WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

The ‘Other’ Expats; an initiative by Mariam Ottimofiore that fills us with hope

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani born expat who grew up in Bahrain, New York City and Karachi. She has been living abroad for 17 years, with her husband and her two children. She has presently just left Dubai and moved to Ghana. I met her at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in The Hague, Netherlands in 2017 and was delighted when I realized that at the 2018 conference (which I unfortunately could not attend) she held a session to introduce the topic of The ‘Other’ Expats – Diverse Voices from Dubai; How Race, Class and Privilege Affect Our Mobility Experience. I talked to her on the phone about it over the summer and our conversation confirmed the impression I had after meeting Mariam: she is a very empathetic, highly motivated person, who believes in the power of our expat lives to change the world around us. Thank you Mariam for your time and best wishes for your next assignment!

Mariam had been an expat for many years, but it was only when she moved to Dubai in 2014 that she realized that a huge portion of expats were not part of the mainstream discussion on global mobility. These were the construction workers, the labourers, the gardeners, the maids, the nannies and the taxi drivers who hailed from countries like Pakistan and the Philippines. Many of them had migrated to the United Arab Emirates as foreign labour. She started researching and writing about these ‘other’ expats in 2016 to give a voice to this group of unheard and unseen foreigners who, like her, had settled down in Dubai, though under very different conditions.

Mariam started precisely from the fact that both she and these other expats had one big thing in common: they had both left their home countries and were living and working in a foreign land, which they both had to adapt to. In this process, she found out, that despite the big gap in economic conditions and socio-economic statuses, the ‘other’ expats faced many of the same challenges as the traditional expats: dealing with homesickness, culture shock, transitional pain, hope for better conditions, were all commonalities that mark all adaptation phases to new countries.

And yet, these people were not considered expats. In Dubai, an expat was a German marketing executive, not a Pakistani construction worker. The latter was called a ‘migrant worker’; a term that in the Middle East is used widely to denote individuals with blue collar jobs who come over to work for time-limited periods but are never integrated into society. They lead a very different life from the richer expats who arrive in the country with a solid working contract and loads of benefits. The ‘other’ expats have no access to relocation agencies, financial services or any form of governmental assistance. They leave their families back in their home countries and work hard to send money over to them every month. The financial conditions of the groups are striking, says Mariam. Whereas an expat working for a big international company is likely to earn 12,000 USD per month, the ‘other’ expats, mainly employed in construction and the labour industry earn around 190 USD per month.

Mariam was surprised when she realized that in Dubai, the two parallel worlds exist side-by-side, but rarely do they ever cross. Most expats live in their cocoon, and they might find it difficult to register that other people live in such difficult conditions. Mariam had been deeply touched by Amanda Bates intervention at FIGT17 when she had asked “who is not at the table?”, where attention was driven to the fact that those who own and lead the discussion about mobile life issues are mostly Third Culture Kids (TCK’s), diplomats, missionaries, expats, relocation agencies and international corporations. What about the refugees, the displaced and the migrant workers? Didn’t they deserve to be at the table too?

She decided to give a voice to the ‘other’ expats and set out to interview them and write about them. I asked her how she approached them and talked to them about sharing their stories. “I speak Urdu and Hindi which helped a lot, to break the ice. I started in my neighbourhood, telling people I was a writer and was interested in their experiences of moving abroad, to gather different points of view. They all reacted with enthusiasm. No one ever asks about their experiences. They wanted to share their story, in their own words.”

Mariam presented the results of her work at FIGT18 (click here to see the full video), but that was not the end of her work to bring awareness to the ‘other’ expats. She continued writing about the ‘other’ expats, blogging about their stories, advocating that the word ‘expat’ be redefined to include the ‘other’ expats (read here). She also collaborated with local initiatives such as the growth platform RISE who help these ‘other’ expats in the UAE to open up bank accounts, manage their finances, learn new skills and build a better future. You can read her article on RISE on And Then We Moved To.

Her writing and efforts have created a wave of consciousness in the expat community in Dubai. Even the Dutch ambassador to the UAE who read one of her articles on the ‘other’ expats published in Global Living Magazine tweeted this in support: “These voices deserve to be heard.”

All this has spurred a lot of expat writing, and organizations that help “other expats” have gained exposure. New collaborations and ideas exchanges have been born. Many expats in Dubai have approached the discussion, and ask themselves what they can give back to this country”, says Mariam.

I am delighted to hear all this. It is high time that more expat voices get together to realize how privileged some of us are, and how much we miss in not taking into the picture the stories of other expats. “We should start by bringing equality in the language”, says Mariam. “If you give them the same name as you call yourself, you open the way to find commonalities, and not differences”.

