WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

An Expat South of the World

In this article Claudia reflects on the differences between being an expat south or north of the world.

 

When I left Indonesia in May 2018, I knew I was not only saying goodbye to the country but to a whole period of my life, spent mostly in the southern part of the world. From then on, I knew that I would have to choose my destinations carefully. My third episode of Dengue fever had taken a serious toll on me: I had developed a severe thrombocytopenia, that would thereafter put me at high risk in any country where mosquito bites could  potentially lead to malaria or yellow fever. Or where a blood transfusion, if needed, could put me at risk because the treatment of blood was unreliable.

Look at this picture, which shows the global distribution of seven major vector-borne diseases (malaria, lymphatic filariasis, leishmaniasis, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever and Chagas disease):

 

 

Out of the nine countries where I have lived since 1989, seven are marked in blue or dark green. When leaving Indonesia, it was clear to me that if I wanted to continue my life as an expat, I would have to head towards less exotic destinations.

And so, after a pause in my native Italy, I joined my husband in 2019, in Geneva, Switzerland, a huge novelty for me, since it was my first destination in Europe. When I moved there, I recalled those moments during the first years of managing Expatclic, when I got in touch with expats in European capitals or in big American cities. I remember always feeling a touch of envy for I had never lived as an expat in a Western or European culture. Now In Geneva, I wondered how such an experience in a place whose basic cultural assumptions I shared and where, presumably, I was largely understood, was going to take shape.

 

 

So there I was, trying to discern the benefits of being an expat in Geneva. And at a particular moment, they were many. Living in Geneva meant being physically close to my sons and to my mother. I planned to travel a lot. The strategic position of the city, in the heart of Europe, makes it possible to reach many destinations in little time and with no particular worries.

From a health standpoint, I enjoyed being relaxed. No mosquito bite would kill me, and in case of sudden hemorrhage, I would be promptly and safely treated. And in terms of communication, being a French speaker, understanding and being understood was an enormous relief, after not being able to communicate for years while living in countries where I did not speak the language because it would have taken me too long to acquire a reasonable proficiency.

Another aspect of living in Geneva that excited me was the abundant offer of movies, theatre shows, concerts and museums, and all the wonderful exhibitions I had so intensely missed during my latest period in Indonesia.

And then COVID changed all that. I lost my mother, travelling was prohibited, all places of culture were closed, and the fear of falling sick became as intense as it had been when I was in Jakarta because I knew the health structures were stretched to the limits of their capacities.

Even before COVID, though, I had started to realize that maybe all the positive points that marked my experience as an expat in the Western world were not enough to compensate for the loss of meaning that characterized my experiences of living abroad.

For me, it has always been about growing with people, about going through change after witnessing things that were so different from what I had known, and then coming out of the shock renewed and more open-minded. Furthermore, I believe that it is quite impossible to go through such life-changing moments if one does not immerse oneself in very different cultures and situations.

The most obvious disparity for me, however, is the unequal distribution of privilege. There is a huge difference between the state of mind of people who do not have to fight for their survival, and those who do. In my experiences abroad, I have mostly been in contact with the latter. Because of the nature of my husband’s work, the countries we were destined to had been hit by wars, natural disasters, famine, and poverty. These events shape people’s minds, life philosophy, and values in a totally different way from those who do not have to worry about a roof over their head, food on the table, their physical safety, and the health of their children.

I realized that repeated exposure to people whose whole life structure was built on uncertainty, and who did not have all the freedom and privileges we mostly enjoy in our Western world, slowly changed not only my way of seeing things, but the places where I find meaning in life.

Besides, throughout my life abroad I have been constantly impacted by what I call positive culture shocks. Having lived in cultures where things are seen and done quite differently from what I was brought up to consider as correct or proper, I have repeatedly been shaken in my most basic assumptions about life and how relationships must develop. Witnessing new ways and finding new meanings has become vital nourishment for me. It was only when I moved to Geneva that I slowly realized all this and started missing it.

