From Maastricht to Sharjah

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"I accidentally got on the wrong bus and found out midway that I was actually going to Belgium," said AUS student, Farah Abu Tair.

Jana Samy Elghoraby

Farah Abu Tair, a Palestinian sophomore pursuing her computer engineering degree at the American University of Sharjah, is sitting at the library with her double shot iced shaken espresso in one hand. She holds her phone with the other and scrolls through her social media accounts. Her curls frame her oval face. She wears a subtle amount of makeup only to highlight her soft features. Abu Tair takes out her laptop gently from her bag to begin studying. I notice that the laptop has a United World College sticker. When I enquire, she says she completed her high school education at UWC in the Netherlands. “It was my home before AUS,” she says. 

Why did you initially travel to the Netherlands? 

I traveled to the Netherlands because I got accepted at United World College, which is a boarding school with branches all over the world. Although their main branch is in the UK, I attended the one in Maastricht. The institution gives scholarships to students from different regions and is considered to be both a movement and a college. The college uses education as a utility to unite people and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

At what age did you move to the Netherlands? 

I was sixteen when I first left my home in Palestine and traveled to the Netherlands to attend UWC. 

What was it like leaving your family at a young age and traveling to a different country? 

Of course, it was hard at first, since I was young. I did get used to it though. It was an experience that I had to take because it helped me grow as a person. 

How did you get into UWC? 

I got into UWC by applying to their Global Selection. They basically choose one or two people from each country and I was lucky enough to get chosen. I actually had to go through a long selection process and multiple interviews to get in. This is what makes it a prestigious boarding school though, because the students who attend are carefully handpicked. Since the Netherlands is a free country, we were able to express activist opinions in our meetings. As students, we were asked to represent our countries by attending conferences and social gatherings. By the end of your time there, you get a an IB and a UWC diploma. 

How was your experience at UWC? 

Like every other life experience, my time at UWC was both positive and negative. It was of course positive because I was able to make lifelong connections with people from different places in the world. Although everyone there came from different backgrounds, all the students who attended were chosen according to the same standards. This is really what makes UWC an ideal community. I even remember that the Nigerian Prince attended with us and had to live in a dorm with four other students, just like the rest of us.  The negative aspect though stems from having to separate from my friends and family at a relatively young age. I had to learn how to be dependent in a culture that was drastically different to the one I grew up in. Although this allowed me to grow in so many aspects, it was at the time quite a huge responsibility.

How was your experience having a roommate? 

I had four roommates. Each person in the room came from a different nationality. This was intended so that we get to mingle with people who are in their cultures, different to us. This obviously enabled the interchange of traditions and required a whole lot of adaptation. Meaning I had to understand the people around me. We all had a shared bathroom with the room next to us. So, eight people in total shared the same bathroom. 

Me and my roommates used to help each other make our meals and manage our living situation. I did become friends with the people in my room and am actually still in touch with a lot of them. I remember my Italian roommate in particular used to often make me Italian meals. In fact, when I visited Spain a few years ago, I stayed with the Spanish friends I made at school. Again, since all the students at UWC were carefully chosen and were genuinely respectful, open-minded people, the troubles we faced were minimal. Each year we had to change our roommates to meet new people from different nationalities. 

How long did you stay at UWC? 

I stayed at UWC for two years. I studied grade 11 and 12 there. 

Did you ever travel to the Netherlands before going to the school? 

No, I haven’t actually. Before moving away from my friends and family in Palestine, I had never before visited the Netherlands but it was definitely a place I wanted to experience living in at some point in my life. 

Can you remember a situation that you encountered there? 

A situation I will never forget is when I got lost on my first day there. I accidentally got on the wrong bus and found out midway that I was actually going to Belgium. I know, crazy. Since there are no borders between both countries you can easily get from the Netherlands to Belgium. I didn’t know any places in the country and had to figure it out on my own. It was scary at the time but I now look back at this and laugh. After that, I found out that it was quite common for people to go from the Netherlands to Belgium by bus. I even went on a biking trip with my friends to Belgium. It was pretty cool to be honest. 

How was the situation resolved? 

I nagged the bus driver to let me depart the bus and he did. I got out and had no idea where I was or how to get back. A police officer then saw me and asked me what was wrong. I explained to him how it was my first day and how I found myself on the wrong bus. He helped me get back to the college. He’s actually a person I don’t think I will ever forget. He was just so friendly and helpful. I now look at this situation at think how it may have foreshadowed the rest of my experience in the Netherlands. I found my way, learned loads and grew extensively on the journey.