Faris Altamimi (left) and Tim Alruwaili take a smoke break outside WESLI on the Capitol Square.
Faris, Hamed and Tim exit the building. It is sunny on the Capitol Square this winter midday, but bitterly cold. Standing on the pavement with his back against a large glass windowpane, Hamed takes out a pack of Marlboro Blacks and removes two cigarettes, handing one to Faris. Tim has a pack of Davidoffs covered in Arabic script — when he flew back to Madison from his home in Saudi Arabia after his winter holidays, he packed four cases of 10 packs each, totaling 800 cigarettes.
Faris Altamimi, Hamed Alyami and Tim Alruwaili are among the 131 students this term at the Wisconsin English Second Language Institute, better known by its acronym WESLI. These three are all from Saudi Arabia, which is WESLI’s most well represented country, but there are also students from China, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Colombia, Congo, Thailand and others. These three estimate that 95% of WESLI’s students smoke, which is why it’s common to see students puffing on cigarettes on the Square.
Businesspeople walk hurriedly past WESLI as the three Saudis chat about what they’re doing in Madison. Tim, who has been in the U.S. one year, is paying for his student fees with a scholarship from the Saudi government. He is 20 years old and hopes to attend UW-La Crosse to study nuclear medicine. His mother didn’t like the sound of that at first, but Saudi Arabia is short on radiologists, so in time she assented. He is from northern Saudi Arabia.
Tim says that the year he’s spent in the States has been the best of his life. He enjoys the coed classes, although he’s still uncomfortable speaking directly to Saudi women, and he likes critical thinking, which he says is not taught in Saudi Arabia.
Hamed, 29, is from the south. In his country he takes care of camels, which are popular for entertainment and racing. He came to WESLI with his nephew, and anticipates returning to the prosperous camel trade.
From inside the building, the receptionist, Rebecca, watches the smokers warily. She wishes smoking wasn’t so ubiquitous among WESLI’s clientele — when the ash can catches fire, and the smoke and stench pours inside, it’s her job to put it out.
“I just don’t like smoke,” she says. She also doesn’t like what smoking does for WESLI’s image.
Inside, the building feels like a youth hostel.
A smattering of young people lounge on black leather sofas, practicing American idioms. They insert phrases like “keep your shirt on” and “off the cuff” into their sentences. “I brought some snakes from McDonald’s,” says one student. He laughs when he’s informed the correct word is “snacks.”
Back outside, a Madison Metro bus pulls to a stop as Hamed shivers in his brown sweatshirt and Tim finishes his Davidoff cigarette. It’s time to go inside.
Wisconsin English Second Language Institute (WESLI)
Year founded: 1981
Number of students per semester: 130-200
Countries represented: 30-50
Most common countries:
Saudi Arabia, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Colombia, Congo and Thailand, in that order.
Teachers and staff: 22