Long distance parenting and working in post-war zones
Bombings, malaria, civil war, earthquakes and evacuations. All in a day’s job perhaps for our military men and women, but how did an Aussie accountant and mum of two find herself dealing with these things as part of her job?
I am proud to introduce you to Julie Cooper who with the support of husband Sean, daughter Ali and son Lucas has undertaken a slightly less convenient expat journey through some of the world’s most forbidding locations as a Public Financial Management and Performance Improvement Specialist.
Her speciality is mainly in implementing public financial management systems in post-conflict countries but she also specializes in performance management. Since 2001, Julie and her family have lived on and off overseas, together and apart as conditions have allowed.
From the tiny island paradise of Vanuatu to the dust-filled streets of Juba, parenting on the road with hardship postings has thrown up many challenges that most families could not comprehend. Julie and Sean share their less than conventional expat parenting tale with Our Globetrotters (OG).
OG: You have spent much of the last 14 years on the road, can you take us back to where it all began and your first overseas posting?
J: I was working in Canberra as an independent contractor in 2001 when I was offered a short term contract position in Vanuatu (located about 1500 miles from Sydney, Australia, in the Pacific Ocean).
We thought this could lead to some interesting work down the track and it was a peaceful, idyllic location so I happily took the position. Ali was only two and Lucas was 14 so all of us relocated to Vanuatu while I worked for three months. The contract started in late November so it didn’t interrupt Lucas’ schooling.
S: From the time Ali was born we had already made the decision that I would become Ali and Lucas’ primary carer so there was really no parenting decisions needed at this stage.
Two years later though, Julie was offered another posting in Vanuatu but this time Lucas was part-way through completing year 11 of high school (the penultimate year in Australia), so we had to put him into a boarding school for three months so he could complete the school year.
J: This was a very difficult decision to make, he was trying to be brave about it and said he was happy to do it – it gave him more time to hang out with his friends – but I don’t think he enjoyed the restrictions they placed on the boys.
Their rooms were tiny and it felt dreadful leaving him behind but he finished the year off then joined us again.
S: When he did come out to join us it was difficult for him as there really wasn’t much for him to do, great for young families as there was plenty to entertain young children but not really suited to teenage boys.
Ali got to start kindergarten while we were at Bodvilla International School and it really was an enjoyable time. Everything we needed was within walking distance and Julie was close enough to walk home for lunch.
J: It really was quite a remote location, there are no big hospitals, only small clinics; you are about a four-hour flight back to the nearest large cities of Brisbane or Sydney if anything goes wrong.
S: There was a big expat community and beautiful beaches but everything was very expensive. The cost of living is extremely high as absolutely everything needs to be imported. During our second stint, an earthquake hit the island quite badly. It was 7.3 on the Richter scale and damaged the main bridge into town making it unstable.
The tremors continued for over a week. As we had to move into an expensive hotel it was not suitable for family living so I took Lucas and Ali back to Australia. Julie stayed on in the hotel, with her mother who was visiting long term until the project ended.
OG: This obviously gave you the taste for expat life. So what happened next?
J: The work in Vanuatu was only a fixed term contract so with no further opportunities pre-eminent, we assumed it would be back to Canberra but before leaving I was offered a further opportunity leading a team in Kabul, Afghanistan, initially for 4 months in 2004.
We assumed I would be out there for a few months, make some good money (with uplifts and danger pay, tax free) then come back. Sean would stay home with the kids while Lucas finished his final year of high school.
From a career perspective, it would be an invaluable move. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career teaching big entities on how to prepare financial statements.
For every year you work in difficult hardship postings it can have a multiplier effect on your career. I was a late starter so this opportunity would really give me the boost I needed with a top international organization.
OG: What was everyday life like in Kabul? Was it considered ‘safe’ for families?
J: You could see that a reasonable city was once there. Aside from the abandoned tanks on the side of the airport (and all over the city) it was clear that there was a functioning city underneath, infrastructure existed it had just been badly damaged by years of Taliban rule and the war.
In the years immediately after the war against terrorism in 2002-03 and after the Taliban had been overthrown, there were huge aid programs put in place and a lot of foreign workers, as well as locals returning to rebuild the economy. It was probably a lot safer back in 2004 than it is today.
We had a security detail and everywhere we went we had a driver and armed guard, however, there were restrictions on which bars and restaurants we could go to. Public places had to be pre-assessed as safe for foreign workers.
There was also an approved list of supermarkets we could go to that sold Western-branded products – you could even get alcohol and bacon from some shops (this has since become much more difficult). It otherwise did feel quite ‘safe’.
