There is no doubt that the Coronavirus is keeping many families apart at present, but for some families, expat families, this can mean being thousands of miles apart.
You may argue that this is part and parcel of expat life and, in a way, you would be right, as such families do spend a considerable amount of time separate from their extended families. Only this time it is different, as for many expat families there are limited opportunities to return home during this crisis, if any at all. Like many, on April 5th, 2020, I watched as The Queen addressed the nation regarding the coronavirus crisis and heard her poignant message “We’ll Meet Again”. As I write my blog, I should be enjoying Easter break with my family. However, I am sitting in my villa in Oman, my husband is sitting in his apartment in Saudi Arabia, and our two university-aged children are holed up in our house in the UK with the family cat, the only one who appears content at present as she has company 24/7. So how did this scenario happen?
As an expat family we have enjoyed moving around the world together, appreciating new places and new experiences. Without doubt, it’s been a fantastic way of life. However, despite the perceived glamour, expat life has its challenges, and amongst the gains there are losses. Losses increase as expat families age and begin to splinter. First, my eldest left for boarding school, after deciding that she would like to experience Sixth Form education in her home country and prepare for university life. My youngest followed, two years later aged 14. The nest was emptying. A year later, my husband had reached maximum age for work Qatar so he moved to Saudi Arabia, where you can continue working. As there was no position for me, I remained working in Qatar. So it was that for a while we had four people in four different countries. People would often ask me if it was hard, I always replied that it wasn’t. And it really wasn’t at that time. We spent our holidays in the UK when the children would be home, so it didn’t seem any different than if I was waiting for them at home. Boarding school suited them both, it provided two expat children with an opportunity to experience their home country, in the only way available for them. Distance was never an issue, I never really felt we were apart despite the 4,000 miles between us. I believe there is a difference between physical distance and emotional distance. Though we were physically miles apart, emotionally I think we have always been a close family. For me, six hours flying from one country to another was no different than navigating the UK traffic. It’s just time. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I see borders (mountains, oceans and countries) like home country people might. I have travelled so much that the world seems to blur into one place rather than a collage of countries, if that make sense. I always took the stance that as long as everyone was alright, I was alright. Life was mostly uncomplicated, even if it looked crazy from the outside. If there was a problem, I could always get back.
The thing is, we are now in this moment. Barely two months into my new job in the beautiful city of Muscat, we are in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic. We are now all separated once more, but this time it feels different, there is no way back at present and that is hard. Suddenly the borders are reappearing. Now we experience the negative aspects of expat life. To fight the anxiety that comes with this situation, I have spent time reflecting on how to stay grounded and cope with the situation many expatriates are finding themselves in. Having trained as a Counsellor, I am aware of making sure that even during difficult times I can still see the positives, and to keep in view the personal strengths and safety nets we all have in place. So, I began to focus on the gifts that expat life develops within you and how we can, as a family, use them during these times.
Firstly, the lack of opportunity to touch base on a physical level means that expats are experienced in maintaining virtual relationships. This is our normal way of living, and though we understand face to face is better, the shock of this enforced way of connecting is not new for us. We are skilled in this and we have learnt to manage it over long periods of time. Our daily virtual family gatherings help to keep us connected. We even have an internet pub, The Bull and Bush, that we have met in for many years before now. 5pm is happy hour, it is well attended, complete with crisps, peanuts and last orders. I appreciate that connecting virtually may have its challenges, but we have to remember that this is our norm, it has served us well for years so there is no need for us to subscribe to the same worry and concern others are experiencing. We see it as an opportunity to connect rather than focusing on the disconnection that results from it.
Second, the ability for expats to build connections and maintain them to survive each new place means they do not shy away from asking for or offering help. Expats place deep value in the relationships they forge and tend to go above and beyond for each other in times of need. In our absence, my family and friends at home, including the ‘Old Expat Boys Club’ have always willingly stepped up. This ensured my children were able to return home safely from university, belongings intact. A relief for sure! I am confident they will continue to provide them with a safety net for as long as they need. Another expat gift is Resourcefulness or the ability to think outside the box. To be able to quickly navigate, adapt, build support systems and survive in each new place, expats must be resourceful. Expats know how to quickly mobilise during difficult situations. They have an ingrained survival mechanism that clicks into place at a moment’s notice. This helped ensure my previously bare kitchen and house was stocked within no time – yes, even toilet rolls. Last, is the expat ability to stay in the moment during stressful times rather than worry about the knock-on effects. This is where we are for now, this is what is happening, everything is just a moment in time, let’s make the most of it or deal with it in the best way we can. This is often the mantra of the highly mobile.
No doubt, as the world returns to normal, for those of you who are counsellors, you may engage professionally with expat clients, as many may be repatriated. It is important that counsellors understand the challenges facing these families. It is said that expatriates suffer more losses in the first eighteen years of their life than most other people in their lifetime. These losses are far reaching and will impact your client on multiple levels. In the wake of Coronavirus, economic uncertainty is real for many. For expats, it may only be the tip of the iceberg. Remember that when an expat loses a job, they lose not only their financial security, but their house, the country they have lived in and may have called home, access to friends and connections built over the years, their children’s school and school identity, their personal history and pets and possessions often left behind. This is in addition to the more tangible loss of any family members who may no longer be around on their return. Taking the time to increase your knowledge and skills to recognise and work with a population who remain largely invisible in our home countries is vital in helping you work more successfully with this unique clientele.