WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

How the language we speak shapes our brain

Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash

In these turbulent times, with so many examples of the difficulty we human beings face relating to each other, I end up asking myself why it is so hard for people to understand and feel compassion for each other.

Often, when people think differently about a subject, they find it difficult to understand each other, and then, given presumptions on what they understand, things escalate to a fight.

In a TED talk entitled, “How language shapes the way we think“, Lera Boroditsky inspired me to reflect on how the language we speak can interfere with our thoughts – and shape them. The same expression (or the same word) may have a different meaning for a person who speaks another language. In fact, certain words or expressions may not even exist in a different language.

For example, some languages are built on diverse relationships with space and geography – these factors combine to create a variety of thoughts and ways to express them. (This is extremely interesting! Take the time to listen to Lera Boroditsky… I assure you, you will have a different point of view on the role of language in human communication.)

After listening, I immediately imagined the dynamics of a conversation between two people using two different native languages; and then that of two people who use a third common language to communicate… How many times, when we speak with a person coming from a different culture or speaking a different language, are we aware that what we say may have a totally different meaning in the listener’s brain? Are we aware that the thoughts forming in our mind while listening could be very different from the meaning intended by the speaker?

Developing this kind of awareness is key: it’s like opening a door to a completely different approach for communication amongst cultures. Lera leaves us with the following questions to bring with us for our next interlanguage/intercultural conversation:

 

Why do I think the way I do?
How could I think differently?
What thoughts do I wish to create?

 

 

Cristina Baldan
July 2020

 

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

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The bitter expat privilege of Covid-19

In this post I reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted our lives as expats, and what it has taught us.

 

When I wrote a post on my blog about how different the COVID-19 emergency was for expats, many things had not happened yet. First and foremost, my mom was still alive. I was still to undergo the torture of knowing she had COVID-19 and was dying alone in her nursing home. I had yet to experience the bitterness of getting the news she had passed away via Whatsapp from my brother, whom I could not hug. I had never before gone through something so difficult while being physically separated from my sons, each one of them mourning their grandma alone.

Photo © Cristina Baldan

My mom died at the beginning of April – and from far away I tried to mourn her, to get used to the idea she had gone, and to accept that she had gone in the way she did.

I did fairly well, but one feeling remained and seemed to grow stronger and more invasive by the day: the fatigue of having to cope with the uncertainty about when I would finally be allowed to hug my dear ones again.

This is something that the vast majority of expats all over the world have been experiencing. Like never before, have we clearly realized how difficult living with uncertainty can be. We have felt naked and deprived of control, and we have done that far away from home.

As the need to be near our loved ones grew, we could hardly stand another day without knowing when the borders would reopen and transportation would resume.

Still, we knew someday this would happen. For the very vast majority of us, it was really just a matter of time.

My 31 years of life abroad have repeatedly shown me how privileged I am. The more I got in touch with harsh realities I hadn’t been aware of whilst living in my protected Western world, the more I understood how vast the breadth of my privilege was. With time, I committed to compare my life situations with those of the less fortunate that I have so often encountered during my mobile life.

This is what I am doing during this COVID-19 emergency. I hang on to the thought that I am still part of that lucky minority who has the privilege of dealing with the pain and incertitude caused by the virus with a roof over her head, food on the stove, and good connections to the outside world. Mostly, though, I know that no one will force me out of my passport country indefinitely.

Photo © Cristina Baldan

Like everyone, I guess, I have thought a lot about what I could learn from this unusual situation (having the ability to reflect is a privilege in itself). I believe that by undergoing forced isolation from our countries and loved ones, we have a superb occasion to put ourselves in the shoes of those refugees who will never be allowed to go back to their countries – be it for political or economic reasons.

We know that the advantage of our lives abroad is that we can directly experience things we would never face at home. This helps us understand what others feel when going through culture shock and adapting to a different reality.

Being expats during the COVID-19 emergency has also brought us another step forward. It has made us feel what it means to be forcibly separated from the countries and the people we love, and to manage the hardest losses from afar. It has made us experience powerlessness in a new way, giving a more real sense of empathy for so many individuals in the world as they flee war, violence and misery.

I have made a plan to go back to Italy next Friday. Next Saturday I’ll hug my brothers. By Tuesday the 16th I’ll have my two sons and my son in law with me under the same roof. Every time I think of that moment, I feel so overwhelmed with joy that I cannot control the tears.

