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Jaime Castillo
Jun 07, 2012

Multicultural Counseling: Experiences from Saudi Arabia

May 11, 2012
Location: Somewhere over the Atlantic

I'm on my way to Saudi Arabia. We are a couple hours into our 12 hour direct flight from New York to Riyadh and as I boarded the plane a few hours ago I was experiencing excitement, anxiety, and fear. My colleagues and I are the keynote presenters at a conference for clinicians, administrators, and direct care staff who work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD). Over the last two years, our agency has developed a growing number of partnerships with small organizations within Jordan and Saudi Arabia to provide education and training to staff within the ID/DD field.

Over the last several weeks I've been trying to wrap my head around this trip. I'm traveling to the complete opposite side of the world and I'm going to be the farthest I've ever been from family and friends. Im going to be immersed in a culture that's completely different from anything I've ever experienced. I'm scared that I will say something that is misunderstood. I'm afraid that I may do something or look at something that is wrong or forbidden. Why? I don't think I have ever had a conversation with an individual from Saudi Arabia, but I am scared. I've never sought out books, movies, or food of this country, yet for some reason I can’t help but have a fearful perspective. Why? What has influenced me? What has shaped this in my mind?

Earlier this week when wishing me luck a number of coworkers emphasized the "safe" in "Have a SAFE trip." Coworkers were telling me that they will be "PRAYING for me," and emphasize the "praying." It was very odd to say the least. Why are they acting like this? Why am I thinking like this?

May 12, 2012
Location: Somewhere over the Atlantic

About 15 minutes ago a young man sitting next to me turned to me and said, "You're first time going to Saudi?" " Yes," I said. "Where will you be going?" he asked. "Onaizah," I said. "You know," he said, "it's not as bad as people say it is. You see very little of the true Saudi Arabia on the news. They choose to show certain things...crime... terrorism.... but its very very little of that. You'll meet some of the most generous people in Saudi. I think you'll have a great time."

That conversation took about 30 seconds and has begun to change my perspective. It took that conversation for me to realize how I had come to conclusions about a country and culture that I've never experienced. I let secondary and tertiary sources shape my understanding of a culture, and that's not okay. Those initial feelings of anxiety and fear are starting to subside.

I'm anticipating facing a number of cultural barriers over the next week and using this experience to grow as a counselor. I'm looking forward to asking questions and having conversations to better understand a culture and a way of life that is very different from my own. I'm curious to how our workshops will be received, the concepts interpreted, and how our perspectives of treatment are similar/different.

Have you ever come face to face with your own multicultural misconceptions? How did you grow from it? What do you do to increase your competencies as a multicultural counselor? What has made it difficult?

Jaime Castillo is a counselor who works for a non-profit agency in New York City.

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