Repatriated Expat: Our experience of returning to the UK during Covid-19

Our time in Kuwait did not come to an end in quite the way we expected. I’m writing this a little over a week after it all happened, and mostly for my own sake. This has been a lot to process and writing helps. If, by chance, someone else finds it interesting/useful in someway that’s great.

Life In Kuwait

As the Corona Virus spread and Covid-19 began to impact more and more communities, countries and people Kuwait was quick to act. Very quickly we went from no measures to quarantine for people arriving from infected areas, flight bans for some countries, school closures and restrictions on large gatherings. Not long after this strict measures around shopping, the closure of parks and beaches, and a mandate to work from home came through. Then the aiport was shut – no commercial flights in or out bar those returning Kuwaitis home. Next they added an evening curfew. It many senses you can argue it worked, there have been fewer cases and even fewer deaths. Community transmission didn’t happen for weeks (it was mostly cases of people arriving who were already infected). The fast work of the Kuwaiti government likely saved lives and bought the authorities time in the now infamous ‘flatten the curve’ approach.

As a family of four it was getting tougher. Our children are 5 and 2 (our daughter turned 2 during the lockdown) and we lived in an apartment. The loss of the park, the beach, the swimming pool was hard. Shopping became harder too. I’m not ungrateful for the fast action of the government, needing to stay home to save others is a small price to pay – but this was our experience nonetheless.

We also had a bigger concern looming. We’re due to move to China in July (and very excited about it). With the government shut down our options for getting our visas processed became much more limited.

Tough Conversations

As the situation grew more and more serious Mark and I discussed what we might do in different scenarios. What would we do if school was cancelled or made virtual longer term? What would we do if it wasn’t? What would we do if the airport reopened? Which was a better option – stay in Kuwait not knowing how long we might be there, or leave for the UK with greater chance of catching Covid-19 ourselves?

With 2 young children to move this wouldn’t be pack a suitcase and come back for the rest later – we needed to ship belongings, we needed to uproot our kids from the life we’ve had for 3 years.

Changing Circumstances

In the end a few pieces of information came together at a similar time. Our school in Kuwait, AIS, sent a very reassuring email guaranteeing our salaries – big relief! They also moved to Virtual School for the remainder of the year (the details of that were more complex that I just made it sound, but the outcome was to stay virtual). Finally, a few days after a truly disastrous online ‘help’ chat via Twitter, the British Embassy finally started to move to support people in Kuwait. Flights out were offered.

Leaving

As it happened, things moved REALLY fast. Learning of the possibility of a flight, booking it, securing shipping, packing up, shipping and leaving happened in 36 hours. It was chaotic, intense and a roller coaster of emotions. Twice the flight was cancelled and rebooked. Once with a time change we weren’t told of. The curfew meant we needed special permits to even get to the airport. We made it with the help of some great friends.

Arriving at the airport was surreal. There had been only 2 other cars on the road, the police were maintaining the curfew very effectively. Once we got to the terminal building it appeared shut – no doors were open at all. One other bewildered looking British man stood staring at them. Eventually we spoke to a helpful police officer who called around until he got confirmation that there was indeed a flight.

At check in our bags were taken and we were issued face masks, gloves and sanitizer alongside our tickets. Trying to get a 2 year old to wear a mask is difficult, trying to get her not to pull yours and laugh as the elastic snaps it back to your face – impossible. Security was a breeze – no one else was there. The whole airport from duty free through to the shops and the restaurants was rather dramatically sealed off – wrapped in cellophane behind red and white lines of tape.

Amazingly, and adding a rare smile into the truly bizarre morning, our flight was late. The only plane to leave in 24 hours and it was late – impressive.

Once on board numbers were low, 77 passengers shared 200+ seats. The flight crew wore full body PPE. We were instructed to keep our masks on and not to get up unless in was an emergency – it took a nervy 90 minutes as passengers tried to work out if using the bathroom on a 6.5 hour flight consituted an emergency. Food service was a sandwich and a drink (and a KitKat – very British) in a box. We’d hope our daughter at least would sleep on the flight and she did! But only for the last 4 minutes as we taxied around Heathrow…

And now…

Leaving was such a whirlwind it’s taking time to process that we left behind people we won’t see again without a goodbye. We’d got a whole plan for how to do this with the kids and it got thrown out of the window completely. We burned through some serious money getting shipping done so fast, flights (much more expensive than usual of course) and then accommodation in the UK for long enough to self-isolate. We’ve had to build new routines for our kids, whilst still working online and 2 hours ahead. We don’t yet know if we caught Covid-19 on the flight over.

And yet, we have so much to be thankful for.

We had the choice and ability to choose where to be – many people world wide do not have this privilege. The same goes for being able to self-isolate.

We are safe, and can afford to feed our family.

Our school have put safety first, paid us and been very supportive throughout.

We are together as a family – and this time spent together is so precious.

We have family and friends who have provided incredible love and support (from offers to house us here, to helping with our move, fetching groceries for us, selling items we left in Kuwait, offers to look after our kids when we packed, rides to and from both airports, gifts for the kids and so much more).

We have each other – Mark and I are a phenomenal team and in times of crisis we are always stronger together, I couldn’t have done this without him.

Making the most of the time to enjoy watching TV under the blankets together!

Going through being repatriated wasn’t easy, but we did it together and are now able to stay safe here in the UK, see (albeit it through windows and from 2m away) family, get visas done and whatever else the next few months turns up.

To all our friends in Kuwait we thank you for 3 great years (even though we’re still seeing you online).

To everyone on the front line of battling this (many members of my family included) words can never express the gratitude for the risks you are taking to save others.

Stay safe everyone.

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