Where is home to the children whose parents came to Oman for better lives but who don’t have an automatic right to stay? Is it a case of living on borrowed time in a place these Oman-born expats call home? Alvin Thomas finds out.
The world is a much smaller place than it once was.
Some of us think nothing of travelling to far-flung places, working abroad and sending money to our families back home.
But what happens to the people whose parents came to Oman, who were born here and whose heritage and culture can be vastly different to our own?
These are the stories of the expat ‘global nomads’ or ‘third-culture kids’ who were born and raised in Oman.
Most of their stories about their lives begin and end with smiles. However, beneath it all lie these lingering questions: How long can they stay in Oman, and more importantly, can they survive in the country that they now call “home away from home”?
These, for instance, are the questions that led Abel Williams*, a 19-year-old American expat who was born and raised in Oman into a quandary as he made his way back into the car from Muscat International Airport.
He was returning back “home” from his college in New York. And as the memories of his dreaded time back in his dorm played in a loop in his mind, all he wanted to think about was how he was in a safe space – a safe space called Oman.
The boy had lived all his life in the Sultanate, and only got to taste life in his hometown in the US when he was offered a scholarship in the Mannes School of Music, in New York.
In a literal sense, Abel can be classified as a ‘TCK’.
A TCK or ‘third-culture kid’, in short, is a term given to adults and children that were raised in a culture other than that of the country named on their passport where they are legally considered a native for a significant part of their development years.
Abel says: “I had only been to the US twice in my 19 years, and those were for two-week long breaks. So, my experience of life back there was quite slim. However, my dad always wanted me to experience life there.
“So, when I got a call back from Mannes in 2017, I obliged. The first few weeks in the dorms were all about getting to know one another. But, the more time I spent there, the more I realised that I wasn’t meant to be a part of the life in the US.
“I studied in the American School here – and I was quite popular too. I could interact with my teachers and fellow students here so I never thought that I would find it hard to socialise with the local crowds there.
“But things turned around quickly,” he tells. “I found it hard to speak to the people there, and I also couldn’t interact with my peers. This took a toll on me, and by March 2018, it was reflecting on my studies.
“I was crying daily. There were nights when I would just hold my pillow against my face and scream into it. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be,” he says heavily.
“For the first time since I can remember, I cried on the phone to my mum and dad and asked them to get me out of the US.”
To his surprise, his father responded with words that he says he can never forget: “Abel, you should pack your bags and come home.”
Home, according to Abel, is Oman, and he says that it was the first time in months that he slept peacefully.
The youth is currently taking a break from studies, and hopes to join the Sultan Qaboos University for a course in Music and Musicology next year.
“I understand that my life in the Sultanate cannot last forever. But, growing up here, I find life to be very different from that of other countries. Life is very peaceful and civilised here – it’s what I have been exposed to from birth.
“It worries me to think that I am a 19-year-old man who cannot deal with his insecurities of living in another country, but if I could, I would strive to live here until I can.
“Oman has had a long-lasting and deep impact in my life. I’d like to think that I am an Omani by heart,” he says.
In reality, this is a consensus among several expats living in Oman. And in a country which calls itself home to more than two million expats, there are TCKs aplenty in schools and colleges scattered across the Sultanate. With several now taking up jobs and starting families, we can only expect to hear more stories such as that of Abel’s.
But with Oman taking a stricter stand towards ‘Omanisation’, and with more expats losing jobs owing to a “slowly-stabilising economy”, several TCKs and ATCKs (Adult third-culture kid: TCKs that are past their 20s are now having to pack up their bags and head back to their countries whether they like it or not.
As per recent statistics released by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI), the numbers of expats in Oman has dropped by over 97,000, TCKs abound.
Some of these worries are driving expat ATCKs into life-altering scenarios, which in some cases can also lead individuals into mental health troubles such as depression and anxiety.
Aisha al Barwani, a Muscat-based certified life-coach, talks about how some expats can feel out of place when asked to leave their country – and it’s especially harder when it’s the laws of the same country that they love that are working against them.
“I deal with a lot of individuals who claim that they have no identity or meaning. They neither fit into their home countries nor their country of residence [Oman].
“Imagine being born in Oman, and spending the first 20 to 30 years of your life here. Your whole family and circle of friends probably reside around you. Then going back home just won’t seem like an option.
“I had one ATCK come to me last year. He had just lost his job, and felt cheated after he was let go. He told me how he had contributed to the growth of his company but wasn’t even offered a no-objection certificate when he was let go, thereby forcing him to return to his home country.