I ask Mariam if and how she intends to continue the project. She tells me that she will continue to do whatever she can to break down barriers, to challenge people’s minds to open up and embrace differences. There is a lot of work to do because the inequalities are mind-blowing. I am confident that Mariam will find her way to help people move forward wherever she goes. And I thank her from the bottom of my heart for this.

 

 

 

 

For more of Mariam’s work and writing, head over to her website And Then We Moved To (www.andthenwemovedto.com)

Claudia Landini
September 2018
Photo credit ©MariamNavaidOttimofiore

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Children’s Hope In Action: Improving lives, saving futures!

Nikki Cornfield is one of the Parfitt-Pascoe Writing Residents 2018. She is a British expat, yoga and meditation teacher, currently living in Australia. She blogs at https://nikkicornfield.com/. We thank her for this great article.

 

In July 2016 we joined two other families in Hanoi in the north of Vietnam to begin our adventure traveling south with Intrepid Family Holidays. Arriving in Hoi An, we were given the opportunity to visit CHIA – a grassroots charitable foundation for helping disadvantaged children in Central Vietnam. We donated packs of milk cartons and baby formula and were warmly welcomed by volunteer Jeanne Grant, who today is still generously giving her time as CHIA’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Jeanne Grant arrived in Vietnam on holiday in 2013 and after several more visits fell in love with it and decided to take long service leave from her job as a social worker and family therapist in Victoria, Australia, to volunteer her services at CHIA. “I was hooked and so excited to begin. I began the process of jumping all the hurdles at home to make my dreams come true.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.

Jeanne and the CHIA staff

We knew we would be meeting children whose problems and disabilities would stab at our hearts; in Vietnam children with special needs are deemed ‘useless’ to their families as they cannot work or go to school to learn. But as we sat and played with them, their smiles demonstrated that these were the lucky ones: they stood a chance of having an education and a future thanks to Jeanne and the volunteers who came from all over the world to offer specialized care.

Life as a volunteer

Arriving back in Hoi An on 15th of January 2016, Jeanne secured herself an apartment and a motor scooter – “even though I had never ridden one in my life.” Her work began immediately at CHIA and her experience has proved “remarkable, fulfilling and so much more than I could ever have imagined.” Jeanne’s courage to start this new life and to give her time making a difference for these children and their parents came from her love of working with children and families, her love of traveling the world and a close family who supports her in everything she does. It’s this foundation of ‘home’ back in Australia that she says gives her the grounding to be able to offer her all in Vietnam and use skills acquired from 20 years of work with abused children. “It is a pleasure and honor to work with this great organization and the staff and children. The greatest satisfaction is that I can make a direct difference in a child’s life, which is an amazing feeling.

Chia children, staff and volunteers

Jeanne introduced herself to our group of five adults and ten children and spoke about the work that CHIA does, not just in the center but also in the community. As the children crawled into our laps for a cuddle or to show us a toy we all melted at the love we immediately felt for them. We were all moved to tears at the stories of just how difficult it is in Vietnam for families to survive and feed their children, let alone educate them. We were humbled at how much we have at home in comparison. In Central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province families are directly responsible for the total cost of sending their child to school. With most families surviving on less than $2 per day – yes that’s less than your average take away coffee -, it is easy to see that school fees and supplies are so huge that this large financial burden becomes unsustainable and children have to quit school. They are forced to work at an early age to help their family. Jeanne explained to us that if the child has learning and/or physical disabilities they cannot do this which leaves them abandoned at home, of no use to their families or society. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room at this stage.

A doctor from our group was emotionally stirred to help immediately and set to work assessing the children. The center relies on volunteer doctors to diagnose the mental and physical disorders in order for them to receive the correct care. We were inspired by Jeanne to act and do something to help this incredible organization, which had made her turn her world upside down to help “change the world of Vietnam’s children.

 

Nikki Cornfield
July 2018

To support CHIA please visit www.ChildrensHopeINAction.org

 

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FIGT Conference 2017 – What Expats Can Do presentation

This is the presentation Cristina gave at the Families in Global Transition conference in The Hague in March 2017.

I will start by sharing my feelings, so that we can practice empathy straight away: I need your empathy to help me, since this is the first time I speak in a conference and I have to do it in English (apologies to have to make you suffer for more or less10 minutes).

Without repeating information that is already available on the website, I would like to introduce you to what is behind the project What Expats Can Do.

Everything started one year ago, while I was sitting on the other side of this table and TheManThatIWillNeverThankEnough, Christopher O’Shaughnessy, was talking about the critical mission of the expat community.