But there is much more I miss. Having lived most of my life abroad in countries where the collective side of life is far more enhanced than it is in the West, I realized how much better I felt surrounded by a generally more human attitude towards life and relationships. Because it is when people are brought up in groups rather than in small, closed families that there is a greater sense of identity and belonging to the whole and not just to the self. Generally speaking, in this kind of culture, such as Indonesian or Palestinian, contact between people is warmer, more cheerful, more open to the other – and to diversity.

I honestly do not know what I miss more: the atmosphere of some far away cultures, or myself existing within cultures so far away from mine. What I do know is that I have to find new ways to still feel connected to the immense treasure that such extreme experiences have given me.

 

Claudia Landini
Geneva, Switzerland
May 2021

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A photo exhibition and emotional connections abroad

Luca Bonacini is a very dear friend of mine, and of Expatclic. A longtime expat, professional photographer, father of two beautiful young men, in his experiences abroad, Luca fixes his lens on situations related to the countries he gradually discovers. In particular, he keeps an eye on social issues, suffering and inequalities. Presently Luca lives in Brasilia, where he continues his intense activity as a photographer. This time, however, we met him in the role of curator of a photo exhibition. I interviewed him to introduce you to the wonderful initiative he is dedicating himself to. 

 

Luca has known many countries in the world. Of Belarus, however, he only had childhood memories, when he saw the name White Russia on the atlas and was fascinated by it. With his child’s eyes, he imagined a place of fairy tales, submerged in snow, all white, muffled. That it belonged to the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, added a touch of mystery. When the wall collapsed and things started changing, Belarus remained an unknown and mysterious place for Luca.

Until then, in Brasilia, he meets Olga Aleszko-Lessels, an expat with double nationality, Belarusian and Polish, whose parents live in Minsk.

Photo ©Vadim Zamirovski

The richness and the great privilege of us expatriates are that we not only penetrate deeply into the cultures that host us, but we also come into contact with people of the most disparate nationalities, backgrounds and experiences. From the various pieces that make up the mosaic of our global human experience, sometimes one stands out in a particular way. Olga had this effect on Luca.

She passionately told him about the peaceful protests of ordinary people, especially women, before and after the Belarusian Presidential elections 2020 in August. Olga and her colleague Anastasiya Golets, another Belarusian activist working in the field of art, showed him truly impressive images and documentaries about protests and repression. When they asked him to become curator of an exhibition called “Democracy with a woman’s face“, Luca, of course, immediately accepted:

I was struck by the strength and beauty of the movement. I was very impressed by the massive and peaceful presence of women who have assumed a central role in the struggle for democracy, also thanks to the leadership of Svetlana Tickhanovskaya, the opposition candidate. It should be remembered how Alexander Lukashenko, for over 25 years at the head of the last dictatorship in Europe, dismissed his opponent: “Our constitution is not made for women“.

Anyone who has followed the events in Belarus since the elections knows that the peaceful street protests against the electoral fraud that reconfirmed the outgoing president were followed by a brutal repression: exorbitant fines, arrests, torture, threats and intimidation of demonstrators. Some even disappeared.

The ethical motivation and the values of justice that have always moved Luca were coupled by the professional challenge that curating such an exhibition implies: “I have been involved in projects as a photographer. I have “curated” my own exhibitions but never the exhibitions of others. It is a new and beautiful challenge, that of combining documentary photographs with more artistic ones. And also to look for the right balance between information and emotion. Explaining and mobilizing, making a brain and a heart dialogue… to encourage action”.

Photo ©Vadim Zamirovski

In this regard, I ask Luca how an in-person exhibition and an online exhibition differ with respect to their purpose. And if it will be possible to circumvent the obstacles posed by COVID-19 for the events that physically see us side by side.

