It was on a hot summer night in 2009 that four foreign students – a woman and three men – arrived in the city to pursue higher studies at the Punjab University. The university driver stopped outside a building and told them to get off. Joe* and the girl were collecting their bags when the driver said, “No! Only the girl gets off.”
Joe recalls that he did not understand the driver’s sharp command until he explained that they would get into trouble if seen ‘loitering around’ the gate. “These are the girls’ hostels,” the driver told them, “No male students are allowed here.”
Joe, a Kenyan, and his friends – two Nepalese and another Kenyan – say they had to work hard to adjust. And it is about things other than “the extreme weather, power outages and no air conditioning”.
As many as 147 foreign students are enrolled at the Punjab University– the highest number at a university in Lahore – including 29 from Nepal, 26 from Sudan and 21 from Iran. Others belong to Somalia, Nigeria, Myanmar and Bhutan.
The foreign students say that the attitudes of fellow students don’t make adapting to the culture any easier. “Most of the students behave oddly when they come across a foreign student. A few months ago, I spotted a group of students taking pictures of me with their cell phones. They didn’t stop even after I told them to leave me alone,” said Joe.
A Bhutanese student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also complained about people not caring for other people’s privacy. A Kenyan, complained about the quality of accommodation and food at the foreign students’ (male) hostel in Garden Town.
The students say that they still haven’t gotten used to the tyranny of student organisations. “In the beginning, I was surprised to see so many classes getting cancelled as a result of a strike called by one student group or the other,” said Jai*, a Nepalese.
Eddie*, another Nepalese who is doing an M Phil, said he had been stopped many times and “encouraged” to convert to Islam. “They act as if everyone’s religion is their business. Such attitude makes it very hard to share ideas freely,” he said.
Chaudhry Iftikhar, the university student adviser, claimed that the number of foreign students seeking admission has gone up in the last two years. “It fell post 9/11 but is on the rise now,” he said.
Iftikhar said that language was the biggest problem foreign students faced “but most of them adjust within a few weeks.” Asked about the complaints regarding food and accommodation, he said, “If they have any issues with the food or the hostels, they can always rent a place off campus.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the students
Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2012.