Expats: Strangers in their own countries

January 29, 2018
Expats: Strangers in their own countries
Mahmoud Ahmad

IN a world that is being buffeted by forceful winds of change, people who had allowed their lives to drift in the seemingly calm and pleasant winds that pushed their sails suddenly find their boats being rocked or floundered on a rock. The harsh reality the expatriates are facing is the prospect of making decisions that would uproot them from the decades of idyllic life they spent in the Kingdom.

Expatriates, who had come to Saudi Arabia on an initial two-years contract, did come with the surety that they would have to go back if the contract does not get renewed. But with the Kingdom embarking on a solid pace of development, the expats’ stay got extended as they played their bit in the Saudi growth story. As the years rolled on, the expats got indolent with the comfortable life here, and pushed the idea of going back out of their minds.

Three to four decades later, with occasional or yearly trips back home, they got more used to the lifestyle here as their neighborhoods back home changed in the face of their country’s development or they left their old neighborhoods for a fresh urban life in the growing cities in their country.

Today these expats are at a crossroad in their careers and lives, with many feeling that they are strangers in their own country. Some are bewildered at what they feel is the suddenness of this uprooting, while others rue their actions of putting self interest first, while some blame their apathy for the situation they find themselves in.

The recent new laws of expat fees, which put many expats in tough situations while forcing them to make very difficult decisions, coupled with the global economic recession served as a wake-up call for some of my expat friends, who have spent over 30 years working in the Kingdom.

I had touched on the immediate fallout of the imposition of expat fees in previous articles and also about the difficult decisions of families to either split in order to carry on for the moment, or leave as a unit. Some families are using the cautious route of first sending the children back home along with the mother, while the father stays on alone as a forced bachelor.

The fact that more expatriates are now making the other major call of going back to their families and homeland got me talking to my expat friends about the reality of rebuilding their lives again. Many agreed that it was a hassle, but most said that the fact that they go back to their homeland as strangers is more worrying after staying out for decades. They all agreed that they had nothing to return to back home as they said they feel after spending many years in the Kingdom as strangers in their home countries.

Some of the expatriates who had lived out their lives without any planning suddenly find the cold reality hitting them in the winter of their lives and view the future with trepidation. A Sudanese friend of mine, who has spent over 40 years working in the Kingdom, is in such a quandary. It was only when he received a letter from his workplace terminating his services because of old age that reality hit home.

Shocked at the order, he first tried his best to stay on by using wasta to reverse this order. But he finally woke up to the fact that he would have to return to his home country. It was only when he realized this fact that he poured out his fears and worries to me. He told me that he has no one there, and has no property to go back to. Because of his low salary, he was not able to invest in buying a home or setting up a business. All what he did was invest in his son’s education.

Today he’s feeling like a nowhere man with no place to go to or call as home and has nobody to call family. He told me he is clueless on what direction to take and has no idea where to go and what to do next. All his efforts to transfer his Iqama to a new sponsor failed because of his age. And now, according to him, he is coming to terms with reality and bracing himself for a new set of headwinds in this late stage of his life as he resettles his family in a strange land, that was his home.

Two other expatriate friends, to whom I recounted the Sudanese story, were in agreement that it was the expat’s fault for not planning ahead. One said that ‘we need to plan our future right, in order to have some peace of mind in our old age’. He relived his own experience, which I feel, many too must have experienced.

He said, initially when he came without his family he too wanted to join the others in the sequence of actions — bring his family here, build a house or own a flat back home, and save to build a future. He said what deterred him from following through with this sequence of actions was the fact that he saw that the connecting thread of family and friends getting severed and if and when he went back it would be as a stranger. He came to this realization after seeing his friends in this situation.

He said, after talking it out with his wife and family, he stuck it out for a decade, and now has a house, family and friends to go back to. He has also saved up for emergencies and has reskilled himself with a set of online certificates to rebuild his life back home. It may be strange for a while, but not like others who not only snap their roots by going abroad with their families, but also shift residence to urban cities and gated compounds in their own country seemingly flitting about as butterflies in their lives.

The other expat friend too agreed. But had his own rule in how he stayed connected. He said it was difficult to split a family, but he said that he bit the bullet early in life. Just when his girls were entering secondary school, he and his wife decided to have the best of the both countries. He stayed back to work, with his family joining his parents back home. The guidance and love of the grandparents and the life back home was embellished by their visits to the Kingdom, and they saw the difference. It helped them adapt, and that has made them stronger in this changing world.

Yes sacrifices had to be made, situations changed with times, and even the physical reality of neighborhoods metamorphosing with time brought about a growing realization that nothing in this world is constant. And it is this reality that my expat friend told me had made him confident of going through life, sometimes even in a strange land or as a stranger in his own land.

What became evident is that in the end it all boils down to one’s attitude and aspiration. All would love to live up to the adage that a home is where one’s heart is. For many their hearts might be in making the Kingdom their home, but the reality is stark. For even though they did branch out, by flying on the wings of opportunity, they should have planned a home back home by a series of actions that sustained their connectivity to their roots and would have helped them assimilate in their family tree or in their neighborhoods and not end up as strangers in their own homes.

— The writer can be reached at mahmad@saudigazette.com.sa Twitter: @anajeddawi_eng

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