Guest post: Expat Emergencies and Turbulent Postings – a Child’s Perspective.

Today’s post in my summer of guesting comes from a blogger with whom I share a lot of background. The more I read or hear about The Ersatz Expat, the more I keep wondering if we have actually ever met in real life. Both of us have lived in Nigeria and Venezuela, and both went to school and university in the UK. We also both married Brits. Our lives are very different now, but both of us have a similar sort of childhood to look back at and compare to what we are able to give our own children. Here, the Ersatz Expat talks about some of the experiences from her younger years – and how it has helped her parent her own expat children.

Irrational fears

I have never not been an expat. As a child we lived in some benign places (Norway, the UK and the Netherlands) but also experienced some more challenging postings. This has coloured how I relate to the expat experiences our own children have and I try, wherever possible, to see things through their eyes.

Age 11, I was parachuted into a British boarding school far from the culture I had grown up with. Following a first term at my new school, I had to travel to Lagos on my own. (Yes the airlines supervise UM (unaccompanied minors) but the help they gave in the 1980s was close to useless so I had to fend for myself). I remember sitting on the plane to Nigeria for the first time having had no correspondence with my parents for 4 months. I was very worried about what I would find on arrival; I even thought my family would have become africans because they were now living there and I wondered if I would recognise them with brown skin and curly hair. This crazy memory makes me realize that children, no matter how mature and capable, can become irrationally worried about things.

A few months ago our son, who had previously spoken good Russian was refusing to ‘understand’ it any more. He was also failing to progress in his Mandarin and Bahasa Malay lessons. It turned out that he realised that I no longer spoke my birth language (Dutch) easily and that it takes me some time to get back into the groove, mostly because I have no real reason to speak it now my mother and grandmother are dead. He was worried that he might forget English if he learned another language. It was another irrational fear that, when analysed, makes perfect sense in the mind of an expat child.

Handling emergency situations with children

One time, when leaving Nigeria I got caught up in an armed robbery at the airport. Our flight could not leave as we were in lockdown and had been sent to the arrivals hall to collect luggage. We heard shots in the unloading bay and 5 bodies came up the conveyer belt. My mother took me to her car and told the driver to wait somewhere safe she then went off to investigate. I knew that I would be safe if I did what my mother told me with no questions asked and I trusted her to know what to do. Luckily our children have not been involved in an armed robbery or anything like that but we make sure that they know that when we speak in a certain tone they must do as they are told (being absolutely silent when the car is hit by a sudden blizzard for example) and that we will explain the reasons why later. We also make sure that they have confidence that we can handle any situation we are in (even if we don’t) and that our children are never an outlet for our fears.

We lived in South East Turkey in the 1990s (enough said). It was possibly the most dangerous posting we have ever had. A bomb went off in the building next to us while I was doing some work experience with a family friend, my parents were directly involved in another bomb scare and we had to check under the car on a daily basis. A guard followed me if I went out and flights to the local airport were in danger of being shot down and these experiences were the tip of the iceberg. Every time I called to reconfirm our flights (remember those days) I was told the airline advised against travel there. My greatest fear was that I would be called in to the housemistress’ room to be told my parents had been killed and I used to think carefully about how I would tell my sister. I was scared stiff for three years straight. My parents were always scrupulously honest about dangers and issues that arose which helped me to worry less. I also got the school to let me have R4 (Radio 4) on late at night in my room so I could sleep knowing that there were no reported issues at home.

What do you tell the chilldren about something like this?

What do you tell the chilldren about something like this?

Being honest

From this I have learned never to brush things under the carpet, we have always made sure that our children are aware of everything they need to be without blowing things up out of all proportion. We also make sure that they have the props they need to feel safe. My father in law died just before we left the UK for Kazakhstan. They were very young but felt his loss keenly and when they first went abroad they were concerned that another family member might disappear or that they would never see them again. We have always promised them that we will let them know if they need to worry and make sure that they have regular ‘phone and skype contact. Hopefully this helps to dispel some of their concern.

Just after we arrived in Sarawak the terrible news came through about MH17. A child in the children’s new school lost a parent and many others in the community were impacted. Our children heard what had happened and they knew that family would be coming to visit us via the same route and that we would be flying with Malaysian Airlines whenever we travelled out of country. They also knew the Ukraine, Kiev being a regular stop over on flights to and from Kazakhstan. Knowing how I would have reacted to the news as a child helped to inform the way we spoke with our two. We were very honest about what had happened and why and we have been similarly upfront about recent terrorist attacks. We feel that if the children are prepared for the world being a scary place while knowing that there are good and decent people in it they will be better able to handle it as they grow up and have more independent experiences in life.

