In recent weeks, cities across the United States have seen hundreds and thousands of people take to the streets to protest against the police. The most violent scenes and highest number of arrests were visible in Baltimore, Maryland as residents there expressed their outrage over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Grey who died from a spinal injury while in police custody. Six police officers have now been charged.
At around the same time and some 500 miles away in the state of Ohio, a young female Saudi student from Riyadh, Bushra Al-Harbi was leading a program to express her thanks to the police department and other security officials in Cleveland. Cleveland is home to nearly 400,000 people, and it's where Bushra has called her home away from home while studying at Cleveland State University. There are about 700 students from Saudi Arabia in the area, and many of them are part of the, "Us to U.S.," volunteer program, which encourages students from the Kingdom to volunteer in their local communities. Last year, Bushra founded a specific chapter of the program, "Us to Cleveland," as she wanted to be very specific with her interaction within the local community.
Recalling her first days behind this initiative, Bushra told the Saudi Gazette: "When I started this new chapter there were only four of us — all girls. I was worried I made a bad decision, but one year later there are over 40 of us doing volunteering and expressing our thanks to those who are making Cleveland a better place."
Top of the list for Bushra, and other participants in the "Us to Cleveland" program was a recent initiative to hand out bags of candy to local security officers on campus, residential buildings and even the Cleveland police themselves. The organization designed little bags that looked like a safety lock, and made sure their logo was easy, so people would ask about it.
"The downtown area of Cleveland isn't safe. There are armed robberies and lots of violence. We hadn't seen people ever express their appreciation to those who are trying to keep us safe, so we had little bags of candy made and decided to hand them out to people who are looking after us and our safety. The security officers were just so grateful, and that made us feel good, as we know we made them happy," Bushra told Saudi Gazette.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, the five members of the "Us to Cleveland" group decided to pay an unannounced visit to one the local police precincts. It was the first time any of the Saudi students had been to a police station, much less in the United States. Cleveland has nearly 2,000 police, and certainly the policewoman who greeted the group of Saudi Arabian students walking into the police station was surprised. Recalling the moment, Bushra said: "I could see from her eyes that she was really surprised that we were there to express our appreciation for the work they are doing for our community. I asked to see a police supervisor so we could explain how as Saudi students we had been doing positive things for the people in the Cleveland community. We told him our visit to the police station to give them candy was our way to thank them for keeping us safe."
Once the surprised police supervisor agreed to meet with the group of students from the Kingdom, a few more police stopped by. They all expressed their surprise that people had taken the time to think to do something nice for them, and stop by with a small gift of candy. As one could have perhaps expected, there were lots of questions to the students, including why they would want to thank the police.
"What we explained to them is that as Saudis, and as Muslims, and according to Islam, we are encouraged to help and do good things. He acknowledged that this was a very good idea for us to pursue, and that it certainly changed his perception of students from Saudi Arabia," Bushra said.
Bushra's outreach to U.S. law enforcement comes as she graduates on Saturday (May 9), with a master's degree in early childhood education. Ironically one of her strongest memories of doing her degree in Ohio, comes thanks to the police department. In a scene that seems taken out out of a movie, she says many of the students attending Cleveland State University rely on the police and other security to get them home at night. As the campus is in a bad area of town and they study late at night police often put students in the back of their patrol cars to drop them safely at home. "Sitting in the back of a police car when I know criminals may have sat there before is a strange feeling, but I so appreciate them getting me home safely," she said.
This positive story about Saudi civilians interacting with U.S. police, comes as the United States sees continued distrust of its security forces across the country. Americans are frequently questioning police racial bias and brutality. The recent riots in Baltimore which led to over 250 people being injured really made Bushra think about how everyone needs to do more positive things in life. "I don't think violence should be used to get what you want. It's sad to see families and cities destroyed like this. It's also sad to see teenagers on the streets. I think studying makes all the difference, and it makes us good human beings in the future," she said.
Perhaps it is time for the people of Baltimore to look at the approach of these courageous young students from Saudi Arabia, who truly made an indelible impact on the Cleveland police. A thoughtful gesture goes a long way, and in this case all it took was a bag of candy and the openness of respect on both sides, and of saying "Thank you."