Basim Alansari

Reflection on the first cultural shock at the University

Exactly 20 years ago, I started at The University of Sydney as an international student. I had arrived with my family a few years back as a refugee and were given Temporary Protection Visas with no rights to fee assistance for tertiary education. So I had to commence my studies as a full fee paying international student. My twin sister and I borrowed money from family and friends to be able to make it to the University. I then had a choice to begin a degree for almost half the tuition fees on Orange Campus, a rural campus that was part of the University of Sydney back then, which eventually became part of CSU.

On 10th of March 2003, I entered Orange to begin my University studies and lived on campus accommodation.

I was welcomed by a beautiful region with endless vineyards, green hills, and seas of blooming flowers. Australia’s Colour City was mind-blowing with beautiful terrains and amazing nature crowned by its Mount Canobolas. Orange has distinguished four seasons with their own unique landscape colours that change throughout the year. In winter, it turned white with the snow covered trees and land reflecting the amazing spirit of the City and its inhabitants. In Spring, the flowers’ scent filled the air while feeling the happiness of fields of begonias in their multiple colours and shapes. Then summer was distinguishable with its heat and extreme green colour where all trees and lands laid their green carpet welcoming the harvest season of its vast vineyards. People head to Lake Canobolas for swimming, sailing and other activities. Then autumn comes when Orange turns orange through its beautiful trees lining its streets boosting their multilayered orange beauty.

While the natural beauty of Orange took my imagination to an amazing heights, the cultural shock brought me back to reality. First of all, the local culture revolved around drinking and partying. Something I’m not used to neither was prepared for. Secondly, how monocultural Orange was, including our campus. Where a very few international students were present, they were Chinese and naturally became my friends, especially one of them who we developed extremely special bond and still remain close. We were all looked at as aliens in a Campus and a City which was dominantly white with very few coloured faces.

My situation was made much more complicated, given the international events at the time and Australia’s participation in the so-called War on Terror. The post 9/11 reality was Islamophobic and xenophobic to the extreme extent of the problem. I was the most visibly brown and Muslim recent face on Campus and did not fit the norm.

Just in case my situation wasn’t complicated enough, my homeland, Iraq was invaded on 19th of March 2003. Just over a week after my arrival to Orange, I turned into the enemy within. The Iraq War was broadcasted on every television channel and the entire social conversations revolved around it. I was a “strange foreigner”, a “Muslim Terrorist” and an “Iraqi Tyrant” at the same time. The unconscious discrimination was wide spread, almost everyone avoided me or went out of my way. When I entered the lecture hall, students will move to the sides to keep a distance from me as if they didn’t want to be deemed criminals by association. My room was egged on multiple occasions and even spoiled milk was spilled on my door. The worst time came when in a lecture, the lecturer talked about the War in Iraq and a student said: “they’re all terrorists anyway so let them all die, who cares”. I put my hand up and said: “I’m Iraqi btw”. He replied: “oh I just meant the Muzzi ones!”. – “well, I’m a Muslim too!”.

I adapted to the circumstances by isolating myself. So to avoid everyone, I started waking up at 3am to eat, study and attend my classes till the afternoon, where I return to my room to sleep till the next day. This continued for a couple of months and had a huge impact on my mental health. I remember waking up at night crying from loneliness while hearing other students chatting and laughing in the dormitory.

The strange irony was that I am an extremely social person with lots of friends of various cultures back in Sydney. So this all had to change and it did when I took the initiative. Through a practical joke acting like a terrorist, I grabbed everyone in my dormitory’s attention and talked to them frankly about how I felt. To my surprise, none of them saw me as a threat or didn’t want me around. They just didn’t notice how I felt nor how the situation was bearing on me. I later got involved in campus life and even started very popular cultural events. With the help of other international students, we even added some more sports activities on campus to the traditional Aussie options. To the extent that in our graduation from Orange campus, the Dean in his speech mentioned Basim as someone who came into the campus feeling as an “alien” but soon became an influence on its culture and will be missed.

Upon reflection on those days, I learnt that we need to break the cycle around us and reach out. We need to sometimes take the initiative as others may not see their actions or words having an effect on you at all. People may not be racist inherently rather ignorant of how they maybe perceived by the young person who they’re interacting with and unintentionally causing them harm. So while I encourage the mainstream to be more self-aware and inclusive, I encourage the international students to also reach out and talk about it. Be the change you want to see and get involved in campus life. At the end of the day, the University education is not only restricted to the information and knowledge we’re gathering from textbooks rather it’s the interactions with our teaching staff, fellow students and society in general. It’s about the experience we gain and the network we build. It’s about the thinking process we adapt and the capabilities we build!

I’ll leave you with my rhyming words to keep in mind:

Don’t let others confine you

Don’t let others define you

Be life’s unique spice

Break the racist ice

Reach out when others can’t see

Learn from the wee honey bee

Has no time to waste

Leaves the sweetest taste

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