There is not doubt that we are going through a particular moment. Still, I find physical presence fundamental. An online exhibitions certainly wins quantitatively and can be seen by many more people. But think of the difference in placing yourself in front of a 40 x 60 centimeter photo compared to a 5 inch cellphone? It is a much deeper effect. The physical space also allows you to put different images “in dialogue”, by complementing each other and connecting one another. The word “experience” is fashionable at the moment: Visiting an exhibition is an experience that involves not only the act of looking but also that of moving around, getting closer to better observe a detail, commenting with those besides you and with strangers. An online exhibition does not have these virtues. It is certainly useful to reach more people, it can last over time, it can be made interactive, but it is not comparable to the live experience in terms of emotions and impact“.

The exhibition that Luca is about to curate is part of a global movement. Exhibitions dedicated to democracy, human rights and peaceful protests in Belarus have already been held in more than 13 countries by Belarusian communities, including Paris, Berlin, San Francisco.

For Luca, contributing to exhibit in Brasilia is fundamental. As a good expat, he notes: “I do love the idea of showing a positive example in the country where I live. A country – Brazil – where most mobilizations are in favour of shutting down the congress and the federal court, and of a military intervention. It seems absurd, but that’s the way it is: a part of the population asks for the reduction of fundamental freedoms…certainly not a numerically major part, but loud, and very present”.

A final reflection concerns the connections born when living abroad, the emotional, practical and intellectual intertwining that every expatriate can – and in a certain sense must – cultivate.

Photo ©Iryna Arakhouskaya

As Luca rightly says, “An international life puts you in front of many different situations and opportunities and it’s up to you to seize them or let them pass. One of these for me was meeting Anastasiya and Olga. Looking at the photos, the faces and the expressions, and above all listening to the testimonies in the documentaries, I found that typical “Balkan” way of going straight to the essential (Luca has lived in Sarajevo in the past, ed). No frills: Rights, democracy, freedom, future!!! As in Bosnia, I have seen young, indeed very young people fed up with old politicians, asking only for freedom, very ordinary young people with immense courage. They might not be the classic activists but in the interviews of these very young female Belarusian protestors, in their words, in their eyes, we read dismay but also an incredible determination to move forward. This alone makes me think how important this project is”.

If you want to help Luca, Olga, Anastasiya, the Belarusian women who struggle daily, and those expatriates who follow dismay from other countries, you can also make a small donation to the fundraiser promoted to bring the exhibition to Brasilia. You find all details HERE.

 

Claudia Landini
Geneva, Switzerland
May 2021

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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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What expats can do in time of quarantine

I’ve been thinking about how to write this article for a while. I felt a surge of inspiration from the first day that emergency was declared in my city; I witnessed first-hand how quickly the community came together to adapt to this new unusual chapter of life. However, at the time I could not properly focus on how to link the overall expat experience to what we are still going through right now.

Today, after some reflecting on what is happening around me as well as in different societies and social communities, I realized that the answer is right in front of me…

These are some thoughts that came to my mind:

photocredit LEEROY Agency - Pixabay

photocredit LEEROY Agency – Pixabay

1. Many expats are not new to home isolation

It is a common experience for the first part of every move to a new country. The first few weeks have striking similarities to what we are all going through now – especially for expats’ spouses: confined at home, maybe with small children to entertain, trying to get a new house organized, trying to set up spaces so that everyone in the family can find their own spot. There are also many expats who have experienced this kind of total lockdown (sometimes in even more dramatic and pronounced ways) in some difficult countries: local wars, riots, dangerous strikes, political instability, and even other serious epidemics like Ebola.

2. Expats are used to experiencing social distancing

It takes time to build meaningful human relationships with locals in a new and unfamiliar country, especially if the local culture is very different from one’s own one. From the Middle East to Northern Europe, from Africa to Australia – I learned on the go that the “safe” and polite physical space you need to keep between two people in a social contest is a variable concept (and it is not an easy task for an Italian who grew up used to spontaneous hugs and kisses!).

photocredit - Ansgar Scheffold - Unsplash

photocredit – Ansgar Scheffold – Unsplash

3. Expats are used to geographical distance

We are familiar with the feeling of having our family and dear friends miles away from us, sometimes oceans away from us. Many expat families are divided at this moment: children are stuck in other countries for their studies, old parents are confined in their home country. I want to pay particular tribute here to all the Italians who have aging parents at home, who are terribly worried for them, and who cannot even provide a simple comfort like making food or shopping for them.

