Why a Sudden Departure from Home is a Big Hairy Deal

January 30, 2011

I watch the events in Egypt unfold, my thoughts are with the thousands of expat children and families who are living in Egypt as well as their Egyptian friends and playmates. Maybe others are thinking about the political implications of this open rebellion, but I’m thinking about the many families who may be ordered to leave quickly to other safe havens experiencing a sudden departure from home.Photography of Airplane during Sunrise

The scenario will unfold differently, depending on the family’s employer or sponsor. Some students who are dependents of diplomatic personnel may be advised or ordered to leave as soon as possible. Others families may be given the option and will have to make the difficult decision about if or when they leave, and if they should go together or separately. Single parents have their own unique concerns, too. And still others will stay put no matter what. But one thing is certain. Life has changed, no matter which scenario fits the bill.

Earlier in my career, I worked with many families who were evacuated from dangerous situations overseas, and I wrote papers and spoke to groups at conferences about contingency planning for families. My own family also experienced an evacuation under unique circumstances I won’t go into in this blog. Here are the 12 most important things I learned from those various experiences.

1. This is a stressful time for the family. If dependents leave, then chances are the employee is going to be left behind to do a job. That means that families will be separated under duress. Children and teens are going to be worried about parents, pets, caretakers, school friends, teachers, and anyone else who was a part of their world.

2. Evacuations are emotional roller coaster rides. No one knows for sure how long the situation will last – will they be away from “home” for a few weeks? months? what if they never get to go back? So that uncertainty is very taxing on the family’s emotions. A family should talk about how it will stay in touch throughout the separation, and reassure children as best as possible that loved ones  left behind will be protected and safe.

3. Some children and adolescents may not ever get to go back, or “home” again. Maybe the assignment was going to end at the end of the school year anyway, and the evacuation won’t be over before then. Maybe the job that took the family overseas will be eliminated as a result of the turmoil. This means that there could be a horrible sense of loss without proper closure. There won’t be any goodbye parties, or chances to do things “one last time”. This is a loss, and a form of grief may come out of it. It is important that this loss and grief be acknowledged.

Man Sitting On Concrete Bench4. For students who are about to graduate from high school, this is especially upsetting. Not knowing how long they will be separated from friends is terrible. Not being able to do all those things together as a senior class is terrible. Not  graduating with their class is terrible. Not being able to finish out their classes, and take the final IB or AP tests is terrible. I’ve seen this happen before, and even seen kids be angry with their parents about it, when it’s not even close to being the parents’ fault. Hey, that anger has to go somewhere….

5. There are going to be kids left behind, too. So yes, some kids may leave suddenly. But other kids won’t, and they’re going to feel bereft over the loss of friends, too. All of a sudden, it may feel like they are left behind in a ghost town. It may seem a bit surreal. Parents, caretakers, teachers, counselors, etc, all need to be sensitive to their needs, too. They are going to be in need of extra consolation, empathy, and understanding.

6. In times of stress, people sometimes forget to take good care of themselves. Caretakers need to take care of themselves so that they can take care of others. Teens as well as children respond to routines, structure, and reassurance that together as a family, everyone will get through this. Remember, too, that eating well, sleeping regularly, and exercising are all common sense stress management techniques.

7. Younger children may find the news especially disturbing. It’s easy for adults to stay riveted to the television or other media sources to watch the breaking news. But adults should monitor the amount of media children are exposed to, listen to their concerns or ask them for a reaction if they aren’t sharing any. Parents also need to reassure children and teens that they are there to keep them safe. Do not be surprised if children and/or teens experience some regression, anger, withdrawal, aggression, crying, sadness, or other changes in behavior. Just as adults are affected by stress, I have also seen some children and teens become physically sick from it.

8. Parents, remember that you still set the tone for the family. It’s important to be honest about events with children and teens, but always in ways that are age-appropriate. If you can remain calm and reassuring, your children will pick up on your cues. If you are a nervous wreck, then your children can become the canary in the mine, reflecting the stress that they feel from you. Therefore, make the way you deal with your own stress a priority.

9. If you have to leave, have a plan for where to go. No one knows how long an evacuation may last. It’s best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That means finding a safe haven that will be a temporary home. Factors to consider are where the family might receive emotional support. Selective Focus Photography of Red Door on the situation, it might be prudent to enroll the kids in school. If they need to be re-enrolled in school, then the system and classes need to be compatible with the curriculum the students were following before the evacuation. Kids who have learning difficulties may need extra tutoring to substitute for services they were receiving. High school kids may have online learning options from their school overseas, but they may not. They need to say current, though, so that they don’t fall behind. For kids with college plans, it’s important that they stay on track as much as possible.

