In 2017, I packed up my belongings and headed to Morocco with my children, who were four and six years old at the time. Although America was the only country I knew, I was strongly inclined to raising my children abroad even before becoming a mom (for more info on why, check out Why I Chose to Leave America & Raise My Children Abroad). We spent four years abroad, namely in North Africa and the Middle East, which afforded incredible benefits not just for myself, but for my children.
While it was certainly no easy feat raising my children in foreign countries, especially as a single mother who doesn’t speak the local languages well, in my personal experience, the benefits far outweighed the cons. I will expand on the cons in a separate blog post, but what follows is five of the greatest benefits of raising my children abroad.
1. Total Immersion in Other Cultures and Languages.
Both of my children were born and raised along the east coast of America, and most of the friends we had were first- or second-generation immigrants from countries all over the world. This meant we were constantly exposed to a bit of their cultural practices, norms, and foods, yet I yearned for something greater than mere glimpses. Living abroad enabled us to adopt some of the positive aspects of the various cultures we were immersed in, not the least of which were the two additional languages (Arabic and French) that both kids learned to some degree. They also adopted a higher level of respect for their elders, and the ability to entertain themselves rather than always expect to be entertained.
In addition, my children have no practicing Muslim family members on either side of their parent’s families, so it was also incredibly beneficial for them to spend a part of their childhood immersed in Muslim-majority countries, which strengthened their identity as Muslims and provided a sense of belonging.
2) Building Greater Resilience and Flexibility.
Though we set up a home base in each of the countries we traveled in, we also traveled quite extensively throughout that country, or its neighboring countries. Needless to say, we were frequently on the move. This frequent travel meant constantly adjusting to different places, cultures, environments, languages, etc. Fortunately, perhaps because they were still so young, they became accustomed to going with the flow and making the best out of our changing environment. In the case of frequent travelers, you either learn to accommodate, or you spend most of your time miserable and frustrated.
There were numerous instances where we didn’t have access to particular things that we were used to having, leaving us no choice other than to make due with an alternative. Many of the playgrounds we had access to lacked the usual playground equipment they were used to, so the kids began developing their own ways of playing that didn’t require swings or slides. They also became accustomed to making new friends everywhere we went. A lot of my baking necessities were either nonexistent or incredibly overpriced, so I developed recipes for baked goods using whatever I had access to. In the end, we discovered we could do without a lot of the same things we once considered essentials.
3) Becoming more appreciative of things we had previously taken for granted.
Like the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Although we always opted to live in modern, developed cities abroad, the conveniences found there paled in comparison to the conveniences found in America. Without online shopping, I no longer had the world at my fingertips, and I frequently found myself scouring the entire city in search of a single product.
The comfort of life in America was even more pronounced when we'd visit friends in their homes in remote villages, where most homes had old-fashioned toilets (holes in the ground) and 1 running faucet for in the center of the home to be used for hygiene, cooking, and cleaning. Poverty and homelessness were evident nearly every city we lived in or visited, and was a sobering reminder of just how fortunate we were to have easy access to what we had. During our extended stay in Damascus, Syria, to visit the children’s father’s side of the family, the electric was cut for several hours each day, so life was typically planned around when you knew you'd have electricity.
4) Experiencing the beauty and diversity of the world firsthand.
One of the most important things I seek to instill in my children is the understanding that they are part of a world much greater and diverse than they ever could have grasped from the comfort of our middle-class, predominately-white suburban neighborhood in America. Of course, there was no shortage of exposure to diversity even in America – my children went to a Church-based preschool, have family members from several religious backgrounds, and have participated, to some degree, in many of the holidays traditionally celebrated in America. Yet, I wanted them to experience the diversity within our own religion.
Our adventures abroad included visiting with the indigenous Nubian people of Egypt, dining with Berbers and dancing to traditional Gnawa music in Morocco, touring the Christian quarters of Old Damascus, and marveling at ancient cypress trees while learning about the beliefs of our Druze tour guide in Lebanon. I hope that their experiences abroad have opened their minds and will prevent them from ever adopting a narrow-minded, superior mindset when dealing with others from different walks of life.
5) Access to quality, cheap food and reasonably-priced conventional and alternative healthcare.
This benefit in particular has made it very hard to willingly resettle in America again. In America, junk food is far cheaper than fresh, organic foods. Combine this with our hectic, over-scheduled lifestyles, and it’s obvious that we’re systematically set up to fall into unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. On the contrary, fresh produce and meats are reasonably-priced in each of the countries we’ve lived, and typically, things run much slower, leaving time for homecooked meals. By the time the kids and I left America, we were spending several hundred dollars a month on healthy foods, and even more on health insurance, and seldom did it cover any of the alternative practitioners that we turned to for most of our healthcare needs.
Though medical technology is far more advanced in American than it is in many other countries, for healthy individuals with no major health problems, the healthcare offered in most developed countries is more than sufficient, and offered at a fraction of the cost. In most of the countries we’ve lived, conventional doctors’ visits were $20, alternative healthcare practitioner visits were $30, dental cleanings with x-rays were $35, and my one-day stent in the hospital due to severe food poisoning was $200, which covered everything including medications and an ultrasound to rule out gallbladder issues. Medications are also available without a prescription, which was convenient for me, as I was able to order my own blood work and determine if my medication for my autoimmune disease needed to be adjusted.
Raising my children abroad was definitely one of the most challenging feats of my adult life, but with immense benefits that made it well worth the effort. In fact, truth be told, if it weren’t for the educational benefits afforded in America, I would admittedly be inclined to permanently settle abroad. Oddly enough, it simply feels like home.