Many people spend years and countless hours of effort attempting to conform with their surroundings. For Leen Obeidat, feeling like she belongs has never come easily, but she makes it seem effortless. Born in Jordan and raised in Saudi Arabia, at 21 she has had to adapt to people telling her she doesnâ€™t quite fit in.
While people tend to lump all Middle Eastern people together as one big, similar culture, this notion is far from reality. Leen explains that when sheâ€™s in Saudi Arabia, they claim sheâ€™s “too Jordanian,” yet when she travels back to her birthplace that she mostly identifies with, they say sheâ€™s “too Saudi Arabian.”
â€œI never knew exactly where I belonged. But, Iâ€™m comfortable with that. I feel like part of being an international student is that. Itâ€™s being OK with feeling foreign. Itâ€™s not always a negative thing,â€ says Leen.
Leen grew up in Saudi Arabia with her mom, dad, and two younger brothers, where family was valued above all else. One of her most cherished memories is celebrating Eid, a Muslim holiday that concludes the hajj pilgrimage season, in Jordan with her entire extended family â€” something she didnâ€™t get to do often since her and her immediate family lived in Saudi Arabia.
â€œItâ€™s all about family and spending time with your family, visiting your grandparents, your uncles, your aunts,â€ says Leen.
Nowadays, seeing even her immediate family has become a challenge due to recent travel bans that were put in effect by the U.S. government. Â Executive Order 13769, also known as the travel ban, put in place last spring, denied entry to the U.S. for people with passports from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia were never and still arenâ€™t on the list, but Leenâ€™s parents arenâ€™t letting her take any chances by going home. Theyâ€™ve already invested so much time and money into Leenâ€™s education.
â€œIt did send a shock wave â€” or a fear wave â€” in all of the Middle Easterners that are here. I felt like maybe I could be next and my country could be on the list next and that scared my parents.â€
The travel ban kept Leen from traveling back to Jordan and completing the internship she had planned, so she had to scramble to find another option. She ended up finding another internship in State College and, luckily, it was one of the most amazing internships sheâ€™s ever had. As the marketing and telecommunications intern at West Arete, a software company here in State College, she was able to assist the company in launching and marketing a new product.
Keeping Up With the Americans
Leenâ€™s first time in the U.S. was when she came over with her mother to move into her dorm room freshman year. After a quick stop in Washington D.C., Leen had to adjust to the small town feel and close living quarters of the East Hall dorms, something that most freshman take some time getting used to.
â€œComing here, the shock part wasnâ€™t what Americans were like, I knew what they were like. The shocking part was they werenâ€™t exactly like how I saw them on TV,â€ Leen says. â€œThereâ€™s a different feel to each part of the United States and thatâ€™s something I didnâ€™t recognize coming inâ€¦ I feel itâ€™s like living in different countries being in different states. So, coming in that was the most shocking part. Not all Americans are the Kardashians.â€
One of Leenâ€™s biggest fears coming into college was that her roommate wouldnâ€™t understand what itâ€™s like to be Middle Eastern. While sheâ€™s open to other cultures, she wasnâ€™t sure how a randomly-chosen roommate would react to her culture. She ended up making the decision to room with someone she knew from back home in order to have a piece of home not so far away.
â€œIt made the transition easier because whenever I felt like I wanted to be home, I would just come back to my dorm room and we could talk about high school, we could talk about whatever is happening back home so it felt familiar,â€ says Leen.
Although she is constantly surrounded by a student body predominantly different than herself, Leen has never felt like sheâ€™s any less of a Penn Stater.
â€œI didnâ€™t feel uncomfortable at all though from anyone in Penn State. This is an awesome place to be.â€
At Penn State, Leen dove into the academic and extracurricular strengths of the university. She is double majoring in finance and telecommunications, is the Business Manager of The Daily Collegian and has been a member of other organizations such as La Vie and 46-Live.
When choosing her major, Leen was careful to consider what her options after graduation would look like. As a freshman, she wanted to major in management information systems, but quickly realized a career in that industry is not prominent in the Middle East.
