Repatriating During Covid-19

The binding truth that ties the entire Aramco family together is the ephemeral, transitory periods of our lives that we spend in the cookie-cutter homes, basking under the hot desert sun.

Some of us are born here, some move as children, and some as teenagers, and some of us even find our way back here as adults. Each and every one of us has a unique footprint in these camps of Dhahran, Ras Tanura, Udhailiyah, and Abqaiq.

During our tenures here, our entire relational world changed, and long distance became the reality for our families.

Whether it’s grandparents back home, or kids leaving for boarding school and college, separation has always been a hallmark of the Aramco identity. When it is time to leave for good, we begin to audit our homes and wonder what to take back and what to sell. Garage sales and the Facebook Sandbox page are reflective of the fleeting reality that cusps the Aramcon identity. To put it together, goodbyes are hard enough. Moving requires emotional and physical labor and that is a cornerstone of the expatriate life.

Thus, when you add coronavirus to the mixture to parting ways, the pandemic behaves like an accelerator to many of the conflicting emotions we experience, hovering around mainly our sense of loss, and uncertainty around a move.

Wavering between fear and hope, those leaving their tenure from Aramco, feel stuck between what was and what will be.

What is has become a moving ground, scattered and confusing. My parents, and others who are repatriating back to their home countries from Aramco, are caught in this liminal space — and there is a vast amount of unanswered questions in this space.

With borders closed, social distancing and curfews, and no certainty to when “normal” will return, moving can be a challenging feat.

It is no mystery that there is a lot of collective suffering happening right now, both inside the web of our hearts, and outside in the physical world.

From observing my personal grief that stems from a lack of closure, and nostalgic days of being together with my family and friends in Dhahran, I understood that we are in a space where the duality of hope and grief operate together. Mourning the loss of normalcy of our old lives during repatriation is quite normal. But so is hoping for a future where we honor simple gestures like hugs and affection that won’t be weaponized anymore.

Without coronavirus in the picture, there would definitely be more elements of hopefulness on the canvas we are painting, but suddenly there are colors on the painting we never asked for. How, then, in the midst of our departure, can we still create a picture for the future that looks beautiful?

There are a few things we have to acknowledge in order to move forward:

  • We have to acknowledge that goodbyes won’t look the same anymore, a warm embrace of a hug won’t be part of the goodbye ritual. But we can still continue to be there for our family and friends through responsiveness, thoughtfulness, humor, and composure.
  • We have to acknowledge that nostalgia can comfort us on the days where we long for what was. Grief can be reflective of our happiness; sometimes we experience longing and sadness because we have known the beauty of intense happiness and togetherness.
  • We have to acknowledge that we are constantly taking steps forward and backward, sometimes in the span of hours. While staying put in the enclosed spaces of our homes can feel stifling, we have to realize that it expedites our future gain. A step backward through curfews and lockdowns will only make our step forward smoother and faster.
  • We have to acknowledge that this is a time where we are collectively grieving, for both tangible and ambiguous losses. But this is also a time where we can collectively rise and lift each other up from the negative emotions we feel. Text messages, video chats, handwritten letters, and gifts are some ways we can still show up for one another.
  • We have to acknowledge that digital technology has never been more pertinent. Maybe this will be the time to get more tech savvy and reconnect with those you haven’t talked to in a while and talk more frequently with those that matter to you. The quality of our relational world can help rebuild the bridge between feeling alone and connected.

Expatriate life comes with its legacy of creating beautiful lives, with the caveat of goodbyes and departures. With the pandemic in the midst of those trying to repatriate and recreate, the challenge is another layer deeper. But this challenge presents an opportunity for everyone to execute their humanity. In the personal realm, it is an opportunity to show compassion to ourselves and others. In our professional realms, it is an opportunity for companies to extend understanding and support, especially for higher-risk employees who have to undergo an international move.

As I write this, many questions come to mind, questions I, nor even international authorities have definitive answers to. In these moments of doubt, I find it useful to stay hopeful. Hope isn’t always an emotion, sometimes it is a plan — vague figments of a future that doesn’t look as foggy.

This challenge has shown the best and worst of us, and for some of us, the best and worst manifest at the same time.

Looking for positivity during a crisis isn’t beneficial, it is survival. It doesn’t negate the tough emotions we feel, whatsoever. Grief and longing will be a part of the picture, but it can be balanced by hope and renewal. That is how we can strive to stay afloat, to tip the balance in our favor a little more.

While it is true that the lack of closure can feel abrupt, I take comfort in knowing that my time in Dhahran is something I will never forget. The memories of family, friends, activities, cultural growth — it is something that will always be a part of my footprint.

As I close this article, I would also like to give my parents a remark.

Mom and Dad: thank you for everything that you have done for me and my brother. Through sacrifice, compassion, and unconditional love, you have given me abundant emblems to smile back on. Thank you for accepting the job offer to come to Dhahran and creating years of wonderful memories on Safaniya Drive. I can imagine the hardships that you face while packing up your lives and our home during a pandemic, but always remember that you are both stronger than the times that are testing us. There are not enough words to note how thankful I am for you both.

To everyone reading this, if you miss home, remember that Aramco will always be a part of your footprint, and there will always be someone in some corner of the world who feels the exact same way you do.

Our lives are full of contradictions, they always have been. Between fear and hope, anxiety and reassurance, and moving backward and forward, we can find the strength for renewal, and honor what was, and what will be.

That’s the cornerstone of ExPat life, even when we are apart, we are together in emotions we encounter.

Repatriating During Covid-19

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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.