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Food, Tradition Help Homesick Students Stay Connected


FILE - A young woman wearing a hijab stands amongst U.S. national flags erected by students and staff from Pepperdine University to honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, at their campus in Malibu, California, Sept. 10, 2016.

At first, Khadija Ghanizada had a tough time adjusting to the United States.

She was 17 when she first came to America on a full scholarship in 2017 to attend Emma Willard School in rural upstate New York, far from any metropolis. That was tough for Ghanizada, who came from Kabul, Afghanistan's largest city, populated by nearly 5 million people.

She missed the busy street life.

"Slowly, day by day, I started to make friends and adjust to American culture, food and the people around me. I watched American teen TV shows to learn about my peers and what they like and dislike," she said.

Ghanizada eventually moved 60 miles south along the Hudson River, toward New York City, to attend Bard College, where she is a junior. But she still remembers her early years in the U.S.

Founded in 1814, Emma Willard School is one of the oldest boarding schools for girls in the U.S. When Ghanizada attended, even though 25% of the students were not from the U.S., there were no other Afghans — or Pakistanis or others from neighboring Muslim-majority countries.

"At Emma Willard, there were only two of us who wore a headscarf," or a hijab, she said. "For me, wearing a headscarf is a simple way to keep a tie to my country. It is not for religious reasons. It is the only thing I can hold on to and express myself. It helps with homesickness."

But to some people, she said, her headscarf suggested she was a serious Muslim who prayed five times a day.

"I felt uncomfortable wearing a headscarf during the Trump administration and its ban on travel to the U.S. from Muslim countries, and I thought of giving up my headscarf for my own safety," she said. "But I kept it because it made me feel close to home. I miss my family and Afghan food, but I remind myself that I made a choice to be here to get a good education and make a future."

FILE - Performers sing during the popular television music competition "Afghan Star," in Kabul, March 9, 2017.
FILE - Performers sing during the popular television music competition "Afghan Star," in Kabul, March 9, 2017.

She watches TV shows online that she and her family would watch at home, such as the hugely popular "Afghan Star," modeled on "American Idol." She talks with her family weekly. She also cooks Afghan foods such as qabili and bolani.

FILE - A young Afghan street vendor prepares bolani (fried bread stuffed with potatoes) at his stall in Mazar-i-Sharif, July 14, 2018.
FILE - A young Afghan street vendor prepares bolani (fried bread stuffed with potatoes) at his stall in Mazar-i-Sharif, July 14, 2018.

"You can always go back home, but you can never get another opportunity to study in the U.S., and this motivation helped me overcome homesickness," she said.

More than 1 million international students seeking a world-class education attend college or university in the U.S., according to the Institute for International Education, headquartered in New York. They come to the U.S. typically around age 18, alone and without family to help them unpack their belongings in their new dorm rooms.

From Barbados

Nicholas Trotman left Barbados for the U.S. to attend high school at United World College (UWC) in New Mexico. He said he had a difficult time adjusting to American culture because it was so different from his own.

"I had a gradual adjustment to American culture, food and new friendships. When I came here, I had to start my life all over again," he said.

"We came together as international students and saw each other's differences, as well as how much we have in common," Trotman said. "And we were all homesick and could help each other."

New friends were key to helping him overcome homesickness, he said. They became like his family, and he never felt left out.

From Bangladesh

Siam Hussain, from Bangladesh, also attended UWC.

"It was hard to adjust to a new place, culture and people. One thing I am good at is making friends very quickly and getting adapted to the environment and people," Hussain said.

Spending time with friends and keeping himself busy with school helped him not dwell on how much he missed his family. He tried to not be alone. He loves cooking, so he made Bangladeshi food, which also helped.

"It has been my dream since childhood to study abroad, and I have to deal with all these feelings and achieve my goals and get a good education," he said.

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