â€œTalking to people here and trying to figure out what would be the best major for me made me realize that I needed something global,â€ says Leen.
The global aspect of finance drew her in and her passion for media created the not-so-typical double major she now has.
Land of Opportunities
When deciding where to go to college, in addition to the U.S., Leen looked at a variety of locations including Canada, Australia, and Europe.
â€œIâ€™ve always wanted to be different ever since I was a child so a lot of my friends went to England because I went to an English school so I was like â€˜how can I stand out?â€™ I wanted a different experience so to speak,â€ Leen says. â€œAnd in the United States, everyone knows that itâ€™s the land of opportunities, itâ€™s not like other countries.â€
The different student lifestyle that the U.S. provided is what ultimately drew Leen to study here. She felt that the U.S. put more of an emphasis on what you did outside of the classroom at a university.
When it came time to attend the career fair as a senior, Leen quickly realized that her land of opportunity wasnâ€™t quite as abundant as she had hoped. A lot of companies donâ€™t sponsor international students for economic reasons, and Leen only found two that were sponsoring international students for entry-level positions.
Leen feels the companies are the ones missing out when it comes to this dilemma.
â€œI feel like a lot of companies are missing out on that opportunity. If you bring that foreign mindset, if you try to diversify and become more global, first of all youâ€™ll attract better ideas and youâ€™ll grow. That will also open up opportunities for you to move overseas and to become as big as the other companies.â€
Although sheâ€™s facing some bumps in the road along the way and isnâ€™t sure itâ€™s a definite possibility, Leen still feels that she wants to call the U.S. home.
â€œI just feel like here Iâ€™d excel and Iâ€™d be more comfortable and Iâ€™d move much faster being in the United States just because Iâ€™ve been used to living here and working here for a while now.â€
While some things like the job search and traveling would have been easier if Leen had studied elsewhere, she couldnâ€™t imagine being anywhere else.
â€œI donâ€™t regret being in the States. Iâ€™ve learned so much, Iâ€™ve met so many people, and I love being a Penn Stater.â€
â€œA lot of times when I sit and watch TV here, Iâ€™m like â€˜this is not true!â€™â€ Leen emphasizes when discussing the mediaâ€™s portrayal of her hometown, â€œThis is not what we look like, this is not what the Middle East looks like.â€
The effects the media has in telling the story of her home and her people is a major influence in why Leen wants to stay in the media industry. After recognizing that her presence on The Daily Collegianâ€™s staff has made a difference in a way they conduct the news, even though she doesnâ€™t control the content, Leen feels she can be a positive force in the field.
â€œI would love to stay working in the news industry in the future so that maybe, hopefully, when people have questions, people arenâ€™t sure about things, if they want to convey the Middle East in a specific way in the media, they ask questions,â€ Leen says. â€œMaybe I can direct them to the right resources even if I donâ€™t have the answers myself.â€
It also helps that Leen isnâ€™t afraid of being asked tough questions. She feels that some people are afraid to ask questions for the fear of seeming ignorant, but Leen gets excited when people recognize that sheâ€™s from the Middle East and are curious about her culture.
One of her favorite questions to get is whether or not she feels discriminated against as a woman in the Middle East.
â€œA lot of them think weâ€™re oppressed which is not true,â€ Leen says. â€œWomen that choose to cover their face, they choose to do that. No one is making them do that.â€
Leen has made the choice to not wear a hijab yet, a decision that she will put a lot of thought into when the time comes, as putting on a hijab is a major commitment. Leen explains that women choose to do it at different points in their life depending on familial values and personal choice.
â€œFor me, I know itâ€™s something I want to do in the future, I just donâ€™t know if Iâ€™m ready for it yet,â€ says Leen. â€œI hate to say it, but a lot of it is being abroad. I donâ€™t know if Iâ€™m strong enough or ready yet to face what veiled women face outside of the Middle East. Itâ€™s difficult. The looks you get of people staring at you like youâ€™re an alien is enough to destroy me as a person and I feel like women who cover up and live outside the Middle East are very, very strong women and I wish I was like them but Iâ€™m not.â€
A major milestone for Saudi Arabian women is the recent law that passed allowing them to drive in their country beginning in June 2018, a privilege that Leen always felt she missed out on.
