Trip to the desert with kids I met from orientation in Houston, TX 1978.
ExPat life in the Aramco communities is full of contradictions — within all the complexities that surrounded us, from geopolitical turmoil to the rules and regulations that we had to abide by, life was abundantly simple. That was our creed. We created homes out of cookie-cutter houses with sunlit drives and held in common these fleeting experiences.
The joy of waking up to a dining hall breakfast, driving by Rolling Hills Boulevard, visiting the souks, eating cheese bread and zaatar all the while enveloped in sunshine and palm trees -- it all evokes glimmers of nostalgia and brings a smile to my face.
1979 Row House Common Area
Desert Dune, 1979
And these simple joys are made more enjoyable when you can share them with others and find a little home in other's stories. Last week, I had the chance to talk to Kevin Overholt, an Aramco brat who lived in Abqaiq from 1978-1983. This piece entails his unique experience in this fairytale bubble we call home. From his journey to the Kingdom and life in Mansour Camp to his fondest memories and the ironies of ExPat life, Kevin paints a colorful picture of his childhood and adolescent years in Saudi Arabia.
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When did your family move to Saudi Arabia?
My father took a job as a contractor for Aramco in 1977 and was brought on full time in the summer of 1978. As a 10-year-old child, taking in the fact that you were moving to another country, let alone leaving everyone and everything behind, was scary and exciting all at the same time.
We arrived in Houston for orientation a couple of weeks before making the final trip to KSA. If memory serves, this is where the true "Aramco Brat" expat lifestyle ensued. We were pampered with fun from the get-go. We took a trip to the Galleria to ice skate, visited the Astrodome and a few other sites as well, while my mother and father had to go learn about the do's and don'ts of living in Arabia. My younger brother, Chris Overholt (DH ‘90) 3, went to daycare while I had fun!
What were your initial feelings after landing?
Making the arduous flight direct to Dhahran was not super exciting once you are 8 hours in only to be told that you have 3 to 4 more hours to go. Arriving at the airport for the first time was an absolute culture shock at its finest. I recall the look of relief on my mother’s face once she saw our stateside friend as we made our way through customs. Three other flights had also just arrived. We were told that if we didn’t have the chalk mark on our bags we would have to go back in line to be checked. I remember asking Mom why the ladies in black headdresses were making a strange noise at my brother and me.
Exhausted, excited and relieved was the feeling we all shared, only to get in a car to make the dreaded drive on the old Abqaiq/Dhahran highway. I recall shirts being made stating “I SURVIVED THE ABQAIQ-DHAHRAN HIGHWAY” years later.
Front of Monsour House, 1978
Monsour House, 1978
Monsour House Dining Room, 1978
Bedroom in Monsour House
Abqaiq School Bus from Monsour to Main Camp, 1978.
We arrived in Monsour camp later that evening where I recall the excitement on my brother's and my face only to see it turn to sheer terror when we saw the water bugs and roaches climbing on the curtains in the rooms that were to be ours in our temporary house. Later, Mom devised an ingenious plan to keep them at bay by placing canned goods over the drains to prevent them from getting into the house. That first year in Saudi really put things into perspective for me. Even today, I try my very best to stay humble and not take anything for granted.
Trips to the fill station to get our drinking water were also completely out of the norm. I didn’t understand the part of turning on the water where we had only raw water which we were not supposed to drink; again, odd for a 10 to 11-year-old! Who would have thought that these simple things one could potentially take for granted could possibly have, in a very productive way, shaped me into the person I am today? I recall years later explaining to friends that these things took place in the 20th-century, and, yes, I witnessed them first-hand.
As much as a privileged lifestyle Aramco provided, I find it ironic how the simple things one would have had stateside weren't as present in those first few years. It was an extremely minimalistic lifestyle in the beginning. So blatantly simple that I think it made me miss home that much more. But as always, friends played a major role in alleviating my feelings of loss and separation which eventually faded as I grew older.
What was Monsour Camp like?
Our camp pool, sports, the introduction to soccer and slumber parties with childhood friends at Monsour all rounded out our first year and some change in the KSA. Trips to the skateboard park in main camp were part of the norm, along with going to Medina for that amazing chicken with freshly baked bread street-side.
