Shaped by conflict

The international student population of TU Delft has consistently grown during the last decade. While the majority of these students come from the EU, India and China, there is a growing number of students coming here from countries in conflict. Adjusting to life in a new culture has its challenges for anyone, but what is it like when you come from a country where war, political or social unrest is part of your personal experience?

(Photo: Marcel Krijger)

Motasem Abushaban (Palestine)
PhD candidate, Civil Engineering
(UNESCO-IHE)

The first time Motasem Abushaban remembers encountering the Israeli army he was only four years old. Driving home from the market with his father, they were stopped at a checkpoint when an Israeli soldier hit the car window with his gun. Abushaban recalled that was when his parents started explaining the reality of life in Gaza.

During the war of 2008–2009, Abushaban lost nine family members, all civilians. “It was the most terrible time for me,” he said. “The war started the day I finished my exams.” Leaving on foot that night the family walked 3 km until a relative took them to his house. “It was in fact terrible,” said Abushaban. “There were bombs and explosions everywhere. We had no electricity, water or gas and there was no food.”

It was not easy for Abushaban to get out of Gaza, but with the help of a Dutch ambassador he got a visa and a scholarship to come to Delft in 2012. A few days after he arrived here, another war broke out at home. “It was hard to think about my studies or focus,” he said. “People don’t seem to care because they think we always have trouble there.” It got so difficult that Abushaban stopped working and stayed home for some time until he knew his family was safe.

There were many adjustments for Abushaban coming to the Netherlands. He said during the first couple of months, the sound of planes flying overhead was terrifying. And the fireworks during New Year’s Eve celebrations were un-settling. “Every sound makes me think of bombs,” he said. But there were some good things, too. “When I arrived here it felt like paradise. In Gaza we don’t have groundwater so a truck comes every two weeks to fill your drinking water tank. Here you always have fresh, clean water,” said Abushaban, who is doing his PhD in seawater desalination. He also said that it felt very different knowing he could do what he wanted any time. “Everything is here, available, and people are kind. But that takes time to accept.”

(Photo: Marcel Krijger)

​Olga (Ukraine) MSc (2015), Aerospace Engineering

At the age of five, Olga already knew the word ‘shortage’. It was common to have food shortages at that time in Ukraine, but her family was fortunate to always have what they needed. “In the first grade I remember we received humanitarian aid from the US at school, including canned food,” said Olga, who asked Delta to use only her first name. She grew up in Kyiv, where she lived until Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. As the child of a diplomat, Olga also experienced life abroad. She recalled the first time her mother went to the US and entered a supermarket. “She cried,” said Olga. “It was hard to understand why there could be places that had so much while others were lacking so much.”

As a university student in Kyiv, Olga actively participated in the Orange Revolution, protesting the results of the presidential election in 2004 widely believed to be fraudulent. “It was very different because it was non-violent,” she said. “Not a drop of blood was spilled. After that the country had high hopes. The pressure from the protests forced the government to call for a revote.” Later during the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, Olga was in Delft pursuing a master’s degree. At home Ukrainians took to the streets in protest of then President Viktor Yanukovych, which turned out to be violent and deadly, with hundreds losing their lives. She worried not knowing the fate of friends and family who were involved in the protests.

Coming to the Netherlands, one of the most striking differences for Olga was the lack of corruption. “There are rules and people behave according to the rules,” she said. “Once you get used to these type of things and expect them, you go back home and get really frustrated.” Her life experiences have taught Olga that there are no hopeless situations. “You can spend a lot of time worrying about things, but if you deal with challenges by taking one step at time you can get through anything.”

(Photo: Marcel Krijger)

Zahrah Naankwat Musa (Nigeria) PhD candidate, Hydro-informatics (UNESCO-IHE)

Growing up in north-central Nigeria, Zahrah Naankwat Musa remembers a relatively happy childhood. She explained that conflict has come during recent years in the form of a bad economy, struggling democracy, a military that acts with impunity and the extremist group Boko Haram. Although her family was a bit more liberal, for Musa one of the biggest life challenges was marrying into a conservative, male-centred culture where girls are expected to marry young and forgo education, saying it has a lasting psychological effect on girls in her country.

“For women it is difficult,” she said. “Even with educated husbands, even if you have a job, that shouldn’t inconvenience your role at home.” So it was difficult for her own family to accept her ambitions when she decided to go overseas to study. “For women like me you either do it or you’re damned,” said Musa. “You either make sacrifices to get an education or you go back to the kitchen. And my society condones that, sanctions that.”

Making the difficult decision to leave her husband and children at home, Musa, went to France to pursue a master’s degree. Despite culture shock and what she described as a racially hostile environment, she graduated and returned home. Later, a growing passion for using data from space to protect water resources on earth led Musa to further her education in the Netherlands. “It was the hardest time for me because you are not allowed to bring your family with you when you come for a master’s,” she explained. Despite that challenge, Musa said coming to the Netherlands was great compared to her time in France. And starting her PhD meant one of her daughters was able to join her and is now doing a bachelor’s in aeronautics engineering here.

Musa has been inspired by recent events in Nigeria to become a social crusader for gender, rape and family balance issues in Nigeria. She explained that rape is becoming quite common, especially with minors. “Our society is very conservative and believes that when things like rape happen it is because of the women,” she said. “The victim is to blame.” Musa, who plans to go back to Nigeria, hopes her two teenage daughters can learn from her experiences. “Life is not always smooth,” she said. “You will have challenges; you can cry, but wipe away your tears and carry on.”

Photo: Marcel Krijger

​Amjad Majid (Iraq) PhD Candidate, Embedded Software Lab

For Amjad Majid, growing up in Iraq was a happy time. He recalls travelling together with his family and having frequent visitors at home. “The social part of life there is very good,” he explained. But those memories only lasted until the beginning of the 1990’s, when he said everything went bad very quickly.

In 1991 during the First Gulf War, Majid said the situation changed dramatically. His father, a successful businessman, lost everything in a couple of months. “The economic part was very difficult for people,” he recalled. Tensions continued until 2003, when the Americans waged war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. “We hoped the situation would be better, but it was much worse,” said Majid. “I saw many bodies in the street.” Majid experienced many traumatic events living in Baghdad. One of the worst moments was the night his 27-year-old brother was killed. His child had been sick so he went out to buy some fresh water, but never returned. “Where do you look? We looked all night and found him in the morning,” he said. Along with his family and neighbours, he also endured a 12 hour terrorist attack on their homes until they were relieved by American soldiers. “It is terrifying,” Majid said, “but what can you do but continue with your life?”

Coming to the Netherlands in 2009, Majid went on the do a master’s before starting his PhD. He faced financial challenges and difficulties getting the right to stay in the country. Majid said it wasn’t a nice experience, but he had a goal and was determined to succeed. Since arriving here, he has married and now has a child.

With family still in Baghdad, Majid says he often calls them just to make sure they are alive. He said the instability in Iraq prevents him from trying to build a future there. “I have experienced many difficult things in my life, but it doesn’t stop me,” he said. “I feel like it is my duty to work hard and contribute to improving life conditions wherever that is possible.”

This article was originally written by Heather Montague and appeared in Delta.