WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

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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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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How living abroad has taught me a few things about work

What Expats Can Do invites all expats to draw lessons from their experience abroad, and be a voice to help enrich the lives of individuals that do not have the opportunity to travel, and cannot witness firsthand what happens in the less fortunate areas of the world.

 

As some of you know I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, until a couple of weeks ago. Like most expats that have advantageous conditions in their working contract, I had a maid. She was a fantastic woman who took care of me and my house with devotion and professionalism. Thanks to her I was able to devote a lot of my time to my work and all the projects I love.

Shortly before leaving Indonesia for good, she shyly approached me one morning. She was holding a threadbare plastic folder that contained a few recommendation letters, printed on worn-out sheets. She proudly showed them to me and asked me if I could add mine to her dossier. My heart shrank and I could not avoid comparing my situation with hers.

Ani has no LinkedIn profile, no electronic CV, no website, and no blog. All of her working history is contained in those few worn-out papers – and when an employer leaves, she can only hope they will find her another job or be motivated enough to recommend her on expat websites and mailing lists. Her whole working future depends on the willingness of her employer to put energy in this search.

The tools at her disposal, her independence, and ability to promote herself are not the only differences between her, and I though. While I can afford not to work and still live in perfect dignity, if she does not work, she does not eat. Like many other women in the world, she is the breadwinner. Her husband lost his job months ago and has not found another.

I am grateful for my expat life because it has put me in contact with the other half of the world, that part of the planet’s population that cannot afford not to work. And in order to work, they are often forced to adapt to dreadful and underpaid jobs, which many in our privileged positions would abhor.

Some time ago I visited the flowers market in Jakarta. There I discovered that many of the floral decorations used in weddings require a lot of ice to be kept fresh. Within the market there stands a little room where a woman produces and sells ice for this very purpose. She spends her days breaking ice blocks, putting pieces of ice into a machine that grinds them, and collecting the ground ice in big bags to be sold. For hours she is in that freezing little room, bent over ice blocks and filling bags with ground ice. She has one bare hand and a drenched woolen glove covers the other one.

Another thing I often observed in Jakarta (but this is true for so many countries in the world) is that trash collection is as lucrative as ever. I took this picture close to my house in Jakarta:

 

 

The mother of the child sleeping on the cardboard must rummage in the trash to find recyclables that she will sell to the “lord of trash”, as I explained here. She obviously has no one to leave her child with, so improvises a bed beside the trash on the street. I wish no mother on earth would ever be forced to do something like that.

Ani and her worn-out folder sent my mind spinning and I remembered another episode I witnessed in Lubango, Angola, in 1991. At that time we collected food donations to distribute in the war-plagued region, and stored them in a warehouse. When we were ready to distribute, we employed workers for the day to help us load the trucks and unload the food at various distribution points. The stock of food consisted of bags of wheat and cans of oil. I will never forget when a worker, who lifted the last cans onto a cement step where they were being arranged, used his hands to scrape a few drops of cooking oil and collect them into a plastic top that had fallen during the loading operation. I cannot describe what I felt and I do not even think it necessary.

What I want to point out is that when we do not get in touch with such situations, it becomes easy to forget they exist. But they do. This is my small contribution as a reminder to reach out to those who are not as fortunate as I am and don’t get to see all that I see.

 

Claudia Landini
Italy
June 2018

Photo credit ©ClaudiaLandini
except the head photo ©Jean Clauzet

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The essential role of humanities in our times

“Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.”

Source: Why we need humanities more than ever

 

For years I have been convinced that training in science, technology and economics is essential to prepare the young to the working world. Humanities certainly are interesting and important, but I always considered them as accessories.

My life abroad has changed this assumption.

While reading the above article, I found myself reflecting on which process I instinctively learned to set in motion when I have to face a relocation in a new country, and I want to find out more about the people living there. Despite my initial beliefs, I never start by investigating the scientific development and the technology level reached in the country. I certainly look into the economic development level, but this is an aptitude I learned from my university education that allows me to quickly understand the possible life style of population in function of the economical infrastructures available.

