Dubai: At the age of 24, Susan* got married, and within two months, headed to Yemen in 1990. That was the beginning of her 31-year-long expat life. Susan and husband Mathew*, started a humble life in the city of Sana’a.
“Mathew used to work three part-time jobs,” Susan (55) remembered. There were days the pair wouldn’t see each other for more than an hour a day. A nurse, Susan started her job with $100 as her monthly income.
“But life was good… Even though money was scarce for the first couple of years and we were away from family, there was a beautiful community of Malayalis there, which was, and still is closer to us than our own extended family.”
Both of Susan’s kids were born in the hospital where she worked for 21 years – a government hospital in the heart of the capital. While living in Yemen, a country with a very low cost of living, the couple built their own home in Kerala. They also managed to save enough, and with loans, bought some land for capital investments.
The family loved Yemen, even more than their home country, and still do. Susan said, “The feeling is indescribable. It is not just about being self-sufficient, or achieving our dreams or seeing our children grow. It is the fact that we spent all of our prime years building that life, maintaining and nurturing those relationships, only for it all to stop one day.”
However, after more than 20 years, the family had to relocate, at least temporarily, following civil disturbances caused by the Al Houthi rebels in the country. Schools were shut down, and there was no way to stay and continue children’s education safely. This was 2010-2011.
Relocation: Two years in Kerala was hard
Susan said, “My son and I flew to Kerala, where my daughter was doing her higher studies.” Mathew stayed back, hoping that he could bring his family back as soon as things settled down. But they didn’t. “The hospital management kept my position as head nurse of the neo-natal department open for 1.5 years. By then, we realised we would never be able to return.”
Those two years were hard for Susan. She was suddenly thrust into a situation without her husband, or friends, or the routine of going to her job. Both her in-laws were sick, diagnosed with cancer, and her days were spent in their care. The family had converted from their original Christian church, so Susan found it difficult to find meaningful friendships in the local diocese.
As things in Yemen got worse, Mathew had to make a decision whether to return home to Kerala where job prospects looked bleak. “Thankfully, Mathew had an old friend in Dubai who offered him a job almost immediately.” Susan said.
“We still have friends living in Sana’a, as there is no future for them in India financially,” she said.
Life in Dubai
In 2012, Mathew was able to bring Susan and their teenage son to Dubai. She soon found a job, and the family grew to be comfortable in Dubai, with Susan travelling to Sharjah and back every day for her job. Soon their daughter joined them in Dubai and for the first time in 8 years, all four of them were together.
Susan said, “The best part, for me, about Dubai is the ease of access to anything I want at any time. Another part is the safety I felt, which is not something I have in India. For instance, I would run down to the 24-hour store below our building, even for just one small thing, and know that I was earning enough to buy that item. I could do almost anything by myself, get on the metro and head out, without depending on anyone.”
She added, "I wouldn't say expat life is easy or cheap, but the quality of life, the safety, the ease of getting things done, medical care - everything is better here."
Retirement: What next?
COVID-19 sped up the retirement process, and the couple left in November last year. “To be honest, I knew starting our life back home would be difficult,” Susan laughed. What she didn’t expect to have was the feeling of having nothing to look forward to.
“Other than my husband and my children, I don’t have anyone to talk to. There is always work to do – it is not an exaggeration. First breakfast, then cleaning, then working on our vegetable garden, to lunch and then more work in the garden, and then dinner – it is non-stop.”
“If you don’t have crores in your bank account, you have to try and work as much as possible to save a buck, you have to do most things by yourself” Susan explained.
It is not just about the work, Susan insists. She said it is the prospect of doing this forever.
Friends, activities, a job
The couple live close to extended family but don’t know many neighbours. Susan said, “For many in Kerala, being part of your church is a huge factor in having friends and a community beyond your family. Since we have been away for so long, we don’t have that either. Yes, everyone knows the ‘Gulf family’ who returned, but that’s about it.”
“COVID-19 has made everything worse”, Susan added. Now there is no scope for the family to take a small break with a trip or picnic – something they never really did before retirement. Comparing her life there to Dubai, she said, “I can’t run down to the shop at a moment’s notice, or decide to go somewhere without asking my son or husband to drive me. I don’t have a job as I did for the past three decades. It all adds up to this feeling of despair.”
Susan is quick to add that it’s not all gloom and doom. “My husband and I can now spend time with my son. As an expat, you never get enough time with your kids once they have to do higher studies. We love tending to our new garden. I like being just 10 minutes away from my mom and my sister. I do believe that slowly I will find my place here.”
She added, "There is definitely a sense of happiness in being in one's own country."
“But do I wish I could go back to expat life? Yes, a hundred times yes.”
*Names changed by request