Afghanistan has a traditional Muslim culture and respecting their customs and traditions was important. However, at the time, foreigners were very welcome and any lapse in protocol was largely tolerated. I didn’t need to be completely covered at work but I would always take a headscarf with me.
OG: How did the family deal with separation during the time in Afghanistan ?
S: Julie did come back after a few months but more work came up so she moved out there more permanently during 2004. This was difficult for the family, due to the time differences it was hard to talk every day and when Julie did come home there was jet lag to deal with. Lucas was still completing high school so the rest of us remained in Canberra until the end of 2004.
J: There were international schools available in Kabul and some people did have their children out there with them. Sean and Ali were able to visit visited me in Kabul during school holidays but we felt with Ali’s fair hair and the quality of schooling she would receive, being in Kabul was far too much of a risk.
Medicines and health were also a concern in Kabul. You basically had to ‘self treat’ if anything went wrong, if you felt sick you would Google what you needed and send the houseboy to get it for you.
S: Dubai was an up and coming Middle East city at this time, only 2.45 hours flight to Kabul and in the same time zone so we decided Ali and I would base ourselves there. It was much easier to talk on the phone and Skype and Julie could visit more regularly. Ali was able to enrol in an international school and we rented a hotel apartment.
J: This did work well for Sean and Ali but Lucas, even though he had finished school was a long way away so it was difficult for him and for us.
S: This arrangement worked well for a year but then we were facing a significant rent increase; in the UAE it’s quite standard for a year’s rent to be asked for in advance.
With no certainty on how much longer Julie’s contract would go on, Ali and I headed back to Canberra again and she restarted school in Australia.
OG: How did Ali cope with all the moving around and separation at such a young age?
S: She was incredibly worldly and understood exactly where she was. Most of her classmates, even her teachers in Canberra had no idea where Dubai was – they would get it confused with Mumbai! But she really did take it all in her stride at this age, she was very good with making friends.
J: When I asked her how she deals with it she said “I just don’t think about it, that’s how I deal with it”. We were able to chat on the internet every day, and you would constantly touch base throughout the day, even just short messages from either end to know everything was ok.
I was also able to take very frequent breaks from Kabul so we were never apart for more than 4 weeks at a time.
OG: What brought an end to your time in Afghanistan ?
J: This type of work tends to attract young people looking for adventure, but they really need older workers with a lot of experience under their belts, which usually means they have older grown-up children – or they are divorcees! It’s quite unusual to come across anyone with young families to consider.
My bosses knew I was after a family posting so when an opportunity came up to move to Cairo, Egypt altogether, we took it. By the time I left Afghanistan though we had implemented a treasury system that worked, and is still being used today, so I am thankful that my time there felt successful and worth the family sacrifices.
OG: After being separated for a couple of years, what were the big changes from a family perspective? How did you find living conditions in Cairo?
S: As soon as we knew we were moving to Cairo I started researching suburbs where other expats lived and there were good international schools to choose from.
Ali attended Mardi British International School; it is probably the best of all the international schools she has attended over the years. The school really became a vital part of our expat life in Cairo, there was a real sense of community.
Cairo is a very logistically difficult city to live in because of the traffic so your social life revolved around the people you met at school. People would hire the school halls for parties, Julie even appeared in the school pantomime!
In terms of the people we met, it was probably the best expat posting as we were a small community in a big city and we really relied on one another, a great sense of camaraderie.
OG: It sounds like a fabulous expat experience, but I am guessing there were still drawbacks?
J: Unfortunately the job in comparison to Kabul was not as satisfying. Egyptians are resilient people and advancing change was a real challenge. And the traffic, just dreadful!
S: The cost of living was cheap, but shopping was a challenge of day to day life, it really was an all round unpleasant experience. The minute you enter a shop people are all over you, or even just walking past they will grab your child into their shop to try and bring you in or stand in your way, they could get aggressive if you said ‘no’.
You could get good groceries and clothing, but things like toys were terribly limited – rip off brands or you could see boxes had been opened on the shelves!
J: We also still had concerns over healthcare. They may have had good, well-trained doctors in Egypt but the hygiene conditions in clinics and hospitals were not up to the standards we were used to! My sister visited some of the hospitals as part of her work as a nurse and was shocked. You certainly didn’t want to get seriously sick there – unfortunately, Sean constantly had gastro.
S: Beggars were a problem too, they targeted you as they knew you would have money and would physically touch you. It was an expat friendly city but we certainly stood out being white – people would remember who we were. There was no being an introvert in a place like this.
OG: So some good and some bad experiences – what eventually brought about your next move?
