Habeeba Unnisa hails from Hyderabad. She has a younger sister and an elder brother who live with their mother in the city. Habeeba was a 17-year-old student in a senior secondary school when she first came to know about a scholarship to study for a bachelor's degree in a university in Turkey. The scholarship included tuition fees, free accommodation and free food. She tried her luck on it and now she is the only Indian girl in the 12th century Sufi master Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi's town Konya.
Konya is a central Anatolian city with a population of about one million people. The city is a two-hour drive from the Turkish capital Ankara. It has a rich culture and history. It has once served as the capital of the Seljuk empire and is the final resting place of the famous Sufi master and poet Rumi. Rumi travelled all the way from Balkh in Afghanistan to finally settle down in Konya and produce his spiritual literary gems.
Habeeba came to Turkey in 2011. She took a prerequisite course for her bachelor's degree in Ankara for almost a year. Later on, she moved to Konya to study in a university named after Rumi - the Mevlana (Rumi) University. She is part of a four-year Turkish language teaching programme at the university. She wants to become a Turkish language teacher and says it is only because of this passion that she manages to overcome the difficulties of being the only girl from a completely different culture in a foreign land.
She says, "It is very difficult for one to learn the Turkish language in India. What I have learnt here in four years, perhaps I wouldn't have learnt in a decade in India. It is all about learning the language in the native land from the native people".
Interestingly however, she says that over the course of time, she has started to hang out more with international students at the university than the Turkish ones. "I had some very close Turkish friends in the initial years of my stay in Turkey but now I prefer to spend time with other international students", she says. The Mevlana (Rumi) University has students from over 65 countries.
She adds, "Yes, I am the only Indian girl in Konya and it makes me unique. It is not always bad to be alone".
Habeeba says Istanbul or Ankara were her priorities when she first decided to study in Turkey. She says, "These are the only Turkish cities you hear about in India, if any. I briefly knew Rumi but had no idea that Konya was his city".
In spite of its rich history, diverse culture and close proximity to the national capital, Konya does not have the vibrancy one would expect it to have. It is Turkey's conservative heartland and is remarkably different socially and demographically from metropolises like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The cosmopolitanism of these cities are clearly missing in Konya.
However, for students it is still an attractive destination as it hosts four big universities. The city is economical, has strategic advantage of being in the centre of the country and has vast industrial set-ups which provide opportunities for professional experience while studying and jobs after graduation.
One of the challenges Habeeba is facing these days in Turkey is that people confuse her to be a Syrian. She says, "All the brown-skinned people are thought to be Syrian refugees in Turkey these days. Initially, the Turkish people were welcoming towards the victims of the ongoing civil war in Syria but gradually they have turned hostile towards them and the brunt of it is being faced by all those who even remotely resemble them."
She adds, "Turkish people are known for their hospitality and indeed they are good at it. But these days if you are a foreigner, especially with brown skin, you run the risk of being harassed in public places".
Turkey is now the world's biggest refugee-hosting country with over 1.7 million Syrian refugees.
But despite these odds, Habeeba is hopeful and determined about her future. She believes the current situation is temporary and one day it will all be normal as it was in 2011. She says, "I never regret my decision to come to study in Turkey. It's a beautiful country of kind-hearted people. I am happy and I am sure that one day I will be a successful Turkish language teacher."
She plans to finish her bachelor's course in Konya and move to Istanbul to pursue a master's degree in 2016.