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JustHere | December 10, 2016

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Students in Qatar: Dealing with cultural barriers

Students in Qatar: Dealing with cultural barriers
Sukanya Seshadri

Universities in Qatar comprise a diverse mix – Qataris, long-term expatriate residents and students who study here for a semester or year. Apart from the challenge students all over the world face in transition from school to university, in Qatar there is the added challenge of dealing with stereotypes and prejudices.

In some cases it might be a lack of awareness. For instance, in Qatar University student Maimoona Rahman’s case, her classmates assumed that just because she appeared South Asian, she spoke Hindi or Urdu. “I’m from Bangladesh, and I don’t speak any of these languages.” For Maimoona, the culture in her university seems to be one of conformity. “South Asian students tend to wear abhayasand shaylas. Perhaps that’s part of their effort to fit in. Another experience that I remember is one in a comparative religion class I took. A girl in the class commented on how advanced the Indus Valley Civilisation was but she criticised the religion (Hinduism) for being primitive. This was an isolated incident though.”

Rezwan Islam, an alumnus of Northwestern University Qatar (NUQ), adapted himself quite well to his new environment. “I was born and raised in Qatar and I attended Qatar Academy, where my classmates were from all over the world. So at university, I knew how to connect with different people. People were very friendly too, so it wasn’t a big challenge for me. There will be cliques everywhere and my South Asian friends might share some of my sensibilities and might understand me better than my Western friends, but that does not mean I shouldn’t interact with them.”

We don’t look at diversity just as a matter of nationality or culture; it is also about ideologies, perspectives and opinions.

Shruti Iyer, a junior at Stenden University grew up and attended an Indian school in Doha and had never had much interaction with people from other backgrounds. It was a culture shock. “Coming from an Indian school and being the only Indian amongst Arab classmates at university. They spoke their own language, which I couldn’t follow. It was hard to make friends initially.

“Eventually, I made friends with some Indian students who were senior to me. During the course of my time here though, many classes required interaction with other students due to group projects and assignments. Through these, I got introduced to my classmates from different countries and I now have friends from many parts of the world. We share a mutual respect for each other’s cultures. Even if I’m seated at a table with students of other nationalities, to be considerate they usually make an effort to speak in English so I can understand their discussions too.”

Issues that people face may be minor ones such as adaptation troubles that can be resolved over time. Others may be more serious and in these cases, intervention or help from others may be required. Also, students aren’t the only ones facing these issues. Staff and faculty members are not immune to these either as proven in the case of Dorje Gurung, a teacher hailing from Nepal, who taught at Qatar Academy. He was falsely charged with insulting Islam following an argument with a 12-year-old student earlier this year and was detained by the police in Qatar for twelve days. This caused a major uproar in the international community, who actively petitioned to free him. An obvious lack of understanding for cultural differences turned into a full-blown human rights issue. That incident figures amongst cases that were poorly dealt with by those in-charge.

The role of universities

Most universities, while trying to create a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for students, also try to encourage them to value the differences between themselves and others through activities and events.

Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMUQ), for example, runs several such programmess throughout the year. Director of International Education at CMUQ, Melissa Deschampes told JustHere, “Around 40% of our students are Qataris and around 22% are international students. From my perspective as a member of the International Education office, we try to reinforce or re-energise students to have conversations along the lines of ‘this is who I am, who are you?’ These go beyond the nationality on passports because you may see the diversity everyday, but you don’t necessarily go deeper, and this is what we are trying to achieve through our programmes. During the year, we don’t look at diversity just as a matter of nationality or culture; it is also about ideologies, perspectives and opinions.”

Although events and programmes are a great exercise in getting students to befriend one another or to at least develop a better mutual understanding, these are only successful if all students are equally enthusiastic about attending them.

For instance, Habeeb Abu-Futtaim, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar (VCUQ) shares his observation and experience. “Attendance at most events at our university is made mandatory through grades. So students attend them reluctantly and not all of them may appreciate these as a result. Also, most people who attend these events tend to be friends of the organisers. Many students tend to form their own cliques during these and eventually, one or a few individuals might end up feeling excluded.”

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