It seems like yesterday that we as a family found ourselves in a situation that created turmoil within our expat community. It was May 2004, and ongoing unrest in our host country had seen the swift and untimely dispersal of expatriates to distant corners of the world.
One moment we had 700 children in our school and the next, we were down to just nine. My husband and I did not have access to our passports, but our children, aged six and three, did. We put them on a flight with someone we trust back to the UK, with a letter saying who they were and that their grandparents were waiting in the arrivals lounge. That day was the longest day in our lives. When the plane landed and we heard they were safe, the relief was huge. We were able to join them three weeks later. I had promised my eldest that I would collect her from the local primary school at the end of the day and, after a delayed flight, a cancelled coach ride and a fifty mile dash in a taxi, we made it with just fifteen minutes to spare. Of course, we spent the summer wondering if we were going back, what we would be going back to and if our friends would be returning. But by late August everything had settled, and we returned to our host country.
It is, perhaps, easier to understand the challenges facing those who leave suddenly and are unable to return. New country or repatriation, new job or unemployment, new schools, abandoned belongings and sometimes much-loved pets. The losses are endless. It is less easy to validate the feelings of those who return. Counting our blessings, jobs intact, we did not anticipate the challenges. We expected to return to the familiar, yet everything had changed. In its place was a blurred sense of home. Roads had closed, barriers were everywhere, roadblocks, and car checks. There were new rules and routines to follow. We no longer had access to certain foodstuffs, activities, favourite places to visit. One of the biggest changes was the human landscape. People had left, a few new people had arrived. For my children, their classrooms were unfamiliar, friendship groups broken, known and trusted support systems unavailable. It was as if we had moved without moving anywhere and that was difficult to come to terms with. The life we had known had gone. Our choices were to keep moving forward or leave.
A few years later, a reunion took place. One night, several people assembled in a wine bar in York, England – a rabble of older looking former staff, and grown up students who had been children when it had all changed. Stories and memories were shared. We laughed and there were a few tears as we realized that we had weathered the storm. We had not lost touch with each other, the world we shared had just paused. The goodbyes we did not say back then became important hellos. As expats, we can choose to focus on the amount of times we say goodbye, or we can also focus on the thousands of times we say hello. We can dwell on losses or we can use them to shape what comes next.
Although the numbers at the reunion represented only a fraction of our school, they taught us something important, that the invisible bonds created through shared experiences are stronger than we may ever believe. You see, expat friendships run deep. My children are confident that they could go to most cities in the world and meet up with someone from their past, and just continue from where they left off. For expats, even with the passing of time, it is easy to merge a yesterday with a today.
So it is, in this current pause, that we are all sharing a life experience we did not plan for. It is challenging, but let me introduce you to what could make a difference to how you navigate through this turbulence. Firstly, time! As Expats, we have learnt that time is our friend. In time we got used to new ways of living, crafted friendships, rebuilt support systems, became more confident about our reinvestment in life. Secondly, people! Expats are experienced in dealing with unexpected life events but that does not mean we do not feel the impact. We just learn to look to each other for support. If there is something good to emerge from our present situation, it is the opportunities for connection and reconnection this journey has afforded us. So today, make a conscious decision to hold on to the connections you have made or rekindled. Do not say goodbye at the end of this crisis. Keep saying ‘Hello’. As change is inevitable, there will always be challenges on some scale. Time and connection are important, because together they give us the sense of belonging necessary to navigate the turbulence of life.
Stay Well, Kathy.