My Journey With British Culture

Moving to the UK was the most challenging part of my life. My mother is English and my father is Iraqi but immigrated to the UK, so by definition, I am British. However, living in Lebanon from the age of seven to seventeen has instilled in me a hybrid culture that is definitely more Lebanese than it is British, despite my lack of Lebanese heritage.

When I moved to the UK it was to complete my final year of A Levels, and my brother and I were sponsored by a boarding school while my parents and other brother stayed in Lebanon. During that year, my mum gave me a very helpful comparison to process my culture shock. She said moving cultures kind of works the same as the five stages of grief, which is what I’ll be using to outline my journey.

Whether you have lived in the UK your whole life or are experiencing culture shock yourself, I hope this illuminates something to you, and makes you think about what culture means in your life.


The first thing I thought was, ‘this can’t be happening.’ I told myself that this unfriendly, unwelcoming, self-serving culture was something that could never get to me. I refused to interact with it, refused to acknowledge it. I also refused to take it seriously.

There were so many moments when I first got to the UK that felt surreal because I was in denial. One thing I noticed the most was the way people approached friendship here. It was almost as if I had to prove myself as worthy of people’s friendship because I was new, rather than being accepted into friendship groups immediately, and then judged as to whether I was worth sticking with.

My denial made me think that something was wrong with me. That people here worked the same as they did in Lebanon, they just hated me, which is why I wasn’t making friends easily, or on the deep level that I wanted.


Once the denial dissipated, the anger took over. I recognised that British culture was real, and that my culture shock was real, but instead of accepting it, I despised it.

My hate extended towards everything. Bland British food, cold British weather, unfriendly British people, highly regulated British systems. I was constantly comparing England to Lebanon, and it made me angry that they were different because I didn’t know how to function. I blamed my surroundings for the feeling of being out of my comfort zone.

I was also angry at the fact that I had no choice but to eventually accept British culture. I didn’t want to give in – it made me feel like a traitor. With hindsight, though, that was definitely the unhealthiest way of looking at it.


It was a constant back and forth of whether I swallowed my pride and tried to accept British culture or kept my head in the sand and stayed hateful.

The anger was a much longer phase than the bargaining. Most of the bargaining I did in my head connects to what I said about feeling like a traitor – it was a constant back and forth of whether I swallowed my pride and tried to accept British culture or kept my head in the sand and stayed hateful.

It’s so interesting revisiting these feelings now, over a year later, when I am in such a better place. I’ve come to love certain things about British culture, and I’ve adopted them myself. Going to uni and meeting people outside the small bubble of my school has opened my heart to so many new experiences and stories.

I love British people. Yes, I still have frustrations, but I’ve learned so much from my culture shock. And the biggest lesson has been understanding that being British doesn’t take anything away from my 10 years in Lebanon – having a new culture does not erase any of your original one.


The fourth stage of grief is depression, but with culture shock, I think it’s more of a deep sadness, a feeling of loss for everything you’ve left behind and what you have to embrace.

Like anger, sadness was a long phase, lasting months. But it got better and better as time went on, unlike anger. Despite being sad, I found rays of light that took shape in special friends I made, new hobbies and interests, even planning my university choices. The sadness got lesser and lesser, and my pride started to crack.

I finally began focussing on the good things about the UK. Fish and chips. Systems that worked. High quality of living; never having to think of electricity shortages or clean water. Public transport. Green grass. Responding to every emotion with a cup of tea. It was looking up, and I am happily in the final stage of culture shock now.


To anyone who is struggling with British culture: it gets better. I promise you. You will learn to love it eventually, and what I have found fascinating is that although it can be hard initially making British friends, once they are friends with you, they are friends for life.

I saw a quote on Pinterest by Clifton Fadiman that said, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”

This has resonated with me. And I am proud to say I have two cultures now. Having one does not take away any of the validity or worth of the other.

4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My English Degree

English literature is often looked down on as a degree, but it’s actually incredibly versatile, transferrable and interesting. It teaches you original thought, critical thinking, deep analysis and so many other skills you can use in later life.

Like every degree, however, it has its challenges, and there are several things I wish I’d been told before starting my degree that would’ve made the process a lot smoother.

The biggest takeaway and piece of advice I’ll give, though, is enjoy it. Even when it feels like your teachers and peers are talking gibberish in your seminars, sit there and enjoy the fact that you are in an incredibly privileged position and in a degree that puts you rather than academics first.

1. Your lectures will not teach you your texts

An empty lecture hall viewed from the front full of black chairs and a lecture podium

When people tell you uni isn’t the same as school, they aren’t kidding. Lectures are not at all like lessons. Yes, you’re being talked at by a teacher for an hour, but lectures don’t have the same goals as school lessons do in the slightest. You come into lectures having already done extensive reading for the class, so you technically already ‘know’ the material. At school, you’re taught the material. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this until I got to my first few lectures.

Advice: do at least SOME of the reading. I certainly haven’t done all of my required work for my lectures, but I’ve understood them the best when I’ve at least onced-over the texts that have been assigned. Lectures are all about encouraging further thinking that often deviates from the texts’ orginal intents and purposes. You bring in secondary thinkers to analyse literary works or apply today’s age to the text, not go through it line by line. Going into your lectures with this mindset can make a serious difference.

2. EVERYTHING is your responsibility

It was a shocker when I realised I had to buy all of the set texts myself. It was even more of a shocker when I realised my lecturers and seminar leaders were completely relying on me to show face in their classes and put in the work myself.

The dangerous part of uni is the ability we have to slack off and not actually do anything required of us. I wish someone had told me beforehand the extent of responsibility that was on me going into my degree. If you miss a class, you’re not going to be chased by your lecturers and seminar leaders. If you don’t do the reading, you’re not going to be punished. If you don’t have the material – tough.

