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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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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