My great Middle East odyssey has come to an end. After a year and three months of living a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I find myself back home in Canada. I will take advantage of some remaining vacation time to get things back in order and I will then rejoin my colleagues at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus for the winter semester.
What an adventure! It feels great to be home but I am very conscious that I left a lot of new friends back in Taif. The memories, too numerous to list here, boggle the mind when I think back on the hectic, chaotic, work-filled, extremely long days of the first few months last August. All of the meetings, special events and open houses we attended and organized seem like a blur today. You know you’re part of a very special team when you can get together at the end of those long days and still laugh and enjoy the experience.
I have Dave Taylor to thank for making this whole journey a reality. He kept warning me that it was going to one hectic ride…and he didn’t lie! I also owe thanks to Sean Kennedy for allowing me to be part of this incredible team. It always amazed me in those early days that no matter how busy and frenzied the workload was, Sean was there, sleeves rolled up, digging in to help. He kept our sanity by treating us to some Baskin-Robbins ice cream once or twice…a day! There’s a rumour around here that Sean is single-handedly responsible for increasing the value of the franchise! Being a part of the small team that tackled daily challenges and always found ways to meet them will always be something that I will be immensely proud of.
Getting to know Bassem Makzoumi will always be one of the best things to come from this adventure. I had to opportunity to meet him a few times at the Welland campus before he flew over to Taif before I did. Once I arrived, we became fast friends. Sharing an office and our daily challenges helped to develop a bond that will last forever. He’s a negotiator, a salesman, a diplomat but above all else, he is fiercely loyal to the college and his friends. My first week in Saudi, he was nice enough to take me with him when he went for a haircut. Now Bassem has a brush cut so you don’t need a lot of explanation to get the barber to do that. I, however, have an award-winning and stunning hairstyle that is the envy of all (Would it kill you to play along?). So Bassem goes first and gets his cut done in minutes and then he gets up and says he has a few things to buy and will be back shortly. So…here I am, my first week in Saudi, sitting in a barber’s chair with a guy asking me in Arabic what I’d like done. Luckily, the results left me as handsome as ever!
Bassem was my constant companion for the first six months or so. Our rooms were across the hall from each other at the hotel. We would often go out for supper together or coffee/tea at ‘each other’s place’. Bassem, thankfully, could handle the driving in Taif, something I never got used to. Bassem also knows everyone in town. He can fix anything. Bassem simply gets things done!
At some point, we made a deal that would see him teach me some Arabic while I would teach him some French. Turns out he doesn’t like tongue kissing all that much! Actually, he and his family spent a lot of time in France so he was, and is, well versed in French. I, on the other hand, now have an incredible 15-word Arabic library. I wish there would have been time to properly learn more of this language.
It is comforting to know that our bond will continue here in Canada. I am privileged and lucky to count Bassem Makzoumi as a very dear friend.
I also had the chance to get to know and work with other Niagara College employees that I had never met. Orel Ruiz, in charge of Finances, is without a doubt the answer to the energy crisis. If we could bottle the energy he has the world would no longer have a crisis…and he does it all with a smile and positive attitude. Matt Marois, in charge of recruitment and student services, is also incredible. Let alone the hundreds of things that need to be dealt with on a daily basis, he’s getting married on New Year’s Eve and somehow still finds time to do what needs to be done. Mike Hurley, our IT go-to-guy. He took what can be generously described as the IT Challenge of all time and cobbled together a network that did the job! David Atherton, in charge of…well…in charge of everything! This poor man’s job description has changed so many times that it makes my head spin. Not David. Always equal to the challenge, he goes on his merry way getting the work done. Even though he would much rather stay home with his children, he gets on the plane for that killer flight and spends a couple of weeks at a time in Taif. It is that type of dedication that is synonymous with the entire team.
Can it really be 15 months? How lucky am I to have been part of a small, hard-working and dedicated team to go to foreign lands and open a new college? From the ground up, we put it together and got it running. It’s funny to think (well…now it’s funny) that we were still uncrating tables and chairs the night before the first day of classes.
Dealing with the Saudi culture is always an exercise in patience and creativity. Simple things that would only require an email to get accomplished here in Canada often requires days, weeks or longer to get done in Saudi. Now if you don’t happen to be blessed with an inordinate amount of patience (pick me!!!) it can be frustrating, but I was finally getting used to it. It didn’t make it any more fun, but it is what it is.
The Saudi people I met were very friendly and warm. On many occasions, I would get invited to the home of someone I barely knew. I sometimes accepted and was always treated like family. In my experience, they are truly open and giving people. They can’t drive, though!!!!
The college itself was invited to many official functions and many times we were the guests of honour. Always warmly received, it was obvious to me they were happy to have us here. We met princes, governors, ambassadors, top business people and all were thrilled that we were here to help offer a western education to their young citizens. This is what made it worthwhile for me.
I realize that some people back home, colleagues and even friends, find it difficult to understand why Niagara College would get involved in Saudi Arabia. I understand that. I, too, do not agree with all of the policies, laws and customs that make up the Saudi culture. My decision for joining the team was not to embark on a ‘mission’ to change the world. I simply believe that education, be it here in Canada, the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, has the power to change.
Making close friends with some, acquaintances with others and teaching yet more Saudis, all while interacting with many decision-makers, I know that there is a willingness to change. Some want change to help the local economy while others want progressive change for all citizens. I’ve been fortunate to have had many conversations with Saudis who privately hope for positive change. However, they, like myself, understand that change is a very slow moving machine. It is a culture steeped in long-standing traditions and the past does not let go easily.
Interacting with our students in the classroom and casually outside of class, I see the desire for change. Saudi Arabia’s population is about 39 million (and by the amount of crying babies on every plane I’ve been on, growing fast!!!) of which roughly two-thirds are below the age of 30. It is a very young population with citizens who are more and more aware of what the ‘outside world’ is like. The ‘old guard’, like those of all countries, will have to make way for the new. I believe change is coming and I’m glad to have played a very small part in what I hope will be a positive transformation.
So my journey comes to an end. I have grown both personally and professionally. I can highly recommend to anyone that wants to work ‘outside their comfort zone’ to consider being a part of the great work our International Department is doing. It doesn’t have to Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t have to be for 15 months either!! I also wouldn’t recommend doing it while taking a synchronous Masters course based in a time zone with an 11-hour difference, but I digress.
Our International Department is involved in a wide variety of projects all over the globe. With government funding shrinking, new revenue sources are needed. Our International Department is contributing to this with some of their projects. Sure it would be nice if we could open campuses in Hawaii or Venice or other such places. The fact is, the places that need our expertise are mostly from poorer or developing countries. As much as I would like it, Hawaii doesn’t need us.
There will always be cultural, religious and political differences to deal with. However, if you wait for the just the right mix of everything before you decide to expand your global experiences, you might just never leave the country, and that would be a shame. International travel is one of the best interactive forms of education there is. The opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture different than your own allows you to see everything from a global perspective. I truly hope some of you are as lucky as I was and get an opportunity to experience what I have. It truly was an amazing chapter in my life.
So, what do I do with this blog moving forward? I’m going to visit a friend in Orangeville next weekend. I could post some pictures of that, but I suspect no one will care…and I don’t blame you. Although their Summer Rib Fest is pretty awesome!
I’ll just leave it as is for now and decide what to do with it later on.
For now, as Sam said to Rose, “Well, I’m back.”