The dangerous part of uni is the ability we have to slack off and not actually do anything required of us.

All this makes it so easy to let yourself go, and I certainly have, so if you are about to start your degree, consider the level of responsibility you have to uphold beforehand and seriously think about whether you can hack it or not, because you have to step up for yourself. No one else is going to.

3. Plan your assignments early

A table covered multi-coloured with sticky notes, some filled out, some empty

I have written some of my assignments the night before they’re due, and trust me, it’s not a fun experience. What is ironic about this point is that I WAS told by many people to start my assignments early, I just ignored them. But from experience, I assure you – it’s worth looking at them before their due date. Or at least deciding what you want to write about before you start writing.

Planning takes the stress and pressure off, and genuinely makes you feel so much better as a student. You feel productive which puts you in a better mood to write. Planning is just a good decision in general and I wish I did it more!

4. Original thinking > ‘correct’ thinking

A wooden silhouette of a person standing on a stair thinking, with spheres hovering above their head like thought bubbles

I was properly shook when my seminar leader told me that they are more likely to give a first to an essay that tried to have original thought and didn’t do it very well over an essay that was very well executed but was not original. English degrees are seriously all about forming your own opinions and arguments, and about reacting to the texts put in front of you, rather than just absorbing them.

If I’d been told this earlier on, my essays will have looked so much better and I would have enjoyed my classes way more, because especially in first year, it’s about training your brain to think originally, not about getting it right.

If you’re going into your first year of an English degree or even just feel like you wanted a refresher, I hope these four things were helpful, but like I said, my biggest piece of advice is to enjoy the moments while they last. Uni is a special time and you can learn so much from it, both inside the classroom and out.

How Campus Life Has Taught Me More Than My Lectures

My attitude before going into uni was probably just like everyone else’s: “I’m going to university for my degree, with a side of life.” What I quickly realised as soon as I moved into halls of residence was that reality is the complete opposite of this.

All of a sudden, I had to learn how to cook, how to budget, how to do laundry, how to de-clog a sink, how to book a doctor’s appointment, how to fix a toilet flush, and countless other things that had never even been on my radar before moving out (far too many plumbing-related for my liking).

This new lifestyle quickly overtook my plans for an academic comeback. I definitely struggled with balancing my responsibilities and my academics, but I also realised that having a life on campus and learning to be an adult was a lot more important than getting full marks on my assignments. The biggest positive takeaway for me has been letting go of academic achievement as my source of validation. Hopefully I can encourage you through my experience to do the same!

1. Living in halls

A girl with black hair is chopping carrots on a wooden chopping board in a kitchen with a soup cooking on the stove.

Moving into my flat at Queen Mary, I immediately knew I was lucky. I bonded with my flatmates instantly and have made some of my best friends through living in halls. A lot of people don’t have the same experience, which is definitely a difficult position to be in. But I think most people can agree that living in halls teaches you core life lessons almost instantly.

Living in halls teaches you core life lessons almost instantly.

I’ve really understood the importance of personal space balanced with hanging out with friends through living communally. I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone in a way that’s helped me get to know my preferences as an extravert, but also empathise with people who are introverted and need more social boundaries.

My confidence has skyrocketed since moving into halls. I’m so much more expressive with my wants and needs because of an increased need for communication with my flatmates. And having a space to invite people over to has helped with my confidence for making friends. My anxiety has really gone down because of living in halls and I know many others who would agree with me!

2. Becoming my own person

A view of Big Ben and the houses of Parliament at dusk from the River Thames

Campus life has really forced me to rely on myself. As a result, who I am as a person has had to grow accordingly, especially my self-sufficiency. I don’t have my parents around to wake me up for classes – I have to get myself places on time. I don’t have someone to make decisions for me – I have to accept that my actions, whether wise or stupid, have consequences, and they’re mine to deal with.

Separating from the safety of living at home to live on campus has consequently helped guide me toward who I want to become in the future. True independence comes with becoming your own person, seperate from the expectations of other people, and I have found that campus life has fostered a new identity for me in the most positive way.

Becoming an adult is most often achieved through trial and error, and university campus life is the best environment for that.

I’ve had so many new experiences that I wouldn’t be exposed to if I was living at home. And I’ve made mistakes that have also shaped who I am so I can become the best version of me. Becoming an adult is most often achieved through trial and error, and university campus life is the best environment for that.

3. Learning true responsibility

A pair of red Converse shoes are standing in front of a compass drawn onto the concrete floor

More often than I would like to admit, I’ve snoozed my alarm and skipped the lecture I promised myself I’d go to the night before. But I’ve learned what responsibility looks like on a truly human level. The are so many opportunities at uni to lack integrity, like ‘forgetting’ to pay someone back after they’ve bought you something, leaving a mess on the kitchen counter for someone else to clean up, even leaving the toilet seat up.

What makes a difference is learning to put your pride aside and take responsibility for the little things of living communally to set yourself up for integrity in the future. Campus life is such a great test for life beyond your academic years. And you get to make friends on a deeper level than ever before. The sheer amount of time you can spend with people when you live on campus is incredible.

I will confidently say that I have learned so much more from just living on campus than I have from all my uni lectures combined. For anyone who is um-ing and ah-ing over whether to live on campus or not, I will always recommend it as the best option if that is within your financial and familial capabilities. You will be so grateful for the experiences you’ve had on campus in the future!

How the Royal Commonwealth Society Used Literature to Change My Life

A bouquet of white and purple flowers with unopened lilies at the back of the arrangement and big green leaves.

Whether you are enrolled in an English degree like me, or dropped the subject as soon as you reached A-Level, everyone can agree that literature is an unbelievable force for change. My (almost unintentional!) involvement in the Royal Commonwealth Society is the perfect demonstration of this. One little poem I wrote near the end of Year Thirteen amidst my A-Level revision has since taken me places I never could have imagined.

