“The amount of help offered by the International Office was amazing”

Rafik (26) is from Damascus, the capital of Syria. One year ago, he started his master’s program in Business Informatics in Mannheim. In his myUniMA story, Rafik talks about his student life in Mannheim and describes the difficult decision to leave Syria and his challenging path towards a master’s degree in Germany.

Why did you decide to apply for a master’s program in Germany?

I studied Business Administration in Damascus for three years. Afterwards, I did a two-year specialization in Management Information Systems. That’s why I decided to continue my education with a Master’s degree in Business Informatics. In terms of applications, I have to say: to me it was more about wanting to study at the University of Mannheim than simply applying to a university abroad or somewhere else in Germany. I just applied to two universities: the University of Lund in Sweden and the University of Mannheim. I picked these two because both have a very good reputation in the subject I’m interested in. Another plus for Mannheim was the fact that three students who graduated with me in Damascus are also here. They recommended the university to me and helped me with my application. Now, we are reunited in Mannheim.

Did you experience any challenges from your application to your arrival?

Yes, I did experience some challenges. Especially when it came to the visa process and opening a bank account in Germany. But the International Office at the University of Mannheim supported me at every step of the way – from the acceptance form to my bank account. The amount of help they offered was amazing. That opinion is shared by almost all international students here. They really went out of their way to support me.

Have you always wanted to do your master’s degree in a foreign country?

No, actually I was quite adamant about staying in Syria. In my circle of friends, I was among the last to leave. The reason why I didn’t want to go in the first place was that I wanted to do something for the community. Leaving your known surroundings isn’t easy, even if there are problems. You have to leave behind your network, culture and language. But eventually, I started to realize that even if I do have an impact, it’s really insignificant compared to these huge problems. So I decided to invest my time in doing a master’s degree. That is something that can be beneficial for personal development as well as at community level.

Do you like your master’s program? Does it live up to your expectations?

I do like the master’s program and it mostly lives up to my expectations. What I appreciate most about the program is that it attempts to bridge the gap between theory and practice. By offering practical projects in most courses and thanks to the “Team Project” – which is a full course where students are asked to develop a certain product or perform a task for a company – the master’s program is doing a good job trying to minimize that gap.

How do you like the student life in Mannheim?

It’s really special. This is the first time I experience multiculturalism on such a scale. In my master’s program, I often end up working on projects with students of four or five different nationalities. I like this diversity:  seeing people from different cultures with different mindsets all working towards one goal. Regular conversations over a cup of coffee can be super interesting with people from so many different backgrounds. Besides, I really think the city is made for students. As a student it’s easy to socialize here, and there are always things to do. Good opportunities to meet people are the student initiatives for instance. One of them, “Nice to meet you Mannheim”, was my stepping stone into social life in Mannheim. I was introduced to the group by a friend from Syria and met such amazing people there.

How do you feel about the situation in Syria?

It’s really hard to describe. The question brings up mixed feelings. The problem is that things there happen gradually. So, people only gradually start to realize that they’re living in a war. Going through this at slow pace somehow helps adapting to it. You have to emotionally adapt, otherwise it’s too much to cope with. But every once in a while, you hear about a friend or someone you know who has died and this brings back all the things you try to block out. The hardest part of it is this feeling of helplessness. You can try to do something but eventually, you feel like it won’t make a real difference. So you can either continue looking at the problems or you turn your face away from them. You just have to go on with your everyday life – even though sometimes there is no water or electricity but you need to revise because you have an exam the next day. People still try to make the best out of the situation and want to engage in normal activities, like going out and enjoying the night life even though the club might be in a more dangerous part of the city. In the end, you need to have faith that things will get better. And I’ve truly learned a lot from that experience, for example not to take anything for granted.

Can you imagine living and working in Germany in the future?

I’m working at SAP now that I’m here in Mannheim. I think it’s a great company which offers its employees a lot of flexibility. Since it’s a multinational company, you get the full corporate experience. But my plan is to go back to Damascus eventually. I might change my mind but for now I think I’ll return after finishing my master’s degree. At least, I hope that I will be able to but it’s not clear how the country will develop economically. I think the security situation will get better just because war isn't feasible for anyone in the long term. But the question is whether the economic implications of the war will be manageable.

Text: Lena Trumpfheller / March 2018