Returning to Outback Australia from the Middle East
This story is very personal. Of course, as you will see at the end, I have asked the author for their permission to publish it on the website. It gives you a small taste of the types of queries we receive at Newcomers Network and shows you how we respond to them.
It proves that there is not just one simple solution for each newcomer, and that for some people, they cannot return to live permanently in a previous location. However, it really inspired me because Ilka has worked through what her own dreams and aspirations are and has managed to find a solution that suits her.
I trust you will enjoy reading this dialogue and of course you are welcome to contact us and discuss any concerns or issues that you may wish to share – confidentially of course. The only information removed from this text is Ilka’s home phone number and the personal details of James.
The Emotional Journey of Returning Home
I’ve just discovered your website and have spent the last hour distracted from my work, engrossed in your articles and stories. I am looking for some information I hope you can help me with.
I arrived back in Australia after nearly 7 years living in the Middle East, working as an archaeologist in Egypt and Jordan. It was the most challenging (good and bad) and rewarding time of my life, both professionally and personally.
I have read Sue Ellson‘s excellent article “Repatriation – techniques to overcome the challenges of returning to Australia” and I related to nearly all of it immediately.
It is the first time I have felt understood since I returned. I returned to Australia because after so long away I was homesick and worn out, and just needed to come home. Unfortunately, home was not the home I remember, and I came back to Melbourne (to do a PhD), not Brisbane (my home), which was a bit strange.
I have been experiencing all of the things Sue described – that everything I have learnt, the way I have changed and all the things I learned which helped me live overseas, and all the experiences I have had – are all seemingly worthless here.
I feel lost and like I don’t fit here any more – and sometimes I feel panicked about it all. When I came, I brought my partner with me – he is English but has spent all of his adult life living and working in Africa and Jordan, amongst nomadic peoples – his working language is Arabic and in his heart home is Egypt.
We have both experienced a lot of culture shock on returning – much more than I ever felt when I arrived in the Middle East (although it wasn’t easy there at first either).
We love Australia, it is a beautiful country and will always be home for me. Unfortunately, at this time in my life, it feels ‘tame’ and unfulfilling. For so long (although I didn’t realise it) I lived a life where I was challenged every single day – in good and bad ways – and now that is gone and I feel the loss.
Even the coping strategies I had developed for dealing with the negative challenges I now see were skills, which have no use or meaning here. For these and a multitude of reasons, we have decided to return (when we can) to the Middle East, but to keep a base here in Australia where we can keep all our belongings and where we can return for ‘time-out’ and a holiday every year.
In the meantime, we will enjoy Australia, see everything we can, and make the most of our experiences here. I’m sorry to take so long to get to my question – but it feels good to get some of that off my chest!
I would love to be able to communicate with others who have had similar experiences, in order to occasionally feel understood.
Do you have any ideas on how I might find other repatriates who have lived in Egypt or Jordan?
Unfortunately, at the moment I am living in the Outback of northern Queensland, which is great for us to get our regularly needed fix of deserts, but I doubt there would be people I could meet with in person. (My partner is also upset that he is not able to continue using his Arabic, and is worried he may forget it, and I’m sure would love an Arabic speaking contact).
Anyway, any tips on where we find repatriates we could communicate with would be much appreciated.
Thanks again for your wonderful website,
Tips for Settling In After Moving Home
Hello Ilka ,
What a joy it is to receive your email.
Thank you for sharing your story with me and if you would like some portion of it published, let me know – I am certain you will strike a chord with many other readers!
It is particularly gratifying for me as the articles I have written are based on the many stories I have shared with various repatriates (I would not dream of ever returning to Adelaide to live!)
There is a wonderful man here in Melbourne James (Scottish) and his wife Malak I think (Egyptian) who would share many fascinating conversations with you – please contact them via email xxxx or phone xxxx
I understand that Australia ‘does not work for you’ in the way you expect and that perhaps, in your situation, the best thing is to return to the Middle East – but beware, you will once again face culture shock when you return.
I have found the most incredible strength and ability inside of people who move. In today’s globalised world, you are the remaining pioneers. You have the added combination of possibly being at that time in your life when you wish to make the most of every day – if you have a moment, consider reading this book www.navigatingmidlife.com by Robyn Vickers-Willis – midlife starts at 35, so I am already four years in!