I lived abroad for 16 years, in 8 different countries, faced some serious cultural shocks. I quit my job and threw away my master degree and my career in order to pursue this kind of life, (I would say without being totally aware of that at that time). I am the stereotype of the expat spouse who sacrificed her social identity on the altar of mobile life. For several years I had been thinking of how I could recycle myself and how my experience could add a valuable contribution to society, apart from being a spouse and a mother. Everything I was considering to pursue, implied starting from scratch, and my experience not being evaluated enough. And that hurts, it really hurts, doesn’t it?

Then there was that man, TheManThatIWillNeverThankEnough, saying something that was touching me deep inside. It was a simple concept: as expats we have gained skills that the world desperately needs, and one of them is particularly important: the ability to feel and create empathy and bring hope to other people.

All through my life abroad, I was aware I was acquiring special skills, but I had never thought those skills could be useful for society. That was a new concept, a new way to see my life experience.

So, I started to think. And talk. I involved Claudia and the Expatclic team, my expat friends, I practically bothered everybody. I worked on this new concept, and my reflections were more or less the following:

Expats are generally not considered as a RESOURCE in society. Companies consider them a resource, but society doesn’t.

 

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Immigrants are considered a social entity and it is understandable: their goal is to settle down, they have a significant financial impact on society (positive as an economical resource, negative for the cost of integration), they tend to integrate their families in the host country. There are governments’ programs to deal with their integration so that they can give their contribution to society.

Expats are generally not considered as a social entity or, if they are, it is a kind of temporary consideration, strictly related to the nature of their assignment (military members, diplomats, executives, etc.). Outside of this role, they practically don’t have a social identity, their families are considered only as “accessories”. It is understandable: expats don’t bring social issues or problems with them, their financial impact on society is limited or controlled. Their integration in society is not an issue: they will not stay for long. In some countries expats communities are also “physically” confined inside specific areas to keep them separated by locals.

And this is a waste. It is a huge waste of potential, because mobility is globally growing even if in different ways; the global expat community is growing.

An expat family IS a precious resource for the local society.

Why? For the following reasons:

  1. Our cultural level is generally high, partly because many of us have a high level of education, but also because during our traveling and migrations, we open ourselves to different cultures and we acquire new knowledge on the way (history, geography, antrophology, …)
  2. We are raising TCKs that are mostly educated in international schools, with a high awareness of the value of diversity, the ability to understand the perspective of others (as Anne Copeland brilliantly illustrated this morning) and the capacity of perceiving very naturally how the world is ruled and works.
  3. We gain special SKILLS and we learn how to practice EMPATHY.

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To better explain this concept, let me tell you about an experiment done by a ceramic teacher in an art school and reported in the book “Creative Confidence” (pag.123) by Tom and David Kelley:

A clever ceramics instructor divided his pottery class into two groups during his first session. One half of the students, he announced, would be graded on quality as represented by a single ceramic piece due at the end of the class, a culmination of all they had learned. The other half of the class he would grade based on quantity. For example, fifty pounds of finished work would earn them an A. Throughout the course, the “quality” students funneled their energy into meticulously crafting the perfect ceramic piece, while the “quantity” students threw pots nonstop in every session. And althought it was counterintuitive to his students, the best pieces all came from students whose goal was quantity, the ones who spent the most time actually practising their craft”.

Like in arts, it is the repetition of the creative process that develops human skills.

Apply this concept to the migrating process and think of how many times you went through:

  • overcoming cultural shock
  • helping your children integrate in schools
  • finding logistic and social solutions
  • finding ways to communicate and deal with different cultures and different kinds of people, with different values systems.

We are definitively EXPERTS in this field !!! Consider all of this, not only from an individual point of view, but as a community of people (our tribe!!!).

Maybe we are not considered socially, but we know how to deal with diversity and find workable solutions.

We know how to deal with diversity and find workable solutions.

Can you feel the importance of this?

In this historical moment, with all the things that happen around us…

Do you realize the responsibility we have towards future generations, towards our children?

The world desperately needs our skills in its societies.

At this point of our reflections, we faced two questions:

  1. Are we really AWARE of our potential?

I personally don’t think so.

Claudia and I have been talking about this with friends and people since last March. People usually say “Yes, it is true, I never thought about that”, because this is mostly an aspect they never rationally considered before.

Then, assumed that we are becoming aware of this, the second step is a conscious assessment that if we have such a potential and richness in our cultural and social luggage, we have a responsibility to share it, especially in a world that needs to hear words of hope now more than ever.

 

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Second problem, honestly speaking, with the kind of life we have, between one move and the other,

  1. What can we really and practically DO?

We need to find WAYS to value our contribution and get into ACTION, we need to create spaces where to share and transform our community into a social resource.

Something must be done.

And at this point … What Expats Can Do was born and answering those 2 questions is the main goal we have at the moment.

 

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