“There are also several others who are willing to force their way back into the country illegally in order to continue living here,” she adds.
The whereabouts of her patient are unknown.
Such is also the case of the several that have had to leave the country permanently. Currently, Oman’s laws suggest that an expat can only reside in Oman with their families if they are provided a visa by their sponsor.
Our source in the immigration department of the Royal Oman Police (ROP), says: “A work or residence visa is mandatory for an expat to reside in the country.
“And if the person wants to bring their families along, they must have valid family visas too.
“This is the law of the land – and anyone found breaking it can be punished with fines and deportation.
Dealing with TCKs is where things get difficult, he tells.
“These are people who were born and raised in Oman, and as much as they say that they can’t leave the country, if the situation arises, they must.
Oman’s work law also states that any expat working in the country must leave for a period of two years if they aren’t granted a non-objection certificate (NOC), be it whether they have lived here for two years or 20 years.
The only real solace for such TCKs then would be to apply for a citizenship – but this process can take several years and the chances of being accepted are slim.
Y tried to contact numerous expats – some who have been in the country for over 40 years – in Oman who had applied for citizenship, but they declined to comment fearing that it could affect their pending citizenship judgement.
Other investments such as purchasing a property with the International Tourism Complex (ITC) status or starting one’s own limited liability company (LLC) will also give an individual eligibility to hold a permanent residence visa.
According to Vivian Chiona, the founder and director of Expat Nest, a website that provides emotional support to expats and their families through online counselling services, a lot of TCKs detach themselves from investing in friendships and relationships, often asking “what’s the point?”.
In her analysis of the situation, she says: “They have already experienced the pain of leaving people behind or know they might move again. So, TCKs may learn to shut off their emotions to avoid feeling the same pain again.
She stresses that counselling is essential in any such scenario.
Aisha offers help to those who need help, especially those who find it hard to digest that they must leave the country soon.
“The recent figures show that the numbers of expats have been falling. That’s a worrying concern as a lot of children are being uprooted from their lives here in Oman, and planted elsewhere.
“And from the child’s perspective, this can be quite a challenge. The child must begin making friends and connections from scratch but all the while they know that they could be moving places again.
“Many children shut down their interpersonal or social skills up to a point that it may be too late for them to recover.
This, Aisha says, is why parents must talk to their children about how they’re doing in school.
“The parent must instill a sense of confidence that their child, no matter what, will not be alone, and that making friends is the best way to settle down in a new place.
However, that brings us to another big question: “Where is home?”
The answer to that is complex, says Aisha.
“There’s a saying that the home is where the heart lies. But most expat patients that come here say that their heart lies in Oman and they would love to become citizens of the country someday.
“Of course, I’m sure that a lot of people would still like to explore new countries someday, but for those who find it hard to part ways with the country must realise that they must begin to accept their home as a place where their family and friends lie.
“One of the greatest upsides of being a TCK is the ability to blend well with other cultures while following local cultures at home. It gives these youths a chance to experience the best of both worlds.
“This, in reality, must make them stronger when they travel outside Oman. For instance, I have friends from India who were born and raised in Oman, and even call themselves ‘Made in Oman’. These people can interact with people from most cultures with ease as they’ve been doing that all their lives.
“The ability to blend into their surroundings and with their peers has been embedded in them since childhood. They can also speak languages like Arabic, English, and Hindi with ease. This qualifies them to live in more than 10 countries within Asia alone.
“The world is shrinking by the day, and people are coming into contact with each other more so than ever before. The TCKs, who’ve already been exposed to various cultures throughout their schooling and work life have the upper hand than, say, locals who have only been exposed to circles around them.”
Majid Jamal al Rawahi, a 23-year-old Omani student and real estate entrepreneur, says: “It’s a fact that a lot of the young men and women in Oman are dependent on the country for benefits. I’m not saying all of them are but a few of them know how to knock down barriers and strive for success.
“But, I’ve always surrounded myself around expat students, as their thirst towards success is unlike any I’ve ever seen. A part of that is so that they can continue to reap the benefits of the country they’re living in but it also teaches us of the struggles that one must go through to attain their dreams.
“So, in some ways, I can say that the expats here are motivating us Omanis into working towards our success. Moreover, it’s not fair to call them outsiders to our country.
“They may be living their lives on foreign land, but most of them love the Sultanate with all their hearts. If you don’t believe me, just look at the colleges around the country during the National Day, or after a victorious football match for Oman.
“They even decorate their cars to show their love for His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said – and that’s the determination you see from a local. So, without any haste, I’ll call them my brothers and sisters.”
Asterix – Names changed to protect identity