One of the great benefits of expat life is the independence, maturity and capability it fosters in children from a young age. I certainly hope that our children gain those benefits although I also hope they avoid bombs and shootings for a few years yet.

(photo: RNW.org)

Have you been in any emergency situations with your own children? Or needed to speak to them about something that has happened? How have you handled it? How honest have you been with them?

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Supporting Nepal and thinking of all those who wait for news.

I am sure we have all been watching with huge sadness the events unfolding in Nepal and other parts of Asia. You feel so helpless at times like this – I have donated to the Red Cross but there isn’t much else I can do. I continue to support the Red Cross even when there is no obvious emergency happening in the world because they keep on working all the time, whether under the spotlight of the media or not.

As well as the people of Nepal, India, Tibet and other affected countries, I have been thinking of those families back in the UK, the US and everywhere else in the world who are waiting to hear news of their loved ones. When I worked for the Foreign Office in London, I spent a couple of very intense years as a press officer for consular cases. This could mean answering questions from the press about anything from someone falling off a balcony in Spain to kidnappings in South America. We dealt with hundreds and hundreds of cases involving distressed Brits overseas, some in trouble of their own making (eg smuggling drugs) but many caught up in something totally beyond their control. I was heavily involved after 9/11, and again after the Asian tsnuami of 2004. In both instances, I flew out to the scene shortly after each event.

As a press officer, I rarely spoke to the family members themselves. We had well trained and massively sympathatic consular officers to do this job. However, there were times when  I came into direct contact with people who were highly distressed about missing or otherwise indisposed relatives. After 9/11 I spoke on the phone to a father whose daughter had been in one of the Towers; later, I sat in on an interview with a couple whose only son had been the only Brit killed in one of the planes. In London, I met the families of kidnap vicitms face to face as we discussed the British Government’s strategy for their case, and in Phuket I pitched in where needed and spoke to several family members.

Watching the scenes in Nepal, and the scenes back in the sitting rooms of Bristol and Nottingham and Glasgow, I remember all those people I have come into contact with over the years whose family members have been involved in some sort of shocking event in another country. I realise it’s awful wherever it happens, and grief is grief. Sudden and unexpected death doesn’t distinguish.

But to happen in another country, to be so far away and so out of your control, this is hard in a different way. To need to make arrangements for flights and visas, hotels and taxis. To rely on an anonymous offiical in a far away embassy to be the one who finds the information for you, who will knock on the doors, visit the right people, help with your questions. This is impossible.

So as the news keeps creeping in, as we hear the good stories but also the bad, the news but also the no news, I am thinking of all those people. The mothers, whose only sons went climbing and never came back. The fathers whose daughters were on the trip of a lifetime. The couple in New York who sat so bravely and spoke about their son who they will never see again. The father on the phone in New York who wailed with grief.

Let that never be me.

To donate to the Red Cross click here.

What to do when a Hurricane Hits.

Having lived on two Caribbean islands, I’ve had first-hand experience of surviving several hurricanes. This includes being in Jamaica when it was hit by force 5 Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and later coming home to a flooded house after Hurricane Tomas in St Lucia in 2010. Here I give my advice on what to do if you find yourself living in the path of giant storm.

The title of this post might be what to do when a hurricane hits, but really you should start your preparation long in advance of the moment the storm reaches you. There’s no excuses not to be prepared these days – if you move to a part of the world where hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones or other large storms are a common occurrence, you’ll know it. You should be prepared from day one. Additionally, modern weather prediction means you will usually know at least a few days in advance if you are likely to be in the direct path of the storm– and whether it’s picking up or losing power as it approaches. So what can you do to make sure you are ready – and then survive the storm if it does hit?

stormy caribbean

From the moment you arrive
If you are moving to a country where extreme weather events are a common occurrence (the Caribbean, parts of Southern USA, the Philippines, Japan all being good examples), then make sure you have everything you need for the day that inevitable storm arrives. Basics include torches and batteries, baby-wipes, essential medicines, nappies or formula if you have a baby. Keep a supply of non-perishable food and bottles of water year round, separate and away from your usual store cupboard (so you won’t be tempted to raid it and then forget to re-stock!). If you can, add a small camp stove or similar – something that can at least boil some water and heat up a tin of beans. Not only are you likely to be confined to the house for the duration of the storm, you may also be without electricity for a few days. A good first aid kit is important. Hopefully you won’t need it, but there can be a lot of flying debris during a hurricane so it’s better to be able to treat any minor cuts and bruises yourselves rather than attempt to get to a doctor or hospital.