I only wish every person on the planet could have the same chance I have. I truly hope we have all learned important lessons from COVID-19, and that these lessons will allow us to make the world a better place for everyone.

 

Claudia Landini
June 2020

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Use your difference to make a difference – Tayo Rockson’s mission and a wonderful book

I have another book to add to my list of books that made me. Its title is Use your difference to make a difference, and it has been written by Tayo Rockson, a man I am so proud and happy to have talked to online recently. Here are my impressions of the book as well as interesting points from my conversation with Tayo.

 

Tayo is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant and speaker. I came across his book on LinkedIn. The title, Use your difference to make a difference, caught my eye and rang a bell. The basic principle of What Expats Can Do is exactly that, to use the difference we expats have gained from living a life exposed to other cultures in order to make a difference in the world.

tayo rocksonI bought Tayo’s book and read it immediately. Right from chapter one, I knew this would become one of the most important books I have read in my life. At chapter two, I felt like a better and richer person. At chapter three, I knew I had to talk to Tayo.

I love books that allow me to create a connection with the author. In reading Use your difference to make a difference, I felt exactly this. It was like having Tayo sitting on my sofa besides me, personally conveying his ideas, experiences and feelings. His voice is real and energetic throughout the book. You can feel from line one that he’s absolutely passionate and honest about what he says, and conveys his message thoughtfully in a way that has broad appeal.

His story is the basis for his shared reflections. Originally from Nigeria, Tayo grew up in five countries on four continents, and spent the first nine years of his life in and out of two military dictatorships. Like everyone, he went through a typical teenager identity crisis – though made fiercer by growing up across cultures, and exposed to the world.

The experience of intersecting identity, connections, and cross-cultural communication mingled with Tayo’s curiosity and passion to figure out how to bridge culture divides, as well as his desire to be seen and understood for who he was and who he is.

tayo rocksonFortunately for us, Tayo chose writing, exploration, research, and storytelling as tools to get the answers he needed.

“We limit others by telling limited stories of who they are. In other words, we miss out on a chance to truly connect with others, because stories create connection pathways between multiple types of people as well as different emotions that lead to empathy.” (pag. 62)

The catalyst for Tayo came in the form of a car accident in 2012 that almost killed him. It was at that point that he decided not to hold back anymore. He became more public – showing his vulnerability, and being willing to dare more. He moved to New York and launched his podcast program, As told by nomads.

Tayo does not talk extensively about this amazing collection of 507 stories from people who grew up across cultures (not just across borders) in his book – he actually only mentions it once. But it surely stands as proof of his passion for human beings and connections.

“[…]opened my eyes to the possibility of what a world could look like if we connected across differences. It also led me down this quest of exploring different environments to find the best ways to forge these connections and build bridges.” (Page 3)

I love the way Tayo links diversity to connection. In his eyes, diversity is the ability to connect the visible to the invisible. He maintains that in order for this connection to take shape, awareness is the key.

But how do we get to that kind of awareness? The chance expats have to experience the living conditions of others, different ideas, and lifestyles first hand is a privilege that increases our awareness of the world. In his book, however, Tayo outlines a model that even those who are not directly exposed to diversity can apply to reach this degree of awareness.

It’s called “Educate, Don’t Perpetuate, instead Communicate”, and is clearly explained with an abundance of examples and references throughout the book.

Its premise rests on the exploration of one’s biases, triggers, and values. But because I want you to read the book, I will not go deeper into this! Suffice to say that the way Tayo handles this model and many of the other very useful methods he outlines in the book, gives the reader practical ideas and tools to start putting into practice the moment you put the book down

tayo rockson

During our conversation, I also asked Tayo how, in his opinion, can expats give back what they gain from exposure to diversity. He referred to his own experience of growing up abroad in the diplomatic circle, the misunderstandings he encountered, or the distance between himself and his relatives whenever he went back home. Through that he learned how important it is to start from your own circle of influence in order to provide a wider lens in viewing the world. What you have to do is find the connectors.

And we are back to connections. It was exactly during a speech about connecting across cultures that Tayo got the idea to write Use your difference to make a difference. People were asking him to point them towards concrete directions; they were eager for him to clarify what, in his opinion, could be done. That was the moment he realized people were listening to him and were interested in what he had to say.