4. Expats are used to stocking foods for long period of time

Well, not all expats, but I know for sure there are many that have experimented with this before. I noticed how easy was for me to go shopping last week: the shopping list formed itself in my mind while I was lost amongst the shelves of the supermarket. Instinctively, I sought out the same items I did when I was preparing for lockdown in Africa, or before the war in Kuwait, though there are some differences in the quality and variety of food I can buy here.

photocredit Ryan McGuire – Pixabay

5. Expats are used to building and nurture human relationships online

Not necessarily out of choice, but out of necessity: without this skillset, you’d hardly be able to survive expat life! Many of an expat’s interpersonal relationships are mainly nurtured over distance.

6. Expats are aware of the importance of community and the interconnections between us

They know what it means to be alone – or maybe even sick – in a country where you don’t know anybody. They have learned how to build essential and vital connections with the people around them in their new local community.

So many expats have the knowledge and memory of the feelings we are all experiencing right now: the sense of isolation, anxiety, and concern for families and friends far from them; the concern for what is happening outside our front door;  uncertainty about the future and the feeling of being suspended from your normal life.

None of what I listed above are pleasant or easy situations. Many people aren’t able to bare it longterm. But many expats have gained the resilience to deal with these trials.

And so, what can expats do in this difficult moment?

Exactly what we are doing.

I’ve noticed many social communities are inventing and organizing social gatherings on the internet. Check to see who is behind the first proposal to take a coffee break together online, to have a yoga class online, to get children on virtual playdates through their iPads, to organize any kind of social gathering online… often times the catalyst is an expat.

We are all online those days. The Internet is at the maximum glory of its existence so far!

Expat are experts in building and maintaining relationships over distance. We can help those who are not used to this, we can share our knowledge, both technical and emotional. Let’s help others who are discovering the web as a resource for building connection and invite them to join us.

photocredit Ron Smith - Unsplash

photocredit Ron Smith – Unsplash

In the kind of lifestyle this pandemic is forcing us into, it is important to engage with our neighbors and pay attention to what the people around us may need – especially if they are sick, weak, or simply feeling terribly alone in their homes. Pay attention to what is happening around you: maybe your neighbor is living through difficult moment, maybe they are old and can’t be reached by their children. Offer them help like you would do if your parents were living close to you.

Help single parents deal with children at home: they are not used to it, but we can surely recall some tricks and games we used in similar situations.

Offer compassion and understand to people who may struggle with staying at home, with possible family tensions and other challenges that easily arise.

And while we’re at home we can better flex across different time zones that work may have previously been inconvenient during working times. It is a good time to refresh a friendship left on the other side of the world: maybe they would be happy to hear from us!

Smile and be positive: be a light for others.

This situation will pass and we will be stronger than before.

Despite the fact that this pandemic has created a very dramatic situation, my heart is warmed when I see people experiencing physical distance and yet getting together and being closer than ever in many other ways.

People are moved by news from countries far away: it is fear, but it is also our humanity that is coming back. We are rediscovering how interconnected we are, and how what happens somewhere else in the world will ultimately impact us where we are.

The physical borders are closing, but the virtual ones are opening up like never before.

 

Cristina Baldan
March 2020

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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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Living cross-culturally: the best gift to the world

I recently came across a wonderful human being. He is, among many other things, an expat. His intercultural experience is so vast, that coming up with a satisfying interview was a real challenge. I tried, and I am happy to invite you to meet Jerry, of The Culture Blend, and be as inspired by him as I was.

 

Jerry, you are from the US, live in China, and have a lovely multicultural family. How and when did it happen that you “went intercultural”? 

