Africa

Fearing the Unknown – Studying Abroad in North African (Islamic) Countries

I remember the exact moment I told my parents I wanted to study abroad for a semester in Morocco. My mom gave me her raised-eyebrows-concerned-face and said, with no small amount of hesitation, “If that’s what you really want to do …” My dad, on the other hand, demanded to know what could be so great about the country and insisted I’d probably get blown up. I told him it wasn’t as if I was going to a war zone in the Middle East.

“It’s Africa!” I said.

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” was his response.

Two years have passed since my return (in one piece) from Morocco, and I’ve grown accustomed to similar questions from other young women who want to study abroad in the Maghreb.

“How did you convince your parents you would be safe?” is their frequent query.

And it always bothers me that we have to find hundreds of explanations for studying abroad in a North African, Muslim country.

Photo by Lorraine Boissoneault

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand how dangerous certain parts of the world are, especially with the uprisings that occurred during the Arab Spring. And I’m also very aware of the prevalence of terrorism (it’s one of the main things I’ve studied in college). But I also know that a) you have just as high a chance of being unlucky enough to be in a terrorist attack in Europe as you do in Morocco and b) a lot of the fears about Morocco and other Muslim countries are based on media-filtered perceptions that all Muslim countries are dangerous.

You know the number one thing I had to worry about in Morocco (besides travelers’ stomach bug)?

Pick-pocketing.

At one point my cell phone was stolen out of my bag. That’s it. Nothing else bad happened to me or any of the people I knew, besides being harassed by men in the street (which is extremely annoying but not dangerous). This does not mention that Morocco is far from the worst country for pickpocketing. In fact, based on a list from The Huffington Post, eight of the top ten worst cities for pickpocketing are in Europe.

So how can we counter this misconception that these countries are hives of terrorist activity? I can’t say too much about other Islamic countries, but I do have advice for those who want to go to Morocco. The first thing I tell women who ask me is to show their parents the statistics on crime in Morocco. While petty crime like theft is a concern, assault is not as much of a problem, especially if students are sensible and travel in groups (true in most major cities at night around the world). Homicides are very low for the country.

Next, I suggest that they instruct their parents a bit more on the history and culture of Morocco. Explaining what is so fascinating about the country can go a long way in proving you’ve done your homework and you know what you’re getting yourself into. Morocco is a beautiful country with a very complicated past, and it is a great example of diversity and multiculturalism. Although there were aspects of my trip that I didn’t enjoy, it was overall a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget, and I hope to someday return.

Finally, I recommend asking if your parents would want to visit you while abroad (if they agree with your decision to go). This is not financially possible for everyone, but is another way of dispelling tenacious myths about the country’s dangers. There were several people in my study abroad group who invited their parents to visit, and all were pleasantly surprised by Rabat and the country in general.

Of course, there will sometimes be battles you just can’t win, and then it’s a matter of deciding if you’d rather go abroad or have your parents’ approval. But hopefully your efforts will have least opened their eyes to the possibility of Morocco (and similar countries) being more complex than they think. It’s time we stop viewing the world in terms of good place vs. bad place (i.e. Europe vs. everywhere else). All countries have their pros and cons, and limiting them to one or the other is more dangerous than being well-informed on all aspects before traveling.

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