Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Saudi Students In Ireland



For the past two weeks I have been in Ireland as "English Speaking Adult Support" for a group of young Saudi students of mixed gender, aged between 12 and 22, who were attending English Language Summer School in Dublin.  For some of them this was their first time traveling outside of Saudi Arabia.  One young man proudly showed off his very first passport to me!

There were twelve students in total, divided into two study groups - The Big Boys and The Youngsters.  For one, the eldest, this was his third trip to Ireland for English language so he was also made 'Adult Support' for some of the activities.  He, along with the other six boys, were billeted out into home stay accommodation.  A group of siblings (a brother and two sisters) stayed with relatives who have moved to Ireland while two girls were housed at the UDC campus with the Group Leaders comprised of the Tour Leader (who oversaw everything), her 2IC (who was responsible for ensuring the Homestay experience was going smoothly) and myself.  Rounding out the group was a mother of two of the students and a lady who simply came for a holiday.

It's a hard job being group leader!
The Language Program basically involved classes for half a day and outings to places of interest for the other half, and fun evening activities.  Each weekend there was a bus tour to some other area of Ireland plus a free day where each group could organize its own activity.  Every outing had to have a Language School Leader and a Group Leader.  Because this was my first trip to Ireland, I got to be Group Leader for the week day outings - it meant I did a spot of sight seeing while keeping an eye on the kids and it also meant if they wanted anything they had to speak English because, to date, my command of the Arabic language, sadly, sucks.

All of the group have taken to 'The West' like ducks to water...well, in the first week they did.  Come the second week the thrill was dying off and the drudgery of day to day expectations was settling in, and the stress of dealing with language, food and various other cultural differences was beginning to show.   (All the boys admitted missing their Mums, even the one whose mother was on the trip!)  Week three will no doubt bring a new learning curve for those who have decided to stay for the long haul!

It has been interesting watching these youngsters adapt to, or try to adapt to, their current situation.  The boys seem to have managed better than the girls, probably because they are Home Staying so have to get themselves together.  The girls still think they are at home with mothers, maids and drivers to run round after them and are less than impressed when they're encouraged to organize themselves.

Foreign students enjoying the view at Powercourts gardens.
Having the freedom to interact with each other in gender mixed classes, playing mixed sports and attending mixed activities has, in most cases, been welcomed.  However, the girls in particular have struggled with the affectionate nature of the other nationalities who are also attending English Summer School.  The Russians, Spanish, French and Italians are a loud, fun loving and affectionate bunch of teens.  The Saudi kids were initially perplexed and stand offish from all the mixed gender good morning hugs, cheek kissing and general bantering going around.  Once they made friends with their fellow students the Saudi boys were perfectly happy with how things were panning out.  The Saudi girls, however, became particularly nasty in their verbal attacks about the questionable nature of unrelated females and males who sit next to each other on buses and have a penchant for affectionately greeting gender mixed friends every day!  The tour leader spent a great deal of time that week explaining not only cultural differences but also acceptable responses to cultural differences - and calling European girls bitches because they hug people hello and they choose to sit next to male classmates on a bus is not an acceptable response!

Group trip to Kilmainham Goal.  This is the execution yard!
The other obvious area where Saudi girls did not manage so well, was anything to do with sports or walking in general. Their "Saudi Walk"  a.k.a. 'Creeping Along The Footpath at Saudi Lady Snail Pace Because Time Has No Meaning To Them' was driving the Language School Leaders slightly crazy and many a bus was almost missed while the girls dilly dallied behind everybody else.  Eventually the older boys, who managed to read the annoyance of the Language School Leaders (not to mention the other students also attending the outings) much better than the girls did, deployed themselves to G-up the girls

The school also ran a number of mixed sporting activities on the campus over the course of the program and while the Saudi boys were keen, and happy, to participate, the Saudi girls simply did not want a bar of it.  That was sad because the other students, male and female, were using this time to mix, relax, engage and simply have some fun - and our girls wouldn't even try.   What didn't help the situation was the fact the ladies in charge of this group couldn't be bothered with the sport either.  I mentioned how good it would be if the girls were encouraged to just try the sport - that good old Kiwi 'have a go' attitude.

I clapped my hands when, one night, two of the girls turned up to spectate on a game of rounders.  (The fact they had no choice because their brother was playing and they weren't to go home without him is beside the point).  And I was over the moon when, the following day, one of the girls said she would like to do the swimming - and turned up with her burkini and towel at the pool even though some of our group had spent the morning warning her against the activity.  The fact that I said I would be swimming too made everybody much happier about the whole idea, and we had a lovely hour paddling about.

Dalkey Castle was the best museum visit of the trip.  Very interactive with actors playing various roles.
What was also obvious was the lack of confidence that Saudi students have compared to other nationalities when it comes to putting themselves in front of a crowd, performing simply for enjoyments sake and accepting that mistakes can be laughed off!  Though the group put their name down to perform at the first weeks Talent Show, they pulled out at the crucial moment their name was called, their excuse being lack of practice, though in reality their was some group raruraru (maori word for trouble) where the majority wanted to pull out because their nerve was failing them.  I guess when you come from a society where standing out from the crowd is frowned on, (why else are we all dressed in a black or white uniform and discouraged from expressing excessive emotion in public - even happiness), yet where perfection is the only acceptable standard (even if you have to pay someone else to reach that standard for you), it takes a great deal of courage to throw everything you have been taught to the wind and swim against the tide.

Come the second week four of the boys took to the Karaoke with no problems at all, one of them even doing two solo performances.  He, it is safe to say, is thriving in this environment.  The girls, who I'm guessing have had the concepts of honor and decorum hammered into them from a very young age, simply watched, laughed, criticized and told me how embarrassed they were about the boys performance.  They were the only group, out of all the nationalities present, where the girls did not take to the stage for the group performance.


While the kids were in class I was free to do my own thing which, as you can imagine, involved beer and pubs, along with a museum or two, the art gallery, some chamber music concerts, cycling and watching Riverdance.  On weekends I did a bit of touring with whoever was not on duty or the Tour Leader and I would go and spend a bit of quality time with The Big Boys who were living and studying on the outskirts of Dublin, down the coast.

Though there were a few issues with the students (nothing major - things like sleeping in, missing the occasional bus, not wanting to go to class, not wanting to visit another museum, wanting to go to the movies almost every day, a rather late night for two of the blokes and not enjoying the rules of their home stay parents), there were a number of good things the group brought with them.  They had a great deal of respect for the two female tour leaders and the one English Speaking Adult Support.   They discussed everything they saw and heard with each other and the women leading the tour - no question or comment was too small or inconsequential, no act went unreported, and discussions were loud and lively.  When out as a group they looked out for each other and you could see the fabric of Saudi society in the way the older boys would watch out for the girls and younger students, and the girls would boss the older boys - well, they'd boss them to a point before the boys put them in their place.

And they ate, everywhere.  It was almost impossible to pass a cafe, ice-cream shop or restaurant without one, or all of them, disappearing inside to buy food!  Yes, I had an interesting two weeks with a group of Saudi students in Ireland, and I'm fairly certain that, as they become more comfortable here and as the boys especially begin to push the boundaries, things are going to get even more interesting!



Ka Kite,
Kiwi





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