There’s a special place in hell for expats …

… who don’t help other expats.*

When I first moved to Azerbaijan in 1996, the online world was in its infancy, and although the company provided us with practical help (housing, school, shipping, etc) there was no orientation or cultural training. I was on my own. The first expat women I met were wives of my husband’s colleagues working for his company. Another mother of two of the western children at my son’s school was working at her embassy. I frequented the handful of stores catering to westerners and never saw another western woman. In the end I assumed there probably weren’t many non-working expat women like me. Many afternoons were spent staring out of my apartment window, happy my husband had a good job, happy my son was settling in school, happy to be having the adventure of a lifetime, but desperately lonely.

When I learned that an expat neighbour (also working) belonged to an international women’s club I asked her how to join. She said she’d enquire but came back and told me they weren’t accepting new members at that time. I was devastated. Later I learned that the club had a byelaw about maintaining a balance between local vs expatriate members  and that for a while they suspended taking new members. To this day I don’t know which is worse, that a club for expats should ever close its doors to new members, or that my neighbour didn’t at least offer to introduce me to some of the women outside of club meetings.

Five years and two countries later, I found myself in Egypt. By then, I was a much more experienced and self-confident expat wife.  I thought I knew the ropes.  I joined a thriving expat community centre, took language classes, joined craft and bridge groups, volunteered at my son’s school, did everything to put myself out there and meet people. And while I certainly met lots of people and had a busy life, in the year I was there I never found a group I really wanted to hang out with, or someone I could truthfully call a friend.

Four months after arriving in Azerbaijan a new child arrived at the tiny international school. His mom, a veteran expat wife, quickly sussed out where the other women were getting together and soon I had a circle of not just expat but also local friends, some of whom remain friends to this day.

After a year in Egypt we were transferred to the UAE and a kind company wife immediately phoned and invited me to join a craft group, which became a springboard to all kinds of friendships and opportunities. I never looked back.

These experiences, good and bad have left me forever aware of the importance of support for expat spouses. It needn’t be complex or expensive and sometimes it’s best left to the spouses themselves.  Back home now in Canada and working, I have less time to devote to real-world expat groups and yet I’m finding new ways to connect online. Next example of successful online support groups, coming up ….

*Adapted from Madeleine K. Albright’s quote “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”


18 thoughts on “There’s a special place in hell for expats …

    • Spot on about small gestures making a big impact, often totally unknown to the person who made them. On at least 2 occasions I have seen “new” women break down into tears of relief upon finding a friendly face.

  1. Hear, hear! I’ve also experienced both sides of the easy entry/difficult entry coin. As such, I always try to reach out to newly landed expats. Small gestures make such a difference! Great post.

  2. This is great. I could never figure out why the “women’s clubs” didn’t do more for their fellow expats. Everybody was in this situation at some point, no?

    • The IWC in Baku was great once I managed to join it. What bothers me more is with the woman I asked about membership not offering to introduce me to anyone outside of the monthly club meetings. That was plain unhelpful. Fortunately most of my experiences with women’s clubs have been very positive. I guess that makes this bad one stand out all the more.

  3. I’ve been very fortunate that my first expat sojourn (in Kenya) offered me instant contacts with other expats without my even trying. In other countries later I was also quite lucky, but also knew how to go about finding other women on my own. In one country, Armenia, I moved into the house and the next day my neighbor rang the doorbell. She was Canadian and knew I was coming, somehow, through the expat grapevine, and invited me to the International women’s club that week, as well as to a dining club dinner the next evening, with my husband. That was really quite amazing having moved in the day before!

    The most lonely place I’ve lived? The US, when I lived there recently for three years after having lived in other countries for 11 years. Everybody was nice and friendly. Everybody was also very busy and apparently nobody had any need of another friend, especially not me who was sort of weird having lived all over the world. I must admit here that we’d bought a little house in the boonies because I wanted green around me and a garden etc. since I’d lived in cities for so long. Had we lived in a city, or closer to one, it might have been different.

    Now I’m in Moldova. I’d contacted the International Club before I even moved there. It’s easier now with the Internet.

    I have great sympathy for all the lonely expat women out there. Moments before I wrote this, I received an email (via my blog) from a woman just newly arrived, asking me how to connect. I’ve got answers for her 😉

    Great post, Judy!

    • Thanks Karen 🙂 I can understand that situation in the US as it was the same for me here in Canada when I first immigrated in the 70s and again when I repatriated 3 years ago. For me the solution has been connecting with local expats and repats, but it’s taken a lot of time and ingenuity to find them. In a smaller or more homogeneous community it would be very hard.

  4. I agree completely that even a small gesture of support is important. Not everyone has the social skills to realise that a new person the the group (whatever group it is, expat or otherwise) needs a bit of help and some people perhaps lack the confidence to reach out to a new person, but I also think there exists a bit of expat snobbery, established vs newbies, or settled vs bumbling around. It’s a shame in all walks of life when a newbie is left out. Great post, I like how you also highlighted the great stories of women reaching out and the success and happiness that resulted from those gestures.

    • You make a good point about the established vs newbies. When I ran a weekly expat coffee morning in Dubai I came up with an effective but easy way to ensure the regulars didn’t form cliques … subject of a future blog post methinks 😉

  5. What is even worse is expat people who make no effort to engage with people of their host country and stay in their tiny little bubble and complain endlessly about their local peopel and culture. If you can’t find people of you own nationality, learn the local language and meet women from that culture. I can promise you the experience with enrich your being. Also, with that in mind, language classes are a great place to meet people of ALL nationalities.

  6. I remember when we first arrived in Mauritania, and I was scared to death. I met a fellow American through a colleague and she invited all my kids to a birthday party the following week. It was so huge to me–knowing my kids could have friends, still experience normal life, etc. Funny how such small gestures can mean so much.

    • If something like that happens as soon as you arrive, it creates such a positive vibe and boosts your confidence immeasurably. You are so right that small gestures make a big a difference.

  7. I lived in Tokyo for several months for work, and it was definitely an eye-opening but lonely experience. There were hardly any working Western women there. I also lived in Dhanmondi, Dhaka for a while and wished I had either moved to Gulshan or congregated more frequently with the expat community in Bangladesh. I don’t regret my experiences, but it certainly would have helped me a lot when I was there. And then there was the matter of reverse culture shock (like shopping at the grocery stores here)! Back in NYC now and glad to see there is a forum for expats like yours.

    • Oh gosh I know what you mean by reverse culture shock, it often comes as a huge surprise to those who repatriate. Not just shopping, but suddenly seeing your own culture as an outsider. Eye-opening.

  8. Pingback: White Snow… and the 7 Memories | Life Lessons

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