The flowers in the image above were a thank-you from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) for a speech they asked me to give at the Commonwealth Day fundraiser banquet on the 14th of March this year. If I had said this sentence to myself in March 2022, I would have laughed in disbelief. ‘Who am I to be attending such high-profile events?’ But it isn’t me. It’s literature, and my role as a representative of the positive force it can have on the world.

The RCS’ focus on literature is representing young people (specifically from disadvantaged backgrounds), representing the under-represented, promoting education, and spreading peace across the nations. The Commonwealth was never something on my radar before I became involved with it, but seeing what they are doing with literature, especially for young people, has inspired me and given me life-changing opportunities.

The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition

Find me on the third slide smiling with my certificate!

The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition (QCEC) is the oldest international writing competition for schools. The RCS has been delivering it since 1883! Winners have gone on to receive Pulitzer prizes and become authors, and I came to hear about it through my English teacher last year, in my final and only year of secondary schooling in the UK.

When Mrs Whyte first emailed me about the competition, I ignored it. The criteria was to write a poem, short story or essay based on the set prompts, and in my mind, my A Level revision was far more important than a creative writing competition. However Mrs Whyte was determined I had a chance and emailed me again, encouraging me to enter. I ended up writing a poem called ‘Nursing Homes,’ which can be found next to my picture on the page at this link:

A few months later, I received the news that I came runner-up in the senior category of the competition, and I was absolutely flabbergasted. What unfolded next felt almost like a dream. I was put up in a hotel in County Hall for a week with my parents, and the other winners of the competition were flown out from all around the Commonwealth, including places like New Zealand, India, and Uganda. Every day we visited several significant cultural sites in London, like the Tower of London, the BBC Broadcasting House and the British Library. We also met incredible people like the Speaker of the House of Commons and the High Commissioners of Singapore and Australia.

The highlight of the week was the final day when we were invited to Buckingham Palace for the awards ceremony. The people in attendance came from all different areas of the RCS. I got to chat with Dame Susan Hill about ‘The Woman in Black’ and Geri Halliwell read my poem out to the party (and gave me a hug!). Then, most importantly, I had the honour of meeting HM the Queen Consort and receiving my certificate from her. The pictures of me and Camilla featured on the Times and the Royal Family official Instagram, and it was incredible to receive screenshots of the articles from my friends who didn’t know I had won the competition!

“Each year, young people write on a theme that stems from the Commonwealth’s values and principles, developing key literacy skills whilst also fostering an empathetic and open-minded world view.”

About the QCEC,

High Commissioners and Westminster Abbey!

The main entrance of Westiminster Abbey at dusk decorated with snow covered Christmas trees

What made everything even more special that day at Buckingham Palace was the fact that it was my 18th birthday. I had my first legal drink in the presence of royalty! But, also, when I turned 18, I was generously invited to become an associate fellow of the RCS because I had won the competition. I was able to choose which part of the society I wanted to involve myself in, and of course, I chose literature.

My passion for literature really started to blossom. Knowing that I was representing something so important made me think back to how lucky I was to have entered the competition. I’d grown up in Lebanon and was forced to go to a boarding school for my final year of A Levels because Lebanon’s socio-economic situation had deteriorated to the extent that I wasn’t able to do my exams there. I had never been encouraged to do creative writing at school. Reading had always been for losers throughout my childhood. The fact I’d come to this point and been recognised with such exposure and success was almost a miracle. I can’t wait to start giving back to the RCS since they’ve given me such incredible opportunities.

I can’t wait to start giving back to the RCS since they’ve given me such incredible opportunities.

A little while after the ‘Winner’s Week,’ I was invited to the High Commissioner’s Banquet at Guildhall. I got to have dinner with more people I never would have dreamed of meeting. There were most definitely over 150 guests, and though I felt out of my depth, being the youngest in the room, it built my confidence and was an honour to represent the RCS. I also got an invite to the Princess of Wales’ Carol Service at Westminster Abbey which is broadcasted on TV every Christmas Eve, and it was surreal and beautiful to see that in person.

Commonwealth Day & Banquet

A dinner table with a knife, fork and name card saying 'Ms Amaal Fawzi'

I thought things couldn’t possibly go up from here, but yet again, the influence and importance of literature took me as a representative once more – this time as the ‘Mace Bearer’ for the Commonwealth Day Service on Monday the 13th of March. I had received an invite to the service already, and was unbelievably excited to attend – I might even feature as a face in the crowd on TV!

However, my socks were blown right off when a few days before the service, I received a call asking if I would be willing to take the role of Mace Bearer in the royal procession down the abbey. Essentially, I would have to walk in front of their majesties the King, Queen, and the rest of the royal family as they walked slowly down the abbey, place the mace in front of the King, bow, and lead the procession again on the way out.

I was so shocked that I wondered if they’d gotten the right person for a second. This seemed so out of my depth that I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But then I thought of all the other young people like me I could inspire if I did this – I wanted to let them know that just one little poem can be the thing to shake up their world! The link to the service is featured below – you can see me at the beginning and end wearing a blue suit and white gloves, holding the Commonwealth Mace, which is a massive solid gold stick with the flags of all the countries of the Commonwealth etched onto it. I was even name dropped by the BBC presenter at the end of the service, and it still blows my mind that I was on live TV!

Seeing my name card on the tablecloth in that dining room in the London Marriott Hotel almost brought tears to my eyes.

Not only did I get to be a part of this incredible event, but I got to connect with people all across the Commonwealth doing life-changing things for people in their countries and communities. Meeting the Royal Family was probably the highlight of my life – I’ll never forget exchanging smiles with them!