It took him one and a half months to complete the book! Tayo wrote it for everyone who has never felt enough – he wrote it to give people something tangible. But the book does more than that, it also gives hope. In the empathy, passion and involvement that each of Tayo’s words expresses, there is love for humanity, for diversity, and for a world where each and everyone counts. What more does the world need today? And after all:

“Just like generations of slavery and colonialism affect us today, who is to say that generations of connecting across cultures won’t impact tomorrow?”

 

Thank you, Tayo.

 

Claudia Landini
May 2020
Photos ©TayoRockson
Tayo Rockson’s website: https://tayorockson.com/

 

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You have to be very careful with dreams

It has been an absolute pleasure to have this wonderful conversation with Franco Alosio, an Italian expat living in Bucharest since 2000. Franco has been collaborating with “Parada Foundation” since its creation. Parada is the first project of its kind that supports street children in the Romanian capital… and it is absolutely wonderful.

Parada was founded in 1996 by Miluod Oukili, a French-Algerian street clown who worked for the civil service whilst in Bucharest. While there, in his free time he used to do street shows wearing his red nose and juggling for the amusement of onlookers. Legend has it that one day, street children stole his equipment while he was performing. He was therefore forced to talk to them to try and retrieve his juggling equipment… which is how Miloud got started interacting with the children who were living in the underground tunnels that house Bucharest’s central thermal heating pipes.

When his time working for the civil service ended, Miloud decided to stay in Bucharest. Through Terre des Hommes Switzerland, he created a welcome centre for street children – though it eventually was forced to close – so Miloud founded “Parada” to keep it open, and thus the most extraordinary project was born.

The story of Parada is long and has adapted to the changes of Romanian society and the life of street children. It is the only comprehensive foundation that offers emergency services, socio-educational assistance, and socio-professional integration to street children and their families, using circus (believe it or not) as the primary educational tool.

Franco discovered Parada in 1999 at an international conference where he presented some of the activities he had promoted with street children in Nepal. The following year, his NGO sent him to Bucharest for a feasibility study on Parada. Later, when UNICEF Romania approved Parada’s project, Franco was sent to follow the start-up phase for six months. He’s been in Romania ever since, and even though his role within Parada has changed over time, he’s still deeply engaged with the project that has marked his life so deeply.

Thinking back on that time, Franco says: “All of my prejudices were thoroughly challenged. Not only did I find myself in the heart of rich and wealthy Europe, where these things are not supposed to happen… these kids were white, very much like our Italian kids. The image of them getting out of manholes, which immediately evoked mice scurrying around, was deeply disturbing. Those were the things our Western mind expected to see in Africa, or Asia”.

Reviewing one’s prejudices is not the only merit of going to live and work abroad. Getting in touch with different realities helps you reframe your own. Franco had already worked in the social services field and with adolescents as well as young people with personal discomfort, but their issues were more personal – the work was done on single cases. He had never experienced first-hand such a widespread social phenomenon.

Franco felt immediately engaged with Parada. At that time the concept of art therapy was completely unknown. Parada was a pioneer in exploring the idea of pulling children out of the tunnels by engaging them in something creative, humanly bonding, and fun. Miloud was absolutely innovative in that sense… and a bit crazy. It was foolish to dream that children living underground would come out and be trained in shows for the European circuses. But he did it. He understood that often, the only thing these kids had was a dream.

You have to be very careful with dreams”, says Franco. “Dreams have a huge potential, but if you break them you risk to take away the only thing a person has. The dream of a street child is to get off the street. These are his wings. Parada offered the chance to give roots to the wings. Which means to offer these kids the possibility to structure and develop those skills, talents and characteristics that allow them to realize their dream”.

I asked Franco what is the biggest lesson he takes away from his experience. “I have learned that human relationship is the only valuable path in these situations. It is a matter of empathy, of emotions. There is just one methodology to use under these circumstances, and it is that of human relationship: if you get involved at this level, even if you make mistakes, you will always be there for the other. You must show that you are there. And this requires constancy. Forget what they told you at the university or when you were working in the social work field back home. These kids are not inferior beings that need our help. There is nothing more false than this. You are just a tool that gets involved to connect with that person, a person who is not inferior, but who just happens to live under different circumstances. We can hardly change our lives, how can we even think to change theirs?

Franco has no doubts: in terms of individual growth he has received much more from “his” boys than what he’s given them. They have been a real school of life, for him and all those who have worked with them.

How can this personal growth be useful to society, though? “We are witnessing a globalization of social phenomena”, says Franco. “That of street children is increasing dramatically, it has gotten to the Western world and is strongly hitting European capitals. The experience of Parada is being exported where it’s most needed. Some of the former Bucharest street children are now training Kurdish kids in refugees camps in Iraq, or in Cambodia”.