10. Remember to take important documents with you. That includes school records, birth certificates, immunization records, marriageBlack Twist Pen on Notebookcertificates, church records of baptisms, etc, for some denominations, legal records, and financial information. Make sure that banking details for how you will handle money have been worked out, and hopefully, a power(s) of attorney has/have already been prepared to allow one spouse to act in all legal and financial matters without the other.

11.  Not all Powers of Attorney forms work in all situations. It’s best to check. I’ve personally had problems with banking and insurance institutions when the companies wanted THEIR PoA executed and would not accept the PoA I presented. Getting new ones is not easy to do in the middle of a crisis, and I found some of these institutions showed no flexibility.

12. Find some sense of control in a situation that is beyond your control. One of the biggest contributors to stress is feeling the loss of control over your life. Allow kids to provide some age-appropriate input for some decisions. Maybe that means what’s for dinner, or what personal belongings to take, or how they will decorate their room. Older kids may want to start planning a summer reunion with best friends so that they know they will meet again. Structure and routines also help to give the family a sense of order and control in the middle of chaos.

Lastly, and I’m not going to number this 13 for obvious reasons, I advise that the family remembers to pack their sense of humor and sense of fun. Forced evacuations or separations are difficult situations. No one understands it unless they have been through it. But make fun a priority, and find the humor in even hopeless situations. Trust me, it will ease the pain.

This crisis in Egypt has affected me personally as well. I had planned to go to Cairo in two weeks to talk about Third Culture and Cross Cultural Kids in the international school context at the Cairo American College. Under the circumstances, we have had to cancel the event, and I am personally disappointed. But my thoughts are with all the people I did not get to meet. I’m thinking of how these events will affect their personal lives. No matter what side of the prism you are on, any sudden upheaval in a community’s daily life is a big, hairy deal.

I invite anyone who has experienced an evacuation, or is currently caught up in this crisis, to please post a comment. Those who have experienced an evacuation have wisdom to share that can help others. And to those who need wisdom, please pose your questions.

My thoughts are with you all.

27 Responses to “Why a Sudden Departure from Home is a Big Hairy Deal”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca Grappo, Rebecca Grappo. Rebecca Grappo said: #Egypt #TCKs Why evacuations with children are a big deal. Pls share w/ families in Egypt. […]

  2. Spainbitch says:

    Friends of ours quit Athens for a while last year when things got hairy. One of the hardest questions they had to answer from their kids was ‘if it’s not safe for US to remain here just now, how about [our Greek friends]?’ Kids can’t ruthlessly divide them and us or get into the survival mindset the way adults just have to sometimes.

  3. Administrator says:

    That’s such a tough question for parents to answer. When kids ask, “If we have to leave because it’s not safe, then why should we believe you when you say that our parents, caretakers, friends, etc. will be safe?” There is no easy answer for this, of course. But one possible answer is that the parent that has a job to do will be able to do it better if they don’t have to also worry about the family at home. And families often are “out and about” in the local life more than the employee since they have to shop, go to school, the doctor, activities, etc. Believe me, I don’t have the magic answer, either!

    Do you know how these parents answered their child?

  4. Sandy Furth says:

    While teaching at The International School of Kuala Lumpur in the midst of an environmental disaster, I left with my two children. It was strongly advised that children and adults with respiratory ailments leave until the air cleared. And, so we did. While not a situation like Egypt, we were fortunate in that sense. So fortunate for us, that The American School in Japan allowed us to take temporary classes while waiting out the haze. The international schools are compassionate in this manner and are no doubt in discussion with one another during this crisis.

  5. Administrator says:

    I remember those fires. That was a terrible time. Evacuations can happen for a variety of reasons, not just political unrest. They can also be provoked by natural disasters, pandemics (think SARS and Swine flu), or by a family’s private medical crisis. It’s good to think through what the family might do if ever confronted with such a situation.

  6. Lori McGlone says:

    Wow, Becky. This is such an interesting and well put take on this crisis. We are not getting this perspective through the media-I suppose there are too many other parts of the story to report right now. But I, for one, am thankful that you are able put this information out there for families!