Medina Street, 1979
Mosque in Medina, 1979
Abqaiq Commissary, 1979
Zain Train, Abqaiq 1979.
Abqaiq Refinery, 1979
Medina was a small -- mixed paved and sand street -- town just down the road from Monsour camp and the main Abqaiq camp where we would shop at the souk for things like fresh produce and cassette tapes. Everything for sale was on the barter system. It was here that you could maintain some sense of reality as you were outside of the Aramco shell and could learn more about the culture, food and Saudi society.
Quarrayah Beach, 1978 or 1979
Trips to Hofuf, Khobar, and Dammam were amazing to me. The amount of history, ideology, tradition and ultimately religion was incredible; the memories prolific for me now. I find it hard to find the words to describe it. Qurayyah beach and being so near to the Persian Gulf were outstanding! Learning to dive and snorkel...getting familiar with the ocean will forever be in my soul!
15th Street Duplex Backyard, Abqaiq 1979
Kelly and Kevin riding with their fathers.
What were some of your fondest memories of your time there?
Our time in main camp, circa 1979, holds some of my fondest memories as our secondary house on 15th Street had a huge tree in the back yard of the duplex we occupied. Dad hooked us up with a rope swing and there was a large playground down the alleyway at Jason’s park ( not a place). We were within walking distance to school where, in 6th grade, I was introduced to two of my most cherished friends to this day - Kelly Eldridge (AB ‘83) and Mark Coleman (AB ‘84). A time when we all got our first motorcycles and where we had our very own riding track and access to the desert to ride. That freedom of basically having your own giant playground to ride in was of the utmost!
Mark, Kelly, Troy, Kevin
Lenexa BBQ 2017
I met Mark in Monsour and Kelly in main camp while he was riding his motorcycle in camp on his way to the track. He still claims to this day that the only reason he didn’t stop was that he didn’t know how. I remain very close friends with Mark and Kelly. As adults, we have met up dozens of times. Mark lives within an hour of me and Kelly is in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I find it amazing that I have remained brothers with these two friends over a span of more than 40 years. Regardless of how long it’s been or how far we live from one another, we always manage to pick up right where we left off...like so many “Brat” friends!
Christmas and Halloween
Our first shipment being delivered to the house on 15th Street and it being like Christmas, is also a very fond memory. Receiving your toys and personal items from the US meant the world to me at that time.
Bringing up Christmas floods my memory with our first Halloween in Monsour where we were very limited in the costume department but Mom came through with flying colors and made me into a bum with some of Dad's work clothes, some pillows for stuffing, and make-up. Our first Christmas was rough, as I think all of us longed for home and family. Both sides of my family were extremely close-knit and from a particularly strong Christian faith. These characteristics also formed incredible ironies as it pertained to being in a country with strict religious influence. You had to hold back some of these beliefs and be mindful of what you shared.
Kevin, Lisa and Kelly. Abqaiq, circa 1986
Entering junior high school meant a lot. Here I met another life-long brat friend, Lisa Shearon (AB ‘83). It was also my first experience with the cliques and other teenage struggles. Even the bubble “Disneyland lifestyle” we all had didn’t protect you from it. From this point on, throughout my teenage years money didn’t seem real, or at least not as tangible as it does now as an adult. The two to three years that I spent in new Aramco housing starting in ‘81 coincided with the excitement and fear of another kind...boarding school and the discussions within the house with my folks, recruiters from the stateside schools, etc. …
As a parent, I can only imagine the feelings that my parents must have encountered, along with the questions such as...Do we stay and allow this wonderful new life of new countries, culture, cuisine, travel and money interrupt our family? I can honestly say that as difficult as it was to leave my parents and younger brother, I would not be who I am today without those life challenges. I often recall thinking -- why couldn’t I just go back and live with family in Kansas, have a job and go to a normal high school? This bled into my early adult life while trying to finish college, get engaged and eventually married to my wife. While the bubble of protection was always present while in the KSA, I was no longer there. I was now on my own and had to face the real world that I was living in. Being away at school in Vermont then coming back to KSA as a returning student were some of the best parts of travel...returning to Abqaiq and then to Dhahran, as my parents were moved to Dhahran when my father took a job in the drilling department.
