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Saudi Arabia and Ada, Ohio, are not only separated by vast expanses of land and ocean, but by vastly different languages, cultures, religions and weather. Yet several intrepid Saudi women managed to make friends, and a home in Ada, learning and growing in the process.

The Saudi women moved here last summer with their children and husbands, who are Saudi prison officers participating in a two-year Prison Management Certificate Program at Ohio Northern University.  

The women faced many fears as they prepared to leave home. Many worried about how their children would adjust to a new school and about their personal safety. They had watched many American TV shows and movies that led them to believe the U.S. harbored an unusually high number of thieves, kidnappers and murderers. Nura Mohammed AlAjalin says her biggest fear was that Americans wouldn’t respect her Muslim faith or her full body covering.

Saying goodbye to extended family, however, proved the most difficult hurdle. “It is typical in Saudi Arabia for families to hold hands together, laugh and cry together, and help each other like strong families,” says Hala Al-Tayyar, the mother of three small children. “Living abroad and losing all these feelings was the hardest part for me, and I am sure for everyone else.”

“These women took a giant leap of faith in coming here,” says Dr. Anne Lippert, ONU’s former vice president for academic affairs. “I have been so impressed by their sophistication, courage and hard work.” Dr. Lippert came out of retirement to help teach the Saudi women the English language and American culture. The experience has had a profound impact on her, challenging her preconceptions about women and the Saudi Arabian culture.

Upon their arrival in Ada, the Saudi women and their children all participated in an English language and American culture program at ONU. Several women elected to continue coursework to refine their English. They participate in class for 20 hours each week, working one-on-one with instructors. In a few short months, many went from knowing little or no English, to becoming conversant in speaking, reading and writing the language.

The ONU instructors and the Saudi women formed friendships, sharing experiences and learning about each others’ customs and cultures. “My teachers are like candles who consume themselves to brighten the lives of others,” says Hala.

Although they feel homesick at times, the Saudi women have adjusted amazingly well to life in Ada. They’ve gained confidence in their ability to adapt and learn. “Nothing is difficult if you have the determination and ambition,” says Nura.