  7. Administrator says:

    One thing that inspired me to write this was hearing CNN’s Ben Wedeman talking on CNN about the crisis and his own family. I thought about other families I was in touch with, especially since I was planning this two-day workshop at the American school in Cairo. I thought that it was important to provide some guidance for families that might find themselves caught up in a crisis as well as help others understand what kids and families have to go through. Expat life is not always easy or glamorous!

  8. Judy says:

    Fortunately we’ve never been evacuated, although we have lived in some hotspots and had contingency plans in place. They were always simply logistical, so your checklist has many valuable additions which are frequently overlooked.

    Hope you make it to CAC eventually. It’s an excellent school and my son has good memories of it. We are glued to the TV right now watching the situation unfold.

  9. FutureExpat says:

    Excellent post! So often when we see big headlines we forget the human cost of what’s going on. Thanks for the reminder and the lesson in sensitivity.

  10. Administrator says:

    Thanks, Judy. I hope that this trip is just “postponed” and not canceled.

  11. Rebecca Martin says:

    Our family was evacuated from Saigon in April, 1975. My mother flew out with the three of us children, while my father stayed on. We all met in Bangkok and ended up spending almost 10 months there, not sure whether there would be a reassignment, or whether things in Vietnam would settle. My parents did the best they could, but I wish they had had the kind of counsel and clarity you’re offering. The repercussions are felt many years later.

  12. Administrator says:

    Wow. That was such a well-known time in history. I appreciate your comments, and I hope that others can learn from our experiences so that they have an easier time of it.

  13. […] Grappo is the founder of RNG International Educational Consultants and has helped thousands of expats manage difficult situations — including helping families […]

  14. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susanna Perkins and Lexia Emerenciana, Nicola McCall. Nicola McCall said: RT @FutureExpat: What's happening to #expat families in Egypt right now? […]

  15. J B Jones says:

    Mt Pinatubo, Bangledash Tsunami and Tienaman Square – neither of which would I wish on any one again but I was part of both of these on the military support side out of country. My son & I shagged bags coming off the evacuation planes. My wife and daughter handled babies, children, new clothes and connecting evacuees to showers and nap places.
    For anyone living there needs to be contingency plans – California wildfires, River floods, tornadoes, hurricanes – we all must think about what we would do if something happens. I lived most of my life with a briefcase behind the front door filled with papers we could restart our lives if evacuated for any reason. My children still have a handle on their lives in that same manner – knowing how to restart a life after a catastrophe.
    Thoughts and prayers for all involved looking for a solution with the least amount of turmoil in the final outcome.

  16. Administrator says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your valuable experience. I totally agree with you – we need to be ready for anything. Anything can happen anywhere, anytime. It could also be a medical emergency, or other catastrophic event. Remember how after 9/11 everyone starting thinking about this? We need reminders – my own family included.

  17. Mary Mimouna says:

    This is one of the best posts I have seen, especially on the issues that affect students.

  18. Administrator says:

    Thank you, Mary. I don’t think that people think about the impact these events have on kids – unless your family is caught up in it, too.

  19. Becky says:

    So many great comments here. I hope people dealing with this now have the time to read through what is here. The resources on the State Department website were helpful to us too.

    I never realized how much money we’d need upfront. You need a good cash stash or credit line. Thankfully, we were fine.

    A lot of people thought we were nuts to be evac ready but you just never know. It seemed like overkill until we needed to leave. We still have a bag of important papers and stuff too (like the comment above), just in case.

    Our kids had a hard time with Dad being left behind. I agree that explaining that he had a job to do helped. What didn’t help was well meaning people talking about the violence in front of the kids. I know they just wanted to show they cared and that they were paying attention to what was going on. It made it harder on the kids though. Where someone else saw,”news story,” my kids only saw Dad. As an adult I did need to talk about what was going on. So these folks weren’t wrong on that at all. It was just bad timing if the kids were there. The kids needed to know what was going on generally and that Dad was going to be okay. And then they needed to be done talking about it, till they brought it up again themselves.

    I don’t think we ever found a good response for what might happen to their friends left behind. We just prayed for all of them.

    I think coming back from an evac is a whole other question that I have not seen addressed much. It is hard to feel at home again and feel okay again if you left during unrest that might flare up again.

  20. Administrator says:

    Becky, I truly appreciate your comments. I understand, too, how hard it is when other well-meaning adults talk about things in front of the kids. I remember a story once of a little boy who became so sad and depressed and the parents couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally they got it out of him that he had overheard that children were dying in the country where they were going to move, and therefore in his little mind, he thought he was going to die, too. So we can imagine how kids can let their imaginations take them places that are very upsetting to them.