You may also do well to hook up with groups of people who have worked in ‘unusual’ locations – AVI run various cultural workshops (I am meeting with them next week) www.australianvolunteers.com and they are great at connecting with other repatriates and may be able to connect you to some Queensland based repatriates.
You have also picked up another theme – the external environment. If this has ‘created’ your interest and your current lifestyle does not allow you to source internal options or the external environment is a bit ‘lame’ then it is natural to feel that you don’t fit.
It is easier to ‘speed up’ rather than to ‘slow down.’ All of my friends come from either different countries or interstate – I think that says something! I share similar values with these people and whilst I miss the familiarity of shared sayings and experiences, I thrive on the interaction with new and interesting stories.
Now, to connect with other Arabic speaking people in Queensland. Firstly you need to find the central point of the Arabic community – which you may find via the Multicultural Resources Directory http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/multicultural/registers/The_Queensland_Multicultural_Resource_Directory/
You can also contact your local council as they are usually aware of community leaders http://www.lgaq.asn.au and also the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland http://www.eccq.com.au.
Also do searches on ‘Arabic’ or ‘Egypt’ etc via the www.yellowpages.com.au and www.whitepages.com.au
Make a few phone calls too, that often helps – or even speak to lecturers at universities – they often have good referral networks. I encouraged Adrienne Farrelly to set up the Melbourne International Social Group (for expatriates AND repatriates) and most people enjoy this social environment and the opportunity to reflect on their experience every so often.
I would hasten to add that you also need to create new networks (not just other repatriates) as after the conversation about ‘life in Egypt’ is over – what else do you have in common? Perhaps you would like to put in a call to your local radio station (see if you can be on during the ‘talkback’ session). Or what about sourcing expat organisations in Egypt and Jordan (as you plan to go back there) and see if those people know anyone in Australia – for instance http://www.anzauae.org is in the UAE.
Finally, you may like to scan through the submissions to the Senate Enquiry into Australian Expatriates and see if the submitters are from Egypt or Jordan – bit of a ‘long bow’ but might be worth a go.
Perhaps even a post on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/
So there goes another hour!!!!
Thanks again for your email Ilka, lovely to hear from you! I will also send you some information on the Australian Arabic Council.
Comparing Cultures After Repatriation
Thank you so much for your support and the great tips and links to organisations – I will definitely chase them up. Thank you for taking the time to put all of that together for me.
I sometimes feel when I talk about all this that people may get the impression that I think less of Australia, when this couldn’t be less true. It’s one big source of conflict for me – I love Australia very much, my family are here, it’s my home (sort of!), and when I’m away I miss it desperately.
Unfortunately in my line of work (archaeology) there are just not the opportunities and experiences that I can access overseas. So if I stayed here, I’d be ‘settling’ professionally in order to enjoy the comfortable way of life in Australia. So I have to weigh up the benefits of life overseas with the benefits of life in Australia, and weigh both up against the not-inconsiderable challenges and difficulties of living overseas.
In the end, living and working in Africa and the Middle East comes out on top, but it doesn’t negate the yearnings I have for the other when I’m over there! I can’t really win – I’ll always be a foreigner over there, yet I don’t really fit at home anymore either.
Still, whenever I think over the wonderful experiences I’ve had, they were times that made me feel I was really living my life, not just being. As an archaeologist I can’t think of how to beat it.
In Egypt, working in the biggest tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, surveying the temples of Thebes at Luxor, excavating at a Roman harbour on the Red Sea coast (just north of Sudan), excavating Roman forts in the eastern desert of Egypt, and surveying miles and miles of underground aqueducts and Roman villages in the Kharga Oasis of the western desert.
Even on trips in our spare time, we often stumbled across previously unknown sites – temples, caves full of buried mummies with the trappings of their burial scattered around them, Roman houses still extant to two stories high. Camping in sand dunes, and exploring uninhabited oases.
In Jordan, I had wonderful cultural experiences, accompanying my partner when I wasn’t working, on his work. Visiting bedouin tribes, travelling through the desert from one bedouin tent to another, in Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed) and the Wadi Araba regions of Jordan.
Being a foreign woman, I was treated almost like an honorary male, so I could sit with my partner in the men’s side of the tent while he spoke business with the men and participated in their coffee-making and drinking.