I have dreamed of faraway places for as long as I can remember. I grew up very mono culturally in the U.S. but have always been extremely fascinated by other cultures. My wife and I did a 6 month internship in Taiwan in college where we first fell in love with the Chinese culture and people. We adopted our daughter from mainland China in 2003, and got a taste of what it might look like to live here. We expatriated for the first time in 2006 and have spent most of the time since here.

And you have also shaped your work on interculturality, right? Tell us what you do.

I help people navigate the challenges and find the opportunities that come with living cross-culturally. Specifically I provide training and coaching for teams and individuals that focus on every stage of their experience from preparation and entry to departure and repatriation. I also write and build resources to equip them on that journey. I have worked most prominently with staff at international schools but have also worked with corporate teams and other organizations. The heart of what I do is to peel back the layers and get to the nuance of challenges that people face instead of simply slapping a cookie cutter, data dump on them that has no impact. I love watching people succeed at what they came to do and connect with the world in a way they didn’t see coming.

I’d like to talk about the “opportunities that come with living cross-culturally”. Besides the obvious (and we have repeatedly heard how living abroad makes your more flexible, tolerant, etc.), how does exposure to different people and lifestyles equip us with tools we can effectively use to make the world a better place?

I believe that something beautiful happens when you live cross-culturally. Two things actually.

Of course it is rich when you get the chance to observe and interact with a group of people who sees the world from a different perspective. The process of learning about a people adds so much to any person’s life. To be stretched by the way “they” do things is a challenge on the front end but ultimately becomes a wonderful, first hand training ground that gives you access to a broader scope. Working through those challenges provides you with more answers for how issues can be dealt with. Watching how other cultures have learned to solve the same problems that you have gives you a choice in how to move forward. So, actually living in a culture (versus just visiting it) affords you the time you need to move from “they’re doing it all wrong” to “hmm, that’s brilliant, I might try that.”

The bigger beauty happens, though, when you get to see your own culture through different lenses. It is a painful and powerful experience to process your own world view from a different perspective. When that happens you become more equipped with the kind of empathy that the world needs desperately. In the current political and social climate, people who are not only globally aware but SELF aware are the ones that I want to take the lead. The opportunities expand exponentially when you can see the world and yourself from a different angle.

When someone embraces what they can learn from other cultures and what they can learn about themselves, they become a bridge of understanding between others who have not had that experience. In a rapidly globalizing environment there are people who are struggling to make sense of other people. Bridges become essential in every space and the gates are opened for cross-cultural people to provide support, insight and understanding. That can be a great resource in professional, personal and relational contexts.

I’m interested in how biases, prejudice and the racism many of us have deep within themselves and living cross-culturally link. I recently read two things that were illuminating for me: one is White Fragility, a fabulous book by US-educator Robin Diangelo, the other is your article about the privileges of the white expat. Both made me think of how hard realizing the depth of these mechanisms is for some of us (i.e. the privileged ones). In some cases we even protect ourselves from understanding. Or we feel threatened and close within our bubbles. How can living interculturally practically help to curb racism and discrimination?  

Racism and bias are such loaded topics. They are packed with the most broken bits of history, experience, emotion, politics, culture and an endless list of other factors, which are then multiplied by the number of people in the world. The conversation is almost exclusively driven on the premise of being right and overpowering someone else’s ignorance with a false hope that it will bring about real change. “I’ve got it figured out. You’re wrong”. That’s the inherent danger of living in a herd. When everyone around you is just like you, the group builds a world view and supports it with a very limited scope. Then they respond passionately and sometimes violently to the other herds who challenge their thinking.

When you only spend time in a group of people who are just like you, your thinking is rarely challenged. Other cultures are simply scenery — but when you separate yourself from the herd and spend time in another one they become people. You no longer have the luxury of thinking you know everything. You get blasted with real life stories from the perspective of real life people and you get to see their history, experience, emotion, politics and culture through their eyes. That may not change everything (or anything) about yours but it should at least bring you to a space where you are willing to admit there is more to it. Living abroad confronts you with your own ignorance and challenges you to do something more than point out the ignorance of others.

