…. to bring hope to the world

Three stories from Sierra Leone in a graphic novel by Lucio Cascavilla

Living abroad offers us opportunities to be in contact with unfamiliar cultures and to listen to life stories far removed from ours. I believe that “telling” is one of our duties when we encounter stories of people who have no voice, stories that could slip by us silently. One of the most important tools of empathy is listening to others without prejudice.

Listening and telling is what Lucio Cascavilla, musician, writer and documentarist, did, while making his documentary The Years We Have Been Nowhere, which will be released in September, and which tells the stories of many deportees from Western countries. At the same time, Lucio was writing the graphic novel (or I should say graphic journal) which will be published in Italy as “Tre storie per non morire” (“Three stories of how not to die”). The book, illustrated by Mattia Vesco, Assia Ieradi and Riccardo Mattia and published by Morsi Editore, is set in Sierra Leone, a country where the author lived for two years and where he shot the documentary.

“Without dignity there is no freedom, without justice there is no dignity”: these words were spoken by Patrice Lumumba, who was Prime minister for a few months in 1960, and led the independence movement in the Democratic Reublic of the Congo from then until Mobutu’s coup in 1961. This is one of the many quotes that can be found in the book and aptly represents the idea on which it is based.

The book talks about departures, returns, and the impossibility of leaving a country, Sierra Leone, a country about which we know very little, and which deeply marked Lucio.

Tre storie per non morireI would like to dwell on the distressing thought with which Valerio Nicolosi opens his preface, a thought that accompanies the reader all the way through, and that will hardly leave him even after the last page. It is the idea of going on an endless journey with only hope: facing weeks, months, maybe even years of fear, violence, and abuse, but resisting in the name of those hopes that weigh on you like the most precious luggage.

And then, in a flash, the police, perhaps even the police of that very country that embodied your dreams for the future, capture you and bring you back. In just a few hours you’re back to square one. Months of travel to get away, a few hours to come back. A return to a “home” that is no longer really home, because over there those who are forced to return are considered losers who did not make it. An anguish that takes your breath away.

The graphic novel tells three painful stories that Lucio Cascavilla has decided voice. They are set in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

There is the story of Abbas, brought back in chains to Freetown after a long journey to the United States; there is the story of Foday, who is only 27, and cannot leave because he is alone and sick, confined to a wheelchair, spending his days begging outside a hotel; and there is Regina, who returns after spending many years in Germany to escape from the massacres that have marked Sierra Leone, and is still facing endless difficulties.

Among the pages of “Three stories of how not to die” we also find the voice of our comfortable Western world. It accompanies all the stories in the background: it is the voice of the radio or television that distracts us with irrelevant issues, politicians’ promises, and popular songs.

There are many reflections that can arise from this book. Among them, the idea that “the destinies of people are connected, whether they live in China, Africa or Europe”: this is increasingly evident, but we tend to forget.

This is why we should be thankful to people who, while living abroad, make us aware of the realities they face.

Focusing on stories of individual people hidden behind the numbers that we read or hear in the news is essential.

Because if it is true that “What matters is not to know the world, but to change it”, as Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist originally from Martinique and specialized in decolonization (quoted in the book), said, changing the world starts with changing each conscience, and awareness is the first and indispensable step towards this goal.


Giuliana Arena
Bucharest, Romania
March 2022




My commitment to the most fragile ones

We are grateful to Simona Carobene for allowing us to transcribe part of her presentation to the Expatclic’s Human Library.
Hers is a truly exemplary story of how empathy, love, attention, and commitment to the most fragile ones can lead to great results.

In Milan, I earned a degree in pedagogy. After working for 7 years in a cooperative for disabled people, I decided to try a one year experience abroad with the aim of helping people in difficulty. On May 30, 1998, I came to Bucharest with a well-known Italian NGO to work on a project funded by Unicef focusing on abandoned HIV-positive children living in orphanages.
Our goal was to find their families of origin and try to reintegrate them.

We were confronted by the unknown, and as a result, we learned many things – both about what was happening in Romania (and in all Eastern Europe countries), and about what these children really needed.
In Romania in the Nineties, there were about 200,000 abandoned children out of a population of 23 million. An enormous number!
A certain percentage of these abandoned children were HIV-positive. In fact, HIV-positive children in Romania accounted for 50% of HIV-positive children across Europe.

The Romanian state, which had emerged from a long period of dictatorship, was totally incapable of taking care of these children and had neither the economic nor cultural resources to face this. The government had therefore delegated a lot to NGOs, but without giving any kind of support.
After working for a while in the capital, we decided to work in the suburbs and arrived in an orphanage 20 kilometers from Bucharest. There, we found more than 100 children with AIDS. They were all born to healthy parents and we never could figure out how they got infected.

