Americans Helping Americans Abroad

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What’s the Fallout for Families?

Study abroad programs in Austria and England didn’t prepare me for a move to Ivory Coast in the early 1990s.

I worried about taking two small children to Abidjan, a city with a high crime rate where AIDS and malaria were the leading causes of death. But I agreed to go because my husband was needed at an HIV/AIDS project, and I could work anywhere as a freelance writer.

Adapting to life in a tropical country was harder than I expected. It took months to adjust to the heat and humidity as well as viruses and microbes, and you can’t avoid what children bring home from school. I learned the hard way that I was intolerant to papaya and shouldn’t eat the luscious ones growing in our yard. I also learned to wash fresh fruits and vegetables with a bleach/water solution.

The US Embassy issued frequent warnings about burglaries and carjackings in Abidjan and political instability around the country after the long-time ruler passed away. Thus, it took months for me to feel safe driving around on my own.

The Key to Making it “Home”

Connecting with people who knew the culture and loved living there helped me adjust, as did learning French. I befriended expat women – some married to Ivorians – and got to know the guards and housekeepers who worked in the homes around us. These workers provided a window into another world, and our children became fluent in French by interacting with them.

Because we were attached to a government agency, the US Embassy required us to have a guard at our gate 24/7. Our children drew chalk animals on the gate and played hide and seek with our guard, Adama, who briefed me daily on neighborhood activities.

Within a year, we all felt at home there. I joined a professional women’s network and a book group and volunteered in the children’s schools while continuing to write articles. My children grew up in a nurturing environment and attended an excellent international school.

Essayist Pico Iyer wrote, “Home isn’t just a place where we happened to be born. It’s a place where we become ourselves.” I became a different person in Ivory Coast after seeing how hard life was for people around us and watching some of them suffer with AIDS. Our guard Adama passed away a year after we arrived, as did a man who cooked for us part time a few years later. Those were the bookends around our sojourn in Abidjan.

Building Resilience

After six years, when we moved back to the US, our children had to learn how to be “normal” American kids. My son (age 9) didn’t know the games American boys played or what music and shows they liked. He made friends by joining a scout troop, while our daughter (age 6) had dance classes and sleepovers with classmates. After five years in Atlanta, they finally fit in.

Yet when my husband proposed moving to Tanzania for another job, our children had such good memories of life in Ivory Coast that they agreed to relocate, even though they were in junior high and high school. I was excited about the move too, knowing the country was politically stable and had legendary landscapes. And since new medications were available that would save AIDS patients from agonizing deaths, the focus of my husband’s project was to get medication to as many needy people as possible.

Smoother Transitioning

Adjusting was much easier in Tanzania. We quickly connected with the people around us, including the guard at our gate and other local workers. The children thrived at an international school where there were fewer cliques due to an annual turnover of students. The school offered IB programs (International Baccalaureate) and recruited top-notch teachers from around the world. The kids could do community service projects and school-sponsored excursions.

I joined the school board, participated in expat women’s groups, tutored students in English at a primary school, and wrote a column for a monthly magazine, The Dar Guide. It was a golden opportunity to seek out people from all walks of life and interview them for my column.

Knowing we would only have a few years in Tanzania, we were determined to make the most of our time. We did family treks in the Ngoro Ngoro Highlands and up Mount Meru, and snorkeling excursions to Zanzibar and Mafia Islands. Our son climbed Kilimanjaro with a school group, which inspired me to do it with a handful of women friends.

At the end of three years, none of us wanted to leave the country; but with our son heading for college and our parents in poor health, we returned to Atlanta. After living in east and west Africa for a decade, all of us were profoundly changed by witnessing how others lived outside our privileged bubbles. Forming bonds with people of other cultures also helped us become more tolerant, curious, and compassionate individuals.

Next Stop: Switzerland

Four years later, when our children were on their own and two of our parents had passed away, my husband was invited to work at the World Health Organization in Geneva. I agreed to the move and looked forward to hiking in the mountains around Geneva and swimming in the lake in the summers. We did all that and more, traveling to a dozen European countries during our four years in Switzerland.

Living in Geneva was more difficult than I had anticipated. I missed our children and found fewer opportunities to do volunteer work, or to interact with people of other backgrounds. The biggest factor pulling me back to the US was concern for family members. One of my sisters was going through a rancorous divorce, and our daughter was struggling to find her path. I had to fly between Geneva and the US frequently to help one or more of them deal with issues.

Finding Home

After multiple job changes in the US, our daughter moved to Paris while we were in Geneva, and she soon found work. A year later she moved to Luxembourg for a better job. Eventually she made her way to London for another job, and that’s where she met her British partner. She now has two small children and prefers the work – life balance in the UK. Her ability to navigate other cultures makes her an astute recruiter who also manages employees at international tech companies.

Our son settled in Seattle near us to work for an aerospace company. With broader perspectives after living in other countries, he has no trouble relating to people with opposing political views. He travels often and seamlessly, his French still fluent.

I’ve had to watch one of my children settle farther from us than I would like. But it’s a consolation to know that – like their father and me – our kids are resilient global citizens with a genuine interest in people of other cultures, especially in our politically divided yet interconnected world.


Terry Repak is a freelance writer whose memoir, Circling Home: What I Learned by Living Elsewhere, is available at bookstores and on Amazon, Kindle, Audible, and Spotify. She lives in Seattle and teaches English to foreign language learners. More articles are available on her website: www.terryrepak.com.