J: We weren’t intentionally looking to leave Cairo but a friend I had been working with had moved to Abu Dhabi in the UAE and came to me with an opportunity. I flew over for the interview and the difference on arriving was stark – it seemed beautiful, the roads were wide and uncongested (this was 2008!) and greenery everywhere. It was a modern city and Abu Dhabi was going through a boom period.
This unfortunately meant rents even from contract negotiation to moving in were going through the roof so not so much of the financial move that we expected but it was a very friendly environment, good offices, generous leave, good working hours.
S: I stayed on a few months longer in Cairo so that Ali could finish the school year. In comparison to the preceding few years, we were able to have a very ‘normal’ family life in Abu Dhabi, but coming from previous expat postings, there was definitely less camaraderie. You didn’t see other parents at the school pick up, only maids.
Parenting in Abu Dhabi was much easier but in 2008 there were limited choices for where you could go out, only a few beach clubs and ‘western’ style restaurants and cafes existed.
OG: So with what sounds like an idyllic family situation in Abu Dhabi, how did you find yourselves in Washington DC?
J: This was very much a career-driven move. I was headhunted by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and it was an honour to be asked to join, but it did mean needing to relocate the family again halfway around the world.
Career-wise it was hugely rewarding, in fact, some of my work is now part of published work such as the “Chart of Accounts Technical Manual” and a book “Public Financial Management and Its Emerging Architecture”. It was unfortunately, however, not the right move for our family.
OG: How did this moving around impact family life?
S: It was undeniably difficult. But you go into this sort of life understanding there will be challenges.
The hardest move was from Abu Dhabi to Washington. Ali was at an age of forming strong friendships and we knew she didn’t want to leave this time.
In some respects, I think she was pleased to be moving to a country where she didn’t stand out so much, but she was used to being around quite worldly kids. She did her best to fit in with new friends in America, but it was challenging – a lot of people in America have barely left their county, let alone their state or the country.
From an expats experience it was incredibly difficult. Even though we could live a ‘normal life’, you live in a vacuum. You wouldn’t know a world outside of the US exists.
People were very polite but no extra effort was made to be inclusive. We had thought it would be much friendlier and deliberately moved to a tree-lined suburban neighbourhood, but people really kept to themselves.
Most people had two working parents and were just busy with their everyday lives, no one really understood that we were outsiders there and we never really got invited to any social occasions.
J: It was an unusual environment at work too, very male-dominated. The women that were there were single or didn’t have children so I found it difficult to relate to people or find friendships.
Christmas that year was particularly depressing, we were all on our own just the three of us and we really felt the distance from family and friends. We had a very large time difference back to Australia, essentially a whole day behind which made Skyping and calling difficult.
We also missed Lucas a great deal. Lucas and his wife were having their first baby so we felt very isolated from them – it was a difficult time.
OG: So not living the American dream?
J: We made a very difficult decision to move on again before the year was out; we had come to think of Abu Dhabi as our home and wanted to move back.
I wasn’t able to get a job in Abu Dhabi immediately as by this point the global financial crisis had hit the Middle East, but I went back to my old employer who had since been bought out by Deloitte LLC and they were brilliant about the situation and I was made an offer to work in Juba, South Sudan (as it is now).
The offer to head a team in South Sudan was exciting and Sean and Ali wanted to return to Abu Dhabi so I had to suck it up and accept that this was all that was available and split the family up yet again. Sean and Ali could base themselves in Abu Dhabi and recommence schooling at International School while I continued to look for a job.
My employers could not have done more for us, they helped us with the paper work around this and I was able to come home whenever I needed.
Jobs back in Abu Dhabi – in fact anywhere in the world in my field – were just not forthcoming. What we thought would be a few months to tide us over, in fact, took a few years before I finally secured a full-time role back in Abu Dhabi in 2014.
However, in the end, the job with Deloitte in South Sudan was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding times of my career. I now work away from home three nights a week but this is a much better situation than the long distance commute.
OG: Was moving the family to Juba with you ever an option?
J: It was most definitely not a family posting. A very limited number of expats did have family members with them but it was completely different to anywhere I’d been before.
It was dusty, smelly, no international schools, most roads weren’t even surfaced. There was very limited infrastructure. If I compared it back to Kabul, at least you could see that a functioning city lay beneath the fighting, the same can’t be said in Juba.
Even if Sean and Ali had come to visit, there was nothing for them to do. You could make it sound romantic “eating dinner on the edge of the Nile” but the reality was something different; the river was dirty and from time to time an animal carcass would float by and the river was used by the locals to bathe – right next to where we ate – made for an interesting view!
Instead, I would fly home every 4-6 weeks, I didn’t feel as badly separated this time, and we continued to touch base every day.
