Are you a Muslim student who is planning to or is about to study abroad at university?
While there’s plenty of excitement at the prospect of studying and living abroad on your own, it can be tricky for Muslim students who find themselves a minority in their new home, with limited access to religious facilities or halal food options.
This is on top of the typical challenges international students face when studying abroad, such as dealing with culture shock and learning to deal with homesickness, among other things.
So how can you prepare, both mentally and physically, for your study abroad experience? Here are some tips:
Befriend other Muslim students
While you should make it your goal to befriend the locals and other international students, befriending other Muslims at your university can boost your sense of belonging.
This way, cultural and religious events, such as Ramadan or Eid celebrations, are less isolating and more fun to observe with the camaraderie of your Muslim brothers and sisters. However, avoid confining yourself to those from your community only.
For female Muslim students who don the hijab or shawl, pack a ready-to-wear or instant hijab to keep by your bedside for any emergencies.
This way, you won’t be caught off-guard and find yourself scrambling to put on a hijab should an emergency arise in the middle of the night.
Master your cooking skills
Depending on your location, halal food can be hard to come by so it helps to be skilled in the kitchen. This way, you can whip up some comforts of home in your student housing or home.
Google or ask around for halal or vegetarian eateries near your campus, too.
Learn to navigate potential awkward situations
“For the third time this week, I’ve had to politely and awkwardly refuse a handshake from a man. As a Muslim woman, part of practising my faith means that I wear a hijab, and don’t shake hands with, or hug anyone of the opposite sex. Yes, I know it might sound alien to some - especially as some Muslim women are okay with hugs and handshakes…” writes Hana Jaafar on Medium.
In some cultures, handshakes are the norm and are considered polite, but this can be tricky for pious Muslim women who don’t typically shake hands or hug men who are not in their family.
However, female Muslim students can politely apologise and explain their reason for not shaking hands with someone of the opposite sex as it has nothing to do with rejecting a person, but merely observing your religious belief.
Check whether your university offers support for Muslim students
“The Jew in the kippah, the Muslim woman in the hijab, the African American student walking across campus, the Latino kids gathered celebrating or just enjoying themselves in a park must feel as safe as anyone else.” – @deborahlipstadt MA’72, PhD’76 Read: https://t.co/ERfKJsnyHZ pic.twitter.com/9I9V0NQgqx
— Brandeis University (@BrandeisU) May 21, 2019
This year, Ramadan is held at a time when most universities hold their exams. Some students may find themselves fasting for 14 or even 20 hours, depending on where they are, which can be a challenge.
However, some universities are willing to support students who wish to practice their religious beliefs, so consider contacting your university or instructors in advance to inform them of religious holidays or observances to see whether it’s possible to make special accommodations. This could include extending the hours of dining halls for students to break their fast, and so forth.
Inside Higher Ed notes that Bryan White, senior lecturer at the University of Washington at Bothell, held two sessions of his final exam for students: one in the morning and the other late at night, for fasting Muslim students, giving them a chance to eat before the test.
This later led to a law being passed in Washington that requires professors to reschedule tests for students who are observing religious practices or holidays, as long as students provide written notice to their instructor.
Learn to protect yourself, both emotionally and physically, from possible abuse
Remember the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”?
Unfortunately, words can and do hurt us. Islamophobia is real and can come in various guises, be it verbal or physical abuse towards individuals or groups of Muslims, or attacks on places of worship.
Prejudice may be common or uncommon depending on where you’re studying, but regardless of your location, it pays to be prepared. Keep emergency contact numbers with you at all times, including numbers for the police and loved ones.
Remember to do your best to stay calm when faced with such a situation. Verbal assault can escalate to physical violence, so if you feel your physical safety is threatened, find a safer place to be. Sometimes, calling out on a verbal abusers’ inappropriateness can help, too.
Steve Whitehead notes on EMS1.com: “Try a response like, ‘That’s a very hurtful thing for you to say,’ or ‘Those remarks are highly inappropriate,’ or ‘I’m not going to engage in a conversation that’s profane or hateful’”.