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Living abroad during COVID-19

Living abroad during COVID-19 poses very different challenges. Here is my reflection.

I practice Linguistic Empathy and I expect you to do the same. Please bear with me if my English is not perfect.

I have been living abroad for 31 years. I have been in close contact with the global expat community through Expatclic for 15 years, and in the last 7 my job as an expat coach has exposed me to the most intimate issues of people living globally. It is therefore natural for me to observe and analyze this period from the point of view of the expatriate. Living abroad during COVID-19 is definitely different for expats.

The biggest challenge for expat families right now is to be separated from their children and loved ones. I mention this straightaway because this morning I got very irritated when I listened to the news, and heard that people in Italy continue to leave their homes at the first opportunity.

You know my situation: I live in Geneva with my husband, I have a son in Paris and one in Madrid. We are all stuck in our cities and watch helplessly the growth of deaths and infections, knowing that whatever happens, we will not be able to be together.

My 89-year-old mother is locked in a nursing home that until ten days ago, allowed ample access to anyone. It is already painful enough for me to think about what could happen if the virus has entered the residence. Knowing that if something happens I am physically prevented from reaching my city and my family, sends me out of my mind.

Last night I received a message from a French friend: she is stuck in the countryside in France with her old mom (and the fear of already having the virus and passing it on), one daughter is in Paris, the other in Jerusalem, the husband in Tunis. All stuck. And without knowing, of course, when the nightmare will end.

And like her, like me, hundreds of other expat families, in addition to the tragedy of the pandemic, are suffering from the impossibility of bridging the physical distance that separates them from their loved ones.

The lack of roots has many effects on those who choose a mobile life, effects we discover on the way. Living abroad during COVID-19 brutally showed one to which we had not yet been confronted with this intensity.

Of course, I – like many others – am not new to forced isolation. During my first mission in Sudan, I was stuck in the south of the country because after I got there, by helicopter, all the movements were blocked. In Brazzaville, in ’97, we stayed ten days at home with our little children and my mother, on vacation there to find comfort after the loss of her daughter. Of course, at that moment it wasn’t a virus that kept us indoors, but the fear of rape and violence. In 2001, I was stuck nine days at the Miami airport with my two children while I was in transit to return from Italy to Honduras.

Quarantine these days has a completely different flavour. We are all stuck, and this creates a sense of solidarity and commonality that makes the experience unique. But my children are far away. Every day, painfully, I listen to my younger son’s voice, trying to catch signs of the fact that he resists, even if he is stuck in a little apartment without even a small balcony. Every day I ask the eldest how is health is going. He is asthmatic, and like everyone else he has been massively exposed to the virus.

When I hear that in Italy people keep going out, minimize the situation, complain that they can’t take a breath of air, I get so angry I can’t even explain. I feel like shouting at them that they have the privilege of being together. That at this moment I would even put a bag on my head to be able to be in the same room with my children. They do not realize the immense treasure of being able to go through this period under the same roof. To be able to hug and calm their children, to be able to watch a movie together, to eat a meal together.

We expatriates are like leaves blowing in the wind here and there. We have windows on many countries in the world, and we are used to managing exceptional situations, and responding energetically to emergencies. But nothing can calm the anxiety of feeling stuck at a time when people die like flies, knowing that no matter what happens, we will have no way of crossing borders. Think about it, when you feel like taking some fresh air. Maybe open the window, hug your daughter, and watch what happens below together.

Love and strength to all,

Claudia Landini
March 2020

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