International students find family on campus

Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 10:34 p.m.
Seated in an enormous chair at the head of a dining room table Friday, Rania Habib peers into a gold demitasse cup and talks of the future.
"You have some kind of sadness, but it's going away," Rania tells her friend. " . . . There is a big, black bird. He will bring good news to you. That's why your sadness will go away."
Habib, a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, learned to read fortunes from emptied coffee cups in her native Syria. Gathered with nine other international students Friday, Habib says the dried liquid patterns left in her friends' cups reveal their struggles, their hopes and even their future loves.
Just a few nights earlier, this group of students from across the world discussed the differences between the Muslim and Christian faiths. On any given night during the holiday break, they can be found at each other's homes, sampling traditional dishes like baklava and dolma, a rice dish wrapped in grape leaf.
"They have been my little family here, especially on these occasions," said Nadia Abdulhaq, who traveled from the West Bank to complete a doctorate in audiology at UF.
For many of the university's 3,000 international students, going home for the holidays is too expensive or too time consuming. So they wind up staying in Gainesville during the break, forming a community that crosses ethnic, religious and academic lines.
At the center of those events this year is Debra Anderson, UF's coordinator of international student services and a sort of mother/friend figure to students from abroad. She hosted a Christmas Eve party, coordinated mid-day get-togethers and opened her home for a round of Habib's fortune-telling.
On Friday afternoon, Anderson's home resembled a meeting of the United Nations. Students from Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, India and Argentina gathered, many carrying dishes they learned to prepare back home.
"They're all great cooks," Anderson said.
These students don't all share a common culture, but they do share the common experience of living in a country that is foreign to them. They share similar concerns as well, Abdulhaq said.
Foremost on their minds is "how to find other people," she said. They find each other through individual clubs, like the Turkish Student Association, or broad-based groups like UF's International Student Center.
Through these groups, particularly when there's time during the holiday break, international students exchange traditions - sometimes quite literally.
Semra Sadik, a Turkish Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, says she enjoys culture swapping. At a party last week Sadik wore traditional Indian dress, while her Indian friend borrowed from Sadik's traditional Turkish wardrobe.
Though their clothing may differ, Sadik says she's found that she has more in common with students from other countries than she thought she did when she arrived in Gainesville five months ago.
They have begun to learn each other's languages, finding that they share common words and phrases.
"The United States is a place that I can see and I can learn from people," Sadik said Friday.
Sadik says she interacts with Americans as well through her teaching, but she may be the exception. Anderson, who is from the United States, says she wishes there were more commingling between international students and the rest of campus. On the other hand, international students probably encounter more different cultures on the whole than their American counterparts, Habib said.
"That's the difference, I think, between international students and domestic students," she said. "Domestic students don't tend to integrate as much with other cultures."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or

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