How religion helps international students connect
By Fiona Redmond
Bryn Mawr College offers a unique melting pot of students from all over the world.
International students come from all over the globe—from Turkey, to Kenya, to Vietnam—to study in America, bringing with them new traditions and perspectives.
Religious life on campus reflects the students’ various backgrounds, and each student uses religion in a different way: for personal comfort, to stay connected to home, or to start building communities of their own.
These are the lives of four international Bryn Mawr students, each coming from vastly different parts of the world, and how religion helped them create a new life in America.
“Home country?” asks Aliya Chaudhry, Bryn Mawr class of 2018. “I’ll just go through the list.”
Chaudhry’s passport was well used even before she was 10 years old. Born in the U.K., Chaudhry has lived in the Britain, Pakistan, New York City, and Kenya, all before coming to America for college.
Chaudhry lived in the U.K. for two years, before moving to Pakistan until she was four. Despite this short stay, Pakistan is the only country that Chaudhry has citizenship from, and the country that both of her parent’s grew up in. Chaudhry then moved to New York City for five years, before moving to Nairobi, Kenya, where she has lived up until coming to college.
Her father works in Somalia, but Nairobi is what she calls her family’s “home base”, and where her mother, father, and sister live while Chaudhry’s at school.
All this moving around effected how Chaudhry viewed her connection to Islam. “Because I moved around so much I didn’t really have much of a culture.” She said. “Religion in a lot of ways substituted for that.”
And, according to Chaudhry, coming to Bryn Mawr has helped further this connection to her religion. In Kenya, Chaudhry is part of what she calls an “interesting situation”—a strong minority of Muslims and other expats living in a country that has a Christian majority. In fact, Chaudhry felt that religion in general was looked down on at her high school.
However, after coming to Bryn Mawr, Chaudhry has found a community within the Muslim Student Association (MSA), for which she is the club publicist, and other Muslims on campus.
“Recently, I’ve taken a more active role in my religion.” she said.
According to Chaudhry, the MSA focuses more on community building rather than actual prayer. She would like to see discussions of religion and Friday night dinners to increase in the future.
Chaudhry doesn’t mind that the MSA members don’t actively worship together; she has always felt religion was a more private affair. She and her family used to pray together, and since coming to college Chaudhry still finds it easy to take time from her day-to-day life at Bryn Mawr to worship. She prays in between classes, in her room, and even took a renewed interest in reading the Qur’an.
“Being around more Muslims and having that space to talk about [religion] did make me more invested in religion.”
According to Chaudhry, being away from her family made her feel lost at sea, looking for some kind of connection to be grounded in.
“I was feeling alone and I needed something to connect to” she said, recalling how she felt her first few months of living abroad. “It’s like, spiritually, needing that connection.”
Chaudhry says she feels more comfortable practicing religion at Bryn Mawr, but there is still a cultural unawareness about Islam that permeates the campus,
“And that can be a little awkward.” she said sheepishly.
But that doesn’t stop her from having a positive and optimistic attitude about the future of the MSA and Muslim community at Bryn Mawr.
“It’s a really good community.” she said with a smile.
Fiona Benmayor, a Bryn Mawr senior, talked quickly and concisely. When she wasn’t gesticulating with her hands, she would pause a moment for breath, and to take a bite of her sandwich. She’s the embodiment of “places to go, people to see,” yet still devotes time and passion to the tasks in front of her.
And that passion is clearly transferred to her religious beliefs, and her love for her native country, Turkey.
Benmayor grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, before moving to Boston, Massachusetts with her family when she was 15. According to Benmayor, they moved to America for the better education system, mostly for her younger brother, who has learning disabilities.
In Turkey, Benmayor is one in about 17,000 Jewish people who live in a country that has a population of almost 75 million people, according to the World Bank.
“We were such a small community that we all knew one another, and that made us very traditional.” said Benmayor, remembering her life in Istanbul.
It was her family’s Jewish identity that helped them settle when first coming to America, connecting them to a new community of Jewish people away from home. Although it was difficult to retain the same religiosity that they did in Turkey, the Benmayor’s still used their Jewish roots to stay close as a family.
“Our level of religiousness has fluctuated throughout time, but we always come together for Friday night dinners.” She said smiling. “I kind of miss that in college.”
But while Benmayor celebrated the Jewish high holidays and went to Synagogue when living with her family in Turkey and in Boston, that didn’t necessarily reflect her own religious values. According to Benmayor, coming to Bryn Mawr—and living on her own for the first time — helped her define these values more fully and learn how to practice religion on her own terms.
“Since I came to college I’ve become more religious in a different way, because for the first time I can choose if I want to participate in certain events.” she said.
And this choice has lead Benmayor to connect with Judaism in new ways. She is involved with the Bi-Co Chabad and Hillel House, and even went to Israel during her junior year with members of the Chabad group.
“[I’m] living alone, and that gives me more authority to decide what I want to do” She said, gesturing to herself with her hands. “I want do my own thing. I don’t want to be forced.”
