WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

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 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 privilege of drinking tap water

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Claudia Landini
December 2018

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The Penny Wirton School

The Penny Wirton School is a very special Italian language school for new migrants, founded by writer Eraldo Affinati and his wife Anna Luce Lenzi. The school is special because it provides a simple and efficient solution to the problem of linguistic integration of immigrants and is managed entirely by volunteers.

 

penny wirton school

Founder Eraldo Affinati with some students

The concept is simple and effective; whoever has a bit of time can become a teacher and help an immigrant to learn the language. Lessons are conducted one to one allowing the teacher and student to establish a personal relationship and the learning can progress at the student’s own pace. This method and the fact that it is run exclusively by volunteers, makes the school a meeting point between immigrants and locals, creating a common ground for integration that works beyond linguistic, social and cultural differences.

We have decided to introduce this beautiful project because it shares many values and elements with “What Expats Can Do”. We believe there are common points that can create links and teachings, and hopefully, inspire the creation of similar projects in other parts of the world.

Reading the constitution of the Penny Wirton School, we were struck by some particular aspects.

“Those who teach at the Penny Wirton School are special people”

penny wirton schoolTeachers are individuals, with different beliefs and experiences, who give their time to this project for their own reasons, however, “in the end they are all driven by the same desire to give”. This reminds us of our challenge nr 2: The discipline to challenge our own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what we share with people rather than what divides us.

Diversity is therefore something that marks each one of those participating in the school, not only the students coming from different backgrounds and countries. Even from a professional point of view there are diversities: anyone can teach the language, included those who have never taught before or whose work is not related to teaching.

Every teacher is

“genuinely interested in the stories of his students: whoever they are”

Interest in diversity and curiosity regarding others are common elements in all success stories involving migrants, no matter where. And this reminds us of our challenge nr 1: Developing curiosity for strangers.

Everybody is welcome at the school at any time. The school is open the whole year round. The capacity to efficiently welcome everybody at any time probably depends on the teaching method: “the strength of each lesson lies within the personal relationship that grows, in different ways, between the teacher and the student”.

The teacher is a person who has “the capacity of establishing a contact with the people he meets” The gift of empathy is at the centre of the teaching method: one to one lessons, because “every person is different and must be considered as such”. Again this links to one of the challenges we suggested, The ability to directly experience lives and lifestyles of those different from us.

 

penny wirton school

 

This project was started in Rome 10 years ago, and has been so successful that today there are 22 schools in other Italian cities. We asked Anna Luce Lenzi, co-founder of the Penny Wirton School, to describe the elements that made this initiative a success.

_____________________

The Penny Wirton School was created in 2008 to teach Italian to immigrants. The big challenge was to teach to young people coming from different countries, who hardly understood each other in a simple Italian. It was necessary to intensify the teaching of the language, to look the students in the eye and encourage their learning. We found it easier for some (Albanian, Moldavian, Romanian), and less so for others (Afghans, Egyptians).

penny wirton schoolOur school is based on a kind of freedom which is unthinkable in institutional structures, the freedom that comes from a direct personal relationship, one to one or in very small groups, made possible by the many people that are willing to teach for free: both students and teachers are volunteers. There are no classrooms, no marks. The only grade book used is to describe the work being done. We register attendance, not absence. We write down names and activities of the students, to allow every teacher to follow the student’s progress. The only style is the contact, the relationship between student and teacher, who sit side by side and “study” each other reciprocally.

In order to facilitate this process, we must start by looking for and establishing a rapport between students and teachers. Being professional teachers or well-intentioned volunteers is not enough: What is needed is, above all, the interest and capacity of adapting to the individual circumstance of the immigrants.

We make it clear that our primary aim is the teaching of the Italian language and we do not provide any other form of assistance. It is however obvious that the most important teachings are about respecting each others dignity; the chance to sit close together and understand each other; a mutual interest in each other as people and a continuous exchange of ideas. In the Penny Wirton School, people of different age, background and cultural conditions are welcomed in the same way: the one to one contact takes place in big large rooms, where you can learn and see others learning, where you have difficulties and see others having them: No one is blamed and each one advances at their own pace.

It is a sort of inner freedom that spreads and permeates the school and the persons in it. We put a lot of energy in explaining to the volunteers that they must not approach teaching with the classical concept of school. What is favoured here is the contact, the interested gaze, and the smile of one who feels understood and understands. Sometimes, after the first period, the volunteer does not feel able to teach a method without explanations and formal classroom structure, and leaves. However, in most cases the satisfaction and the happiness between student and teacher are reciprocal: Enthusiastic volunteers call other volunteers, satisfied students bring friends: This is why the school grows and develops with the strength that comes with volunteering and an open heart.

Anna Luce Lenzi
Italy
February 2017

Article collected and organised by Claudia Landini and Cristina Baldan

Translated from the Italian by Barbara Amalberti

Photo credits: Penny Wirton School

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