It’s 4 a.m. when the alarm on Fatini Busairi’s cellphone rings.
The ceiling fan whips forcefully; chickens are clucking. It’s still dark outside of her Kuala Pilah, Malaysia, home.
She tip-toes past family members, asleep on the concrete living room floor, and sits her younger cousins at the back of the tin roof house. With sleepy eyes they eat plates of fish and rice — the first and only time they’ll eat before the sun rises.
The family has completed this ritual for the past 29 days of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. For the next few days Fatini will cut and prepare chicken with her aunt, squeeze fresh coconut milk with her grandma and fill jars of cookies with her father for Eid al-Fitr, a feast that marks Ramadan’s completion.
This is the time of year Fatini missed most while studying in Rochester, New York the past two years — the time when her community and family come together. She doesn’t want summer to end and, once again, be 9,000 miles away from her family.
“Malaysia is different after two years. I am scared it will change again after a year,” Fatini says. “But I have to go back to America. I hold the responsibility to change my family.”
Fatini is part of a small group of Malaysian women attending Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) on government scholarships to earn degrees in biotechnology.
Malaysian high school students take the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), a standardized examination that helps them qualify for full government scholarships to study in other countries – including the United States . Once the Malaysian government provides financial sponsors and decides the country in which they will attend school, students apply to and enroll in a university. Their sponsors pay for tuition and housing costs, some even providing pocket money.
But there’s a caveat.
“I have to serve the government for six years after I graduate from RIT,” says Norazleen Hashim a biotechnology major. “All I have to do is gain the knowledge here and bring it back to serve my country.”
Fatini shares a two-bedroom townhouse close to RIT with four other Malay women. While these women are among the 41 Malay students enrolled at RIT, 6,700 Malaysian students study at U.S. universities.
My freshman year of college began quite differently from Fatini’s. I travelled slightly more than an hour from my childhood home in rural Syracuse, New York, to the dormitories of RIT.
Once there, I noticed different people and cultures on campus daily, especially the group of Malay women. They stuck out to me, wearing brightly colored hijabs and walking in tight-knit groups around campus.
After eventually approaching them, they invited me to dinner where I learned that the Malay RIT women live together in groups of about four in apartments near campus. As biotechnology majors, they take a majority of classes together and rely on each other for academic support. They act as a family unit, cooking and eating dinner together. At night after classes, they circle around big dishes of spicy Halal chicken and mounds of white rice, passing pitchers of warm milk tea.
As Muslims, the women must pray five times each day. They motivate each other to wake up for the first prayer on those cold, dark Rochester mornings. They provide solace for each other when they are homesick. Their bond with one another is exceptional and compassionate.
In many ways the Malay women are similar to the typical American college student. They are in their late teens and early twenties, living away from their parents for the first time. They have sleepovers with friends, go to the beach, shop at Victoria’s Secret, talk about boys and use Instagram.
But certain aspects of American youth and social culture can run contrary to their Muslim traditions. The women wear modest clothing, exposing only their hands and faces. They don’t drink alcohol and they avoid skin-to-skin contact with men.
In Malay culture, female relationships are highly valued. Muslim girls in Malaysia grow up forming close bonds with their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters and nieces. This makes creating close relationships with the other Malay women they meet at RIT second nature.
Outside of formal settings, men and women rarely interact unless they are related.
In Islam, men and women cannot pray together. They either pray separated by a curtain or in different rooms altogether. This religious and cultural practice follows them to America.
When Malay men and women have a gathering in Rochester, they sit with their designated gender and then separate into different apartments for informal conversation and dinner. During a Malaysian Students Association meeting on campus in April 2013, the men built a barricade of tables and chairs in the center of the room.
One of the men, Muhamad Syafiq Mohd explained,“It is to separate the men and women — so the men cannot see the women when we pray.”
Their experience as Islamic women has given the Malay women a certain closeness, guidance and comfort that they share with the generations of women in their family and with each other. While these relationships help the women find comfort at RIT, they also foster a complex coexistence on campus.
The women adapt quickly to daily challenges, but interact minimally with their American peers — even in the classroom. Their Muslim faith is key, defining how they interact with others and sometimes complicating experiences with new people.
It’s more convenient to live and spend time with likeminded women, especially given their various and constantly-changing prayer routines. When a class conflicts with the Islamic call to prayer, the women use a small space down the hall from their laboratory to pray.
“It is very narrow. We have to squeeze ourselves in between the vending machine and the wall behind the staircase,” Norazleen says. “People walk down the stairs and no one knows I am back there.”
From the time they arrive in Rochester to the time they graduate, the Malay women support and help one another. They share a common culture and faith, not to mention the complications and challenges that can come with living in America. While they miss home, they created a sisterhood at RIT.
“Together we go through the obstacles since we are so far from our family. We know we won’t have time to get together often when we go back to Malaysia. We will busy with our family, our work and study,” says Fatini. “It won’t be the same. The girls in Rochester, they are my treasure. They will always be.”