But some of the decisions that Benmayor is making, she wasn’t even aware of before coming to America. The divisions of Judaism—orthodox vs. reform, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic, —were all new to Benmayor.
“In Turkey I never even knew there were categories.” she said. “[My family is] technically orthodox, I grew up conservative, and at times we’re reform!”
Benmayor’s family had to learn these distinctions to know which Synagogue to become a part of, and how to organize her younger brother’s Bar Mitzvahs, even though the distinctions were never thought of in Turkey.
While coming to Bryn Mawr, and practicing Judaism in America has opened Benmayor up to a whole new world of her religion, she still recognizes the importance of staying in touch with her Turkish roots, and is visiting Istanbul this December.
“It’s important to have a community to fall back on.” she said.
And for Benmayor, that community spans across the Atlantic Ocean.
Sophomore Hezel Gadzikwa sits behind the front desk in the Bryn Mawr Campus Center. Her boss comes by to tell her she’s leaving for the night.
“You should live at Bryn Mawr.” joked Gadzikwa. “You could be my roommate!” Gadzikwa’s boss rolls her eyes fondly, as though she’s heard this request every day since Gadzikwa started working at the Campus Center.
Almost everyone who passes by the front desk waves to say “hi” to her. It is this kind of friendly nature that allows Gadzikwa to have such a wide circle of friends, and her devotion to Christianity has only helped in meeting new people.
Gazikwa hasn’t been back to her home country of Zimbabwe since she first came to Bryn Mawr, almost a year and a half ago. Her whole family lives in either the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, or the village of Guruve. It was in Zimbabwe that Gadzikwa was baptized Catholic, and raised to go to church every Sunday.
Religion is important to Gadzikwa’s family: while her father is not as much of a believer, her mother is very religious, but usually she has to stay at home and work, which cuts down her time to go to church. And for Gadzikwa, she’s in the majority: according to the Nations Encyclopedia, 60-70% of people in Zimbabwe are Christian
“You wake up, you pray. Midday, you pray. At night, you pray.” she said, referring to her daily schedule when she spent time living with her devout aunt in Harare. “Religion is very important to me; it’s part of who I am.”
Coming to Bryn Mawr, Gadzikwa has used her connection to Christianity to meet new people, and become part of a community. While she doesn’t go to church every Sunday, she is part of the Bryn Mawr chapter of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which hosts events and gatherings with the Haverford and Swarthmore chapters.
“I met my boyfriend through InterVarsity.” she says, blushing slightly.
But while her faith led her to many new friends at Bryn Mawr and beyond, Gadzikwa still sees a lot of differences from how she used to practice back home.
“I hardly go to Catholic church anymore.” she says, shaking her head. “At home if you’re new, they say you know, welcome, tell us where you live, you can have Thursday and Saturday Masses with us, if you need a ride to church….”
According to Gadzikwa, the Masses in America are much more impersonal. “Everyone leaves before the preacher is even finished!”
Gadzikwa also noted that religion isn’t a popular topic of conversation on campus. While she always has felt that Bryn Mawr is a safe space for her to practice, she feels as though some people “run away” from discussing religion in a public setting.
But that doesn’t dampen her spirits in regard to the community she’s become a part of in America.
“Just having a lot of friends who believe in the same thing you do, it’s beautiful.”
Phuong Mai Nguyen
For Phuong Mai Nguyen, class of 2018, coming from her home in Hanoi, Vietnam to Bryn Mawr has been an eye-opening experience, especially in regards to religion.
“I am not strongly religious” she says, as she closes her laptop and sits down on the couch at the busy cafe. “But my family believes in Buddhism.”
And according to Nguyen, a majority of the people in Vietnam are the same. Nguyen’s mother strongly believes in Buddhism, and goes to the Pagoda—a Buddhist building of worship— the first of every month on the eastern calendar. And while this devotion has influenced Nguyen, it is not the most important aspect of her life.
“I look at Buddhism from a different perspective.” she said.
Nguyen prefers to read texts on philosophy and meditation, rather than go to the Pagoda to pray. This interest in Buddhist literature and philosophy has only increased since coming to Bryn Mawr. Also, as she explains: “I don’t go to Pagoda here because there is no Pagoda”.
So instead, Nguyen has taken her Buddhist roots as a way for self- improvement, and her home life in Vietnam as a way to reflect on the religious environment in America.
“My religious values as Buddhist didn’t change much, but I grow appreciation for the diversity of religions.” said Nguyen, referring to her transition from Vietnam, a country made up mostly of Buddhists, to America, where religion is much less homogenous.
Coming to America, Nguyen was surprised at the intensity to which religion can be practiced, let alone the amount of religions that are present. She notes how exciting it is to finally be exposed to diversity that was not present in Vietnam.
Even though there aren’t many Buddhists on campus, Nguyen doesn’t mind. For her, religion is much more personal, and based on self-improvement rather than outright devotion. And coming to Bryn Mawr has encouraged this exploration in Buddhist philosophy.
For each of these students, who came from all across the globe, religion was a foundation for their lives in America. And each student has found a way to create a community thousands of miles away from home.