ESL Teachers Scammed by U.S.-Saudi Fellowship

A class at Al Yamamah College.

A person hears a lot of stories while traveling through the Middle East—occasionally some that are inspiring, often many that are disquieting. In this instance, events unfolded as being both complex and disheartening. 

While researching a piece on funding connected with al Qaeda-linked operations, I stumbled upon what was initially presented as an international money laundering scheme tying a new operation in Afghanistan to existing sites in the United States and Saudi Arabia. Upon closer examination, what surfaced is a long-running multinational organization using education as a vehicle for profit, fraud and white-collar human trafficking. 

Times around the world are financially challenging, and people are becoming more resourceful in their seeking and obtaining of work while companies continue to offshore. "Working abroad," a catchphrase from the past, is reigniting. In a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the number of people taking on international assignments has increased 25 percent over the last decade with a further 50 percent growth predicted by 2020. The current number of American expatriates worldwide is estimated at up to 6 million.

In such circumstances, it is not unusual that there will be people—confidence men and their shills—as well as entire organizations who are looking to take advantage of potential "marks" (individuals and their families) looking for greener pastures overseas.

Teaching English as a second language has long been a viable market for native-speaking nationals looking to earn money while fulfilling a sense of adventure. Some of these individuals labeled as "backpackers" by those within the industry are men and women of varying ages looking for a way to finance their travels while making a reasonable wage. Others, professional educators, are less common, but still present in the mix.

One of the many companies involved in contracting teachers is a Colorado corporation currently under the name of INTERLINK Language Centers, which operates four sites in the United States and one in Saudi Arabia. A new operation is being set up in Afghanistan. Its officers, Robert Steiner, Ahad Shahbaz and Mark Feder, are all former Peace Corps personnel with strong ties to the Middle East, including Iran, Afghanistan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. For more than 20 years, each of these individuals have been involved in operating cross-cultural training and language programs.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the journey begins with an applicant applying for an overseas job, typically as a language teacher. Of those who were accepted to be employed, approximately 55 percent during the last year were asked to be part of a "fellowship program" where the applicant was not only accepted to teach at the INTERLINK satellite school in Riyadh under the name of Saudi-Interlink Language Center (SILC), but also take part in a master's program operated jointly in the United States at the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. Those participating in the fellowship received an approximate 38 percent reduction in salary while indebting themselves in reported amounts after expenses of up to $52,000 dollars, which according to the SIT student blog is paid off in an average of 21.2 years.

Among the representations made to teachers is that they will become part of a world-class team of educators at a leading Saudi Arabian university. Its resident faculty, however, is made up of fewer than 5 percent of teachers with PhDs, and there is no professional research program. The school, originally set up in 2004 as Al Yamamah College, has a poor reputation, and its courses, as stated in an interview by one parent, are not easily "transferrable to other institutions inside or outside of the country." According to a written report made by a former administrator at the school, only 5 of the original 223 employees have remained on staff. The SILC language program loses an extraordinary 86 percent of its teaching personnel within the first 16 months of service.

INTERLINK represents that each teacher will have class sizes of up to 10 students (eight students as listed on their website) and class loads of no more than 20 hours. But student enrollment during the past three terms indicates class sizes, in some cases, of more than 30 students. In addition, some teachers are carrying loads of 30-plus hours (50 percent over the contracted limit) and not being paid overtime.

Other challenges and misrepresentations include the quality of accommodations, non-payment of promised reimbursements, denied contractual accompaniment of families, as well as failure to deliver token professional development opportunities.

In answer to these questions, an official source at the SIT Graduate Institute—where 14 teachers recently completed the program—stated that the number of complaints and documented abuses has far exceeded any other of SIT's programs to date. Not only has the institution begun to reexamine its relationship with INTERLINK, it has also provided outside legal representation for a student part of the fellowship program being pursued by officers of INTERLINK. Despite these claims, the university has deepened its relationship with INTERLINK and extended the fellowship period, described by one of the students in the program as "indentured service" from two to three years.

Also, a ranking executive at Al Yamamah University commented that all existing contracts with INTERLINK's SIT employees will soon be changed and tightened making it even more "problematic" for these people to leave. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh has had multiple complaints filed by INTERLINK's teachers, and on a number of occasions advised those simply to leave the country.

Apparently, these disturbances have rocked foundations a bit and pressured INTERLINK to start looking at changing venues for its fellowship program (a common occurrence I discovered regarding their method of operation) to one of its attendant schools, Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. Mark Heckler, president of the school, was unavailable for comment.

Like most illegitimate operations, teachers in the program have met with broken promises and egregious treatment. One source said, "This organization recklessly and agilely circumvented its contractual obligations to me without cause other than to create fear and spread lies to keep iron-fisted control over its other employees." Another instructor referred to the program as a "complex and sophisticated scam."

A third teacher, now in the United States after having to flee the country with the help of the U.S. Embassy, said, "It is a deplorable situation. Families have been separated. People have been lied to. Inappropriate behavior and improprieties have been taken on students and staff members in a country where such things are punishable by death."

Ahad Shahbaz, president of INTERLINK in Golden, Colorado and Saudi Interlink Language Center in Riyadh, declined to be interviewed.

Jeffrey Stanton is an American freelance writer and photojournalist based in the Gulf. Prior, he worked as an international news researcher in Southeast Asia.