On the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Bander Almohammadi blends in with any other bearded, bespectacled student.
“People always think I’m from Europe … until they see my wife,” Almohammadi says. “She wears hijab. That’s when they know where I’m from.”
Almohammadi is a native of Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest and most authoritarian of Arab countries. But in August of 2014, he left his homeland to spend the rest of this decade in Kansas.
In the fall, Almohammadi begins his graduate program studying law at KU. He is already versed in Sharia law — the framework that regulates those living in a country whose legal system is based on Islam — and now wants to learn the international side.
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The 31-year-old doesn’t descend from a family of lawyers; his father works as a hospital administrator. What did his relatives think of his career decision?
“They think, ‘If you’re interested in law, that’s your choice.’ They said ‘good luck,’ ” he recalls.
That choice led him to the other side of the world, literally, socially and religiously. But perhaps the biggest transition was the fact that Almohammadi didn’t speak English.
“I knew just some British English but no American. I really like speaking it now,” he says.
When debating what school to attend, he took the advice of a friend who had lived in Lawrence.
“I asked my friend what is a safe place because I have wife and kids,” says Almohammadi, who was raised in the holy city of Medina.
“My friend said to come to Kansas, especially Lawrence. It’s a small place, a quiet place, a safe place. People here understand a religion like Islam. Sometimes if you go where people are more conservative, maybe they will find some difficulty to communicate with you.”
Almohammadi is currently on a scholarship paid for by his government. After graduating, he’s obligated to return to Medina and teach or practice law.
Although Republican presidential candidates have made inflammatory statements involving deporting Muslims, Almohammadi pays little attention.
“I came here to focus on my studies. I have no idea about political issues or the election,” he says. “When you go to law school, you don’t have time to listen or read about those things; you only have time for law school.”
So far he’s happy with bringing his wife, 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter to the Midwest.
“People here are very respectful of your religion,” he says. “Some people in law school ask me about hijab. This is the most common question. Also this year they asked about what happened in Paris attack. … I said, ‘We condemn this action. We don’t agree with this action.’ ISIS and al-Qaida don’t represent Islam. I don’t think those people represent human beings.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”