    Also, you are right – sometimes families go back, and there is a nagging uncertainty about whether or not the situation really is under control again. My husband was assigned to a post like that, and I wouldn’t take our teenage kids there under those circumstances. And sure enough, it was evacuated again and that time the post remained without families for years. Our oldest daughter took a semester off from college to be with her dad, and she became an evacuee.

    These are all very upsetting experiences, and often very lonely ones. I am so pleased that so many people have responded to this blog. The more people share, the more we can help one another.

  21. Laura says:

    What a great post and important topic. My 2 kids (ages 10 and 7) and I were evacuated in 2009 from Madagascar due to political unrest, while my husband remained at post. The most difficult part of the evacuation (besides the separation) was the ‘unknown’. We had no idea how long it would be for or how long we would be separated, or if we would ever go back. It affected each of us in a different way as well. It was particularly difficult emotionally on my 7 year old daughter. She was angry and emotional for weeks. The situation was completely out of her control and difficult to understand as well. This affected her school work dramatically. For my son, however, he said, “Mom, let’s look at this as an adventure or a long vacation!” He had a fabulous attitude and I think his attitude really helped me cope as well.

    I firmly believe that we coped fairly well during the evacuation because of the support around us, we stayed connected and close with other ‘evacuees’. We kept each other’s spirits high, had parties, coffees, or just took walks together. We understood each other and what we were going through. The kids loved being with familiar faces and friends from “home”. Many of us stayed in the D.C. area, but for those who weren’t close geographically, post had established a gmail group to keep in touch with each other and post. Last, but not least, was the wonderful FLO office who supported us in many different ways, from establishing video conferencing with post to just helping with basic logistics.
    An evacuation isn’t easy no matter who you are and can be a bit shocking. We did our best to continue our family traditions and rituals and took our lives one day at a time. Finding coping strategies that work for you and your family are key to riding out the evacuation. Good luck to all and my heart is with you.

  22. Administrator says:

    Laura, thank you for sharing your experiences here. I think that being with others who are in the same situation helps a lot. But as you noted, some children regress and/or react negatively, while in the same family one sees it as a great adventure. Perhaps dealing with children’s and teen’s reactions can be the subject of a future blog. I appreciate hearing your story.

  23. Jen says:

    I know what these families are going through. My family was recently evacuated from Monterrey, Mexico last September as it unexpectedly transitioned to an adults-only post one week into the school year. I think what made it particularly hard was that the evacuation rules weren’t made with Mexico in mind. They were literally being made up as we were evacuating. What I didn’t expect was the apathy I received regarding my decision to curtail. As a first tour FSO mother of 2 young children, a separation of unknown time (perhaps over a year) was not something I was prepared to handle. I had to send several write ups to people at the Embassy in Mexico City and to Washington revealing deeply personal reasons why I wanted to curtail. I vomitted daily from the stress of it all and I’d never felt so helpless in my entire life. It was incredibly hard to keep it together in front of my kids as they asked me why Mommy was going to send them away. If anyone’s looking for advice from me, it’s that you have to do what’s right for you. Forget what other people are doing and their opinions of what you should do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This isn’t something that can be managed alone and you’d be surprised on how many people are willing to help. Also, coming from somebody who’s been through it, just take it day by day – each day can bring small victories that signal an end is near.

  24. Ben @ ISR says:

    International Schools Review invites you to view our blog set up for international educators in Egypt and for educators currently seeking teaching positions in Egypt. You contributions to this blog will be well received and appreciated. Ben @ ISR

  25. Administrator says:

    Thank you, Ben. I will go to your blog now. I’m so glad to see that you are doing this for teachers who are in Egypt or thinking of going there.

  26. Sondra Williams says:

    Thanks so much for this great article! My son and I were evacuated from Cairo on Feb. 1st, where my husband is still currently working at the US Embassy. A contact in the Cairo embassy community passed this website on. Although my son is only preschool age, the info was very helpful, and I look forward to visiting your site again as we transition into school years. We’ll be headed to Kuwait in a few months—let me know if you’re making any trips to the Gulf to speak in the next few years.

  27. Administrator says:

    Thank you for reading and commenting, Sondra. I wish you all the best both during the evacuation and as you transition on to your next assignment. It’s not easy, is it? If I do speak in your part of the Gulf, I’ll be sure to let you know. I hope that one day we can meet in person – you just never know!

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