However, if I want to find out something about the people in order to be able to connect with diversity, I spontaneously start from literature. I read books, preferably novels of local authors. Literature tells me about a way of thinking, it tells me stories, it gives me hints on habits and ways human interactions are managed in that country.

humanitiesThen, if they are available, I go to exhibitions and local markets to find art crafts: art, and especially photography, makes me understand the feelings and the way local people interpret reality, it tells me about their lives, it is a mirror of how they see and go through life events.

And if in this journey through humanities I meet something I cannot relate to, I focus on it and make an effort to know more about, because most of the time that is the place where the difference is hidden: it is a part of humanity I do not understand yet.

With time and repeated culture shock, I realized that scientific discoveries, the level of technology and the economic development obviously give a lot of information about the people and their lifestyle, but they alone cannot illustrate cultural differences.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without humanities in my expat life: it is one of my most powerful tools to face culture shock. How many people should I get to know and how long would it take me before I can gather enough information to start understanding something about local culture? How can one neglect this aspect of human nature and think of being able to quickly build bridges between cultures and countries? Where there is no reciprocal understanding, communication becomes difficult. Education of new generations should stimulate this practice to open up to other cultures through humanities.

 

Cristina Baldan
June 2017

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How contact with local realities can spur your empathy

Our current challenge on What Expats Can Do is “Directly experience the lives and lifestyles of those different from us”. It made me reflect : How can we experience different lives if we do not have an entry channel to them? How can expats really become advocates for the lives and lifestyles of the people of their host countries?

 

mosquito net

In South Sudan photo credit ©Claudia Landini

We know that arriving in a new country and learning how to function in it is an amazing experience in that it defies our preconceptions, opens up a whole world of unknowns both on ourselves and our culture and the hosting culture, and confounds our certainties and expectations making us feel vulnerable, and in a way, new.

However, our contact with the local reality is often obstructed by circumstance and marked by disparities. We might – and we often do – find ourselves living in conditions that are much more luxurious and comfortable than those of most of the local population. This creates a barrier which makes it difficult to build relationships on an equal footing, but more so it prevents us from getting in real touch with all sections of society and learning about the reality of the more uncomfortable aspects of life for the people we are living amongst.

I personally have been very fortunate in this respect because my life abroad has been driven by my husband’s work for the Red Cross, within which I also worked at the beginning. I won’t use this article to talk in detail about this beautiful movement (you can find out more here and there), but there are three things that are important for me in relation to our current challenge:

  1. Whenever a foreign delegate of the Red Cross arrives in a new country, he/she fits in or works in collaboration with an already established local structure, with which he shares seven very simple but highly impacting principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. This means having a privileged entry channel into the new culture: Everyone involved shares the same values, intentions, methods and purpose, and this creates a base of commonality that serves to speed up the process of building relationships.

2. Working with the Red Cross means working for the most vulnerable, and acting on the basis of humanitarian principles. Local people know that when they welcome a foreign delegate, she is not there to make a profit from the country, but to work to alleviate the suffering of the local people. In my experience, this has made an enormous difference in how local people see the foreign person. And it certainly contributes to building deeper, long-lasting and fruitful relationships.

huila angola

In Angola, photo credit ©Claudia Landini

3. Working with the Red Cross means coming into contact with situations that would not be accessible otherwise. In my long experience abroad I have visited war zones, hugged malnourished children, evacuated dying people, talked to families who have lost their homes and all of their belongings, seen people discriminated and dying in solitude because they had AIDS, and visited villages where in the Internet era there is no power or even latrines.

Contact with vulnerable, marginalized or disadvantaged sections of society has been central to my life abroad. Through it, I have increased my capacity for empathy and become a more complete person. All through these years, I have approached my hosting cultures through the most painful and dire situations – epidemics, famine, wars, natural disasters. This has carved a path for me towards human suffering, and it is in shared suffering that the truest feelings and the most beautiful side of human nature can be found. It is in these kinds of situations that the best of human values are expressed. All through my life abroad I felt as if I was embracing the whole world, as if I was touching the real core of our times. And each time I was so privileged as to see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands the conditions of people who are exactly like me, but who were born on the wrong side of the planet, I felt my own humanity expanding and gaining value. Living in contact with people that struggle to rebuild a house destroyed by a hurricane or have to cope with discrimination and marginalization when struck down by AIDS or Ebola, has been the greatest lesson life abroad could ever teach me.

 

 

Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
February 2017

 

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