Seven eight-year-old children slept in rusty, small beds made for two and three years old, with their feet hanging out. No money was invested in facilities, because it was clear that these children would die soon, and indeed I have seen so many children die because of AIDS… The treatments were not those of today and the medical and nursing staff was completely unprepared.

Children often saw other children die. When a child got worse, he was first put in a small room and then taken to Bucharest… and never came back. No one spoke to the others about what had happened, and I recall a child who told me he knew very well that those children died and asked me why no one told him clearly.

The children were washed in a large bathroom with a tiled floor where they were all lined up naked and struck at a distance by the water jet of a pump because the nurses were afraid to get close to them and risk infection.

We tried to trace children back to their families of origin, but we found only 40% of the families, often because there simply were no documents.
The work of that year was my first big failure: out of over 100 children, we managed to integrate just one girl back into her family of origin.

But that first year was crucial for me, for my life, and for future projects.

Having met these children had touched us deeply. We began to bring help: beds, clothes, shoes… but every time we brought something, it was stolen. At the end of that year we thought that it would be more appropriate to start three foster homes with Romanian families to welcome the children from the orphanage. Namely, rather than trying to bring them back into their families, we’d give them a new family. This was very difficult both because of the fear of the disease and because there just wasn’t a tradition of foster care in Romania.

Photo credit ©Parada

Now I would like to open a brief parenthesis on the question of abandonment: why were there so many abandoned children in Romania – indeed in all the Eastern European countries?
I had always thought it was because of poverty. On the one hand, this is accurate: there are poor families, very difficult social cases, dads in prison, alcoholism, psychiatric diseases, etc., but actually over time I realized that it is also a matter of mentality. It’s a consequence of so many years of regime. In the end, the state is more important than the family. Family is not considered the cell of the society. So, the state does not help the family in difficulty, but rather directly assumes the responsibility of raising children. Most abandoned children were not orphans, but children who had families that perhaps could have been helped in advance to raise them.

When we decided to start foster homes, we knew that it would be difficult. Within three years we managed to start three houses and find seven foster families. This moved 28 children away from the orphanage: given the situation, a real miracle!

I returned to Italy after that experience and stayed in Milan to follow the projects across Eastern Europe: Romania, Albania, Kosovo, Poland, Kazakhstan, Lithuania…
Until, in 2006, it was announced that Romania would join the European Union.
Then I asked my NGO to return. On one hand, I liked the job of coordinator less than the one in contact with people, and on the other I knew that with entry into Europe, we could no longer help Romania from Italy. The children I had met in 1998 were deep in my heart. I knew that over time, with Romania in Europe, the NGO would ask me to work in other areas, but I didn’t want to leave Romania.

I found a new three-year project funded by Italy to work on in Romania.
I understood that I’d never leave again when, in 2007, one of our foster families left and I went to live with the five children who lived in that house while looking for another family. I spent two amazing months with them. One night, while we were pillow fighting, one of the boys looked at me and said, “You love us all, but you’ll leave, sooner or later.” I was struck because it was true: orphanage, family, then another family, people from the NGO that came and went… that was life for these children.

That statement – which was not a complaint, just a fact – opened my heart and I thought to myself, “No, the relationship with you is forever.

Later, I resigned from the Italian NGO and I started working with Romanian colleagues for the Romanian NGO that came into existence.

I still work for this NGO, Fdp Protagoniști în educație, of which I am now also director.

We are still working with the HIV-positive children we met in 1998. They’ve now grown up, are 30 years old, have children, work, and live in social apartments that we manage. We have also started many other activities.

We work in Roma communities with poor children at risk of school dropout. We work a lot with sports foundations, such as the Real Madrid Foundation, to combine school with sport and make school more attractive so that they do not abandon it. In the last two years we started working with children with learning disabilities and difficulties (one of the children I have in foster care has special needs).

Working with poor people, we have found that very often learning difficulties have to do with poverty. I’ve come to understand this on a much deeper level as I am currently studying for a master’s degree at the University of Padua focusing on learning disorders. There is a disorder (which is not yet considered as such but will soon be) which acknowledges the problem of understanding text that primarily afflicts poor children.

These children may be on the normal school path, but do not know how to make connections like cause and effect or inferences, they have a reduced vocabulary, and in short have poverty of stimuli and experience. In these years of the pandemic, school dropout rates (already at 19% in Romania) reached 25%.

When I think back on my time here, I realize how important love is. A few years ago I did some research on the first children we had helped, checking in on them today as adults. Out of the 28 who had been placed in foster homes, no one had died, while 72% of those left in orphanages had. This shocked me because, with equal sanitary treatment (since we now have antiretrovirals), what really makes the difference and what makes people live is to feel loved.

