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Imad Al-Bulushi felt very far from home this fall when he met his three new UNO roommates.
They are all American. He is from Oman, a tiny Middle Eastern nation that most Americans can't find on a map.
They are all Christian. He is Muslim, a religion that his friends and relatives in Oman warned would cause him trouble.
One other problem: Imad is a stick-thin 18-year-old who gets by on cereal and frozen pizza.
These boys looked like they devoured T-bones and skinny 18-year-old foreigners for breakfast.
"They looked muscular and stuff," Imad said last week, his eyes widening at the memory. "I thought, 'OK, I am getting bullied.'"
Imad laughs at the thought now, because on a recent Monday night, he and his three roomies devoured a pizza together.
They shot pool. Imad lost. They played chess. Imad won.
They stayed up until 1 a.m. Before he came to Omaha, Imad had promised himself that he'd stay home "and lock the door at 8 p.m." to avoid the rampant violence of the United States that he had seen on his TV in Oman.
As it turns out, Imad says, Omaha, Neb., feels safe. It's already beginning to feel like home.
"People are so nice here!" he says. "I'd like to take my friends and family, everyone I like, and bring them here, too."
That sort of talk is exactly what the leaders and staff members of UNO's International Studies and Programs love to hear.
Imad and 22 other Omani students are the newest additions to the program's intensive language course load, which helps international students to speak, write and comprehend English so they can take regular college classes.
The Omani students, handpicked by their government, also represent the latest UNO experiment in importing teenagers from countries all over the globe — some obscure, some not so friendly with the United States — and plopping them down in middle America.
Simply put, the experiment is this: Can we change the world, just a little bit, by eating pizza, playing pool and studying together?
"It's the globalization of friendship," said Tom Gouttierre, dean of international studies as well as director of UNO's famed Center for Afghanistan Studies. "It's incremental, very incremental, but we think it's steady."
When Gouttierre started as international studies dean, in 1974, UNO had only two dozen foreign students.
Last year, 1,695 non-American students studied at UNO. Nearly 800 enrolled in normal, undergraduate courses, meaning roughly one out of every 12 undergrads at UNO hails from a foreign country.
Last year, 224 Chinese students enrolled at UNO, making China the No. 2 provider of the university's international students, while South Korea is fourth (143 students) and Japan is fifth (107).
South Asia, quite possibly the world's most volatile region, is well-represented, with 147 students from India, 20 from Afghanistan and 11 from Pakistan.
A rising South American power will soon be well-represented on campus as well. Gouttierre's office learned this week that dozens of Brazilian students will most likely attend UNO in the next several years, part of that country's massive new scholarship program that seeks to better train Brazilian teenagers in science, technology, engineering and math.
But the Middle East might be the most interesting supplier of UNO students. Walk the campus, and you are bound to bump into two students whose countries are long-standing adversaries.
Two Palestinians and a lone Israeli. Seven Iraqis and seven more Kuwaitis. Thirteen Egyptians. Thirteen students from Iran.
But Saudi Arabia is far and away the dominant foreign student population at UNO. The Saudi royal family, which presides over a society where women can't drive cars, decided several years ago to send top high school graduates to American universities.
Last year, 252 Saudis called themselves Mavs, living on a campus without gender-based restrictions of their homeland. More than half of UNO students — and the former chancellor — are female.
"People are not aware of the fact that the Saudi government has made a tremendous investment in American higher ed," Gouttierre says. "It's interesting: They seem to be making choices that accept change."
The Omani students hopped into this melting pot in October, when they flew into Omaha and started classes in the intensive English program (known as ILUNO) in the hope they could be ready for regular college courses by January.
On a recent Tuesday, Imad and fellow Omani student Dana Salman filed into a public speaking course along with several Saudis, a Colombian and a Korean.
Dana gave a short speech she had written for a class assignment, telling her classmates about a two-day camping trip to the desert she had taken with friends. They stayed up for 34 hours straight, she said, and watched the sun rise over the sand dunes.
Later, in an interview, she said she's been dreaming of coming to the United States for college since the ninth grade.
Dana, Imad and the rest of the Omani students didn't have much of a shot at a U.S. education until recently. Earlier this year, the Sultan of Oman and his government responded to a series of protests by offering several promises to the protesters. One of those concessions: the chance for hundreds of high school graduates to win full-ride scholarships to study in the United States.
The Omani students, who were chosen based on high school academic performance, say an American college degree is a ticket to a better career and life in their home country.
Dana and Imad, who both plan to study engineering at UNO, say the degree could help them succeed in an Omani company or government agency if they choose to move back after graduation.
But they also say the American experience — four or five years in Omaha — is bound to change them.
Oman is a fairly open society relative to other Middle Eastern countries, they say. Women can hold high-ranking positions there, and the sultan is modernizing through infrastructure and tourism.
But it's also a country where the traditional culture can feel stifling to a generation of teenagers who see the rest of the world via the Internet, Dana and Imad say.
It's a country where they couldn't be doing what they are doing now — Dana and Imad, an unrelated Omani woman and man, sitting at the same table, looking each other in the eye, having a conversation.
"There, we have to go by the rules," Dana says. "There, we have to care about what other people think about this. Here, we have freedom."
"The way of thinking is just different," Imad says. "We're living a different lifestyle. There will definitely be conflict" when they move back.
There hasn't been any conflict between the Omani students and their new American and foreign classmates, the Omanis say.
Both Dana and Imad live with American roommates in UNO's Scott Village. Many of the Omanis have made friends from the much larger group of Saudi students.
In early November, Imad gathered with several of the Omanis, a dozen Saudis and one Iraqi for Eid, the traditional celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Imad, who was picked to cook, did something that sounds suspiciously like American teenage behavior.
He decided to cook spaghetti, even though he'd never cooked spaghetti before.
How did the Omani living in Omaha figure out how to cook the Italian dish to feed his Saudi and Iraqi friends?
Simple, Imad says.
"I learned it on YouTube."
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