Deep relationships with people who live and act and speak and think differently are the best hope for breaking down racism and discrimination — because, let’s face it, loud opinions and eloquent “rightness” aren’t working so well.

 

Interview by Claudia Landini
March 2020
Photos ©JerryJones

 

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What volunteering in Athens as an expat has taught me

We love this testimonial of Zuriñe, a Spanish lady who went to Athens, Greece, for a two-months period of volunteering with migrant and refugee families, and then decided to settle there for at least one year. It is a very honest account of how getting in touch with different realities can open your heart and minds to unexpected discoveries that change the person you are.

 

I must confess that it wasn’t easy to write this article: in my present circumstances, it’s difficult to talk about myself as a sort of protagonist, when my firm belief is that every person with whom I work deserves the honour of being centre stage.

My first taste of volunteering can be summed up in two separate months during which I worked with migrant and refugee families in a busy building in Athens. I felt that each experience was so brief that it didn’t really have an impact on the project, and in certain cases, it seemed that I may be doing more harm than good to the people I was supposed to be helping: this was because it was impossible to follow up each case properly, and also because the constant coming and going of volunteers resulted in severe emotional strain for families who had formed attachments with them and then had to watch them move on.

These factors were added to the shock of landing in a European capital and finding in its streets a horrendous social reality of the kind that, through ignorance, we generally associate with developing countries, but never come face to face with in our own neighbourhoods.

And so, during those two month-long episodes, what I learnt led me to change my perception of voluntary work: I stopped thinking of it as being founded on a sentiment of altruism, and shifted to considering my activity as a moral obligation, taking into account my privileged existence which is a simple consequence of my place of birth and my family’s economic possibilities.

Following these reflections, I decided to pack my bags and move to Athens. I planned to stay for at least a year. And that’s how I started working with the Elna Maternity Center, a project that houses pregnant refugee mothers and their families. The project is funded entirely through donations from private Spanish civil society donations, which are managed through various NGOs and organisations.

The objective of the project is to offer a safe haven to families who have fled their countries of origin because of war, terrorism, violence against women, and so on. In addition, it offers holistic care, such as help with administrative and legal procedures, and all healthcare matters. Everything takes place in a space specifically designed taking into consideration the values of empathy and respect. It’s a clearly intercultural environment, welcoming families from very different backgrounds: Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iran, Palestine, Kurdistan and Pakistan.

In the bleak context of refugees living in Athens, our centre is a place that offers security and care. We can offer this stability because basic needs are covered, and from this foundation, people can progress and plan a future. Although everyone would agree that healthcare is a basic need for a pregnant woman, this is not provided in many of the Greek islands, nor in refugee camps on the outskirts of Athens. Healthcare in these places has come to a complete standstill, and there is no political will to change this: on the contrary, there now seems to be a policy dissuasive of healthcare.

On balance, my personal experience has not been very positive. The reality is overwhelming, and volunteers are not in a position to change it. The origin of the problem is abstract, but day after day, its consequences arrive on the doorstep of the place we call our home, and sadly, we have to deny people help because of a lack of resources.

Finally, and perhaps a little selfishly, what I will retain from my experience is the affection and warmth of the families who have managed to get this far, and who, after hours of working together, I can claim as a part of me. I also treasure the opportunity I’ve had to meet women who carry the weight of their entire family on their shoulders, and struggle each day to improve their situation, with their characteristic strength. I have learnt to stop seeing vulnerability, to stop re-victimising, because what is really at the heart of these women is an incredible capacity for resilience. In the end, I owe everything I have learnt to them and to the experience I was lucky enough to have of working with them.

Zuriñe
Athens, Greece
Photos ©Zuriñe
Translated into English by Paola Fornari

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The Expat Life “Gifts”

An expat survey.

