Kennesha Bell is an American living and working abroad in Qatar. She is entering her fifth year in Qatar and is happy that she decided to throw caution to the wind and live on optimism. Life without taking chances is normal and normal is boring, she says. Check out Kennesha's blog, American Teacher in Qatar, where she writes about teaching abroad and life in Qatar, including insights on the cost of living, the extensive visa and immigration process and taking the Doha metro, as well as her experience moving overseas with her two sons. Be sure to follow her on Twitter.
About Kennesha Bell
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: The United States.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Doha, Qatar.
Q: When did you move here?
A: In August 2016.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my two sons. Now my husband is here with me and we are empty-nesters, finally. LOL. But I do miss my boys.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I teach English to primary school-age children. I taught Grade One for the first three years abroad and now I am the Reading Specialist, which I absolutely love. I teach small groups of students who need extra help with reading. I moved to travel, experience different cultures and follow a dream.
Living in Qatar
Q: What do you enjoy most about Qatar? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the US?
A: I enjoy the sense of safety here and it is certainly a slower pace of living. My quality of life is different. I have more of an appreciation for other people, their cultures and our differences.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: I miss my family and friends most of all and all the things I did with them, but I also miss some freedoms that I took for granted. I miss the ease of getting things done and finding things. I miss East Coast Seafood; seafood tastes different in this part of the world.
I’ve had a few negative experiences, but these mostly have to do with adjusting. I’ve had to learn to be more patient than I ever was in the US and remember that I am an expat, not a citizen. Other than this, none of my negative experiences have been so bad that I felt the need to leave.
That is except for one. In my second year here, there was a blockade imposed on Qatar from neighbouring countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and a few others. This was scary as talk of war loomed over Qatar like a dark cloud. It was the first and only time I felt unsafe here. It became more difficult to travel and more expensive too. One of the reasons I came here was because of the ease of travel around the world from here and now it wasn’t so easy. But Qatar pressed on and became more independent as a result of the blockade. Now three years later, the blockade still exists, and I chose to stay. I still travel (even if it costs a little more) and I still feel very safe.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Stripping oneself of the Western mindset and stereotypes about Arab and Muslim people was the biggest culture shock of all. Occasionally in the US, you will see a woman completely garbed in black and covered in an abaya and a niqab or a simple hijab, and very often she is perceived in a negative or threatening way. While here, you see this every day. At first, I carried that Western mentality and was nervous when I saw it. Now, on occasion, I too wear an abaya. The majority of women here cover up and you are expected to respect the culture and dress modestly as well. I remember going back home to America after my first year here and shaking my head at women walking around half-naked, saying, “She needs to cover up.”
The gender separation was another culture shock. When men and women greet, they don’t touch either. This took a little time for me to get used to because I am a hugger. A lot of activities and places are gender-specific and most of the time men and women don’t mingle, e.g. at fitness centres and weddings, and with separate entrances. There are specific times to go to certain activities for men and women separately. There are even specific lines at stores designated just for women. That Western mentality that assumes that women are seen as less than men had to be adjusted. They are actually held high up.
Police presence is almost non-existent. I mean there are police here, but you don’t see them often and they don’t bother you. They are more like security guards. You see police very often in the States and you feel a sense of fear around them, especially as a black American, but not here.
How funerals are handled here is a mystery that you only find out about, unfortunately, when someone dies. This is a total culture shock and one day I will write about it in my blog but out of respect for my friend who lost a child, I will not expand on this here.
On a more personal level, it was difficult being without my husband for the first year and then being without my kids for the last two years. These are just a few examples of culture shock I’ve experienced here.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Qatar?
A: Some things are cheaper here than at home while other things are ridiculously expensive. Here are a few examples of things that are more expensive: housing, manicures and alcohol. Here are a few examples of things that are cheaper: petrol (gas), some take-away food and car washes.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Doha? What is your most memorable experience of using Doha’s transport system?
A: The public transport in this country includes the bus service and the brand new metro. The transport system is just starting to be built up in Qatar. I have only taken the bus and metro once, and they were both very clean, affordable and timely. Most people drive here.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Qatar? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: My healthcare is paid for by my employer. Mostly everything is free. Since the pandemic, the country has provided everyone with a Hamad card, which basically is government-provided health coverage. My experiences with doctors have been good. Thankfully, I haven’t had to go to the hospital. The biggest difference here is that you don’t really get a personal doctor; you go to a clinic.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Qatar?
A: There aren’t any safety issues here.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Doha? What different options are available for expats?