And finally, I was asked to say a speech at the Commonwealth Day Banquet the next day – again, the youngest person in the room with only a poem going for her. Seeing my name card on the tablecloth in that dining room in the London Marriott Hotel almost brought tears to my eyes. It’s amazing that my story can be a testimony to the power of literature. If you feel like your writing is insignificant, please be encouraged that it is so significant, more than you know!

You’ll find me walking in front of the King and Queen in a blue suit, holding the big golden stick!

Why ‘Chaos Walking’ by Patrick Ness is a Masterpiece

Patrick Ness’ young adult sci-fi/fantasy series, ‘Chaos Walking,’ is my favourite series of all time for a reason. I first stumbled across it in a charity shop a few summers ago. I was browsing, looking for a cheap read to pass the time on holiday in North Devon, and a long title caught my eye: ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go.’

I was immediately intrigued. For a book of its genre, it had a very elaborate and strange title. I read the blurb and felt my excitement rise. “Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks.” I’d never seen a premise like it, and I was delighted to notice the copy was signed by the author. Even better, it was £1.50.

“Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks.”


What I didn’t realise was how lucky I was discovering this novel. ‘Chaos Walking’ changed so much for me – the way I viewed the craft of novel writing, the way I think characters should be developed in books, and (among many!) the themes of masculinity, genocide and power.

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

A knife is planted in the ground next to a stree stump and is sticking out, hilt first, in the air.

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ is a story that follows Todd Hewitt, a young boy on the cusp of manhood living in a coloniser settlement of men on a planet where a disease has killed all the women and caused all men to hear each other’s thoughts – whether they like it or not. They call it ‘Noise,’ and Patrick Ness’ genius is exhibited in his writing style. The way he writes the novel mirrors the Noise exactly, and feels like you are reading into Todd’s thoughts yourself.

Ness plays with punctuation, repetition, sentence strucutre, spelling and grammar to create this effect. It is not overwhelming – I found it incredibly beautiful and fast paced, which is exactly what I look for in a book series. Despite being a relatively long novel, I devoured it in a couple of days because of the genius writing style.

“She ain’t my girl,” I say, low.

“What?” Doctor Snow says.

“What?” Viola says.

“She’s her own girl,” I say. “She don’t belong to anyone.”

And does Viola ever LOOK at me.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ has conflicts that feel genuine and authentic. Todd’s life is turned upside down when he meets Viola – the first girl he has ever seen and the first person he has ever met that doesn’t have Noise. His masculinity and adulthood are threatened by her, but together they grow a deep friendship alongside Todd’s dog, Manchee (whose thoughts you can hear too!), and overcome life-threatening challenges on their journey to safety as they are chased by crazed religious fanatic Aaron.

‘The Ask and the Answer’

A rip in the middle of a blank piece of paper peels back to reveal three black question marks.

‘The Ask and the Answer’ is the sequel to ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go,’ and it takes the narrative places beyond your expectations. Patrick Ness’ command of character over the whole ‘Chaos Walking’ series is incredible – for the first time when reading a YA book, I really felt like the teenaged characters WERE teenagers.

For the first time when reading a YA book, I really felt like the teenaged characters WERE teenagers.

There is so much depth to every single character in this novel. Specifically, with Todd, I appreciated the conflict of what it means to be a man after meeting a girl for the first time, and then how loyalty and selflessness work in their friendship once they are split apart by the Mayor. Emphasis on their friendship. This novel keeps up with the platonic relationship between Viola and Todd, which is truly a breath of fresh air.

I don’t want to give too much away in terms of the plot of the second and third novels, but I want to highlight the complexity and psychology of Mayor Prentiss’ role in this book. He is the villain, but there is always a ‘but.’ Ness leaves you guessing at every twist and turn of this book, and introducing the Spackle pulls in other narratives that really make you think about real-world problems of racism and colonisation. You can never confirm who is good or evil in ‘Chaos Walking.’ It is all a big grey area, and at the end of the day, the characters are human, meaning flawed.

‘Monsters of Men’

Waves lap at the rocky shore of a black and white beach peppered with boulders.

‘Monsters of Men’ is the third and final book in the series, and my favourite thing about it was the abundance of POV’s we could access. We read into Todd, Viola, and the Spackle’s thoughts, each with their own distinct voice, and Viola grew exponentially in this instalment.

Viola is such an excellent role model to young women – not because she’s ‘not like other girls,’ but because she IS like other girls. She doesn’t need weapons or physical strength to be a badass. She’s emotional, sensitive, intelligent and heroic, and never compromises her femininity or seeks male approval.

“Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Further themes that are explored in this book are war, genocide, imperialism, morality, death and power. It is such a sophisticated and complex narrative, and will challenge you every chapter. I could not encourage people more to read this series. It changed my life, my writing goals and my way of reading. ‘Chaos Walking’ is a masterpiece because it is the most real-life piece of fiction I’ve ever read.

3 Beautiful Novels About Journeying to Read This Spring

As a mixed heritage person who has lived in multiple different countries, reading about journeys has always been very personal to me. I have spent more time in airports than I can keep track of and it’s never easy to feel like you’re constantly on the move. That’s part of the reason I love reading so much – literature helps you forget about your surroundings and be rooted in a story that doesn’t force you to leave. Books are reliable and consistent when life isn’t.

However, finding books that reflect the feeling of journeying can be so important to relate to, and you can learn so much from them, whether you’re a person who has been on lots of journeys or stayed in the same place your whole life. The three novels I have listed below take journeys both physically and literally. Yes, they track a physical path that the characters take, sometimes across countries, sometimes in the same country, but they also follow emotional journeys of growth and realisation as the characters discover themselves and are taught life lessons on their journeys.

