Generation Emigration

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All I knew about Afghanistan was years of war

This time last year, Noel Scanlon couldn’t afford to bring his sons to see Santa. Since taking a job in Afghanistan, his mortgage is up to date and his family can afford a holiday for the first time since 2008.

Fri, Dec 9, 2011, 08:53

   

This time last year, Noel Scanlon couldn’t afford to bring his sons to see Santa. Since taking a job in Afghanistan, his mortgage is up to date and his family can afford a holiday for the first time since 2008

'This experience has been about more than just work for me; it has given me a different perspective on life and what is important to me': Noel in Afghanistan

I SET UP a small architectural-services company from my home in 2003, and within a few years I had five staff and a small office in Limerick. I really enjoyed running my own business, but in August 2008 we hit problems. Lehman Brothers went to the wall shortly after that, and as anyone involved in construction knows well, that was when things went seriously pear-shaped.

In the space of just one month, our turnover was down by 70 per cent. It was a scary time. By Christmas we had closed the office and moved the business back to the house.

My wife Laura, who had been working for the company, went back into hotel management and I took a part-time job with another firm. We entered 2011 with a few months’ arrears on our mortgage, and last Christmas we really struggled to put things together for our two boys, Daithí (who is nine) and Oisín (six).

I got a phone call in May from a friend and former client asking if I knew someone who would be interested in taking a project-management position with a construction firm in Afghanistan. I called around to a few people I knew, and one of them said to me: “Noel, would you not do it yourself?” I hadn’t even thought of it before. I discussed it with my wife, and within a week we had decided it was the right thing to do.

I wasn’t concerned about the work itself, but the safety element and the long periods of separation from my family were a worry. The work was to be exclusively within a military base, and I was assured it would be safe. So I went for it and arrived here at the Tarin Kowt base in Uruzgan province in July. There are 4,500 people stationed at the base, which is jointly managed by the US and Australian armies.

All I knew about Afghanistan before I took the job was what I had heard in news reports about the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, years of war and suicide bombers. I didn’t have any illusions: I knew it was a very dangerous country. But I also knew that the area I was going into was protected. Every time I have to move away from the base, it is always by military helicopter.

Copenhagen Contractors, the Danish company I work for, was founded by a former military man. It provides services for areas hit by war or natural disasters. Ninety per cent of my work is for the Australian military, building and managing accommodation and services for the soldiers.

The environment within the base is very work-focused. I get up before 6am, start work at 7am, and usually don’t finish until after 8pm, six days a week. We work long hours, but I’ve never been averse to hard work. To be honest, it comes naturally when you’re here, because there’s not a lot else to do when you have spare time.

We have one coffee shop and a gym, which I try to use on my days off. We are living in an enclosed compound, so doing some exercise helps to dispel the sense of claustrophobia. I’ve also started a blog about my experiences here and about the books I’m reading.

I was home for two weeks in October, which was great, but leaving again after the fortnight was very difficult. I felt like a visitor in my own home, living out of a suitcase and then packing up again to go back. It was a weird experience. But I’ll be home for another two weeks at Christmas, which I’m really looking forward to.

The Ailwee Cave, near Ballyvaughan in west Co Clare, has a fantastic Santa’s workshop every Christmas, which we have gone to every year since our first boy was about two years old. It is a great day for the kids, but there is a cost to it, and last year we just couldn’t afford it. This year we have had it booked since September and I’m coming home a few days early so we can all go together. To me, things like that make the time away worthwhile.

We have noticed a huge change in our finances over the past few months. Last June I couldn’t afford to wind up my own company. Since I’ve been over here we’ve been able to do that, and our mortgage is back up to date. One of my sons is now doing guitar lessons and, heading into the new year, we’ll be able to plan a holiday for the family, something we haven’t done since 2008.

Noel's sons Daithí and Oisín

If someone had told me last Christmas I would be living in Afghanistan in a year’s time, I would never have believed them. I’ll stay for a year, and hopefully by then I will have found something back home, or perhaps in another Gulf country that is a little safer than here, or in Britain, where I would be closer to my family. I am willing to do whatever it takes now.

This experience has been about more than just work for me; it has given me a different perspective on life and what is important to me. Coming over here, the anger and frustration I used to feel about the state of the country has waned somewhat, because you realise we have the ability to change things in Ireland. The problems are big, but they are absolutely nothing compared with the problems people face in Afghanistan in their day-to-day lives.

We have an educated population, we are able to go abroad and we are able to make things happen for ourselves. Maybe things aren’t as bad as we sometimes make them out to be.

In conversation with CIARA KENNY

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