All foreign students have diverse backgrounds and reasons to come to Russia. Some are just fascinated by Russian culture. Others are looking for an opportunity to make friends from all over the world.
The heroes of this interview, Wanda Umagapi and Muchammed Isa, came all the way from Indonesia to Russia, to learn how to deal with major issues in their motherland.
Isa: My name is Muchammad Isa. My friends call me Isa. I am enrolled in the Master’s program in Public Policy and Political Analysis at HSE.
I have learned about Russia since high school. It is certainly culturally and politcally unique. Russia has the biggest territory in the world and the way Russian government manages differences in ethnicities and religions is really interesting. Indonesia is also one of the largest archipelago countries; having almost eighteen thousand of islands, over two hundred local languages, and hundreds of ethnic and other identities. As a future policy-maker I want to understand how to deal with these differences of ethnicities, of identities and to form a fair policy for as many people as possible.
Wanda: My name is Junear Larswanda Umagapi but people call me Wanda. I am a first year Master’s student in Political Analysis and Public Policy.
Actually, I decided to come to Russia because of the Russians I have met when I was in India. I joined a student exchange program there and met some great people. I became close friends with Russians and interacting with more Russians became my main motivation to come here. The culture and history of this country also interest me a lot.
There are many universities in the world. Why did you chose education in Russia?
Isa: I liked this program because I’m interested in migration. Currently, refugee and migrant related issues are a controversial matter in my country. Here, I can learn to formulate migration policy related to refugees in particular.
These studies are also re-enforced by an unusually large international student body, which also guides my learning. I learn not only during classes but also from conversations with my classmates.
Wanda: My bachelor’s degree is in International Relations. Studying Public Policy was a natural way of continuing my education. One of the reasons my parents gave me permission to go abroad was the choice of program itself.
You have lived in Russia for less than a month. Have you already faced any challenges?
Isa: Language is a challenge. I got lost in metro about ten times already. I will take up Russian language next January but now I try to learn Russian by myself with the help of the friends.
Food is definitely also a challenge. One of the first phrases I learned in Russian was “No свинина” which means “no pork”.
Wanda: At first it was difficult to choose a meal in the cafeteria, to explain that I don’t eat pork. But people are very helpful. A woman who works there now tells me if I can eat a certain meal or not.
Isa: Also, halal products are sold only in supermarkets. It is hard to find halal food in the minimarkets near our dormitory.
That brings us to the next question. What religious beliefs do you have and how do you keep up with them in Russia?
Isa: I am a Muslim and I need to pray five times a day. Fortunately, my classes always start in the afternoon and I can pray before going to class, but if the courses start in the morning or midday, it becomes a problem. I already asked the international students office to help accommodate my prayers, but they don’t have special rooms for that. I have to find an empty class and pray there.
Wanda: I cannot pray five times a day here either, so I have to combine prayers. I do often skip prayers because of the schedule. As a Muslim woman I wear a scarf, the hijab. On campus there are only two of us who wear hijabs – me and another student from Pakistan. So in my class or in the cafeteria I am usually the only person wearing a hijab. But I don’t see it as a problem – young people in the university don’t really care about it.
However, in the metro, children and elders do stare at me sometimes. I am fine with that though. I understand that people are intrigued by something different in their environment. In Indonesia the same thing would happen if people saw someone wearing a mini-skirt or a sleeveless top. If people are looking at you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are judging.
That means in this country the usual attitude towards you and other Muslims is positive?
Wanda: Yes, my Russian friends always help me. They are very nice people. I haven’t felt any discrimination so far.
Isa: I haven’t felt discriminated in Russia either. Our campus is a multicultural environment; I make friends with different people from different countries. My roommate in the dorm, for example, is a Christian from Ghana. I think that it’s good to learn and absorb the experience of different cultures.
What is the attitude towards Russia in Indonesia?
Isa: When people found out that I was going to Russia, most elders’ reaction was like, “Why are you going to Russia, to that communist country?”. I had to explain that Moscow is a cosmopolitan city, that people from all around the world come here to live and work. It is hard to argue with numbers, so I read them the statistics: 1,5 million Muslims live in Moscow and that is about 10% of the population.