These novels also tell stories that aren’t often given the spotlight, but are incredibly beautiful and precious to learn about. So, if you’re looking for a new read as the weather gets warmer this Spring, or if you just want to find a novel with an exciting journey-based plot, these books will give you everything you want, plus a little bit more.

1. “Forgotten Fire” by Adam Bagdasarian

A map of Armenia has a red thumbtack pinned on the city of Yerevan

I read ‘Forgotten Fire’ when I was around twelve years old, and it has remained with me ever since. The novel is about an Armenian boy called Vahan, set in 1915 in Turkey during the horrific period of the Armenian genocide. Part of the reason the novel struck me so hard is how personal it was. My grandmother on my father’s side was Armenian, and her mother was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Hearing the story of how she escaped the massacre in her village and then reading about a story similar to hers was very difficult to process but so rewarding and educational.

The writing style of this book is so captivating. Bagdasarian has a real talent for painting pictures with words and immersing you in the rich culture and heritage of the region in which the novel is set. It is based on a true story and the plot follows Vahan’s journey as he travels from home to home to preserve his life in the ethnic cleansing being carried out against his people by the Turkish. He is constantly on the move and his journeys lead him to Constantinople where he tries to find safety after watching his family suffer and die and going through unimaginable horrors.

The novel showcases the inner strength of people in the direst circumstances. The journey Vahan is put on is harrowing, but thousands upon thousands of other Armenians experienced the same horrors during the genocide. My great-grandmother walked on foot to Syria to escape death after her town was massacred and she herself was stabbed by Turkish soldiers twice. I found the journey in this book to be inspiring and haunting.

2. “Inside Out & Back Again” by Thanhha Lai

I loved ‘Inside Out & Back Again’ so much that I read it twice, back to back, and found it even more beautiful the second time I read it. It is a novel written in verse, and was the first novel I’d ever read in that form. The journey in this story is of a young girl, Ha, who is living in Saigon when the Vietnam war breaks out and flees to America with her family to escape. She moves to Alabama, and her journey of immigration as a refugee is so touching – you get to see the wisdom she acquires from going through such a difficult childhood while still retaining that child-like innocence through which she sees life.

“Our lives will twist and twist, intermingling the old and the new until it doesn’t matter which is which.”

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again

When I lived in Lebanon, my family worked in very close proximity with Syrian refugees. We would often visit them in their ramshackle homes to have tea and chat, and they would tell us their stories of journeying from Syria to Lebanon to escape the civil war. It made reading about Ha’s culture shock, the way America received her and her experience as a refugee touch my heart so deeply. There are millions of people like her all around the world, and I felt privileged to follow her journey through poetry.

The novel was nominated for several awards including the Newberry Medel in 2012, and Lai certainly deserves it. Her writing style flowed seamlessly and even though it was written in verse, it wasn’t superflous or difficult to follow. The journey was very easy to track and the form only made it more beautiful and emotional.

3. “The Shack” by William Paul Young

A snow covered cabin is nestled between snow covered trees and bushes at sunset.

This third book is somewhat contraversial. It follows the journey of a man, Mack, who returns to the site of his daughter’s murder after supposedly receiving an invitation from God himself to come to ‘the shack.’ The novel deals with extremely sensitive topics and also follows Mack’s journey of wrestling and reconcilliation with God, who is depicted in a very unconventional and personal way. However, this book is incredibly thought-provoking and interesting. It answers questions with more questions. It makes you question your preconceptions of the meaning of good, evil, and God.

Whether you are religious or not, this novel is a beautiful journey to follow. Mack’s anger, fear and ‘Great Sadness’ is incredibly relatable. His humanity is so touching, and the book attempts to tackle the question of “where is God in a world full of suffering?” What I liked the most about it is that you can make of it what you will. It is not a light read but it is great to properly think about your values and what suffering and goodness mean to you personally.

These three novels tackle journeys in very different ways, but all three are masterfully created. I would definitely consider them some of my favourite books of all time, and highly recommend them to audiences interested in reading something special this Spring!

Favourite Free Museums to Visit in London

Finding free things to do in London as a student with a limited budget is no easy feat. Transport alone is an investment, and if you’re wanting to eat while you’re out, London is not cheap. When I lived in London as a child, so many of my core memories were made in museums with my mum and my brothers. She took us there to pass the time because they were fun, interesting, and free.

I’m a firm believer that you cannot outgrow museums.

I’m a firm believer that you cannot outgrow museums. They have such a wealth of knowledge and culture that you appreciate more and more as you get older. A massive advantage of living in London is how many museums there are to choose from, so I have listed my five favourites below along with the reasons why you should visit them while you’re at university to save your wallet on a rainy day with nothing to do.

The Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum is the one that struck me most as a child. There was one interactive exhibit in particular that has remained in my memory: a reenactment of what a World War Two bomb shelter would feel like. It was dark, cramped, and noisy, and really helped me put myself in the shoes of those who suffered in the Great Wars. It has been removed since then, but all the exhibitions are thought-provoking and intense.

The Imperial War Museum is the one that struck me most as a child.

The Holocaust exhibition on the top floor of the museum has received a lot of recognition, and contains a trigger warning before you go in because the content of the exhibition is very sensitive. There are also massive exhibits on both the First and Second World Wars. Old fighter planes hang from the ceiling and the gardens outside the building are quite beautiful. It isn’t exactly a light-hearted visit, but it is massively interesting and important to go see it.

The British Library

A collection of old books stored behind glass casing

The British Library contains some of the biggest treasures in the country. For English majors, there is a display of Shakespeare’s first folio and hundreds of other old, beautiful texts, including the magna carta! However, if you want to bring your engineering friend along, you can observe things like the enigma machine used in World War Two and other pieces of history that aren’t just to do with literature.

