eiman AlAbdullah.
Wearing the hijab, a veil which covers Kamal’s hair, is a gesture of modesty encouraged by her Islamic faith, she said. But Kamal felt her fellow students, and even more so some community members, were standoffish because of her dress.
In a fall semester chemistry lab, Kamal could not find anyone to partner with her.
“They didn’t want to work with us. The chemistry class, they were looking at me like I was a stranger,” she said.
Kamal dropped the class and considered transferring to a bigger, more diverse university as the other female Muslim student had recently done.
Instead, she and some other female Muslim students shared their experiences with “The Marcolian,” the college’s student newspaper.
The article spread like wildfire through campus, social media and the local community. The reaction, said Kamal and others, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s changed a lot. After the article, I had a lot of people text and email me. They wanted to ask me about Islam,” she said.
Robert Pastoor, the college’s vice president of student life, said the article was an eye-opening experience for the college and its residents.
“I think the unknown is sometimes scary and sometimes it’s difficult for our American students to start these conversations. And it’s difficult for our Muslim students to strike up these conversations,” he said.
The willingness of Kamal and classmates to speak up generated an opportunity to open that dialogue on campus, he said.
Richard Danford, Marietta College’s vice president of diversity and inclusion agreed.
“Because of this, other people have engaged with (the Muslim students) in positive ways. This has given the students a level of confidence that they belong here,” he said.
The college has also began looking for ways to provide more food and housing options for Islamic students, said Pastoor. For example, the college started serving Halal food in its campus dining hall within the last month, he said.
If the experiences of incoming petroleum engineering student Rana Al-Homoud are any indication, the campus atmosphere has certainly changed.
Al-Homoud is from Saudi Arabia and wears an abaya-a floor-length cloak-in addition to her head covering. Despite that, she has felt no discrimination on campus, she said.
“I feel the people here are normal. Some want to learn my language or try my food,” said Al-Homoud, 19, who started at Marietta College this semester and has only been in the community for around a month.
Any negativity Al-Homoud has experienced has come from off campus, she said. One day while standing in line at McDonald’s a man ordering food with a young boy cursed at her.
“He mouthed something. And I said ‘Excuse me. I didn’t hear you.’ He said, ‘F– you,'” she recalled.
Kamal told the student newspaper she faced a similar harrowing experience when she arrived on campus in the fall.
While walking downtown, a man got out of a nearby car, approached Kamal and wordlessly held a cross in front off her before returning to his car.
Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said individuals should report instances of harassment or intimidation to local law enforcement.
“I would suggest to anyone who feels like they are being harassed or intimidated call their law enforcement agency. I can’t speak for everyone, but from what I know about law enforcement in this area, there are not any departments that are going to tolerate actions like that,” he said.
Fatma Alostath, who spent three semesters at Marietta before transferring to the University of Dayton, told the student newspaper she made the decision partly because of the closed-minded community here.
“People are racist here,” Alostath told “The Marcolian” about Marietta.
Though Kamal considered transferring as well, the new campus attitude toward openness and inquisitiveness has changed her mind, she said.
AlAbdullah also remained on campus this semester, said Kamal.
And Al-Homoud stressed that incidents like that McDonalds’ one are isolated. For the most part, the community has been welcoming. Still, students are hoping the dialogue that has been so successful on campus will spread into the community.
In some ways it has, said Kathryn Hawbaker, minister at The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta.
Hawbaker heard about the incident on the news and it became a discussion point for her congregation, she said.
“Even in our community, we have to remind ourselves it’s easy to have misconceptions. We have to actively educate ourselves,” she said.
Many, Al-Homoud included, think the instances of hostility in the community are isolated and rare-the exceptions rather than the rule.
For the most part, the Mid-Ohio Valley is an accepting place for people of other cultures, said Bhajan Saluja, who owns Enviro-Tank Clean, Inc. in Belpre and often travels to the area from his home in Charleston, W.Va.
Saluja, a practicing Sikh who moved from India to attend West Virginia University in 1967, said he has never had a bad experience while in town on business.
Saluja wears a turban and beard-traditional for Sikh men-but does not feel like he has ever been treated differently because of his appearance.
“My experience within the U.S. has been very gratifying, very satisfying. My wife feels the same way,” he said.
In fact, the only ones who tend to notice Saluja is dressed slightly differently are curious youngsters.
“It’s typically very easy for me to talk to kids. I wave at them, say ‘How are you doing?’ They get so happy,” he said.
Marietta resident Kevin Paskawych, 32, said he thinks that while Marietta tends to be an inclusive place, communities can always benefit by education.
“How to do that is debatable. It could be introducing it to school kids, maybe having a diversity week in school and talking about…different cultures,” he said.
Paskawych was a student at Marietta College when the 9-11 terror attacks occurred and recalled the Kuwaiti students on campus at the time being spit at and harassed.
Kamal and Al-Homoud said they believe that things like the 9-11 attacks and portrayals of Muslims in films contribute toward people’s negative feeling toward Muslims.
In an effort to help others understand their religion and spread a message of peace and love, the two recently participated in a event in campus handing out roses.
The women say they want others to know they understand and respect all beliefs.
“One of the students was asking, ‘Do you hate us?’ People might think Islam is a (hateful) religion because of September 11 and the Taliban. They think Islam told them to do that,” said Al-Homoud.
“We would never agree with something that will hurt someone else,” added Kamal.
The students say they appreciate the inquisitiveness about their religion and culture.
Said Al-Homoud, who previously spent some time living in Portland, “What I like here: In Portland, people already knew everything. Here in Marietta, people stop and ask. They want to learn.”