As the scorch of the summer drives people to cooler climes, there are thousands of expat families in the UAE that will be packing up not only for the summer holiday, but leaving the UAE for good.
Of course, it’s all part of the regular ebb and flow of expat life, with the end of the academic year heralding a natural turning point for families to make the big move: either back to their country of nationality, or to a new expat destination.
But this period of transience can be an unsettling and upsetting one for children, who may not want, or feel ready, to say goodbye to the country they have learnt to call home.
Here, expat mother and author of the children’s book ‘Hinglish: Meri Naana Ma’, Natasha Bajaj, shares her personal story with SchoolsCompared parents of leaving the UAE and helping her son Avi leave his beloved Dubai behind when her family made the move to Singapore at the end of last year.
It was a warm winter night, as my husband and I sipped chilled drinks in our beautiful Dubai home, savouring the tranquillity and feeling soulful for a while.
Suddenly my husband looked at me with a glint of glee in his eyes and said: “What if we move to Singapore? Wouldn’t that be awesome?
And just like that, everything changed.
Change is never easy. As an expat it becomes part and parcel of your life, making that beautiful heart of yours swell every time you move and have to say goodbye to the family you’ve created in your home-from-home.
And there’s something about leaving your birthplace that can make it feel like nothing will ever be the same again…
My six-year-old son, Avi, was born an expat. He always described himself an Arab Indian, since we hail from India, but he was born in Dubai and raised in the UAE. He proudly spoke Arabic like he was one of them. I remember when I first mentioned to him that we would be leaving Dubai sometime soon. He just stared at me with his beautiful, piercing eyes and said:
“And then we will come back, right? Cos all my friends are here…”
Saying goodbye is always difficult. For children it can be both emotionally draining and confusing. As an expat kid you not only have to get used to saying goodbye to dear friends leaving, but you also live with the knowledge that, one day, you too will have to bid your farewells to the friends you might have grown up with since babyhood.
But I believe that exposing children to separation and change helps them cope better as adults when they face any loss. Done in a nurturing and careful way, it becomes a lesson for life.
I’ve seen it play out in my husband: his father served in the army and as a child he moved around so much that Singapore is now city number 12 for him. Change comes naturally to him. On the contrary, I had a much more conventional childhood and I get attached to everything, even a car number plate…
I knew that Avi might react to the news we were leaving with aggression, sulkiness, or over-enthusiasm at first, but that once the move became real things would be different. And I knew that positive affirmation from me throughout was extremely important. So, we started out on our journey of what I called: ‘MOVING COUNTRIES WITH KIDS 101’.
Leaving the UAE: Your child’s Goodbye Bucket List
I made a bucket list of all the things I thought we needed to do before we left, and I made sure we followed it.
Top of the to-do list was to get all the goodbyes in place. We explained to Avi how he wouldn’t see his friends for a while, and we organised as many play dates as possible, where we encouraged them to talk about how they feel saying goodbye to their friends
The book that really helped us, which I highly recommend, is ‘The Invisible String’ by Patrice Karst. It’s a heart-warming tale that deals with themes of separation and talks about connections in the most profound way for children.
I read it to Avi literally every single week to recall the message about the ‘invisible string’ that will always connect him to his friends and how they will always be there for him even when we are not physically near them anymore.
I encouraged Avi to talk about his feelings as often as I could – even if they might be painful. I still remember when he said bye to his school friends, he came home and said:
“Mum, I feel something in my heart and I don’t like that feeling. I feel a little sad.”
It tore me apart – but I knew that it was also important for him to experience these feelings.
Change is never easy, but it is important – at all ages. And there are some things you can do to make the transition easier, and more meaningful in the long-run. Here are things we did together to remember Dubai in the most beautiful way.
12 Things to do with kids before leaving the UAE
1) The Desert Photoshoot
It’s just one of those UAE-expat things that has to be done. We organized a fun desert photoshoot to remember the beautiful place where our son was born and where we all spent six happy years of his life together.
2) Make magical memories
Dubai is packed full of incredible, child-friendly parks and activities in a way that most other countries just aren’t. These are memory-making places where you can have amazing experiences to look back on. We made sure we visited every single park and did heaps of fun activities – from exploring Legoland Dubai, to meeting the bees at Hatta Honey Farm and watching an open-air movie under the stars in Sharjah.
3) Farewell gifts
This is a such a special way to memorialise a friendship and leave a meaningful keepsake. We made handwritten cards and wrapped special goodbye presents.
4) Playdates, playdates, playdates
Make the most of the time your child has left with their friends. We had heaps of playdates and sleepovers with Avi’s buddies.
5) See the sights from a new perspective
We took a hot air balloon ride over the desert, and also went on a helicopter ride of the city. Incredible, bucket-list experiences. The hot air balloon ride was an absolute must-do.
6) Get hands-on with nature
We trekked in all our favourite kid-friendly hiking spots, and picked up the most unique stones, which we then painted with the UAE flag and wrote the name of the emirate we picked them up from.
7) Savour the local culture
We did various activities to help us experience, appreciate and understand the local culture through the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding. I highly recommend the Cultural Lunch, in which you can enjoy authentic Emirati dishes while chatting with your host about the traditions and history of the UAE.
8) Sleep in the great outdoors
There’s nothing like staring up at a star-spangled desert sky to put stresses of a big move into perspective. We made sure to make the most of our last months here by going camping in the desert.
9) Get them involved in the packing process
Anyone who’s ever moved country will know that the process of packing up is a an emotional journey of re-evaluation and letting go in itself. As we prepared for leaving the UAE, we packed Avi’s toys together for the move, and he also chose some to give away to children in families who had lost their jobs, along with a handwritten note.
10) Shape a blueprint for the future
Instead of just the sadness of goodbyes, you can also get kids excited about future and seeing each other again in the holidays. We got Avi to exchange contact details and, at the very least, plan to send birthday cards to his friends every year.
11) Get them excited about their new home
We shopped for accessories for Avi’s new room together to get him excited about his new home.
12) Lay down roots
Even when you leave a place, you can lay down roots of another kind. We planted a tree in Avi’s name, so that whenever he comes back to the place of his birth he feels connected.
Life is full of changes and people come and go out of our lives. It’s as fluid as a train journey; some passengers leave, some passengers stay for a while, and some remain seated till the end. The key is to try to make each journey worthwhile.
One mantra which I always tell other parents who are moving is:
“The only constant in life is change”
The sooner kids realize and understand that, the smoother their journey of life will be.
Notes from the editor – further help for parents
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst can be purchased in hardcover here and softback here.
You can read our Guide on the related issue of loss and grief here.
Hinglish: Meri Naani Ma by Natasha Bajaj can be purchased here.
Read our article on how to support the child that is left behind as their best friend leave the UAE.
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Such an insightful piece.
A very well written ,beautiful article. Surely helpful to anyone who is planning The Big Move.