Aside from the must-see artefacts, the British Library is the perfect study space. It’s quiet, peaceful, scenic and a nice escape from your usual study zones. It is also, *drum roll*, free! So get down there as quickly as you can for some solo study or with some friends.

The Natural History Museum

As a kid, this one was my favourite because of two words: dinosaur bones. The Natural History Museum is perfect for fans of Jurassic Park and science. I personally am more of an English-oriented person than a science-oriented person, my trips to the museum have always been incredible because of how cleverly set up the exhibitions are.

Two words: dinosaur bones.

The building is stunning, too. You can really get lost in the exhibits, and when I was scrolling through Tik Tok the other day, I saw that the Natural History Museum actually holds a silent disco once a month on the last Friday of each month! Unfortunately, it is not free, and tickets sell out quickly, but it’s a great extra feature if you are wanting to spend on a night out and do something completely different.

Tate Britain

A black statue of the head and shoulders of a man is pictured in front of two paintings, one small and framed, the other large and unframed.

You’ve probably heard of the Tate Modern – the big, rather ugly industrial building on the Southbank housing some of the UK’s most radical modern art. But have you heard of its lesser-known cousin, Tate Britain?

Tate Britain’s exhibitions contain older art as well as modern art. My favourite exhibit in the museum is the old collection starting in the 1500s and finishing in the 1920’s. Other exhibitions pick up from that time period with modern art, but the reason I rate Tate Britain so highly is that there is something for everyone: art fans that refuse to look at anything past the Renaissance and art fans who prefer to relate to the abstract, contemporary stuff.

It is also less intimidating than the Tate Modern. The building is a lot smaller and it doesn’t take too long to work through all the free exhibitions. I’d pick the Tate Britain over the Tate Modern any day!

The Wallace Collection

A massive conservatory roof covers a space with small trees next to a pink building with white details and big windows

Finally, the Wallace Collection is the most charming Museum out of the five. Again, it is smaller, meaning it is less of a pain to walk around for hours and hours staring at artefacts. To me, the Wallace Collection simply feels like walking around someone’s fancy house that has been frozen in time – alongside several beautiful exhibitions of art and collections of old artefacts that will blow you away.

When I was little, my brothers and I used to go downstairs and try on the chainmail and armour that was available to the public. When I think back, I can still feel the weight of it on me and smell the cold iron! Since then, I’ve been back for a gorgeous afternoon tea in the conservatory pictured above. The tea is not free but like the silent disco, it is a great event to splurge on for a birthday or a celebration.

London is an incredible place for museums, and we definitely take it for granted. Try and work through these five favourites to keep you entertained during term time and to keep your wallet happy!

3 Easy Meals for Broke Vegan Students

Being vegan is hard. Being broke, vegan, and busy is even harder. Before coming to uni, I used to laugh at the idea of cooking vegan meals to save money. Surely all those fake meat products are far more expensive than real meat. But then I went on my first grocery shopping trip to Asda, saw the price tag on a kilo of beef and realised I was going to have to make some changes if I wanted to cook within budget.

I soon realised that some of my easiest, cheapest meals came out vegan without me even trying!

I soon realised that some of my easiest, cheapest meals came out vegan without me even trying, and not a single fake-meat product has been used in the process. So here they are: three foolproof, quick, cheap and delicious dinners for the broke, the vegan, or both.

Butter Bean Tomato Pasta

A mixture of ripe and unripe cherry tomatoes cling to a vine supported by sticks on a green background


  • Olive oil
  • Spices: dried basil, dried oregano, chilli flakes (optional)
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • One onion
  • Tomato paste
  • A packet of fresh cherry tomatoes or a can of tinned tomatoes (cherry or plum recommended because they taste nicer than normal tinned tomatoes)
  • A can of butter beans
  • Half a big bag of spinach
  • Salt
  • Pasta of your choice (I recommend linguine)
  • Fresh basil (optional)


  1. Take a big shallow saucepan and cover the bottom of it with olive oil. Add a generous shake of dried basil, oregano and chilli flakes to it. Then add the garlic (crushed) and the onion (diced very small). Once that is sizzling and smelly add a squeeze of tomato paste and stir it in.
  2. Once the onions have cooked down a bit, strain the butter beans and add them to the pan. Stir it all up and let the beans sit in the garlic for a minute or two.
  3. Add your tomatoes to the saucepan and stir it all up. Add as much salt as you like.
  4. Turn the heat down to low. If you’re using fresh cherry tomatoes, cover the pan and let it simmer till the cherry tomatoes are completely squishy. If you’re using tinned tomatoes, just let it sit for fifteen minutes and then taste it. Wash your tomato can with water and pour that water into the mixture.
  5. Take out a pot and bring water to a boil. Once it has boiled, add lots of salt and your pasta. Save a cup of the pasta water when it’s cooked.
  6. Add the pasta water to the saucepan and the spinach. Once the spinach has wilted add the pasta to the pan as well and stir it up. Tear in fresh basil and you’re done!

Hearty Vegetable Chilli

A spice rack is set up with jars of several different spices next to wooden spoons and utensils in pots


  • Olive oil
  • 3/4 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions
  • Spices: cumin, coriander, paprika, chilli flakes (optional), dried basil, 7-spice (if you can get it)
  • Salt
  • Tomato paste
  • 4 fresh tomatoes
  • 2 small courgettes
  • 2 small aubergines
  • 3 medium carrots
  • A can of tinned tomatoes
  • A can of kidney beans
  • A can of black beans
  • Rice (1 cup should do)