Parada was born by the willingness of a person to get involved in a different context, to grow from the challenge that came from it. I can’t think of a better way to use this experience.

_____________________

Parada has launched a fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed to continue their operations. If you feel like donating even a small amount to this beautiful project, even more important now in times of Corona Virus, go HERE for the fundraising campaign. Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us – we’ll be happy to put you in contact with Franco.

Visit Parada’s website: https://www.parada.it/

Interview collected by Claudia Landini
April 2020
All photos ©Parada

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My most important experience as a volunteer

Claudia remembers the time when she was living in Honduras, and how her experience as a volunteer there changed her.

 

Volunteering is often confused with charity, especially when it comes from groups of rich expats in disadvantaged countries. While I love giving my time for free for a variety of reasons, I am 100% allergic to those forms of charities (like dispensing used clothes and giving Christmas gifts to poor children forgetting about them the rest of the year). Whenever I happened to be part of any of these charity groups, I always felt deeply embarrassed and ill at ease. When I saw myself through the eyes of the “poor” people we were helping, I would have loved nothing more than for the earth to open and swallow me. Never in my life have I felt the privilege of my being born white, in the Western world, and in the right family at the right time like on those occasions.

Luckily there have only been a few of them. I tried to pick my opportunities to volunteer carefully, and chose situations where I would be looked at not as merely conveying welfare, but as a person who happily shared her skills and experience out of sheer love for the humanity.

experience as a volunteer

Part of my group of great ladies

In Honduras, where I lived from 1999 to 2003, I was a young full-time mother with lots of time on her hands when children were at school. I could not work (thanks to the country’s regulations) and I had a strong desire to get close to my hosting culture, and to honour what has always been my deepest value: support.

Someone told me of an association of international aid workers’ spouses who met once a month to plan support for a number of social projects in Honduras. I felt the alarm bell ringing… but I went to have a look anyway.

It took me a while to overcome my prejudice and let go of the impression of having to deal with a group of rich ladies that washed their conscience in wrapping gifts for the abandoned kids. In fact, they did just about everything but that – well, they wrapped gifts, too, but only at Christmas ☺ – and by that time, I had madly fallen in love with them.

I had fallen in love with them because what they did was human, clever, and provided a multitude of channels to get in touch with the local culture and work on our own terms on our relationship with it.

The thing I absolutely loved the most while I was part of this association, was raising funds to renovate an unused area of the Paediatric Burns Unit of the biggest public hospital in Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras) and supervise the project to create a space that we – the famous ladies – had planned together with architects, doctors, physiotherapists and parents of the hospital. A space where children would be happy to go and have their physiotherapy treatment, and enjoy some games and activities while waiting.

experience as a volunteer

Art students of Tegucigalpa paint the recreational space at the hospital

There is no place like a public hospital to understand the reality of a country.

Volunteering at the Hospital Materno Infantil of Tegucigalpa, was a school in itself. The vast majority of burn related accidents happened to children while their parents were away at work. Parents who were too poor to afford a baby-sitter. Or they took their children with them while working, which in some cases was even worse. The most heart-breaking case I saw in that hospital was of an 8-year old girl that had fallen into the boiling mix of sugar cane their parents were processing.

When things like this happened, we would arrange shifts at the hospital to be in strict contact with the doctors and help the family pay for whatever expensive medicament or equipment was needed to save and treat the child. We would also stay with the patients, because parents were not always in a position to spend the whole day and night with them – some came from far away and had other children to look after at home.

This was all when parents were in the picture… I remember one day arriving at the department and being met by an upset nurse: early that morning they had admitted a baby who had been born in secret and abandoned by his mother in an alley. Stray dogs had tried to eat him, and he had only been rescued thanks to the fact that someone was passing by at that moment. He was immediately operated and lost a leg. I will never forget the sight of that baby sleeping under a thick blanket. I cannot really find words for what I felt.

Our relationship with the hospital grew stronger and deeper. We were not imposing our idea of aid, but put ourselves at the service of the medical staff – they were the only people entitled to say what was needed and how the help had to be administered.

