An Unbreakable Bond
By Kyla Emme
Dec. 14, 2016
There are three of them, and unlike the “Best Friend Forever” bracelets that supposedly signifies the unbreakable bond of youthful friendship, these BFF’s have something that transcends the inanimate objects.
They’re Ph.D. recipients. They’re teachers. They’re Cougs.
They’re also immigrants from a Libyan city you may have heard of – Benghazi.
And their story is one that spans almost 20 years – you’ll get a taste of it within minutes.
Their intersecting story begins
We’d like to introduce you to the BFF’s of this story: Eman Elturki, Riema Abobaker, and Ibtesam Hussein. To understand where they are now, we’d first need to take you back to the year 2000, to the University of Garyounis in Benghazi, Libya. It’s important for us to mention that these three undergraduate students may have never met at this university if it weren’t for their shared love of the English language. Starting as early as first grade, these women had begun on their quest to learn a second language. Entirely on their own.
“In elementary school, English was not a requirement,” Eman says. “It’s different now, but during our time we studied this, it was a private thing. So I think for all of us, we went to after-school private places to learn English.”
Can you imagine being 6 years old and asking your parents to send you to a school after school? But indeed, that is what they did.
The year 2000 is where their respective stories become like the movies Crash, or Amores Perros, intersecting in a way that none of the subjects expect, but which is every bit as transformative.
The three friends first met while taking classes in the English department. The trio also spent time working as teaching assistants at the university or private institutes. But like all things, these four years of undergraduate studies had to come to an end. In the summer of 2004 they each graduated with their bachelor’s degrees and parted ways for graduate school.
Riema attended the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. Eman moved to the United States to attend the University of Southern California. She paved the way for Ibtesam, who moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Pennsylvania.
“Eman was there for three or four months, so I was able get information from her,” Ibtesam says. “I remember she sent me an email with some information about how to open an account, and my phone, and things like that.”
Eman says that was just part of her obligation.
“I was the first victim, so when they came, it was easy to communicate these things to them and tell them ‘No, don’t do that.’”
Riema says she called Ibtesam a few times on the phone, as well as exchange emails and connect on Skype.
“Once I got to Boston she was like my fairy godmother,” Riema says. ‘What do I do with this?’ I would ask. She would respond: ‘You do 1,2,3,4,5…’ She’s very, very organized.”
Courage to keep moving forward
Moving is hard. Packing boxes full of things just to end up unpacking them somewhere else. Leaving what is familiar to go somewhere out of your comfort zone. You either love it or hate it. But let’s be honest, these three women had to take on so much more as they moved from Libya to the U.S. and U.K.
For Riema, finding herself just 20 years old and traveling to another country for the first time by herself was an eye-opening experience.
“It was a shock for me to have that sense of independency,” she says. “Like back in Libya, I’d never done anything by myself. Everything was handed to me on a platter, you might say.”
Her biggest struggle? Keeping to her schedule.
“I had to cook, I had to do my own laundry, I had to do grocery shopping… And my assignments were hell the first two months,” she says. “It was really hard for me. I was too busy doing this that I didn’t really realize that it was a different country.”
Too busy to realize it was a different country.
It may seem hard to believe, but culture shock is experienced differently for everyone. Eman, for example, experienced it a lot harder as she was introduced to the American system. When she first moved to Los Angeles she and her husband had to stay in a hotel until they could find an apartment.
“The lease system is totally different, and the apartments were unfurnished. We were visiting those fancy furniture stores, and oh my god, they were expensive.”
But it wasn’t long until they did find a place and, like any poor, starving students, they did find that fancy stores were not the only option. They could buy used things on Craigslist, and reasonably priced things at places like Target. And, even though Uber didn’t exist yet, they didn’t need a personal driver to take them where they needed to go. Navigating LA on their own was possible.
Though Eman took on that “Mama Bear” role and passed on advice as the three all moved to the U.S., each of the women played pivotal roles in deciding where they would all go over the years. After getting her Masters in the U.K. and moving to Boston, Riema began her search for a school to pursue her Ph.D. By that time, Ibtesam was already living in Seattle and loving the area. Riema was already considering WSU, and Ibtesam enjoying the Northwest sealed the deal.
“I was very confident that I would like the city and would like the school,” Riema says. “It was the first Ph.D. program I was accepted into, but as soon as that happened, I went for it.”
This was just the beginning. As Riema began her doctorate studies at WSU, Eman and Ibtesam were just starting to apply to Ph.D. programs.
