Do you have an expat escape plan?

Baku fire“Get out, the building’s on fire!”  What would you do?  What would you grab?  How many of us have given that serious thought, much less planned for it?

When we moved to Baku we were advised to always have a wad of cash on hand (in an easily convertible currency) in case we had to leave in a hurry.  This was 1996 and incoming BA flights diverted to avoid flying over Grozny, just the other side of the Caucus mountains and Azerbaijan itself had only relatively recently signed a truce with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

We called it our “running way money,” and we kept it under the ice cream in our chest freezer, the only place in the apartment with a lock and key.  One thousand dollars of cold hard cash (quite literally) in new bills.

Fortunately we never had to evacuate for security reasons.  In fact Baku turned out to be a very safe place to live, but there was a morning when we did have to get out in a hurry.

At 6am one Tuesday morning we woke to a loud pounding on our door.  A quick glance through the peep hole revealed my American neighbour, clad in her nightgown.  “The building’s on fire, we need to get out.  Now!”  I could already see tendrils of smoke drifting up the stairwell and the alarm in her eyes told me this was serious.  I shook my son awake (he’d sleep through WW3).  My husband grabbed the passports and the running away money.  I grabbed my jewelry roll in the bedside drawer together with our coats and we headed out the door.

The source of the smoke was an electrical fire in a single storey garage attached to the back of the building.  Hardly surprising given the poor state of the wiring (click on the photo to enlarge it and you’ll what I mean).  In fact it’s amazing we didn’t have fires every day.  You’ll be glad to hear it was extinguished before it did any damage to the main building and soon we were able to return to our apartment and get on with our day.

But this episode highlighted for me the importance of always knowing a) how to exit my home quickly and b) exactly what to grab and take with me.  We started keeping everything in one place (passports, money, important documents), together with a bag we could quickly scoop it all into.

While this is good policy for anyone, it’s particularly important for expats.  Passports usually contain your residence visas and important documents issued in your home country may be impossible to replace without showing up in person.

Present day technology, including cloud storage and mobile devices has given us many more options for keeping things safe.  Documents can be scanned, photos, music, videos and even books can be digital and stored online.  My mission in 2012 was to make my life as paperless as possible and I’ll be sharing some of my favourite tools and experiences in upcoming posts.

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Online Support Groups: Facebook

546230_60701028In my last post about the Online Coffee group, I mentioned that they also had a Facebook group. It was set up to a) promote the online chats and b) continue the conversation in-between.

Facebook groups are a excellent way to provide free online support for expats.  Why?

  • A large number of expats are on Facebook. 
  • Groups can be ‘open’ (totally public, anyone can join and all posts are visible) ‘closed’ (an admin person grants access and only members can see posts, but someone searching FB can find the group and read its official description) or ‘private’ (similar to ‘closed’ except it cannot be found in search)
  • No matter what the settings, groups “feel” more secure and friendly than FB pages, so conversation flows more freely
  • Posts in groups are more likely to appear on your Home Feed than pages you’ve liked, so they are more visible to members, thus increasing participation
  • Apart from the Expat Partners Online Coffee group, I also belong to the Toronto Newcomers Club FB group, which is restricted to club members only. They have a lot of real world activities, and the FB group represent less than half the members but it offers useful location-specific support such as, “where can I buy…” “have you seen this exhibition… “here are the photos from yesterday’s event …” Some relocation providers and companies set up groups for transferring employees, which sounds like a good idea, allowing families to ‘meet’ prior to departure and exchange information with those already on location.

Search for “expat” on Facebook and then select “Groups” from the left hand sidebar to narrow it down and you’ll find literally hundreds of groups, some with a handful of members and some with thousands.  But if there’s still nothing to meet your needs, why not start your own?  Technically it’s very easy, but there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Choose which kind of group will serve your needs (open, closed, private)
  • Decide who will be eligible to join
  • Create some guidelines for posting and publish them in the group as a document, it may be obvious to you that it’s not appropriate to promote your cousin’s business, but someone’s gonna do it! 
  • More than than one admin is highly recommended. Quite apart from sharing the responsibility, I once deleted myself accidentally and needed someone to let me back in!
  • Someone needs to monitor the group at least once a day, every day
  • At the beginning you need to “seed” the group with posts, images and articles to generate discussion. 
  • Similarly, like and comment on posts to encourage participation

Facebook groups can be a useful tool for offering friendship and mutual support. They work well for people with a shared interest who are separated by distance and also for those who meet face-to-face regularly but still want to connect in between meetings. Just remember to step away from that screen every now and again 🙂

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.”

A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

“Great, let’s do it!” was my reaction when my husband phoned to tell me about a job he’d been offered in Azerbaijan. As soon as I’d hung up, I reached for the atlas to see where on earth I’d committed to go. I knew Azerbaijan was a former Soviet republic and had a vague idea about its location but that was all. My next step was a trip to the local library, where I found 2 books about Azerbaijan, both looking something like this. I didn’t expect they’d tell me much about my future life there as the spouse of a western expat, and I was right.

Please note, I’m talking about atlases, books and libraries. This was 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy. These days a Google search on Azerbaijan returns 298 MILLION results; Amazon over 2,300 results in books alone. I would have loved to have that information if it had been available at the time, all those blogs, websites and forums.

I’m planning to write a series of posts about successful online self-help communities for expats.  On my own admission I’m a computer/internet/social media junkie but before I begin, I want to issue a warning.

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the availability of online information has been a boon to the average expat family but it can be a double-edged sword. Too much information is a very real problem these days, as is over-thinking your decisions. At some point you must take a leap of faith combined with a positive attitude.

Secondly, spending too much time in the virtual world rather than the physical one can hinder your integration. I know, I’ve been there, having spent far too much time holed up at home with my laptop when I first repatriated.  Connecting online can help you make new friendships and foster old ones, but while it may facilitate, it can’t replace face-to-face, real world relationships.

I’ll leave you for now with this TED Talk by psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, who expresses far better than I the positive and negative impact the internet has had upon our lives.