The then president of Honduras, Ricardo Maduro, and the first lady, Aguas Santas Ocaña Navarro

One need they expressed was that something be done for AIDS patients. Thus, we started a programme to collect funds (we even rented cinemas and organised premières for that aim!) to cover the costs of retrovirus medications for those patients who could not afford them. We even went so far as to organise a march to raise awareness about the discrimination people with AIDS were subjected to. We were absolutely proud of being able to have the President of Honduras and his wife marching alongside us.

Whenever I think back on those moments, I feel a wave of warmth within me that I can hardly describe. As accompanying spouses, we often complain that we have less chances than our working partners to get in touch with local realities. This was not the case for me in Honduras – thanks to my volunteering with that hospital. I am sure in every country there are similar occasions. I invite everyone to look for them, and to participate. It is not only a way to give back to the countries that kindly hosts us; it’s not only a channel to get to know and understand the local culture; it’s not just about becoming deeper people who are exposed to stories we would never have experienced back home: it’s also, and foremost, to honour the chance we’ve had to go and spend a period of our lives outside our borders, and witness first-hand that the world is not the same for everyone.

 

Claudia Landini
March 2020
All photos @ClaudiaLandini

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Changing our Concept of Home to Find HOPE

A reflection of Chris O’Shaughnessy on how we can change the concept of home to find hope.

 

home to find hopeMany sociologists agree that society is losing its ability to maintain community. More people feel disconnected, lonely, and hopeless: emotionally homeless.

Expats benefit from a lifestyle which challenges them to actively seek, build, and participate in community – while much of the world is unaware of the increasing need to.

The need to belong hasn’t changed, but how we accomplish and express it in light of technological and sociological developments has. Rather than just seek home in a traditional sense, expats can be empowered to intentionally create new models of home based on interdependent community that benefit the world at large.

Economic factors, sociological trends, and the deteriorating meta-narrative and increasingly atomized social constructs of post-modern society are changing the way we relate with each other. Friendships used to be second-order needs for much of the world: they were byproducts of existing systems – they grew on existing structures (such as jobs, locations, and shared needs), often unintentionally (though still needing nurturing, of course). But all of our modern advances mean that we’re removing the structures that relationships used to form around.

Our newly expanded yearning for privacy has also caused a giant shift in how we view relationships with other people. We have been so enticed by the ability to bare our souls online that we’ve been stunned into a panic with just how bare our souls can be. We constantly hear about the need to protect privacy online, from the government, etc. It would be naive to think this isn’t slipping into our minds and leaking out on how we view others. We’re less likely to “bother” our neighbors because we want to respect their privacy. We fear social visits, conversation with any depth, or an attempt to go below the surface with others may be invasive.

In 1985 most people said they had three close friends. In 2004 the most common number was zero… Having few friends is more dangerous than obesity and is the equivalent health risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” – Eric Barker (How To Make Friends Easily And Strengthen The Friendships You Have, 2014)

home to find hopePeople have to actually go and find friends now, more often and possibly more frequently than before. For a long time, that was a task reserved more for TCKs, migrant and transient people, or displaced people… but more and more it’s a task for everyone, and many aren’t prepared for, let alone aware of the need to do so.

Here’s where hope comes in, or rather where it doesn’t come in. Hope is inherently an external force: it’s something we bring into ourselves. I don’t believe we can generate hope solely on our own. I think we inspire each other and bring each other hope. But the more self-sufficient, independent, lonely lives we lead, the more we live out atomized individual stories, the more we remove conduits for hope to flow. If we’re disconnected, there is nowhere for hope to flow in or out.

Expats, people who work with expats, TCKs, and globally minded people have a call to action as they are often more aware of the stronger pull people feel to form community when they are displaced – a far more recognizable motivation to intentionally build community or a sense of home because they know they are in need of a place to belong. I’m not saying it’s always easy, I’m not ignoring the fact that for many it’s an incredible challenge. I’m saying that those issues are no longer reserved just for TCKs and expats.

I believe home (the sense of safety, belonging, community and interdependence) is more and more a fleeting thing the world over, and that requires our attention.

Home must become less a passive retreat and more an active pursuit.

We have something the world needs: the knowledge that we have moved past interdependence but still need it, and the drive to make a difference.

Practical suggestions for transforming ‘home’:

Work WITH technology

Social media (like junk food) isn’t going to go away. In fact, it’s incredibly useful – it just can’t supplant healthy interdependent community. For example, Nextdoor.com connects local neighborhoods to accomplish real interaction through an online portal people are comfortable with.