â€œI was definitely excited that women can now drive in Saudi. I think itâ€™s a step in the right direction and Iâ€™m looking forward to bigger changes in the future,â€ says Leen.
While Leen has seemingly navigated through these misconceptions with ease, the negative perceptions her country has gotten recently have made her a bit more cautious when it comes to showing off her religion, especially after hearing horror stories from her friends about the way theyâ€™ve been treated just by practicing their religion.
One of the first things Leen did when hearing about unpleasant experiences that her fellow Middle Easterners had was take off a necklace she constantly wore that spelled her name in Arabic.
â€œItâ€™s really hard for me because as Middle Easterners we are very, very proud of where we come from and we like showing it off,â€ Leen says. â€œJust feeling like you have to hide it and not expose it as much to avoid someone saying something mean to you is definitely difficult.â€
One of the most frustrating misconceptions that Leen feels is prevalent in our country is that when some people pair Islam and terrorism together. Leen has personally read both the Koran and the Bible, and while they might tell different stories, they both speak the same language of peace. Unfortunately, some have misinterpreted the Koran in such a way that puts Islam in a negative light.
â€œWeâ€™re not supposed to be hurting people. Weâ€™re not supposed to be starting wars. This is not Islam. Islam means peace and thatâ€™s the literal meaning of the word â€˜Islamâ€™… Weâ€™re a religion of peace and we donâ€™t believe in terrorism. I really wish people knew that,â€ says Leen.
Changing the Narrative
â€œIf I could make people more open to other cultures, more accepting of other cultures, this could solve a lot of problems in the world.â€
Leen loves to talk to people who donâ€™t know anything about the Middle East as it allows her to open people up to other cultures. She wants to be able to lead by example of the openness that we should be sharing with one another.
You donâ€™t have to hop on a plane to experience a culture different from your own, though.
â€œBeing open and putting yourself in organizations that you know are a little different, a little diverse,â€ is one way Leen believes people can start to be more open to one another.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing wrong with going and talking to other political organizations. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with talking a little bit more or trying to understand someone whoâ€™s sitting right next to you in class that is from a different country.â€
In fact, Leen would tell her younger self to be even more open and unafraid.
â€œI would have told myself to not be afraid to experience things and go outside of my comfort zone,â€ says Leen.
She feels that a lot of teenagers, including herself donâ€™t always think about traveling, stepping outside of their comfort zone, experiencing new things and being far from home. Even Leen didnâ€™t necessarily want to be a 12-hour plane ride from her parents. Pushing yourself and doing things youâ€™re not used to doing is something that people shouldnâ€™t wait to do.
When asked if she felt the world would be different if people stepped outside of their box, Leenâ€™s response was quick. â€œThe world would definitely be different. Because they would know what itâ€™s like to be uncomfortable. They wouldnâ€™t make any place hostile for anyone, they wouldnâ€™t make any place uncomfortable for anyone,â€ says Leen.
However, Leen feels if you have the means, travel is one of the best ways to step outside of your comfort zone and experience something new.
â€œI think thatâ€™s another thing is just like being uncomfortable somewhere else and trying to figure out how can I make myself comfortable, how can I understand these people a little bit more and asking questions. Even if youâ€™re scared of being offensive, sometimes asking the question will help you figure out why they do things the way they do.â€
Born Bold, Staying Bold
While Leen faces a lot of adversity simply for believing in what she believes in and being from a certain part of the world, she isnâ€™t afraid to keep going and keep being bold. In fact, one of her favorite quotes is â€œThis too shall pass.â€
â€œIâ€™ve faced a lot of difficulties and a lot of things have gone wrong in my life and I always just remind myself that this is going to pass and Iâ€™m going to move on and life is going to continue,â€ says Leen.
This constant reminder is what helps Leen to keep pushing herself and to not be afraid of being uncomfortable.
â€œI keep convincing myself that this is not the end, that one obstacle is not going to destroy me, that I should keep working hard on myself and keep trying to do more.â€