Four years ago, Sara Al Balushi wound her long, black hair in a covert bun, tucked it under her hijab and kissed her mother, who was busy with post-breakfast chores, on the cheek before heading into the dry Oman air to begin her school day.
Al Balushi said she likes to reminisce about life in her home country of Oman, where she once chatted in Arabic with her friends along the busy streets of Muscat and shuffled home to tell her parents about the day’s occurrences in Urdu, the national language of her parents’ home country Pakistan. Now, as a senior international business major, Al Balushi said she has little regret about trading her Middle Eastern life for four years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Today, Al Balushi wears her hair in the same hijab-covered bun that she did in Oman. She sits in a U-shaped couch inside the Nebraska Union and watches Starbucks baristas scurry behind the counter wearing coffee-stained aprons. The smell of steamed milk and brewed coffee hangs in the air as she leans back into the leather cushions. She smiles softly and expresses her gratitude for an opportunity to share her experiences.
Al Balushi said she has built a strong attachment to her American college town over the past four years.
As much as she cares for Lincoln, she said her love for Lincoln was a slow burn — like the kahwa coffee grounds that she likes to simmer on the stove in her Omani home. Al Balushi said she and her Omani friends watched American flicks and concluded the faraway city she was going to call home for four years must be identical to New York.
“Back home,” Al Balushi said, “you think America is a dangerous place based on what you see on social media and TV and the news … I was expecting a bigger town. I was shocked.”
Expecting her international flight would touch down in a bustling city with tall skyscrapers and noisy taxi cabs, Al Balushi grabbed her luggage and headed to the airport. There she met another Sara from Oman, Sara Al Huraizi, who became her roommate and one of her closest friends. Al Balushi and Al Huraizi watched clouds float past their window while they found comfort in talking through their nerves and excitement.
The two bonded on the lengthy trip to the U.S. over their similarities: they shared the same first name, lived in the same city and even attended the same high school without ever crossing paths. Now, their lives intersected in an aircraft suspended 30,000 feet in the air on its way to Lincoln.
Al Huraizi sits across from Al Balushi in the Nebraska Union, fully-reclined and exhausted from the exam she says she may have flunked earlier. She fiddles with her coat drawstrings while recalling the past.
“I didn’t really know her; I just sat next to her,” Al Huraizi said. “We both got a scholarship, and the scholarship emailed all of us, and we exchanged our numbers. I didn’t have any impression of her.”
She merely wanted to sit next to Al Balushi on the plane because she didn’t get along with the other girl on the trip, she added with a laugh.
Their lives, marked with long-spent days nestled under the hot Omani sun in their Arabic-speaking high school, might have been mirror images of each other — except Al Balushi’s parents weren’t born in Oman.
Al Balushi was born in Oman and raised by her mother and father, both of whom immigrated to the country from Pakistan. Fifty years ago, her father lived in a territory in Pakistan that was ruled by Oman, making him an official Omani citizen even though he resided north of the Persian Gulf. Her mother, Pakistani by blood and citizenship, stole a glance from Al Balushi’s father while he visited Pakistan 25 years ago. Al Balushi’s father was smitten and asked Al Balushi’s grandmother for her daughter’s hand in marriage. When Al Balushi’s family agreed to the marriage, her parents were wed.
“[Arranged marriage] was traditional 25 years ago,” Al Balushi said. “It’s changing by the time now. People are more open, and they want to choose by themselves … [some people] still have their parents choose their partner.”
Though she knows many who defy the practice by dating in secret without receiving parental approval, Al Balushi names friends of hers who have married men who were barely acquaintances before their wedding night. She winces.
“I don’t think I could do that,” she said.
Al Huraizi nods in agreement.
Like most Omani, Al Balushi speaks Arabic, the national language of Oman. She learned the language when she began grade school but grew up speaking Urdu at home with her Pakistani parents. She has since learned four more languages: Balochi, Hindi, English and German. And some Spanish, Al Balushi added, suddenly remembering her summer abroad in Barcelona. Altogether, Al Balushi speaks, reads or understands seven languages.
Her linguistic love stems from a desire to travel across the world. This unquenchable yearning to sightsee, along with a scholarship, is what she said brought her to the U.S. as a wide-eyed freshman in 2016.
“If I went to the U.S. or U.K. — it didn’t matter,” Al Balushi said. “I just wanted to travel and study abroad.”
Since arriving in the U.S., Al Balushi and Al Huraizi both said they have experienced their share of frustrations. At times, they said it’s difficult for international and domestic students to become friends on campus. The two Omani women stand in the divide between the desire to know their American classmates and the reality of making it happen.
“At least in the classrooms … if you work with [American students] in a group project, outside of class they will react like they don’t know you,” Al Balushi said. “A lot of international students are wanting to make friends so [they] become friends with other international students.”
“They forget about you,” Al Huraizi added.
Despite discouraging moments, Al Balushi and Al Huraizi still said they desire to befriend their American classmates and invite them to learn more about the richness of Omani culture. Al Huraizi said Oman is far more modern than most people believe.
“We don’t ride camels and have oil under our house,” Al Huraizi said. “So many people ask me this.”
In terms of actual Omani traditions, Al Balushi said Omanis dress up every Friday and gather as a family for a big meal. Al Balushi likened it to a weekly Thanksgiving dinner with dates and rice instead of mashed potatoes and turkey. The practice is just one example of how important kinship is to the Omani people.
“People are more family-oriented [in Oman],” Al Balushi said.
While being so far away from her relatives, Al Balushi said her friends, many of whom come here to study from the Middle East, have had to fill that familial role. At the time Al Balushi usually finishes classes, her parents are tucked into bed, fast asleep, halfway around the world. She said she has gradually turned to fellow international friends for consolation on her most arduous days.
“When you’re away from your family, you get to be more close to your friends,” she said. “I used to get homesick more when I came the first two years, then it just became normal … And when I go back home in Oman, I get homesick because I want to come back to Lincoln.”
After four years in the heart of the U.S., Al Balushi and Al Huraizi have grown more fond of Midwestern life than they ever thought possible.
Al Balushi reminded Al Huraizi of her swiftly approaching graduation date at the end of the semester, causing Al Huraizi’s eyes to moisten and the corners of her lips to turn downward in a frown.
“Don’t make me cry!” Al Huraizi said, brushing the inner corners of her eyes with her fingers.
The idea of receiving a diploma and flying back to Oman comes with equal bouts of joy and sadness for both girls. As she sits amidst a blur of busy students grabbing coffee cups and darting off to their next destination, Al Balushi’s tone becomes more earnest. She struggles with the thought of returning home indefinitely after graduation.
“It’s a hard idea to leave this place. Lincoln is our second home,” she said. “Or maybe the first.”