Incentivize community

‘High Occupancy Vehicle’ lanes (or carpool lanes) are a great example. Since interdependence is no longer necessary in many practical ways, but necessary to be healthy, we have to be creative in thinking of ways to reward its intentional reintroduction. Healthy eating campaigns, recycling campaigns and countless other initiatives have relied on this for success.

Be intentionally vulnerable

To need someone is to be vulnerable. Interdependence requires us to need and be needed – and that’s only going to happen when those with strong enough drive and belief take the initiative in being vulnerable and allow others to experience first hand the benefits of being needed and needing in return.

 

Christopher O’Shaughnessy
May 2019

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The trailing husband (of an aid worker)

We sincerely thank Federico Bonadonna for allowing us to publish the translation of his moving account of what it means to be the trailing husband of an aid worker.

 

I have followed my wife for ten consecutive years in places I had barely heard about (and some places I’d never heard about), not to mention other countries where I had sworn to myself I’d never set foot, so strong was their reputation of being dangerous, dirty, or miserable.

On our first date in Rome, I told her I hated to travel, I hated the “Chatwin-like mysticism” of the journey, and I did not completely understand the point of international cooperation “with all there is to do for the poor in Italy”.

aid workerAt that time my work focused on extreme urban poverty and I had never experienced being stuck in a besieged neighbourhood during a civil war, resulting in hundreds of deaths – practically ignored by media (apart from the local ones); and I was physically allergic to ethnic fashion (I still am, a bit). My future wife looked at me in silence… and less than one year later I was beside her in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Since that moment I have done what the character of a song of Sergio Caputo (Italian songwriter, ndr) does: “I will follow you to show you something more, I’ll come with you should this be my work”.

Together with my wife in these 10 years, I’ve had stones thrown at me (even if the stones were for her, in Yemen, because she had unwillingly worn a colourful veil from which strands of hair protruded), been spat at (the spitting was also for her, for the above reason), and contracted intestinal and skin parasites. I fasted for days in the desert while she ate local food sitting on the ground, for weeks I only ate junk biscuits and drank Coke, I slept in infamous shacks among rats, cockroaches and snakes. A couple of times I threw up my soul as a result of serious food poisoning.

My wife and I have passed on a road a few minutes before it was shaken by a bomb attack and for years have breathed toxic fumes because of open air dumps and the constant burning of trash.

With her in these years I have visited orphanages that provide meager amounts of food to scrawny children – intentionally ensuring they do not appear well fed in order to discourage parents from abandoning their children there to give them a future. I have seen children looking for worms in the earth to eat. I’ve stared into their eyes: some were full of hate, others of pleading. Those eyes have tormented me for months.

I have seen China advancing in Africa, blowing up mountains to pave landscapes, build railways, bridges, motorways, or to extract minerals. I have seen the new colonialism, and the future shapes of the world: “Cindiafrica”, with her 3.6 billion people – mostly young. I have visited pristine places, and other landscapes definitely destroyed by pollution.

aid workerI have followed women on a three-hour trek to fetch water from the only well accessible to them, and trek 4 hours back, loaded with overflowing carboys. I have seen the result of the aid workers job: the joy of inhabitants in remote areas that celebrated the opening of new wells, the building of schools and health posts.

I have come dangerously close to contracting malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and bilarziosis. I have understood that danger is part of the job: traveling on Russian helicopters that have fallen (and fall with alarming recurrence), driven by not-always-sober Ukrainian pilots to go to South Sudan, where there is a war – which means they shoot, kidnap, and rape… it means they have kidnapped, killed or raped people you know. Places where lodging outside of Juba are huts where poisonous snakes and rats live, infested with malaria-ridden mosquitos and cockroaches (I know an aid worker who fears nothing… except what I just listed: she has a phobia of beetles and she insists on going to those places, because that’s her job).

I have seen refugee camps with lean women and children as far as the eye can see, thousands of exhausted people, massed in camps between Kenya and Ethiopia, sitting on UNCHR rice bags. Being an aid worker is not a job for those who work for agencies that spend 70 or 80% of resources in staff (the aid workers I value and talk about are not only able to write projects and make ends meet; they dirty their hands – they risk). Aid workers do not think that the danger is always the fault of those who are kidnapped or attacked, or that you can always avoid danger. No, cooperation, in some places, is physically and psychologically dangerous work.

I met hundreds of people, extraordinary volunteers and aid workers, and then others too busy with looking good. Sensible entrepreneurs and infamous bastards. Elegant diplomats and others who cannot be described.

