Unexpected challenges can spark the most valuable insight.
Months before I moved to Morocco and COVID-19 hit, I was an international student struggling to find my place.
I remember feeling incredibly unsettled in the small town of Claremont, California, where I was finishing up my sophomore year of college as a Media Studies major.
The city’s pristine streets, elm tree lawns, expensive cafes, and niche boutiques that closed their doors as early as 5 p.m. were nothing like my hometown of Sarajevo.
Wrecked by several wars, Sarajevo oddly seemed stuck in time. I was used to its unique rawness; a disarray of abandoned buildings, and rows of Austro-Hungarian and socialist style apartment complexes overlooking a muddied river. I remember walking out of coffee shops with my hair smelling like smoke, the thundering sound of a tram passing nearby, and the cold winter breeze on an early December morning hitting my cheeks as I made my way to school.
California: My dream that became my headache
To me, Claremont represented wealthy America. I found it hard to navigate a myriad of Mediterranean houses and perfectly maintained front yards on my way to campus. The land was flat, and the streets were named after famous Ivy League schools. I would occasionally see its residents, primarily older, wealthy, and white Americans, at the local bank and supermarket. My peers also came from privileged backgrounds, and I was one of the few students on financial aid.
The lush green campus of my school required significant upkeep, and I would hear workers mowing the lawns and trimming the bushes early in the morning. Staff made sure we had enough toilet paper and food in the fridge, and cleaned communal spaces on the daily. I ate at the dining hall and regularly purchased expensive coffee, while complaining about writing papers and not having a single room.
I started to forget what real life was actually like, and the thought of going back to campus after my winter break sophomore year gave me nausea.
Right there, in the ‘’city of trees and PhDs,’’ as they like to call this small town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, I felt stuck and I wanted out. At least for a semester. Little did I suspect that my student life would soon feature Morocco, COVID-19, and an invaluable moment of self-realization.
Diverging from the beaten path
I knew that I wanted to study abroad early on. I quickly decided on a film program in Prague, having visited the city the year before. I think I ultimately wanted to be closer to home, and wanted a more “real” college experience—whatever that meant.
By the time junior year rolled around, I was working three jobs and trying to keep up with my classes. When it was finally time for me to apply for a student visa, I found the process would likely take months. After weeks of putting together paperwork, I heard I would not receive my visa on time.
Crushed with the realization that I could be spending another semester in Claremont, I walked into my study abroad adviser’s office looking for an alternative. With COVID-19 far off our radar, she suggested I take a look at a journalism program in Morocco that was still accepting student applications. Without hesitation, I applied the very next day.
Life as a student in Morocco at the onset of COVID-19
I arrived late in Rabat. My flight was delayed, and at some point during my 10-hour journey, the airline lost my luggage. I remember barely sleeping the first night and waking up to one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.
As I settled into my new life in Rabat’s medina, I began to enjoy moments like eating breakfast in the morning with my host family, and finally started to read again. I felt like I was no longer rushing to get anywhere else, and I quite enjoyed being right where I was.
As a journalism student, I spent time before the emergence of COVID-19 learning about the history and culture of Morocco, while also interviewing and talking to young Moroccans. I quickly learned that while we were coming from different places, we happened to share experiences that I could never discuss with my American peers back at Claremont. Difficult feelings of deciding to leave or stay in our home countries, and the inevitable burden that the move itself carries, was something I could finally verbalize. I felt like I was actually being understood.
As the academic portion of my program was coming to an end, I was excited to spend a month living in Casablanca. I remember wanting to go to a restaurant that was designed to recreate a scene from the iconic film, and I enjoyed my silly fantasy of bragging about my visit to my cinephile friends.
An unwelcome interruption
The pandemic quickly shattered that dream. Instead of planning for my solo life in a big city, I was looking at one-way tickets back home. Borders soon closed, and standard international flights halted.
As I sat by myself in a hotel room in Rabat, my phone blowing up with WhatsApp messages, I quickly began to question my journey to study abroad. While the majority of my friends were sitting comfortably in their homes and preparing to quarantine, I was coming up with escape plans that all resulted in canceled tickets.
I eventually boarded a flight to the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague on March 19, fully believing I would get stuck there. The Bosnian ambassador in Czechia, a young woman with whom I had been texting back and forth, stayed on the phone with me as I nervously approached border control. They let me spend the night there to wait for my flight to Istanbul, from where I would eventually fly to Sarajevo.
The airport was empty and dead silent. All of the stores were closed, and the few passengers that were there soon left. I tried to sleep under the bright neon lights on a smell bench overlooking a parked plane. With COVID-19 fading to the back of my mind, I envisioned my student self back in Morocco, thinking about a version of myself that I quite liked and have missed ever since.
From adversity comes understanding
It was hard for me to understand why I needed to leave Claremont so desperately.
In the eyes of my friends and family, I got a full ride to a prestigious private university in southern California and had nothing to complain about. I now know that as a low-income international student from a developing country I felt like an imposter, a fraud, that did not deserve to be in the very institution that accepted me.
As a student in Morocco, I started a healing process that was cut short due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not exactly sure when I will regain the same inner peace.
In any case, I would love to get to see that Casablanca restaurant at some point.