Dhahran House, 1999
An interesting dynamic was going to school in the US, which I started doing in ‘83, then going back to KSA and reconnecting with some of the same friends and making new ones as people mature. I remember feeling all grown up, but in actuality, I was very naive to the responsibilities of the real world, especially after graduating from high school in 1986 from St. Johnsbury Academy, in St. Johnsbury, VT. Being a young adult, trying to find my way in the world and going through the motions of a job, college, relationships and helping my folks while they were still in KSA, meant a lot more responsibility than I was really ready for.
Contrast of ExPat Life
I in no way want to bring up any ill will or harp on the past, but the luxuries of what the ExPat life provided compounded some difficulties in trying to become a responsible adult. I now use this perspective to keep things in check and remind myself that without any of it, who knows what I would have become. I state this not in arrogance, just honestly, humbly and mostly in the appreciation of my blessed life! The things I got to witness and encounter while traveling the world and living in the KSA as an “Aramcon” was as pure an education as one could ask for.
Kevin and Mark, Overland Park, Kansas, 1993
What are some things you miss about your life in Saudi?
One of the things I miss most is traveling as a returning student. Twice a year I would make the 30-plus hour journey back to the folks in KSA. Those travels throughout Europe, to and from, with friends and family, and as a teenager, will always have a special place in my mind and in my heart! Among the memories that are more vivid than others are my last trips in ‘90 or ‘91, one with my grandmother, where I got to fly with her on her first plane ride. We had a stay over in London, then onto Dhahran for the Christmas and New Year holidays with my folks. Then there was my last trip. I would have loved to take my now-wife along. We hadn't thought to get a visitor visa so we could visit one last time before my mom and dad retired in ‘99 -- after 23 years! They ended up coming back to the Kansas City area where they had built their retirement home near my brother and me.
One of the things that keeps my immediate bond with my parents and brother strong is our experience in the KSA. The hardships of being apart have always kept us tight. Not many people understand this dynamic, but most expats do.
My friends from my expat/brat life are my best and truest. If I ever need a sanity check, I can always count on these people in my life to keep me honest. I often wonder what it would be like to travel back to KSA. I plan to take my wife to Europe sometime but find it hard to want to fly that much when there is so much within the US that I want to see and travel to and haven’t. Maybe that is it in a nutshell -- the travel -- does it really make you worldly or just hungry for more?
One of the most beautiful things about social media for me is the ability to reconnect and stay connected with all these folks that experienced the expat/brat life. Although there is still a part of me that resists some of the nonsensical parts of this fairytale upbringing and the phony parts of some of the persona’s you encounter. I have witnessed folks being so stuck in that mentality that it appears that is all they know and ultimately struggle with how to conduct themselves outside the Aramco bubble!
How do you respond to the question, “where are you from?”
I say I’m from Kansas but I grew up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I still get this today; you can speak some Arabic? Yes, I had to take Arabic in school while in-country. I usually respond to this type of questioning fondly, however, I usually chuckle and internalize that most folks, when I squawk about my childhood, really don’t have a clue.
Again, anyone who witnessed the “ExPat/Brat” life and challenges, totally gets it! For those who are interested, it makes for some great conversation. But for those that view this banter as me being a braggart, it usually ends up in a quick discussion without much content.
In closing, I hope that my thoughts and memories of this small excerpt from my life growing up in the KSA have provided some context to be an ExPat! It is not meant to offend or provide any sort of zeal or animosity.
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Regardless of the different periods of our tenure in the Aramco communities, there is always some similarity to be found. That’s the keystone lesson that ExPat life taught me. In life, irrespective of the differences we bring, there is something to be shared, something we all have in common. Maybe it’s a similar childhood. Maybe it’s the way we see the world. Maybe it’s the way we drink our coffee.
When we find commonalities over differences, we unite rather than divide.
Through my conversation with Kevin, I found myself relating to so many little intricacies of his experience — the ability to relate to someone on little thoughts is a very special bond that ExPats will truly understand.
Writing about our personal journey and stories can be intimidating, but I truly believe that when we share, we grow. We learn from each other’s memories and shared experiences. It brings to light the submerged feelings we have within us.
I am so grateful to share Kevin’s story, as well as those I interviewed in recent months. And I would love to hear from more of you and share your story. Please reach out to me at [email protected] if you are interested.
Anushka is a Graduate Student at Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She 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. Dhahran holds a big place in her heart.