In these 10 years I have understood that I had understood nothing: that is to say that I, and all the people I know, have been born in the right place and at the right moment in history, that we have a material luck we cannot even understand because we are so far from the daily tragedies that the vast majority of people in the world go through every single second of their existence. And that even if unperfected, improvable, and modifiable, international cooperation – in all the shapes it assumes and has assumed in the course of history – is the most democratic tool for development. Cooperation, however, is made of aid workers: people of flesh and bones, with their dreams, passions, and ideals; but also with refined skills and knowledge that merit the utmost respect, because aid workers do not love danger, but their work by its very nature implies danger.

 

Federico Bonadonna
February 2019
Photo Credit ©FedericoBonadonna

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The privilege of drinking tap water

I recently came back from Indonesia, where for four years I could not drink tap water. Here is my reflection on yet another privilege of our rich Western world most people are not aware of.

 

I have spent more than half of my life in countries where drinking tap water could make you seriously ill. In most countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia I only used it to brush my teeth, and some expat friends thought I was crazy: they used boiled or bottled water even for that.

I have made it a habit to concentrate while brushing my teeth to refrain the instinct to gulp down a nice and refreshing swig of water. It has become so rooted in me, that when I go back to Italy – or any other country where tap water is drinkable – I instinctively take care not to let any drop of water go down my throat.

It takes me a while to get used to drink tap water, and every time I do it, I can’t help but thinking how privileged I am.

There is, of course, the obvious relaxation of not having to be afraid of ingesting amoebas, other unidentified bacteria and dangerous minerals.

Mostly and foremost, though, it makes me become even more aware of the privileges our rich Western world enjoys, and that are absolutely taken for granted by those who have never lived in a country where tap water is dangerous.

Of course, local people drink it. In many cases they have no choice. In some parts of the world they have no running water at home and in some cases they must even walk a couple of kilometres to collect it.

As expats, one of the first things we inquire about when we relocate, is whether tap water is drinkable – and how we can get organised otherwise.

In many places where I have lived in Africa, where big bottles of water were not readably available, we used to boil water for half an hour, let it cool down, and then pour it in a filter where two ceramic candles kept the dirt away. Only at that point could we drink our water.

I can still vividly recall the brownish luscious layer that covered the ceramic candles when I took them off the plastic filter to clean them. I had gotten so used to drinking filtered water, that it always took me a while to trust tap water whenever I went back to Italy.

When we go through things, we learn. Living in a place where running water cannot be drank or is scarce teaches you the value of every single drop you use in your rich world. That changes your whole perspective. It also gets you to understand why people permanently living in these disadvantaged countries seek better life conditions.

I am very grateful to my life abroad in tough countries for teaching me things I would not have understood otherwise. I am privileged to be able to drink tap water now, but I am also privileged to have gone through the experience of learning what it means to live day by day with no healthy and safe running water.

 

Claudia Landini
December 2018

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What an expat can do to change the narrative back home

I recently returned to Italy, my home country, while waiting for my next destination abroad. What I have found is a terrible reality in which the official narrative is based on racism, discrimination, and prejudice. I have been wondering what I, as an expat, can do to contribute to counteract all of this.

 

Don’t you agree? You put a banana in her hand, set her on a branch, and you realize they are all monkeys”.

“They”, I gathered, were dark-skinned people.

This comment came from an exchange I overheard between a fitness instructor and his colleagues at a gym where I was doing some physiotherapy, last August. The instructor had barely finished a brief conversation with a dark-skinned lady before launching into this bigoted discourse.

I have come back to Italy to find a country torn by discrimination, mistrust, and a lack of solid values.

Racist and homophobic attacks of all sorts have been on the increase in the last years, but never before had I experienced such a recurrence in discriminatory acts in our daily lives.

From North to South, there has been an increase in physical attacks on migrants (some have been killed), verbal abuse, mocking, discriminatory measures to avoid employing foreigners, deny them housing, or even excluding them from school canteens.

Like all those in Italy at the moment who feel disgusted with this climate of hatred and violence, I have been wondering what can be done to counteract the terrible atmosphere that must be so frightening and intimidating to the many human beings who have come to my country in search of opportunities; and who, in many cases, have actually greatly contributed to the Italian economic growth.

In particular, because I have been an expat for more than half of my life, I feel it is my duty to find a way to dismantle the official narrative that painfully contradicts one of the most ancient and deeply rooted Italian values: hospitality.