Wanda: My uncle said “Why Russia? They are going to start a war, they still have a conflict with Ukraine”. Media mostly show relations between Russia and USA negatively, so my parents thought that it is dangerous here. They were afraid of military conflicts which might happen in Russia. I explained that it is 2015. Nobody is going to start a war all of a sudden.
You are saying that most Indonesians see Russia as a dangerous militarized state? Did you have any such stereotypes yourself?
Isa: My major was International Relations. So I’d studied in detail the foreign policy of Putin and didn’t have any misconceptions about Russia in general. I don’t really follow the domestic policy; however I follow international issues, especially in the Middle East. I find the international policy of Russian government generally positive. In my opinion, it affects the geopolitical context of the conflict in the Middle East the right way. I learned that NATO and the US are supporting, arming, and funding the terrorist organizations. That’s why when I heard that Putin is helping the Syrian government fight terrorist organizations, I thought that he is doing the right thing. He helps balance power between key players in the Middle East.
But I don’t really know about Putin’s domestic policy. I’ve just heard that there are many human rights issues. People often say that Russia is going back to the Soviet Union era.
Does Indonesia have some major issues today?
Wanda: Some cities face the “refugee problem”. The government did not ratify the regulation of the refugees yet, but they are already coming to the country.
Isa: These refugees, mostly from the Middle East, come to Indonesia as a transit country on their way to Australia. They stay and wait for refugee status determination, which determines whether they are actually refugees or whether they just left their country to find a better job. This process is difficult and can take years. The fastest process takes about a year. The refugees stay in Indonesia with the support of the United Nations Higher Commissioner of Refugees and also the International Organization for Migration. They cannot work and their children cannot go to school, because Indonesia did not ratify and sign the International Convention for Refugees. In some cases, refugees marry Indonesian women — even though they don’t have any legal identity. They wait for very long and Australia cuts its quota for the number of refugees that its willing to accept every year. Theirs is a very difficult situation.
In 2013 I worked as an operational assistant for the International Organization of Migration. We were working on the field: interacting with the police, with migration officers, with refugees, and asylum seekers. I know their stories and their problems; which is why I want to study migration policy – to learn how to govern these issues without neglecting the rights of migrants as well as Indonesian people.
How do natives react to the influx of migrants? We all know that Europeans now face the same issue and they seem to be very aggressive towards the immigrants.
Wanda: Actually, locals feel pity for them. I’d say the Indonesians have no choice in the matter We think that we are human beings and God teaches us to accept and help other human beings.
Isa: Unless something dramatic happens, for example those migrants start to rob people or go riot, Indonesian people will welcome refugees. These people are not causing us any damage, they need help, and they face prosecution in their own countries.
Wanda: We pity them and we are not going to just throw these people out. However, if United Nations Organization came up with a solution for this matter, it would be easier for both migrants and us to co-exist.
Is the system of education in Indonesia different from that in Russia?
Isa: It’s more or less the same – four years for bachelors, followed by two years for masters. Most people are educated up to the high school level. But in big cities like Jakarta or Surabaya, most citizens have a bachelor’s degree.
Do you think that religion and education influences cultural openness?
Wanda: Indonesia is a very liberal country. Nobody is strict when it comes to religion. Muslim women have to wear the hijab, but nowadays some young women do not do this until marriage, and everybody is alright with it. My parents even proposed that I not wear the hijab in Russia, as Muslims are a religious minority here. They said that maybe I could go back to wearing it after I graduate and return to Indonesia. But I decided to wear it here anyway.
Did you experience culture shock when you came to Russia?
Isa: As for me, I am an open-minded person and I did not really face culture shock. I like to learn about different cultures and to make friends from different countries.
I can say that I truly admire the fact that Isa and Wanda care not only about their native people, but also about the people who seek another home on this planet. The dialogue with them made me restate my opinion about some of the problems Russia has to deal with.
And it is always a pleasure to hear that no challenges they face here are breaking their spirit or detracting from the positivity of their goals and attitudes.