Ultimately, my time and investment was definitely worth it, and it is worth staying here. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll realize the great dream of building a house with several apartments where, along with other colleagues, I could live with the HIV positive people that we have followed since childhood. Today they work and have become parents, but they have so many weaknesses related to illness and to the part of their childhood lived without love.


Simona Carobene
Human book at Expatclic Human Library 2021
FDP-Protagoniști în educație
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For another story from the Expatclic Human Library clic here.


Diversity: The true wealth of our world

We are grateful to Valentina Aristodemo for allowing us to transcribe part of her presentation to the Expatclic’s Human Library.
We have chosen Valentina as one of the 33 human books to introduce to our community, because her story, and the message it conveys, are a clear illustration of the power of diversity.


I grew up in Marsala, Sicily, in a middle-class family. My parents always encouraged me to be independent and to have an open mind about society and the world.

I had recently started working when, by pure chance, I discovered LIS (Italian Sign Language), through a flyer that advertised a course. Having always been passionate about languages, I decided to attend it. And that changed my life forever.  

I fell madly in love with this language and all aspects related to the fascinating deaf community. I moved to Rome to work in a school for deaf children. This was my first experience with diversity. I understood how important LIS is for deaf people, but especially for deaf children.

In general, deaf children have hearing parents. The norm is to proceed with prosthesis or cochlear implants, but this deprives deaf children of linguistic stimulation for a few years – the time necessary to learn to recognize sounds in speech therapy. Since this is a long journey, deaf children often miss out on basic language acquisition, which can affect language development. Many think that LIS for children is just a tool, but in fact it is a real language and a fundamental human right.

In 2006 a UN Convention urged governments to recognize sign language. The premise was that everyone has the right to acquire a language, and LIS is the natural language of the deaf. It is acquired naturally, through sight, a sense which is not affected by deafness, and does not pass through the auditory channel, which requires speech therapy and the work of deciphering sounds.

At that time, and as often happens, Italy lagged behind other European countries. It ratified the convention in 2009 but recognized LIS only in 2021. It was a first step but there is still a long way to go to overcome reluctance to embracing ISL, especially in the medical profession. Hearing children are often stimulated to use LIS (baby sign language is very popular now), but the deaf are deprived of their natural language without any scientific basis.

Going back to myself, after my experience in Rome I decide to deepen my knowledge of LIS, and I enrolled at Ca ‘Foscari in Venice, the only university where LIS is considered equal to and taught as any other foreign language. I graduated and specialised as an interpreter. It was there that I met Mirko, deaf, son of deaf parents, who would become my husband.

From then on, my immersion in the deaf community began. I started spending more time with them than with the hearing community. Mirko went to study at Gallaudet, the only university in the world where lessons take place in American Sign Language. His dream was to become a researcher, but in Italy there were no opportunities for him. Once again, we were faced with a brick wall mentality. On his return from the USA, a professor suggested he go to work in Paris. He went and I followed him there. We were fortunate to have two PhD scholarships. He is a morphologist, I am a semanticist in sign language. After two years of his doctorate, Mirko realized his dream in France, and became a sign language researcher at the CNRS.

Photo @ValentinaAristodemo

Meanwhile, we discovered that we could not have children. Having a family, however, was our great dream. We decided not to give up and took the path of adoption. A very long and troubled path. After three years we obtained court approval and decided to go for international adoption. We chose Burundi as a country of adoption. After five years from the beginning of the paperwork, on 17th June 2019 we met our children, Jean Lucas and Jonathan.

This marked the beginning of another beautiful chapter in our lives, once again linked to a new culture.

Diversity entered our life again, we threw ourselves headlong into it, determined to experience it as a family. You can imagine the joy and wealth that our children bring to us. At home we speak three languages ​​every day — I speak Italian with the children, Mirko uses sign language, and then we use French because we live in France. African, Italian and French cultures are an integral part of our life, and we try to nurture all of them.

However, we must deal with a world that is not yet open to diversity. And we are very aware of this when we go to Italy on vacation. We often experience racist micro-aggressions that we would gladly do without. There are people who do not know us and ask me if the twins are my children, or if they arrived by boat. Some run after the children to touch their hair, or take selfies with them. I must always be vigilant and aware of people who might want to invade our privacy. Black children are often perceived as objects to be touched and photographed. A black child’s body is not respected like that of a white child’s. We are often asked impertinent questions that aim to highlight differences. Unfortunately, Italy is not yet ready to welcome our family. We have never yet been asked any of these questions in France. There is still a long way to go to persuade people that diversity is the true wealth of our world, and it must be respected and promoted in a positive way.


Valentina Aristodemo
Human book at Expatclic’s Human Library 2021
Main photo @CristinaBaldan



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


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


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


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


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


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



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.

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

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