Photo Credit Claudia Landini

I have been welcomed in so many countries in my life. I have never ever felt discriminated against or badly treated because of my background, provenance, skin colour, or for my role in those countries.

The openness that people of my host countries have repeatedly shown has allowed me to relate to them at a deep level, and to touch the commonalities each individual shares in life, and build on them.

In sharing simple daily routines with the people who welcomed me, I have felt accepted – and this has allowed me to destroy mental barriers that the fear of what is different often builds in our minds.

This is exactly what is happening in Italy now: some of our politicians are playing with the fear of the foreigner; a fear which many who have not had the chance to get in touch with diversity feel – and politicians build on it. They create a wall between “us” and “them”, and reinforce this gap by feeding stories of dishonesty, criminality, and profiting at the expense of “our” goods and capital.

How we go about destroying this gap has been a desperate focus since my return. As Cristina says in her article about the power of our stories, I know I have the responsibility to share my experience with my countrymen who have not set foot outside of their borders and are more easily swayed by racist narratives.

On one side, I am aware that I have to find a way to explain that by living abroad, I have discovered how much all humans have in common. Deep down, we all want the same for our lives: dignity, health, and a beautiful life for our children.

I also discovered, though, that a wide portion of the world population struggle to achieve this. Some live in conditions that our countrymen cannot even imagine. And I know that if I manage to shift the focus of the narrative from what is happening in Italy to what is happening in the lands where most migrants come from, I can hopefully help change some minds – or at the very least shake some of the arrogant foundations of bigotry.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan

Ultimately, if there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that I deeply appreciate the need and drive for migrants to desperately seek hope for a better life. I understand this because I have seen what happens outside our borders; and I think about what I would do in their shoes.

This is the “difference” we as expats can develop within ourselves: having witnessed how the other half on the planet lives, we can advocate for a warmer, more welcoming, and humane approach to these people’s realities. And this, I believe, is not just simply a choice, it’s our duty in these troubled times.

Claudia Landini
November 2018

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The Power of Our Stories

Grasp a cup of tea and take your time to listen to this powerful TEDx: it worth, it is tremendously true in our society.

 

 

When people ask me where I come from, I cannot just say I come from Italy: it’s just not true anymore, I also come from Saudi Arabia, from Nigeria, from Australia, from France, … from each of the countries I have lived in and visited – because almost 20 years of life abroad changed me as a person, no doubt.

So, I start to introduce myself by telling my personal story.

And I realize that when I start to tell my story, people become intrigued by my life.

Well, let’s say they don’t see the hardness and the price we pay for it as expats, they see only the beauty and the sense of adventure. But most of the time, they ask for more details.

Try sharing your own story, and you will likely see that in the moment you start a conversation, you will have an audience.

The way we use that audience is the space of our responsibility: we could just tell interesting or funny anecdotes – or we can choose to tell stories that give new insights into another country and another culture.

When I say that I lived in Saudi Arabia, I notice people have strange reactions: most of them tend to think that Saudi Arabia is similar to Dubai, so they reply with comments that seem to imply “you practically were on a constant holiday, weren’t you?” (Is that all people think about Dubai? Shopping and holidays, that’s it?).

Two or three people are a bit more informed and know something about the country. Their reaction is something along the lines of: “Wow! How did you cope there? It must be horrible for you as a woman.” And this is the moment I enjoy the most: I smile and say that for me it was a wonderful time, a great exploration of a new culture and an amazing experience, not easy, but great.

On the ground of their surprise, I start to tell a different story, the story of how I had been welcomed by Saudi families, how I met and discussed cultural topics with Saudi women and how I broke down so many stereotypes in my mind during my Saudi stay. And I did it just by sharing my daily life in that country.

Do we tell our expat stories? Or do we think they are not interesting enough?

Do we know how powerful our stories can be for society? Are we aware of our potential to help people understand those coming from other countries? We can add new stories to the overall narrative that can help reduce the “danger” of a single story.

We, as expats, can be witnesses of our time by telling stories that come from the places we have lived and build bridges across cultures and societies. Little bridges, not pretentious ones, but always bridges.

We can be powerful tools for society just by telling a different story: our own one.

 

Cristina Baldan
October 2018 – photo credit ©cristinabaldan

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“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity, it makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult, it empathizes how we are different rather than how we are similar (…) Stories matter, many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize, stories can break the dignity of the people, but stories can also repair the broken dignity. (…) When we reject the single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TEDx Oct.7, 2009

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