But invariably, the women would peek their faces from behind the partition to the harem side of the tent and beckon for me to join them. They would talk to me, ask me millions of questions about my world, and show me how they made bread, milk and cheese, drank sweet tea with me.
Then of course, there are the experiences and challenges of living in a huge city like Cairo (18 million people), bustling and heaving with noise, movement, smells, heat, dirt, constantly trying to improve my Arabic, dealing with the issues of being a woman in a muslim society….but also, travelling to work along the Nile with glimpses of the pyramids in the mists on the other side.
The positives and negatives seem to cancel each other out sometimes, so that I don’t make the decision to go back without reservations. But when I think on those precious professional and cultural experiences, those reservations seem irrelevant in the end. Definitely not worth staying in Australia just because it would make life ‘easier’.
I don’t want an easy life. I only get one chance at it, and I want to know at the end that I had a life I lived to the fullest I could.
Well, that’s my view on it all now, as a 35 year old who’se sworn off having children and has no other debts or committments (apart from my partner of course) – ask me again in 10 years – maybe I’ll have changed again!
Thanks again for your unreserved support and advice. I will investigate your suggestions and try to reach out more. It’s a little more difficult here in the Outback, but there’ll be more opportunities on my regular trips to Melbourne and Brisbane.
If you think anything I’ve written will help anyone else, of course I don’t mind if you would like to put it up where others can read it – I’d be pleased if it would be of any use.
All the best,
On 15 November 2004, we received this email….it has been changed to make sure that it remains anonymous.
I have just read through Ilka’s story and found it rather sad but I suppose common.
Don’t you find it interesting that people come back to Australia for a “rest” and then complain that it isn’t challenging enough for them?
I guess the bottom line is one we have experienced too – that about unmet and often unrealistic expectations. We think that because it is “home” it will be easy to fit in, find jobs and to live our everyday lives.
In contrast when we first went away, we were anticipating difficulties, differences and to work hard to establish ourselves. It is demoralising to feel like an outsider in your home, but is much easier if you are prepared for it to be so.
One of the things which made it so hard for me to settle in xxx (European Country) was my need at the time to keep things “the same”. It sounds a little to me like Ilka and her husband want Australia to be the same as Egypt – can they be surprised that it doesn’t meet their expectations?
As for feeling like all the survival skills are useless here – perhaps the actual processes are not the same but the personal spirit that enabled them to develop them overseas can be sued to help them re-establish here if they apply themselves.
Ex/Repats can’t afford to be quitters. I am glad you cautioned them about a rash return to Egypt hoping they would feel OK again. I know quite a few expats who have done this and ended up feeling like they don’t belong anywhere and feeling rather desperate. As shocking as it sounds, they have to employ all of their adaption skills to Australia and remind themselves WHY they came back in the first place.
Neither my husband nor I have been able to find work in our chosen fields so far – but luckily we have former trade skills to fall back on which are in high demand at the moment. Neither of us want to stay in these fields, but we are pragmatic about it – it puts food on the table and gives us breathing space to truly explore what we want to do and where we want to go in the future.
It gives us time to live in Australia – to experience the ease of life, the sun, the smell of wattle and to lie under the southern cross. It gives us time as a family – something which our work commitments restricted in Europe. Time to explore our dreams.
Who knows where we may end up – but we know for sure that running away when things get tough is absolutely not an option. What kind of example would that set for our daughter and what kind of pressure would that put on our relationship?
It hurts me when my husband experiences some of the discrimination that I experienced in xxx (European Country) as I had hoped Australia was far more tolerant than that. It is good that we both have a better appreciation for the part each of us has played.
He is feeling the great shock of the gap between expectations and reality and I the pressure of feeling responsible for putting him all through it. But it is bringing us closer and improving our bond and determination to stay true to our ultimate goals even if we have to take a few detours from the road we imagined we would travel.
I hope Ilka and her husband don’t just pack up and clear out back to Egypt without stepping back and considering why they came and who they can use their adaptation skills just as effectively here as overseas.
Language skills are far more permanent than her husband imagines and if he has worked in Arabic his skills are clearly extensive and will not evaporate, even if not used for some time.
I have been meaning to give you a call to discuss a few things and will try to get organised to get in touch later in the week. In the mean time, thanks so much for continuing to remind us that we are not alone!
From an Australian Repatriate.
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