Safety is a key concern for parents of students wishing to study overseas, and the religious climate of a country is a piece of the safety puzzle.
Alex Jakubowski, executive director of Kahal: Your Jewish Home Abroad, an organization that connects primarily U.S. study abroad students to Jewish communities in their host countries, says it’s common for parents of students traveling to certain parts of Europeto ask if it’s safe for their children to practice Judaism there. “We tell them yes, for the very, very most part,” he says.
In addition to talking with organizations like Jakubowski’s, there are actions students and parents can take to get informed about the realities of practicing a religion abroad.
One step is to research the degree of religious tolerance in the host country that interests them, experts say. A resource to explore is the International Religious Freedom Report published by the U.S. Department of State, which details the status of religious freedom in countries around the globe.
If prospective international students are comfortable with the way their destination country treats different religions, reaching out to a local faith-based community can be a great way to ease the transition into life in another country.
“Don’t underestimate just how welcoming these communities can be and how glad they are that you’re there,” says Jakubowski.
Students can turn to members of a local religious community for support and guidance about what it’s really like to practice their faith in a particular city. Locals can offer practical advice, for example, by pointing out any neighborhoods where it would be safer not to openly observe their faith or wear religious symbols, says Jakubowski.
In addition to organizations like Jakubowski’s, university chaplains, faith-based university student groups and other organizations can help international students find local places of worship. International students can also ask leaders in their religious communities back home if they have any connections to faith communities in the city they’ll be traveling to.
“Just put yourself out there,” Jakubowski says, “because if you do it one time, the community will do the rest of the work.”
In addition to off-campus opportunities for worship and fellowship, students and parents can look into faith-based activities on international university campuses.
Some schools employ chaplains who offer worship services and opportunities for students to talk about spiritual matters.
The Rev. Canon Megan Collings-Moore, an Anglican chaplain at the University of Waterloo in Canada, says there’s a misconception that university chaplains are out to convert students. “At most chaplaincies, it’s not about converting you to their faith,” she says. “It’s very much about connecting you into where you need to be.”
For example, there are more than 100 Muslim student groups in the U.K. and Irelandalone, says Zara Mohammed, a vice president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, a national organization that works with these groups.
Islamic societies comprise a diverse mix of international and domestic students, which is one of the benefits of joining them, Mohammed says. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, international students in the Islamic society at Mohammed’s university, the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, took turns cooking and sharing foods from their home countries for iftar, the meal eaten after a day of fasting.
It’s not just Muslims who can find camaraderie in student groups – organizations exist for students of many faiths. A university’s website will often have information about the groups active on a particular campus, experts say. International students can also reach out to umbrella organizations like Mohammed’s FOSIS or the European Union of Jewish Students for help getting connected with groups on their campus.
Some schools have religious student groups that are specifically for international students. For example, in Australia, a ministry called the Fellowship of Overseas Christian University Students offers services, Bible study groups and social events geared toward students from other countries on around 25 campuses.
But no matter where in the world students go, there is a chance that they will encounter intolerance of some sort. If a student is bullied for their religious or cultural background, Mohammed says she encourages them to speak up.
“Just tell someone,” she says. “People will help you. Don’t feel like you need to accept it, you don’t.”
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