 

In my experience, I’ve realized that most expats are not aware of the enormous potential they have. Nor are they aware of the skills they’ve gained from this kind of life.

I suspect the reason is probably lying behind the psychological challenges and fatigue they are obliged to overcome every time they face a new assignment. When you start from the beginning over and over again, often by facing challenges that you would never expect (some very hard), you develop the belief that you are not an expert – you instinctively know how much you still have to learn every single time you approach a new country and a new culture.

However, I firmly believe that expats are an incredibly positive source of energy and of great value to current society: I have seen with my own eyes what they are capable of, and I am determined to help them to become aware of this… But how?

 

The Survey

I decided to start by running an experiment. I enlisted the most qualified people I know in this field: the editing team of Expatclic.com.

The group of 7 women who answered my questions had all moved abroad as adults and had collectively lived outside their passport country for a total of 131 years, with an average of 18.7 years per person.

They lived as resident of a total of 31 countries (4.4 countries on average for each person) and they visited an additional total of 197 countries (28 on average for each person). All of this with accompanying children – some born abroad, some not.

Even knowing about the experiences of my colleagues, those numbers were still a surprise to me, and I think they constitute a solid group as far as interviewees.
 

Flexibility / Open-mindedness / Ability to network

The answers to my question about how much the expat lifestyle had changed the interviewees contained many similarities. Gaining the ability to be flexible and to adapt to changes – in situations as well as in relationships with unknown people – was probably the most frequent common theme. There was clearly a lot of self-awareness, and interviewees seem to have gained an open mind towards new cultures, to new ways of “doing things”. Furthermore, common to all the answers was the acquired ability to know how to better deal with people and how to build a network of human relationships in a foreign environment.

The most difficult challenge has been…

Loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, a sense of not-belonging, being forced out of a comfort zone, and feeling uncomfortable in a culture far from your own one. These are the strongest challenges these women reported having to face during their life abroad.

This result may not be surprising to you, but it is for me because I know that among these women there are some who have lived in really difficult countries and have faced some extreme challenges in terms of securities issues, discomfort, lack of basic services (like clean water), war danger, etc… It is surprising to me that those challenges weren’t listed as the most difficult ones.

Instead, challenges that threaten personal identity, our sense of belonging, and the possibility to have meaningful human relationships have been the most difficult part of the life abroad for these women.
 
 

Which of your personal resources was most useful in facing cultural shocks?

The women in this group are all happy with their experience overall. Despite the difficulties and hard times, they are still satisfied with the choices made, in fact, they offer their time and energy to help other expat women. Expatriation, however, is not always as successful as it was for them. So, I was curious to understand if there was a common starting point, a personal resource that helped them to overcome their challenges.

And indeed, I found some common skills in their answers:

  • Positivity, sense of humor, meeting others with a smile
  • Being adventurous
  • Flexibility
  • Empathy
  • No judgment attitude, modesty
  • Respect
  • Above all curiosity: never being tired of learning about how other people live and understand life.
  • Determination

The impact of expat life on human relationships with strangers and with familiar people

In all the contexts of human relationships (family, children, friends, colleagues, strangers, etc…), there is a common characteristic among these women: there is more desire for and attention given to the quality of the relationships. The expat life brings some peculiar and specific teachings in regards to how select your friends, how to educate your children, how to evaluate other people’s behavior, and how to relate to it.

By living abroad, you see and come into contact with other realities. You discover that things can be done in a different way and children can be raised and educated in different and unexpected ways, and the results can be as good as your own traditions. This develops an attitude of being open to learn from other cultures, to develop a feeling of freedom and wisdom in picking up and adopting what you evaluate may be good for you too. Most of the women interviewed think they would have been totally different mothers if they had raised their children in their home countries.

The expat life also teaches you how to face adversity: the wide amount of difficulties an expat family experiences provide the training ground to learn how to screen out troubles, to identify the real priorities in life, and to become effective problem solvers. Most of the time you are alone to face your adversities without the support of good friends or family members. The reality is that you simply don’t have the time and/or the energy to make things complicated, and so become skilled in quickly finding workable solutions.