“Since Riema got admitted and she liked the school, she encouraged me to apply,” Eman says. “She spoke to one of her professors, Dr. Joy Egbert, and then she told me to apply and I did. And then I got admitted, and we came here.”
“Basically followed the principle that says to go to a place that someone we know well recommends.”
Transition to Pullman
Just because Ibtesam enjoyed Seattle when she first moved there doesn’t mean it’s anything like Pullman. But WSU was able to provide a good support system for the three friends. The common denominator was their advisor Tom Salsbury.
“He’s not just an advisor to us, he’s more of a friend because during that time of the Arab Spring or whatever war broke out in Benghazi, he was sending emails like ‘How are you doing? I know things have been difficult.’” Riema says. “He’s been fabulous with getting us on track, telling us to focus and not worry about what’s going on over there. We owe him too much.”
Tom was also the advisor to a large number of Libyan students at that time since there was an influx in Libyan student enrollment. When Riema first came to the College of Education, there were just three other Libyans in her program.
“They helped me getting through things, explaining how the program of study works, what classes I should take.”
In addition to the reunited friends, more and more Libyan students eventually began to arrive in Pullman.
“We have kind of a big Libyan community and international students in general,” Eman says.
Ibtesam found comfort in knowing she could continue practicing her religion in peace while living here.
“We have one big mosque in Pullman, and another in Moscow, so I feel that I’m free to go to the mosque anytime I want without being harassed, and I think that people are accepting us as also international Muslims,” Ibtesam says.
Fast forward about four years. After classes, countless hours of research, and dissertation writing, the triumvirate earned their doctorates in Language, Literacy, and Technology.
That was one year ago. It’s certainly not the end of their journey. It can’t be. Because, of all the cultural shock the threesome could have experienced, Ibtesam felt the biggest was the role of the student in the American education system. That’s not a bad thing. While there is some overlap in how the two countries format their classrooms, there was simply one major difference that surprised Ibtesam.
“It was a bit difficult because of the student-centered approach and also because of giving presentations and group work and things that we actually aren’t used to in Libya.”
With no presentations, and no group work, the Libyan education system may sound like a dream for many students. Eman says there is a downside, though.
“The teaching approach over there is teacher-centered, like the teacher is the authority,” she says. “You can’t even talk; you have to get permission. You can’t even give your opinion.”
They don’t mean for this to sound negative. At all. However, it does set how they plan to teach in the future.
Finding their home
A year after graduation, all three women have remained in the Pullman area to teach and do research at either WSU or the University of Idaho. However, their journey together might just bring them back to Libya. After all, they’re 6,000 miles from home and their parents, grandparents, cousins and other relatives aren’t living on the Palouse. They’re living in Benghazi still.
“I feel like I’m obligated to go back and teach,” Eman says.
Ibtesam agrees: “My thoughts are the same. I want to get some experience here, so I’ll probably stay here a couple of years and then go back to Libya.”
All three women says they have hope for an easier transition when they eventually go back to Libya to teach. With their doctorates, they can return as official professors and have a say in changing the system – finally updating the outdated course materials and giving students a voice in the classroom.
Until that happens, though, the three Libyan BFFs are just fine living on the Palouse. It’s a special place. It’s the reason Andy Grammer’s “Back Home” has been such a hit on the Martin Stadium video board the last few seasons. It’s a town that’s bigger than the thousands who come for Cougar football Saturday, or the many who come to celebrate the end of a college career.
Eman says it’s a small town that holds the world in its small population and can make just about anyone feel like they’re home.
“I wouldn’t imagine that there was a place like this.”
Pullman restaurant: Fireside, until it closed.
Hangout spot: Starbucks, an hour before closing time.
Food: Pizza and spaghetti.
Pullman restaurant: Dairy Queen.
Favorite hangout spot: Sunnyside Park. “I love nature. I can also walk and play tennis there.”
Pullman restaurant: It used to be Fireside Grill. Now it’s Old European.
Favorite hangout spot: Palouse Discovery Science Center. “My two girls can play, and I can relax, read, or work on something.”
Why I want to teach…
Riema: “Teaching is my passion. While I am in the classroom, I forget everything else. The classroom is my sanctuary where I feel complete. The best reward is seeing the fruit of my teaching efforts that is represented by students’ success.”
Ibtesam: “To help students succeed and achieve their goals and dreams so that they can be good models for the next generations.“
Eman: “I want to teach because I love teaching! I love anything related to teaching including developing lessons and activities, interacting with students, collaborating with colleagues, and conducting research on teaching and second language development. It’s also very rewarding when you see your students successful.”