'Home is a sense of belonging'


SARAH MCKEVITTmoved to Dubai with her family two years ago, but it was a holiday experience in Thailand that made her reassess her sense of home

SOMETIMES WE are touched by unexpected events. Far from home, this can heighten your sense of vulnerability, but can also help you assess what really matters.

Two years ago, my husband, who works in the petroleum industry, was offered a posting in Dubai. It was an opportunity for him and good timing for our two girls, then aged nine and three.

We had both returned to Ireland from Britain in the mid-1990s and spent the “good years” in career jobs in oil companies. We considered ourselves lucky to have married, bought a house and started our family in Ireland while many of our contemporaries, trained as geologists, still worked abroad.

So it was with some trepidation that we left again, knowing that this time the return route could be less straightforward. We rented our house and flew to the Middle East in the summer of 2010.

Dubai was exciting, challenging and often exhausting. The large ex-pat population presented us with many new beliefs and cultures, beyond the Islamic and local Emirati traditions we had expected. Everyone had come from somewhere else, making it easier to fit in.

While dining last year in a Thai restaurant, we reminisced about our pre-children backpacking days in Bangkok 20 years ago, and resolved to revisit Thailand. It’s a relatively short journey from Dubai, and would be a good place to relax as a family.

A few months later we were in Patong on the island of Phuket. One night the streets filled with people, many barefoot, running. “Why are all those people going up the hill?” we asked. The look in the eyes of the woman who paused to answer our question will always remain. “Tsunami!” she breathed. In Thailand, it’s a word loaded with fear, following the devastating tsunami of 2004.

Quickly, we packed our car to capacity with people and drove to a clearing on a hill. People assembled, mostly tourists, as news of the tsunami alert streamed in, along with texts, phone calls and emails from across the world. A wave was expected to make landfall on Phuket at about 6pm.

From Sligo, my friend Suzanne texted updates from the US Geological Survey website. The earthquake, like the 2004 one, had occurred off Sumatra in Indonesia. But fault movement this time was strike-slip, not vertical thrust, and so was less likely to cause a large displacement of water.

We gave geology lessons, grateful to have a distraction. It was unnerving, surreal. We were connected to the world, out of danger, but powerless against this massive, random force of nature.

Soon after 6pm, a 10cm wave was recorded on Patong beach and reported on local radio. There was a giddiness in the air, a feeling that we had all defied death. Sensing the relief, our children began to enjoy the adventure, sitting on banana leaves around the smoky campfire in an attempt to ward away the mosquitos which had descended in the approaching darkness.

The group slowly dispersed as people made their way back downhill. One young man said he was heading back to the bar he was in, to reclaim his shoes and resume the party. A young French woman embraced us tightly, her temporary Irish family. She was going home.

There were other Irish people on the hill. Mary, Paddy and Brian were on a year’s leave from a laboratory in Longford to see the world. They were not sure if the jobs would be there when they returned. Two lads from Armagh and Monaghan were partying for the weekend in Patong before returning to construction jobs in Australia.

I fell to thinking about where this young generation of Irish travellers will settle. Could they return to a more prosperous Ireland as we had, only to leave again? Will our own children ever get that feeling of stepping off an island to explore the world? Perhaps they won’t need to. Already our kids are changing, becoming well-travelled, exposed to different people and cultures. We don’t know whether there will be opportunities for them in the Ireland of the future, or whether they will even want to return. Growing up abroad, their lives are now fundamentally different. I often wonder how they will define themselves and what they will identify with when they are adults.

We returned to our everyday lives, and for all of us, Dubai felt like home. We have met new people from countless backgrounds, some of whom we can count on as friends.

Home for us is a sense of belonging. It’s not about a particular place or people, but something that you work towards and create, wherever you may find yourself. With that knowledge, you have the capacity to go anywhere.

Share your views and experiences with Generation Emigration, The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad, curated by Ciara Kenny

Blog: irishtimes.com/generationemigration

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Email: emigration@irishtimes.com

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