Many young Kazakhstani choose Europe or North America as their destinations for academic degrees and scholarships: computer science in Massachusetts, physical chemistry in Sweden, or linguistics in Germany. So focused on ‘making it’ in other countries, we sometimes overlook that Kazakhstan is a land of opportunities to over 30,000 international students.
Mohamed Ali Ibrahim, a 25-year-old from the city of Hargeisa, Somaliland is one of them. He has been studying in Kazakhstan for six years at Suleyman Demirel University in Kaskelen, Almaty region. QazMonitor is happy to share with you the inspiring story of Mohamed, who overcame the cultural differences to achieve his dreams.
Kazakhstan? Where is it?
Mohamed studied at a Turkish school in Somalia, similar to the Kazakh-Turkish lyceums we have here. One day, he was looking for international scholarships when his teacher suggested Kazakhstan.
“At first, I did not know anything about Kazakhstan. I had a vague idea of a country neighboring Russia being a post-Soviet republic. Everybody was asking me where it was, and I remember showing them videos and pictures of the country. Some people in Somalia confuse it with Tajikistan or Uzbekistan when they hear the name at first.”
Why did you choose Kazakhstan?
“I considered several Central Asian and Easter European countries, but Kazakhstan offers so many opportunities, and this country has a big future, especially in IT: many startups have emerged in recent years. Practically speaking, it is cheaper to live here than in other countries, while the standard of living is quite high. Also, I love trying new things and experiencing different cultures.”
Mohamed enrolled in Suleyman Demirel University to major in economics, and so his Kazakh story began right as he arrived at Almaty airport.
Shaking hands and dressing warm
The first encounters in a new country can be a source of ‘culture shock’. Kazakhstan’s first surprise for Mohamed was the weather. The average temperature in Somalia does not fall below +25 C all year round.
“The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Kazakhstan was the weather. It was so cold, especially compared to the ever-sunny Somalia. I had never spent so much money on warm clothes before! One of my first purchases was a winter jacket for a large amount of money. ‘So expensive’ I thought. And those boots you must wear! [laughs] For me, it is cold most of the year in Kazakhstan, especially in Nur-Sultan. I prefer my big jacket even when people start to go out in light coats already.”
Dressed appropriately to the cold season, the Somalian was ready for further surprises that Kazakhstan had in store for him.
“The first weeks were hard, because I did not know the language and not many locals spoke English. Now, there are many foreigners, but it was different six years ago. People always asked me ‘What brought you here? Are you here on a holiday? Why did you choose to study in Kazakhstan?’ Then, as I spent more time here, I picked up some Kazakh and Russian. Kazakh was not so difficult for me, as I knew Turkish.”
“I noticed a couple of cultural things that were unusual in my culture. For example, the handshakes. Everyone shakes hands all the time to greet each other. In Somalia, it is OK to wave your hand if you say hello to someone standing far from you. One time, my friend asked me: ‘Why didn’t you shake hands with me yesterday?’ I didn’t know that it was such a big deal [laughs]. Since then I try to shake hands more often."
"Another thing is how people act when they hang out, especially in someone’s home. In Somalia, you are totally excused to leave the party early if you need to. In Almaty, I noticed people giving excuses and long apologies to the host and other guests when they need to go.”
Meat, meat, meat
Kazakh national cuisine surprised Mohamed in a good way.
“In Kazakhstan, it’s meat, meat, and meat again. I remember trying horse meat for the first time. It was amazing – so filling; even if you eat a small piece of meat, it feels like a lot of food. In Somalia, people don’t eat meat that often. We have the Somali Sea in the east, so we eat fish two or more days a week. Beef is fine, but chicken is not a popular home meal. Also, I noticed that apples are much cheaper in Kazakhstan than in my home country. And we don’t grow strawberries because of the hot climate; bananas are more popular in Somalia.”
Living a dream in Kazakhstan
Mohamed completely changed the direction of his education. Now, he is doing his master’s in computer science at Suleyman Demirel. He is also working at Spectrum International School in Nur-Sultan as an exam officer, helping students with any issue they might have with the Cambridge exams.
Why did you change your major?
“I believe Kazakhstan is a country with great opportunities, especially in the IT sector. We had a data analysis course in my final year of bachelor’s, and I got hooked. My friends who work at Chocofamily and Kaspi also convinced me in the future of this area. It matches my dream of starting my own tech company. My top priority is to show the true image of Somali people abroad with my entrepreneurship.
Some people choose a different country for their master’s. Why did you decide to stay in Kazakhstan?
“I feel like I am living my dream here. You know, some people say that the U.S. is a dream country, but my friends there don’t feel that their dreams have come true. It’s like a blessing, you know. Why would I change a country and start everything from scratch if it works for me here?“
Your story may inspire other students to come to our country. Any advice for them?
“Be friendly to people, stay positive, and be open to the new country. Coming from Somalia was not easy, but Kazakhstan is a very young country with tons of opportunities. If you adapt to the mentality, everyone will be positive to you.”