The follies and triumphs of one British family’s transition to Qatar.
There I was, sitting in a rather boring training session one morning in rainy, old Manchester, wondering how long it would be to coffee break when my phone buzzed and there was a text from my darling husband, ‘Do you want to live in Qatar?’
Of course, my text back was, ‘Where’s that?’ and the rest – as they say, is history.
An international company with offices in the Gulf wanted my husband to work for them in Doha; while certainly an exciting opportunity, were we ready for it as a family?
We all agreed we needed a change from the same old, same old at home in England. Our kids were 15 and 11 at the time, and frankly, it was disappointing to hear them framing their lives out as tiny little replicas of our own. What else was out there? What other options could we offer them?
Needless to say, six days later, we stepped off our Qatar Airways flight into a very pleasant, almost balmy Doha morning. We were met at the foot of the steps by the Maha ground staff and whisked into the VIP lounge to wait for our visitor visas.
Wow! This is the life, we thought.
That was three years and five months ago, and the interview visit we made in April 2008 was a huge success. Everything, from our upgraded hotel room to the annual family fun day at the Diplomatic Club, seemed to point to a destiny in Qatar.
But in hindsight, did we make the right decision?
With a little bit of luck
The time between our visit and our expected move date was a flurry of emails and phone calls. We did the research, took the company-appointed villa on a compound with other families working for the same company as my husband, and accepted the company car. Still though, we couldn’t find school places for the children.
Our first hurdle was raised; we couldn’t all move at the same time, but would this be a temporary setback we could cope with? Reluctantly, we made the decision to go ahead anyway, with my husband taking up his new post on August 2, and the children and I making trips from the UK to Doha during the school holidays.
I found solace in a forum for Doha.
‘This happens’, I was told in regard to the school space dilemma, ‘Things will start moving in the new school year; take heart, all will be well!’
So on August 13, the kids and I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac in Doha on what was to be our first family visit to Qatar. ‘C’mon you two, get a wriggle on. We need to get out of the heat of the aeroplane engines, quick!’
Actually, that wasn’t the heat from the engines, that was actually the heat of the day!
Day 2 of our visit saw dilemma number two; what do you do in Doha in August with two very reluctant teenagers? My husband had gone to work and needed the car, and the compound was like the set of one of those low-budget Western moviesT the place was deserted, and all that was missing was tumbleweeds rolling aimlessly around.
‘Help! I have teenagers!!’ was my post on the forum at 4am on August 14.
I explained the circumstances: no schools, just visiting. At 8.15am I had one reply, ‘I may be able to help.’
It turned out that the admissions bursar for one of the English curriculum schools in Doha had just returned from her trip home the day before. She’d opened her emails and found that a family had declined their much coveted Year 7 slot. A quick call around to all the families awaiting places had been fruitless. Nobody was around, and if we were quick, we could attend an interview with the head of secondary. By 2pm we had school places for both of the children, and we were staying.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Villagio Mall celebrating our good fortune, we were sure this was the start of the good life. Our problems were all over, our new life could begin!
Insha’Allah (if Allah wills it)
The first day of the term was also, by coincidence, the first day of Ramadan.
Our daughter had spent the past 11 days sobbing into her pillow. She didn’t want to live in Doha, she wanted to go home to the life she knew. All her friends were in the UK, we’d bought her new school uniform for the UK school she’d been expecting to attend. How could we do this to her?
The hair-raising trip to Zak’s, the school outfitters, on the night Ramadan began didn’t help. My husband had an important meeting he couldn’t get out of, and we were late leaving; we had 35 minutes to get to the shop, and we were on the wrong side of Decoration Roundabout. We made it in time, but oh dear me! Don’t they cater for tall children here?
We cobbled together a basic uniform as best we could, with the promise of more stock to come.
We didn’t quite understand the importance of the ‘Insha’Allah’ that followed this statement, but the vendor said it would be fine, ‘By this time next week, you’ll have the correct items, don’t worry!’
So, it’s 6.15am, it’s the first day of Ramadan, it’s 102°F (39°C) outside, and we’re sitting in the Doha traffic on the way to school – day one of the rest of our lives!
Day 1 of the rest of our lives, 2pm: I’m sitting in the Wholesale Traffic Department with my husband’s company representative, nervously fingering my passport and other documents, awaiting the arrival of the Qatari gentleman whose car I’d just hit.
Harriet and Josh are sitting outside in my car with the engine running, trying hard not to think about the cool box I’d brought along with ice-cold drinks and snacks inside (It’s Ramadan, Mum! We can’t eat or drink in public!)
So, with such a rocky start behind us, again, we ask ourselves – did we make the right decision?
You bet your life we did!
Easing into expat life
There’s something cathartic about moving continents with literally just the contents of a suitcase. Initially, all is new and different – the home, the cars, the friends. Life as an expat is good, not the easy life that everyone back home assumes you’re having, but nevertheless, it’s a good life.
By Day 4 of our new life, Harriet was on a sleepover with her new best friend, and Josh had a driver organised to take him to Villagio to meet some of his friends. I was sitting in Souk Waqif with my oh-so-slightly-less-xenophobic husband, eating Lebanese food and smoking Shisha!
The guy whose car I hit turned out to be the nicest Qatari man I’ve met so far (and trust me, they’re nice, nice people!) I now do some work for a company that helps new expats settle into their new lives in Doha. My aim is not to show them that they can survive but to show them that they can thrive and grow and really, really live here in this dusty, hot land!
My children are excelling here, and they mix in school and at home with people of all nationalities. Their school has families from 70 different countries, and the average class size is 22 (a number which decreases to 11 or 12 students as the children get into secondary school). In some lessons, my son gets almost one-on-one tuition from his teachers.
Best of all though, I have my kids back. I get to speak with them on the school run in the morning and again in the afternoon when I pick them up. Though it’s a forced situation because public transport is non-existent here, it’s a situation that few parents get the privilege of sharing with their teenage children.
Josh will probably go back to the UK to study for his degree, but his world extends far beyond the white cliffs of Dover now. He may work abroad or in the UK; we’ve opened his eyes, and the choice is now his.
Harriet is looking at university places in Australia or America; she has friends in both countries. She’s back in the UK at the moment, staying with her grandparents, and I just received a text: ‘Can’t wait to get back to Qatar’.
My son’s first experience of driving was in a V8 5.6-litre Jeep, and my daughter went skiing in Lebanon last April. ‘Text when you get to Beirut, so I know that you’re safe,’ was the last thing I said as she disappeared through the departure gate at Doha airport with her school friends.
I smiled when I was at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve, and she called upstairs, ‘Santa is just over Abu Dhabi now, so you’d better get to sleep or he won’t call here!’
We swim in the sea in December, BBQ our food outside in January and can’t decide where to spend Christmas this year, South Africa, Qatar or Australia; our contact list is international now.
Yes, the supermarket run can turn into more of a marathon – requiring visits to four different stores to get exactly what you need. Yes, driving can be a little challenging here, and yes, when you first arrive, it can be a big shock to the system. But everyone here is an expat. We’ve all made the move, and we’re all here to help newbies settle in and find their feet. The kids get absorbed into their friends’ lives very quickly, and the assimilation into expat life really can be very simple if you’re prepared to ask for help and accept that change isn’t always bad.
Life is good, in unexpected and wonderful ways, expat life is good! Just open your mind and leave your expectations behind!