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To Expat or Not: Post-Outbreak Perspectives

by Emma Morrell

Has the Covid-19 outbreak changed how you feel about expat life? Have you felt the pull of home more than ever before, missing loved ones or craving familiar landscapes or traditions? Or have you never been more grateful to live where you do, feeling safer than you could imagine feeling at home? Maybe you feel marooned in a host country that feels alien to you but cannot escape (or, critically, return). Perhaps the pandemic has inspired you to make the move you were always too scared to make before.

However you feel now, and however you have felt in the past about expat life, anyone living abroad can tell you that the importance of travel is more than just general wanderlust. Rather than a luxury enjoyed by people wanting to go on holiday, it is necessary for these circumstances. It is the thing that we rely on to get us home to see friends and family.

But the closed borders and sometimes strict and costly quarantine requirements have meant that travelling home has become a scarcity and a logistical nightmare that no one anticipated.

Yet, there have been a variety of responses among expats across the world, depending on where they live and their personal circumstances.

I Want to Go Home!

For many expats, the pandemic has created feelings of isolation that has likely been enhanced by the difficulty (or impossibility) of visiting family and friends. For some, it has also made international postings much less attractive than they once were. They have felt stranded from (even abandoned by) their countries of origin.

Natasha is one of those people. Although she was happy with her life in Doha, being an only child with ageing parents in New York made her reconsider it. So, she and her husband decided to move their family back to the United States to restore that geographical closeness they used to enjoy before they moved away. These days, Natasha says that she and her family are careful about maintaining the social distancing and mask-wearing practices they had grown used to in Qatar, given the scale of the pandemic in the US. Still, their outlook is positive: “We are able to look forward to a more conventional relationship between parents and children, as well as grandparents and grandchildren.” Plus, Natasha says that there’s the “added bonus” that she and her children also live closer to her siblings and their children.

She is not alone. Desperate to get home and reunite with their families, a growing number of expats are making the difficult decision to move away from the lives that have become familiar to them. They believe that the longer the pandemic-related travel restrictions continue, the harder it is to justify the large distances and stretches of time away from their families.

I Never Want to Move Home!

Other people have had an almost opposite reaction. For them, seeing how their host country has responded to the crisis versus how their home country has categorically changed how they feel about what they once considered a temporary home. Many of these people used to treat expat life as a stepping stone. It was a means to increase their earning potential for a long-enough time to save up for a house, make retirement plans, or create a nest egg. They approached their expat assignment with the ultimate aim of repatriating as quickly as possible, but Covid-19 changed that.

Anna, a British national, and her Brazilian husband Lucas have had very similar feelings about their very different countries of origin. Scared by the rates of infection and fatalities in Europe and South America, they say they are horrified with how their governments and fellow citizens have been acting during the pandemic. “We feel so safe here,” reveals Anna, who had only lived in Doha for six months before Covid-19 struck. “We miss our families dreadfully, but you can’t ignore the relative freedom that we have here compared to what we are seeing in almost every other country in the world, and certainly the ones we are from!” She says. Anna recalls how she and Lucas were nervous about moving for their first international role, especially during the strict initial days of lockdown. But now, she believes that those early hardships were worth it.

I Want to Seize the Day!

Of course, there is a third group of people: future expats who still live in their home countries but want to make their first move. This group of people has decided that life is too short to wait for the time to be right. And indeed, some have taken the plunge, even in the middle of a pandemic.

As all seasoned expats will know, moving internationally is no joke, so making that move during a pandemic must be nothing short of chaotic! While many people have repatriated in the last 12 months and fresh expats have become something of a rarity, new assignments are still coming up all the time. Expat Facebook groups are still full of questions about packing companies, schooling options, and places to live in various locations.

Amit and his wife Anjali are in the middle of planning their first move to Doha from Delhi. They had been informally looking for jobs for over a year before the pandemic started, but their search became more urgent when they realised that they wanted an escape from India. “We started to feel trapped in our old life,” confesses Amit. “We knew we needed a change, an adventure. Of course, now is not the best time to be moving and 2020 was not the best time to be looking for new jobs, but we ended up getting lucky. We want to start a family soon and this is the best way for us to get ahead financially and give our children a better chance in life,” he adds.

Having lived in ten countries, Mariam knows only too well what it is like to move around a lot. A Pakistani expat, she is married to a German-Italian, and their two children were each born 3,000 miles apart. Their last move from Ghana to Portugal in the summer of 2020 was fraught with difficulties, including a high-risk pregnancy. Yet, Mariam is refreshingly upbeat: “It was the hardest move we have ever done but I don’t regret it for a minute. We loved Accra when we were there and now we love Lisbon. Sometimes you just have to seize the day.”

What Is Moving in a Pandemic like?

Mariam’s experience was one of the more dramatic ones. She and her family encountered, among other things, visa issues and several cancelled flights out of Ghana. In the end, they boarded an evacuation flight for Italian nationals, the only nationality all four shared. They flew to Germany via Italy, where they were unable to stop and visit family. Five flights later, they were in Portugal on a recce when Mariam went into pre-term labour. Their third child was born prematurely in Portugal, a country whose language none of them spoke. Thankfully, he is now thriving in their new house with his two siblings.

Keri, who moved from Singapore to Doha in December, had an easier ride than Mariam, but it was by no means straightforward. Getting a visa for her husband took almost a month back in October. When it finally arrived, he was on a plane just days later. The idea was that she would follow with their three children two months later, but no one knew if their visas would be issued on time or not. Undeterred, she packed up the house and hoped for the best—and she was rewarded for her optimism and perseverance. Although Keri is relieved to have successfully reunited her family, she says that being the “new girl” has been harder this time than on previous assignments. “As a working mum, I’m finding it hard to balance work and homeschooling. Meeting people is difficult because we all have kids in school on different days and lots of people work. Expat life can be really lonely,” she says.

Of course, international moves are not the only relocations happening. With changes in everything from housing allowances to working from home requirements, many people are moving within Doha to meet their changing family dynamics, needs, and budgets. Suddenly, extra rooms are needed as home offices, and dining tables must have enough room for multiple homeschooling lessons. Now, guaranteed WiFi bandwidth is certainly non-negotiable!

Decent outdoor areas are essential for spirited kids to burn off energy while allowing for social distancing, but residents are also looking for adequate indoor space to get through the hot summer months. When it comes to the physical act of moving, in the peak of lockdown, it can be a logistical nightmare. While shipments could theoretically arrive, it was the port workers, packers, and unpackers who struggled to navigate social distancing rules while fulfilling their jobs. This reportedly left hundreds of families without their possessions.

Should I Stay, Should I Go?

One thing that can always be said about expat life is that the dynamics are ever-changing. Even before Covid-19, personal circumstances could change in an instant, and suddenly, a new lens would be forced onto an old way of living, changing perspectives forever.

What works for one family may not work for another—this has never been truer than in the past twelve months. Everyone’s situations are so different, from their backgrounds and family circumstances to their length of expat experience and individual needs. One thing to hold onto is the knowledge that there is no right or wrong decision, during a pandemic or otherwise. Rather, the “right” decision is the one that suits you and your family.

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