I had no problem being a white woman working there but the work was incredibly challenging. The country was only in its infancy and a lot of corruption exists. During the posting civil war broke out and the Western members of our team had to be evacuated.
On the plus side, I got to be back home with the family, but the projects we were working on hung in limbo and some of our South Sudanese colleages were very sadly killed.
OG: You are finally all living back in one city once more, would you say family life is ‘normal’ now?
S: When we told Ali we had to leave Washington DC just after making new friendships she was incredibly upset as the US was really supposed to be a semi-permanent move. Time has moved on now though and she really has been great about it. We would like to stay put now until Ali finishes school in three years time.
Parenting is really an entirely different story now that Ali is a teenager. We live in a community now where Ali is among her friends and spends most of her time with them, I don’t even need to drive her around anymore as we live quite centrally and the kids can walk everywhere.
I feel Abu Dhabi is a very safe city for teenagers, and there are a great bunch of kids that she hangs out with. I don’t think we face some of the same teenage issues that parents at home might do – strict rules about sex, drugs and alcohol help!
Social media also means she can remain well connected with the friends she has met over the years. She keeps finding friends where their lives have crossed before and they find each other in later years, there’s a big cross over in the global expat community over the years.
She has been happy to be a third culture kid but still identifies herself as being Australian, despite having lived so much of her life overseas. Maybe she will get the travel bug again later in her life but her plan at this stage is to go back to university in Australia.
OG: What was your greatest safety concern living in countries perceived as very dangerous and on the warning list for most international governments?
J: To put it in perspective, during my time in Afghanistan I was given R&R leave and airfare to go spend some time in London with Sean. We were booked to stay at a hotel in Tavistock Square. We were unable to get to our hotel, however, as a bus had been bombed that morning – 7 July 2005.
S: After we were evacuated from the earthquake in Vanuatu, I took Ali and Lucas back to Australia with me. To get home from Sydney airport to Canberra we had to contend with massive bush fires that were covering much of New South Wales.
J: In Juba, my team were evacuated by charter cargo plane at the outbreak of civil war. While myself and my colleagues were able to continue working remotely on the project, the South Sudanese citizens on the project were struggling for their lives. In fact, some of them were murdered by militias due to their ethnicity.
S: It really puts the importance of day-to-day work and family problems into proper perspective. Makes you think about what and where is risky and what isn’t.
OG: Your story is quite an extreme take on expat adventure. What were the biggest challenges you faced, other than separation from one another?
J: Being separated is, of course, the hardest part. Especially when you are separated by multiple time zones it makes communications difficult and adds distance.
But otherwise, my low-lights included getting Malaria five times in Juba, it was just horrible. At least after the first time, you knew what the signs were and you could get treated but you felt like you were dying. Being evacuated from the Ministry of Finance in Afghanistan was also a low-light.
S: At the end of the day, you really do put the bad experiences behind you and I am only left with good memories of our time.
OG: What advice could you give to other families looking at hardship postings?
J: Be careful which employer you move with. My time with Bearing Point in Afghanistan and Egypt, and especially Deloitte in Juba was excellent as they took good care of us, understood my family commitments and had good systems in place. They would include everything from helping with paperwork to providing housing and transportation; some people in hardship postings are far less fortunate.
S: Having a strong relationship is essential. It was a wrench to see her go every time but our relationship was strong; you unfortunately see a lot of broken relationships either before or during these postings. You really need strong family support and mental stability, a positive mind set.
If you can’t cope with stress or uncertainty it’s probably not for you. It’s easy in difficult times to feel sorry for yourself and whine a lot.
OG: And if you had your time again, would you choose the path you have?
J: Its great to have not just visited these countries but actually live in them. The work I do feels really rewarding – we are working with countries to put in place a good public financial management framework which assists with creating a good economy, which gives a good environment for people to live in – it makes the work you do and effort you put in feel worthwhile.
S: It’s been a fascinating experience. I think it makes you better as individuals and better as a family, but understandably it’s not for everyone. It was a very rich experience, great memories. The horrible memories do fade fast and you are only left with the good ones. We never had a plan in the first place but I would definitely do it all over again, we’ve had a wonderful life.
A huge thank you to Julie and Sean for allowing Our Globetrotters to share their epic expat adventure.
Where did they end up next? Predictably, Sean & Julie’s story did not end here! Roll the clock forward to 2018 and we catch up with Sean & Julie in their next exciting location….
Have you had a situation where your family has had to separate for work while still living the expat life? Or taken the bold move to bring your family on a hardship posting with you?
© Our Globetrotters | Photos courtesy of Sean & Julie