Refugees Face Unique Challenges as College Students

PHOTO: Musadiq Bidar, 18 and a native of Afghanistan, is a freshman journalism major at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He dresses in jeans and collared shirts; he loves sports and currently holds two jobs: one as a scorekeeper for an inPlayCourtesy of Musadiq Bidar
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They come from wartorn countries like Afghanistan, or poor, politically unstable nations in West Africa, or places where expressing your views can land you in jail. They find new life in America, and for the young, a college education that may not have been available in their homeland becomes a possibility.

But for refugee college students, the transition can be a tricky one that few native-born U.S. college students can relate to.

After trying to learn the English language and make new friends, breaking through stereotypes that plague their nationalities can present a challenge.

Musadiq Bidar, 18 and a native of Afghanistan, is a freshman journalism major at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He loves sports and currently holds two jobs: one as a scorekeeper for an intramural basketball team, the other working at a drycleaning and laundry service on GW's campus.

His journey to the U.S. began when he was 4 years old and his father, a broadcast journalist for the Afghan National Radio Station, was being threatened by the Taliban.

The Taliban bombed the house, killing his grandfather and injuring his father. The family fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan. There they were given a bag of rice, a bag of flour, oil and an electric tent to live in.

"When you arrive to the camp, you are responsible for whatever money or possessions you bring in," Bidar told "You are also responsible to look for jobs and places to live once you're in the camp."

In 2003, the United Nations granted Bidar and his family refugee status, and they were relocated to Arizona; they stayed there until they moved to San Francisco, where a family friend from Afghanistan had been relocated.

"When I came to America, I didn't know any English. So having to go to school, and experience desks, textbooks and computers was overwhelming to me," Bidar said. In middle school Bidar not only caught up but surpassed his American classmates. And in high school he excelled at basketball.

Cultural Differences

Nevertheless, he told, "I have had to deal with racism since being in America."

"I've been called names and had people say certain disrespectful things about my culture. I've had people tell me that they thought I would be driving a taxi, or married with a child by now [instead of being in college]. But I feel as if their negative comments push me to work hard and break those stereotypes that are holding my people back."

Nawa Arsala, president of the Afghan Students Association at G.W. (Bidar is a member), believes that there are many differences between American students and foreign students, but the cultural differences are the ones that stick out the most. For example, Afghan students do not generally drink and go to parties, which she claims "is one of the things our American friends don't understand."

Though Bidar might look like the average student, he does not act that way. He looks you in the eye as he speaks, and his eyes suggest a responsibility and wisdom beyond his years. He is alert and speaks carefully, not as if he is choosing his words but as if he knows what he is talking about and exactly how he wants to say it.

Optimism About America, And a Desire to Return Home

Last year approximately 73,000, refugees made their way to America to seek asylum.

Among them was Kodgo, now a 24-year-old graphic design major at Montgomery College in Baltimore, who arrived in July 2010. He left Togo, in West Africa, to seek asylum status through his father, already living in America. Due to the sensitivity of the subject and the safety of his family remaining in Togo, Kodgo asked that his last name not be used and could not be as open with his story as Bidar.

But he did address the stereotypes he faces, in a phone interview with

"I have shocked people when I tell them I am studying [graphic] art in college," said Kodgo, who speaks proudly although he is still clearly learning English.

He said he believes that people are surprised by his career choice because "there are certain images of Africans that people have in their mind, and being in a proper educational setting, learning graphic design is not one of them." The images are of "Africans making clicking noises when they speak" or "not wearing real clothing."

Stereotypes Plague Refugee Students

Kodgo feels that the stereotypes that plague Africans will not ruin his American college experience. "Yes, having to deal with stereotypes is something that I will have to overcome, but I feel that if I continue keeping my positive spirit and attitude, negative words will not bother me."

"I am still learning the language, so trying to understand my peers and professors can be hard; but they work with me to make my learning experience better and each day my English learning experience gets better," he added.

"As of right now, I do not have any plans to return home," he said. "However, when I graduate and begin working I plan to have enough money to go back home and help my family and friends who are in need."

For students like Bidar and Kodgo, adjusting to college life can be difficult when their needs are different from their peers.

"Many refugee and asylee students come from countries where war and civil strife have dominated their lives," said Robert Warwick, executive director of the International Rescue Committee. "Often they and their families have had to flee their homes. They have lost their homes, belongings and in many cases, loved ones, including parents, grandparents and siblings. Often they have witnessed atrocities and can be deeply traumatized.

"Given a choice, almost all asylees and refugees would want to go home," he continued. "But this is not possible due to war and the destruction of social and economic systems in their homes."

However, both students want their American peers to know that, like them, they are your average college student.

"After reading this story, I want people to know that I'm a nice person who enjoys talking to my friends, drawing, and enjoying my time in school," said Kodgo.

"I don't want people to feel sorry for me when they read this story," said Bidar. "I'm just like every other college student; I work, I have fun, and I'm involved in on-campus extracurricular activities. The only thing I want people to take from this story is that you can do anything you set your mind to; you can make the most out of any situation and make anything possible." contributor Aja Johnson is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Washington, D.C.