These women all see themselves as much stronger and resilient. They have acclimated to adversities in such a way that they face them when the time comes and fix them. This stands true despite things you would never plan for in a normal life like wars, serious illness, grief, criminality, and so on.

In addition to those hurdles, there is the learning about what is happening around you.

Moving to different places, with different cultures, we necessarily learn, I believe, about the politics of the countries in which we live, of the neighbouring countries, of global issues, and of our country of origin. This, together with the capacity of understanding cultural differences, gives us the tools to be able to read and understand what is happening around us in a much better way”.

This sentence summarized the gift of being an expat in the best way possible. The expat life brings the gift of a special “lens” to see the world. This lens comes from having experienced living life in another country (or countries) first-hand. The ability to evaluate people and situations by automatically applying self-awareness and trying to avoid bias and judgment is one of the most common and valuable consequent skills.

Based on responses from these women who are currently working, I would also like to address some benefits of the expat experience that impact relationships in the professional environment:

  • Knowing what to prioritize and when, and the ability to evaluate and solve problems
  • Being able to analyze and quickly understand an unknown situation or environment
  • Being able to adapt and work in an unfamiliar environment
  • Constantly applying an attitude of self-reassessment to find solutions that may work
  • Being able to relate and work with people coming from different cultures
  • Being available to continually start from scratch and think about the future with an “out-of-the-box” attitude

Are there any Human Resource specialists reading right now? Would you agree that the list above encompasses some of the most wanted skills in a professional environment those days?
Unfortunately, it is very hard for a woman to have this kind of experience properly expressed in a resume (but this is a good topic for another article).

Change of life goals and self-awareness

When you choose this kind of life, you accept the unpredictable. Some are aware of this reality, but most are not. I asked the question: “Has the expat life changed your life goals and inspired you to do something totally different from your initial plan or dream?”. This is certainly a query worth an in-depth analysis.

What I first noticed in their answers was that when the expat life began in an early stage of their life, the goals didn’t change too much. For the ones who left a career, a job or a university degree in the home country, the change was in some way mandatory: all of them had to change perspective and adapt to new realities.

I wish I could have continued working and reaching my goals as a woman in the fields of finance.

I was a lawyer and I am a coach and facilitator now!

I wanted to be a scientist, now I’m considering becoming a teacher.

The ability to reinvent themselves to face a new situation is common, but it also brings a certain measure of suffering.

The last question

if you could put three values or skills you gained in the expat life in a time capsule for your descendants which they could use in their own life, what would you choose?

empathy

  • Flexibility and adaptability to new situations and to changes
  • Curiosity of the world, for the people – Respect for others – Sense of adventure
  • Ability to learn from your mistakes and don’t be ashamed to make them, they are part of our life
  • Optimism – Empathy – Tolerance
  • Ability to accept life events, the loss, the loneliness, the hard times
  • Courage to keep going in front of adversities
  • Gratitude and appreciation for what you have
  • Knowledge – Sense of justice – Capacity of relativize

I don’t think I need to add any comment to this.

Conclusion

My research is not complete: this survey was just a first experiment. I want to dig more into the expats’ personal characteristics. There is still a lot to discover and to speak about.
I want to conclude this reflection with one last point and a question for you.
While I was reviewing their answers, I constantly found myself thinking about the richness these women can offer to society: not only as individuals but also as a group with their collective life experience.
That being said, I invite you to think and ask yourself:

What would the entire expat community be able to offer society if their experience is considered a whole?

If this reflection moved something in you, please share it with us! You can do this privately or through our Facebook page. All feedback helps us to improve this research and is evaluated with deep appreciation.

Many thanks to my interviewees, the Women behind Expatclic: you are simply and incredibly amazing!

 

 

Cristina Baldan
April 2019
All photos ©Expatclic

 

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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 ‘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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