A: As an expat, more than likely, your employer will either put you up in employer-sponsored accommodation or give you a housing allowance. Your housing allowance amount may determine which area you can live in.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Depending on what you are looking for, there are many areas to choose from. I would recommend finding housing close to your job; driving here is a culture shock in itself. However, if you want to be close to where the action is (the parties), I recommend West Bay’s City Center Mall. If you want a higher quality of living, the Pearl is high end. If you want less expensive but still nice, Barwa City (that’s where I live) and Lusail. Even cheaper but close to a beach, Al Wakra (that’s where I lived last year).
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Doha?
A: This is a touchy subject. Personally, I have never experienced discrimination in Qatar, but there is some discrimination against certain groups of people. Where you are from plays a huge role.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Meeting and making friends is easy if you have an open mind. However, it is easier to make friends with other expats than with the locals. The locals are very private but if you are Muslim you may have an easier time making friends with them. I became friends with a few co-workers and others I met through social groups. There are several groups on Facebook that you can join, meet people and participate in various activities.
Working in Doha
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: My employer handled our visa process. There was a lot of work I had to do on the front end and that would take up this whole interview, but you can read about the process I went through on my blog.
Q: What is the economic climate in Doha like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The pay for a native English-speaking teacher is good. The best part is you don’t pay taxes or your housing. You don’t have to live pay check-to-pay check if you budget. I used Teachaway to get my job and had a very pleasant experience with them.
Q: How does the culture, specifically work culture, differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Doha or Qatar? What have you noticed as a teacher working in Qatar? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Children are children no matter where you are in the world and so are parents. Some children are invested, and some are not, same as parents. Except here, you see the nannies and drivers more than the parents. I never experienced that in America.
Arab women are generally modest and humble people. As an American, I wasn’t very humble when I first came here. I’ve changed. If you want to get anywhere in your career, you will adapt. Humility is a favourable characteristic to have.
As far as getting things done here, some things take forever, well at least it feels like forever. Things that I think should be simple are not. Policies change all the time with little to no notice, which makes getting information on how to get things done very difficult. That is one reason why I started my blog: to help people and give direction. Unfortunately, as I am writing this, the things I posted will probably be outdated and the process is probably different. I can laugh about this now but it really is not funny when you are trying to get things done.
Also, I feel the need to mention, don’t try to get anything done during Ramadan. Try not to get frustrated with business times. Things usually get done very early in the morning, from 6 to 10am, or late afternoon into evening, 4 to 10pm. The workweek is Sunday to Thursday unlike the US Monday to Friday. That takes some getting used to as well.
Family and children
Q: How has your spouse or partner adjusted to your new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a travelling spouse?
A: My husband is here to support me and no other reason. He came a year after I did, so I was a little more used to how things are; he had difficulty adjusting. He has been unable to land a job here and that is frustrating. He is in school now and hopeful. There are some other ‘house husbands’ here, as we call them, that he has connected with, but it can be very difficult for trailing spouses.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: This question is close to my heart because my boys are totally different and because of the experience I went through with them. As I mentioned, the first year was just me and my boys. My oldest was in the 11th grade and my youngest, 8th. My oldest is very easy-going and adjusts well to change. He loves school, travelling and pretty much everything I love. He enjoyed it here and made friends easily. My youngest, however, does not adjust well to change, hates school and pretty much anything that doesn’t have to do with gaming. He made a couple of friends but chose not to stay. He was miserable, so I granted his request to go back to the US to live with his dad. That was especially difficult for me.
At first, everyone was on board and excited for the move but in the end, that original excitement wore off. It didn’t matter how good our life was over here or how much we travelled, it wasn’t home to him and he wasn’t happy. I think that everyone should be happy, especially my kids, even if I disagree with them. So, before the first year even ended, he was back in America. My oldest son finished out the first year with me but then decided he wanted to complete his last year of high school at his old school in America and then go on to college at my alma mater. So, by year two, I was without my children.
This was a very difficult time for me, and I deliberated back and forth about returning, but in the end, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Not everyone may agree with my choice, but parenting looks different for every family and it was my choice to make. If I have learned anything about living overseas, it is this: just because something is different, it doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it different and different is okay.
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Doha?
A: My boys and I enjoyed going to the beach, jogging along the Corniche, bowling, watching camel racing and having brunch together. I also enjoy going ATV-riding over the sand dunes in the desert. The sunrises and sunsets are magnificent here.
The food is amazing...well, besides the seafood. There is so much variety from different parts of the world.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: There are American, British, Indian, Swiss, International and many other schools here. Depending on your preference, there is something for everyone.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Doha or Qatar?
A: Be flexible and patient. Get out there and explore. Your dream is your dream and not anyone else’s, so you shouldn’t expect everyone else to be excited about it. Fulfil your dreams and applaud yourself. Live your life, live your dreams, tomorrow is not promised.
►Interviewed July 2020