What it is like to repatriate
All members of Doha Mums come to Doha for a variety of reasons. Some of us are affectionately known as "trailing spouses” while others are the financial support and the career-oriented ones in the family. Some of us come purely for financial reasons—savings! vacations! private schools all paid for by the company!—but all of us come hoping for a brighter future.
Before we moved to Doha, my husband and I were living in Chicago, Illinois in the U.S. with our 15-month-old son, Max. At the time, I had a small wedding photography business and my husband, Keith, was working for United Airlines in the finance department. For the most part, life was good. We were both employed, we had a beautiful son and good friends but there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction both financially and professionally. Keith didn't LOVE his job. My career was getting more and more difficult to keep up with considering I was also staying home with Max. When a colleague of Keith's approached us for an opportunity in Doha, the position was perfect. The financials were perfect. The fact that we would have a house paid for, school paid for, a large vacation allowance to travel to countries we had never even heard of and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world—well, we grabbed it!
Life in Doha was hard, amazing, interesting, frustrating, wonderful, eye-opening, astounding, disappointing, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. All of the above. We travelled to 13 countries. We had a maid/nanny who was an absolute gem. We had a four-bedroom house and two cars. We had our second child, Zoe. We made some of the dearest friends we will ever have in our lives. We also dealt with nightmare bureaucracy, took our lives into our hands every time we got behind the wheel of a car—no one gets out of Doha without at least one car accident or, at the very least, a fender bender. We also had to witness archaic laws and astounding violations of human rights on a daily basis. I don't think I need to explain to fellow expats what life overseas is like. What I do want to explain is what coming HOME is like.
Logistically, arranging your lives to come home is one of the most physically taxing things you will ever do. We were lucky enough to have Keith's company help quite a bit but we were up to our eyebrows arranging what was going on the plane with us, what was being sold, what was being shipped, etc. for more than two months. But I want to focus on the emotional side of coming home more than the logistics.
Saying goodbye is hard. HARD. Ugly cry hard. Your friends in Doha have become your family. When you leave your home country to come to Doha, it's hard to say goodbye to family and friends, but you know you are more than likely going to come back and see them again. When you leave Doha, you don't know if you are going to see them again. Their home country is possibly not your home country.
We left Doha in July 2011. My two closest friends in Doha are still in Doha and I haven't seen them since. Sure, we have WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook. But it's not the same. And as time moves on, the texts and Skypes become fewer and further between as everyone deals with the business of raising children. My husband hasn't seen his two best friends since we left either. Nobody knows where they will end up and if we will live near each other or if a visit will ever happen. And it makes us sad.
Blending back into your home country is hard. You arrive back, thinking that everything will be the same as you left it, but it's not the same at all. Our friends had moved on with their lives and experienced things in the last three years that we knew nothing about. And we definitely had experienced things that our friends knew nothing about. In many cases, which we learned early on, people didn't want to know our experiences. It wasn't interesting to them and it definitely wasn't relatable. When you tell people that you lived in the Middle East, they look at you like you have two heads. Tell them that you lived in Qatar and they have no idea what in the world you're talking about. And moving to a totally new city is even more isolating. We left Chicago for Doha and we came back to the U.S. to live in Denver, Colorado where we knew two people. The duties of finding a house to rent, organizing our shipment from Qatar, combined with organising the furniture we had in storage in Chicago, 900 miles from Denver, was daunting to say the least.
The culture of America is completely different from the culture of the Middle East. Maids? I don't know one person in the U.S. who has a maid and I had one for three years in Qatar. In fact, even the word "maid" is a bit a taboo here. It’s "housekeeper" or "helper", certainly not "maid". For three years, I had barely even touched my laundry and I certainly hadn't picked up an iron. Our wonderful maid in Doha even ironed our bedsheets and here I was in Denver, with piles of laundry and, frankly, no desire to take care of it.
Financially, things are very different as well. We came back to the United States making less than half of what my husband was being paid in Qatar. And we definitely didn't have a free house, free electricity or free private education for our children. While we were grateful that our experience in Doha helped us pay off student loans and a good chunk of our mortgage back home, we couldn't help but be a little bitter that we were back to living like "regular" people, as spoiled as that sounds. Going from paying almost no bills to suddenly having at least 15 to 20 bills per month to pay is a hard adjustment.
Trying to meet people in a new place without the "expat culture" where everyone is trying to make friends, is emotionally draining. "Coffee mornings with Doha Mums" don't exist and it takes months, if not years, to forge friendships in the real world. I got involved in as many playgroups, mom's groups, etc. as I possibly could when we moved to Denver and it took me well over a year to find anyone who wanted to connect with me as a friend. The first two years in Denver were dark, dark days. I just wanted to go back to Doha—as crazy as it is—and relive the whole expat experience all over again.
While not everyone has a difficult time adjusting to moving back home, it's more common than not. I took the time to read blogs such as www.expatexchange.com and the book Reentry: Coming Home to the Unfamiliar by Sheila J. Ramsey and Barbara Schaetti. When I read the quote: "Life in Canada was boring and predictable...The adventure was gone and it hit me hard," from Ramsey and Schaetti’s book, I realized I was not alone. I needed to let go of life overseas and embrace the life I had come home to.
Life in another country is a wonderful experience, but our home country is what makes us who we are. I got out and explored Colorado, I made friends, I restarted my business and, most importantly, I stopped surfing job boards for life overseas and dreaming about moving back to Doha. Slowly, but surely, life started to come together.
Melissa Downham is an entrepreneur in Denver, Colorado. She owns Z. Noelle Photography, where she is chief photographer, and a virtual franchise with Rodan and Fields Skin Care. She lives with her husband and two children.