  1. Take a large saucepan and coat the bottom of it with a very generous amount of olive oil. Add in the garlic (crushed), onions (diced), and dump generous amounts of each spice in as well. Let them all fry together gently till they become lovely and aromatic.
  2. Add a big squeeze of tomato paste to the spicey onion mixture once the onions have cooked down a bit and stir it in. Then add the courgette, aubergine and carrots, all chopped in small chunks. Let them fry with the spices for a while.
  3. Add in the fresh tomatoes, also chopped. Keep stirring until the vegetables soften a bit.
  4. Add the tinned tomatoes, strained kidney beans and strained black beans. Wash your tomato can with water and pour that water into the mixture. Pour in salt to your liking and turn the heat on low. Cover the saucepan and let everything simmer for as long as possible (the longer you leave it the better it tastes).
  5. Take out another pot and cook the rice your preferred way. Because I was raised in an Arab household, I take rice cooking very seriously. It starts with washed basmati rice fried in the bottom of the pot with olive oil till golden. Then add 1.5x the amount of water to the amount of rice and let it boil dry. Once it’s boiled, turn on the lowest heat and steam with the lid on for at least ten minutes.
  6. Once the rice is ready and all the veggies are cooked in the chilli, turn your oven off and enjoy the two together.

Lazy Chickpea Curry

A small wooden bowl is filled with chickpeas, a spoon blurred in the background


  • Olive oil
  • 3/4 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions
  • Spices: curry powder (I use medium), turmeric, cumin, chilli flakes (optional), ginger, coriander
  • 3 medium carrots
  • 2 small sweet potatoes
  • Half a big bag of spinach
  • Four fresh tomatoes
  • Can of chickpeas
  • Can of tinned tomatoes
  • Salt
  • Rice


  1. If you’re noticing a trend here, all my cooking starts with olive oil, onion and garlic. In your saucepan, dump a very generous amount of oil to the bottom and fry the garlic (crushed) and the onions (diced). Dump in very generous amounts of each spice and fry gently till the onions have softened a bit.
  2. Add in carrots (chopped small) and let cook. Then add sweet potatoes (also chopped small) and let cook for a few minutes.
  3. Add fresh tomatoes (chopped small), strained can of chickpeas, can of tinned tomatoes and salt. Again, wash your tomato can with water and pour that water into the mixture.
  4. Turn the heat down to low and let the curry simmer while you cook your rice. Use the same method mentioned for the vegetable chilli.
  5. Once the curry has been simmering and bubbling (like the chilli, the longer you leave it the better it tastes), add in the spinach and let it wilt.
  6. Serve over rice and enjoy!

Skiing and Swimming: The Lebanese Winter for Tourists

Did you know that in Lebanon, it’s possible for you to ski down the mountains in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean sea in the same afternoon? The beautiful geography of this country means that most destinations are no more than a two-hour drive away from each other due to how close the mountains are to the coast. So, after living in Lebanon for ten years, I have curated an ultimate guide for the top 5 things to do as a tourist in Lebanon in the winter season.

  1. Skiing
  2. Cedars
  3. Lightshow
  4. Tannourine
  5. Téléphérique

Ski trip!

Skiing in Lebanon is a cultural experience in itself. For one thing, it can be cheaper than skiing in Europe once ski passes, rentals, transport and accommodation are taken into account. And because of how small the country is, you don’t have to travel for any length of time to get from the slopes to the city centre, opening up a range of possibilities for accommodation.

If you are a first-time skier, Lebanese mountains are perfect to learn on because they are not as dramatic as European slopes. The weather is a lot milder, and the mountains tend to be smaller, so learning is a lot less daunting. But if you are an experienced skier, there are several impressive slopes, especially in the Mzaar resort.

The Beirut party vibe also extends to ski culture, so you will constantly be meeting interesting people and finding things to do after a long day on the slopes. Learning to ski in Lebanon spoiled me because I’ve gotten used to going down the slopes in a t-shirt and coming home by dinnertime. It is a must for tourists in the winter!

A snow covered ski slope has two ski lifts rising parallel up the mountain

Snowy cedars

There are several cedar reserves to choose from in Lebanon, but all of them are stunning, especially in the winter months. Snow covers the walking paths to create some of the most magical scenery in the region. The Chouf cedar reserve specifically my family’s favourite, with trees still living up to two thousand years and growing alongside freshly planted saplings.

Lebanon is famous for its cedars – King Solomon used them to build his temple in ancient times, the Bible mentions them as a symbol of strength and they are pictured on the Lebanese flag itself. Unfortunately, cedar trees only cover a very tiny proportion of Lebanese mountains when they used to cover over half of the country’s forests because of the exploitation of Lebanon’s resources by other countries throughout history and general deforestation.

The reserves are committed to replanting the lost forests and slowly bringing Lebanon back to its original glory. Tourists can walk through the forests, take pictures and play in the snow if they visit in the wintertime – a perfect activity for all ages.

A large cedar tree takes up the whole image with a carpet of snow beneath it

Coastal Christmas lights

The city Jbeil, or Byblos in English, is rich in culture all year round with its beautiful markets, beaches and traditional Lebanese architecture. But when the Christmas lights come out in December, Jbeil is transformed into a winter wonderland. Every year, an enormous tree is set up at the entrance of the city and its design is different each Christmas. However, it is consistently creative and impressive.

After seeing the tree, the walk around the city in the evening is stunning, especially along the shoreline. Hundreds of little colourful boats are anchored in the bay, and the ancient citadel is another fascinating tourist spot that looks out over the city and the sea. It is very well preserved and contains a mini-museum of artefacts from the citadel for those who are interested in history.

The opportunity to buy Christmas gifts at the little market stalls after walking through a garden of Christmas lights is a uniquely Lebanese experience considering the religious diversity of the country and the freedom for Christians to celebrate their holidays in the Middle East. Overall, Jbeil is the perfect destination for encouraging your Christmas spirit.

When the Christmas lights come out in December, Jbeil is transformed into a winter wonderland.

