25-year Udhailiyah Reunion in Estes Park, Colorado, in 2009.
Photo shared by Adrienne
When I’m scouting for home and realize it’s 7,598 miles away in Dhahran, I find refuge in the stories of others who share similar sentiments to mine. The recent pandemic that is rapidly evolving, coronavirus, has not only killed and infected people around the world, it is also the reason I won’t be able to fly back halfway across the world to Dhahran one last time before my family retires from the “home” I lived in for fourteen years, something I thought would be doing next week. This is for the best, for the sake of health, but it shows the unpredictably of life and the circumstances it brings. Sometimes, you don’t get to have closure. Sometimes, closure is the final chapter being ripped out of the book. And that's okay, because you can write your own closure with gratitude. I aim to express my gratitude by sharing stories that bring back little pieces of home for me.
I’ve had the honor to share a little about my own story in my previous articles in this blog, so today I want to share Adrienne’s story, who I had the privilege to virtually interview. Adrienne Costas Belaire grew up between Ras Tanura and Udhailiyah as a kid, and she found her way back to Dhahran in July 1998, where she currently resides.
When did you move to Saudi Arabia?
I moved to Saudi (RT) as a 1st grader in 1974 and spent from 1-6th grade in RT and then moved to Udhailiyah in 7th grade and left right before I went into college, so literally all my formative years were spent in Saudi.
What was your experience like, when you left Aramco as a child?
I’ll be honest, when we left Saudi, it was a super traumatic experience because we were in a tight-knit community in Udhailiyah and with the low cost of oil, they decided to completely close Udhailiyah. Everyone was scattered across the globe. At that time there was no e-mail, no mobile phones… no FaceTime or really any way to connect meaningfully except through snail mail… which if people moved was a real issue. We lost our sense of community, and it was huge. It was as if it left so many of us with a hole in our collective souls that we had no way to fill because we could never ever go back to the way things were. Even if we had been able to go back – EVERYONE was gone. I had just started college but for my younger sisters and brother, it was much more difficult to try to assimilate into the American culture. We looked the same and sounded the same, but we really saw the world through such a different lens. Growing up in Saudi had given us the gift of seeing the world so differently and I think for so many of us that changed us at a core level. For me personally, it took me years to feel like I had any semblance of roots in the States. I worked hard to maintain my relationships with friends and teachers, but in the end, the way that translated was a huge Christmas card list and a lot of letters that were returned once people had moved to a different house.
Christmas in the Desert, 2019.
Adrienne with her family in Saudi Arabia.
Photo shared by Adrienne
Did you face any emotional challenges when you left Aramco?
Sadly, at the time that we moved back, 1986, there was no information and recognition about Third Culture Kids and what we might encounter upon re-entry. I could not understand why I wasn’t making friends and why my relationships with people were only surface level. Nobody understood us. With that as a background, one of my siblings had a brush with severe depression and it wasn’t until we went through family counseling that it was explained that we were all *grieving* in our own way. Trying to make sense of it all, but not really having any frame of reference was so difficult because we were very isolated in our experience. It wasn’t until a few years later when someone gave me the book The Third Culture Kid Experience by Dave Pollock that everything finally made sense! It was a huge “lightbulb” moment for me.
How did you feel when you moved back to Aramco?
Coming “home” was surreal. My husband had never been to Saudi and I knew that it might not be a good fit for him, but I also felt like I would be content just for him to experience life here so that he understood that part of me – even if we didn’t end up staying. I remember having this bizarre emotional experience when we boarded the plane in London for our final flight into Dammam. As the plane took off, I suddenly began to cry. I couldn’t quite figure out why until I realized that I felt like “What if I got here and it didn’t feel like home? Then no place would feel like home to me.”
As we landed, it was July here in 1998 and as we stepped off the plane that familiar hot humid air hit me in the face and the feel of the atmosphere was so strong. We flew into the old airport and everything was the same. I remember so strongly; I had a key chain with me that had a whistle on it – in case of dangerous situations. I remember putting my keys in the top drawer and never picking them up again. It was as if I could finally let my guard down. I felt safe.
What makes Aramco such a special place for raising a family?
The same things that made Aramco special as a child still remain, and I think the most common things are the relationships that my children have with their friends and that they have the benefit of having tight relationships with their friend’s parents as well. I think that is unique to living in an overseas ExPat community like ours.
You could be at the commissary and have forgotten your purse in the car and a total stranger would spot you and then you’d be at a party with them the next weekend because you’d become friends.
How do you cope with the distance, is it hard to be away from your parents?
Technology has really bridged that gap nicely. The strangest thing is not being away from my parents. it is having been through boarding school myself and being a returning student, and now having one child in boarding school and another getting ready to go out next year. That part is difficult as a parent myself now. It’s the best choice for our family but it was a real soul-searching journey to be on the other side of that coin now.
Santa in the Aramco Camps
Photo shared by Adrienne, originally posted by other Aramco Brat members.
What are some of your favorite memories from your childhood in Aramco?
The memories of Halloween and Christmas were the best! Santa used to come by helicopter from Dhahran, and then ride a camel down Surf Avenue with the entire camp lining in the street, it was very cool! And Halloween was HUGE; the camp was completely full of ExPats who were mostly Americans, and we used to take out pillowcases to collect all our candy, and we had a huge costume parade, too. It was an awesome way to grow up, there was not a care in the world!
Another amazing memory is when my family met a Bedouin family in 1986, right before we left when Udhailiyah was shut down. It is a very cool memory, but I was freaked out at the time! We were out camping, and we saw a Toyota pickup driving with a big camel following it, without a rope or anything. As we got closer, we saw that there was a baby camel in the back. Not only that, but there was a woman driving the car and her husband was in the passenger seat, which was unheard of in those days! They invited us back to their tent, and the man actually tried to trade me for his daughter, so I could marry his son — who was older than my father! Yikes!!! He also tried to trade a camel and a few goats…my dad always says he missed a good deal! Looking back, it was such a cool cultural experience.
Adrienne and her family, meeting the Bedouin family, in 1986.
Photo provided by Adrienne.
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Stories like Adrienne’s bring back a rush of nostalgia, longing, and memories. Her account of her childhood in the Aramco camps lifted me out of time and let me experience the desert wonder, and the complex, yet simultaneously simple reality of expatriate life in the Aramco residential camps. It is through my childhood that I learned the value of happiness with simplicity, of being content with just drinking a slushy and walking down Safaniya Drive, of driving down Rolling Hills Boulevard with my friends, and spending a few weekends in the escapades of Bahrain, just across the causeway.
I can’t help but feel a sense of loss as my goodbye with Dhahran was taken away by the risks of traveling associated with Coronavirus. I know that it is for the best, but I wish I had a chance for closure. But I realize that when closure doesn’t happen, you have to give it to yourself. As I prefaced in the introduction, a way to provide closure is through gratitude — and I am forever thankful for my incredibly special childhood that will carry within me wherever I trot around the globe. In a time when I am missing home more than ever, I find little pieces of home in stories like Adrienne’s, and comfort in knowing that the Aramco Brat family will always be connected through the spaces between the words that attempt to narrate a unique world we all lived in.
Note: If you are interested to have your story be featured in AramcoExpats, please contact me at [email protected].
Anushka is a Graduate Student at Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Her family moved to Saudi Aramco in 2006, and she has spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, religion, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the third culture kid experience. In her free time, she enjoys photography, staying active, and exploring cafés. Dhahran holds a big place in her heart.