You should also check to make sure your health insurance covers you for weather events like a hurricane and if not whether you need to take out extra insurance.

In the run up to “hurricane season”
Closer to the dates when storms are most likely to occur, make sure you know any local evacuation routes. If you need to, do you have a way to keep in contact with others in your family? Phone lines and mobile coverage might be effected. What about schools – what are their plans during an evacuation situation? How will they contact you if they need to? Check over your food and water store and re-stock if necessary.

Hurricane Ivan

Hurricane Ivan

If a hurricane is on its way
You should have good notice if a hurricane is heading towards you – most of these storms start out of sea and only become a threat once they start to reach land. The Weather Channel, the National Hurricane Centre and other sources are all good predictors of what is heading where and how hard it will hit.

As soon as it looks like one might be coming your way, fill your car up with petrol in case you need to evacuate, check the car over and if possible put it somewhere safe and under cover. If you need to, stock up with extra food and water. You may want to board up your windows – if you haven’t already done so, now is the time to buy the boards (before they sell out) and work out how to get them up.

Within 24 hours of the storm’s predicted arrival, put up your boards and move any outdoors furniture you have into your house. Move as much of your furniture as possible into the centre of every room. If flooding is likely, also move as much as you can off the floors. Collect together any important paperwork (passports, insurance papers etc) and put them into something waterproof. If you think evacuation is a possibility, pack a bag for everyone in your family (don’t forget pets!), including all the important paperwork. Looting is always a possibility in homes abandoned in an emergency so try and think what you might want to take with you – although bear in mind where you will be going. Keep listening to all broadcasts on the radio and television. Decide which part of the house is the safest – this should be somewhere with the fewest windows so if you have an interior room like a bathroom you might want to think about setting up home in there in case things get really hairy. Stock it up with pillows, books, games – it may be a long night. Fill your bathtub(s) and sink with water.

hurricane flooding

When the hurricane hits
Don’t go outside, stay away from windows and in no circumstance try and fix fallen cables or similar. If necessary, turn off your power supply (if it hasn’t already been switched off by the authorities). You might feel safer in the windowless room – even if it’s just for a few hours. If you do still have electricity, keep listening to all broadcasts. If you are told to evacuate, follow instructions. There may be a lull as the “eye” of the hurricane passes over; this might not last long so be careful if you do go outside and don’t venture far.

After the hurricane
Once you are sure the storm has passed and it’s safe to go out, check around your property for damage and if necessary call in on any neighbours who might need extra assistance to make sure they are okay. Once power is restored, listen to news for roads that have been blocked or airports closed. It may take a few days for things to return to normality and of course for some people it never will. Hurricanes can be difficult for expats but devastating for locals who live in far less secure and solid housing. This is the time to give back to your host nation – check whether any of your local staff need assistance, or help with fund-raising efforts.

Have you lived through a hurricane, typhoon or other major weather event? Do you have any tips to add to these? Or would you like to tell your story on this blog? If so please get in touch: leave me a message or email me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.
This blog post was first published on the Medibroker website http://www.medibroker.com/blog/.

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A tale of a toddler, a crayon and a multilingual experience in Czech hospital

A perect example of why it’s always wise to be prepared (where to go, how to communicate when you get there…) for any medical emergency when you move overseas. A scary situation at the best of times, somethig like this can be very daunting if you have just relocated somewhere new.

Having two small kids around, it helps to occasionally let go and allow yourself not to worry about little things. Little annoying things. For example, mess all over your flat, plastic cutlery in a socks drawer, toys in a kitchen cabinet, etc. A tidy up maniac that I am, I think, I’m doing pretty good nowadays, trying to control the urge to wash everything as soon as it gets dirty and yesterday was a pretty good example.

You know those soft crayons, which are made specifically to use as a face paint? My girls love them. Not only do they’d colour all of their bodies in an Indian/Avatar patterns, these crayons are easily washed off the surfaces, therefore, mom doesn’t get all mad, when they make living room laminate floor so much prettier. The colour of the day was black and by the time the girls moved on from body…

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