Winter waterfall

Lebanon’s natural beauty never fails to amaze, and the Tannourine waterfall during the winter is no exception. It is located in the Baatara Gorge sinkhole in Chatine and has a natural land bridge that people can walk across to see the waterfall closeup. It is a limestone gorge, but in the winter months, it is covered with snow.

When I was younger, it looked to me like something out of CS Lewis’ Narnia world. You cannot swim in the gorge and the drop-down is very dangerous, but watching the powerful waterfall gush down into the pool is truly magical. Adding to that, the hike to get to the waterfall is challenging but great fun, especially when you stop for a snowball fight.

When I was younger, it looked to me like something out of CS Lewis’ Narnia world.

Some of the coolest pictures in my camera roll were taken on that landbridge, and in my opinion, winter is the best time to go and see it because of the snow and how quiet the area around it is. I firmly believe that when visiting Lebanon, tourists must see the depth of beauty in the country’s geography as well as the urban life of Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre.

The cable car and Harissa

The sun is obscured by cloud but is shining orange on the mediterranean sea. The rest of the picture is taken up by forest covered mountains.

Finally, one of my favourite activities to do in winter that is perfect for tourists is the ride up the cable car from Jounieh to Harissa and the jaw-dropping view you get at the top of the mountain. The cable car, or Téléphérique as it is better known, starts at coastal level in the city of Jounieh and travels up the steep slope of the mountain to get to Harissa, where an impressive statue of Mary surveys the city and music echoes from the church built into the base of the statue. Looking out onto Jounieh from here is unbelievable because in the wintertime, due to heavy rainfall, the skyline is crystal clear.

A short walk away from the statue is another church, St Paul’s, which has interesting architecture on the outside with its domes and tall spire. What is completely unexpected, however, is what you find when you walk into the church. Every surface on the inside walls and ceilings is covered with glittering mosaics. They are especially beautiful at dusk when the fading light shines on the golden tiles.

To sum up, from skiing to swimming, Lebanon is an excellent tourist destination for winter travels: extensive cultural experiences and natural sights to see on solo travel, with friends, or as a family!

Dealing With Homesickness When You Have Moved Countries

Homesickness is not talked about enough. Thousands of international students flow in and out of London every year and are expected to assimilate into British culture without a word of complaint. But the turmoil of culture shock makes true assimilation almost impossible – nowhere truly feels like home once you’ve moved countries. Hopefully these tips will be of help to people like me who have struggled with homesickness.

The most important thing to understand is that you are not alone in your situation and it does get better.

1) Handling culture differences

Probably the hardest part about culture shock is feeling isolated and misunderstood by the country you are in. When I moved back to the UK, I felt incredibly unloved by England and its people because no one seemed to care about the specific set of life circumstances that shaped me from living abroad in Lebanon.

I didn’t find British jokes funny because I didn’t get them, and people didn’t get my humour either. I thought no one would ever truly connect with me because they wouldn’t understand my culture. But that’s where my thinking was completely wrong. It wasn’t the people around me’s fault they were ignorant – in a way, my ignorance toward their culture was just as guilty. Their ignorance came from having no exposure to the other culture, and I had no right to be angry at them. If you’re in that position right now, try and have sympathy for the people that don’t understand you so you don’t become bitter.

Friendship is so much more powerful than culture, and the closer you get, the easier it is to educate.

Friendship is so much more powerful than culture, and the closer you get, the easier it is to educate. If you are a British person reading this and know international students, remember how misunderstood they feel all the time, because it is the worst aspect of being new to a country. Try and put yourself in the other party’s shoes, whether you’re the national or international. It goes a long way.

2) Managing your mental health

Don’t avoid calling home. It may feel tempting to bottle everything up because you don’t want to process the difficult emotions of leaving home and fending for yourself in a new country. But that is a recipe for disaster. Keeping out of touch will make you feel even more isolated and alone. When I moved, my mum told me over a tearful phone call that culture shock has a lot of similar symptoms to depression. If your mood is low, your sleep schedule can be affected, you experience an unshakeable loneliness and you withdraw into yourself. What is different about culture shock, however, is that these symptoms are short-term.

A journal is opened to a blank page next to a cup of coffee and a vase of dried flowers on a wooden table painted white

The best way to manage them is by outwardly expressing your feelings to someone with a listening ear, writing them in a journal, or simply distracting yourself with hobbies. I used to try and go on walks when I was in a low mood and call a friend from home to stabilise myself. Although it hurt to be in a bad mental state, staying in touch helped me get out of it a lot quicker than I would’ve if I’d kept everything to myself.

With the anxiety that comes with homesickness, the remedy is just putting yourself into those anxious situations to expand your comfort zone, which is not easy to hear when you’re feeling anxious. But it will get easier and easier every time you do it and you may even start to feel like a local the more you establish patterns and habits.

3) Home away from home

What took me the longest to accept was that England could be my home as well as Lebanon, without taking away any of the value of Lebanon itself. Part of me felt that I was betraying my home country if I got comfortable in a new country, but again, I couldn’t have been more wrong. When you are homesick, you try to hold onto what makes you comfortable so much that you can’t create new comforts for yourself in your new environment.

You shouldn’t have to compromise your culture to allow yourself to make London home too. In fact, hold fast to the good things about where you come from and grow in that uniqueness. But refusing to allow the new country to be home alongside your original home means you’ll never settle, so be kind to yourself. Embrace the things about London that you love. Invest in empathetic friendships with empathetic people who actually care about you and your cultural differences. Don’t waste time on people who will never appreciate it.

You shouldn’t have to compromise your culture to allow yourself to make London home too.

You will reach a stage where neither London nor your home country feels completely like home, but try to see the beauty in that. You’re made up of so many stories and experiences from all over the world, and no one else on the planet is exactly like you. However, there are many people who are just as homesick as you are, so remember that you are not alone.