Student and lonely (4): ‘The individualistic lifestyle is hard for me’
One of the biggest problems in modern student life is loneliness, also for internationals. It is much talked about by university officials and student representatives, but what is it like for students? Vox interviewed some of them about being lonely. This time: Hakim Hamdani, from Afghanistan.
‘I experienced quite a culture shock when I came here,’ says Hakim Hamdani (38), master student in Chemistry, from Afghanistan. ‘I had lived in several places in Europe before, such as Switzerland, but went back to Afghanistan for ten years before I came to The Netherlands. I did not know how things worked. On top of that, I did not know anyone, and then there was the matter of the big age difference between me and everyone else.’
Hamdani had issues finding a study programme. ‘If you you write an e-mail and say: “I’m from Kabul and I want to study here”, people don’t take you seriously. Eventually Radboud accepted me for a pre-master programme.’ During the pre-master, he took courses from three different study years. ‘I don’t easily make friends, I should say that. So of all those people from that time there is actually only one that I became friends with, and we are still friends. I would just go back and forth from uni to home, home to uni. It was the end of summer, the weather was turning bad, there wasn’t much going on outside anymore.’
‘If I find someone interesting and would like to get to know them better, it takes time.’
Hamdani felt very lonely at that time. ‘I know a lot of people at my faculty and I come across as a social guy, but I think I still have difficulty approaching people. If I find someone interesting and would like to get to know them better, it takes time.’ He thinks this might have something to do with his background in Afghanistan. ‘In my country there is war, sometimes my emotional experience tends to be quite different from that of people who have lived here. You can’t talk to everyone about that. I kind of start making the difference between an acquaintance and a friend, with whom I can talk about that.’
The first half year I spent a lot of time just in my room, studying and missing home, my friends, family. That was pretty bad. I also didn’t know where to go to spend my free time. Not that there was much, because they kept us quite busy.’
One day, Hamdani was speaking to his study advisor and she recommended him to go to Meat and Eat, at the Chaplaincy. ‘I was a bit reluctant to go there, but in the end I made a Facebook account and went,’ he says. ‘I ended up meeting a lot of people. We decided to do an Afghan night, actually, that was really nice and it was really well-received.’ It made things a little better for him.
‘But still, I have to say that as nice as Meet and Eat is, it’s a bit transient. Just because you meet people there, doesn’t mean you meet them outside,’ Hamdani says. ‘So I still mostly had that one friend, from my laboratory class. We met every few weeks, which is not much, but you don’t want to overburden anyone. Then I actually once ended up going to the Huiskamer, which is like the Dutch version of Meet and Eat. And there I met my other friend. She is very open to people from other cultures and understanding that for me some things are strange when I look at this country. No matter how long I am here, there are certain things about me that will probably always stay Afghan.’
‘Life in Afghanistan is extremely social, you are practically never alone. This individualistic lifestyle like it exists here, isn’t a thing in Afghanistan. If people are alone, they get taken in somewhere,’ says Hamdani. ‘It was a very drastic change coming to the Netherlands. I started teaching here, undergraduate labs, so I’ve come across many students that went through the same things as I did when I first came. It does take time, and some students are lucky and others are not.’
I think it’s also my own hesitation to call a friend and ask if they want to meet up.
For Hamdani, things changed a bit when he started his masters. ‘I went to the research department at the faculty, to do my first internship. That was quite a different experience. There were suddenly people from different countries. There was more of a collegial atmosphere, you didn’t study together, you worked together in a lab. And there I actually made another friend, also Dutch. I think I score very high on having lots of Dutch friends. We used to do experiments together in the lab and actually worked on the same project, so we had a lot of contact.’
Even after all this, there are still days when Hamdani feels terribly lonely. ‘Mostly those are days when I am sitting at home, for example because it’s a day off, or because I am ill. And things have been weighing on my mind or it’s been a tough week, you sit at home and there is no one to talk to,’ he says. ‘Those days are still tough. I think it’s also my own hesitation to call a friend and ask if they want to meet up. I suppose it’s not only down to other people that you feel lonely. You have to take steps yourself as well.’
However, things are getting better. ‘Since the beginning of this year I feel like things are looking up. There are fewer days when I feel lonely. I am able to tell myself that tomorrow is a new day, and tomorrow I will start afresh.’ His tip for others? ‘Try to learn Dutch. People often come from countries where it’s not possible to learn Dutch, unless you study by yourself. On the other hand, some people don’t want to learn it. They know that they come here for a certain amount of years and then they will leave. But that also prevents you from getting to know the society and the people.’