Hope for the best, plan for the worst

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The expat’s backup plan

Hope for the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.
Denis Waitley

A cliché that’s been used, misused and oft repeated in various guises all over the world since the 1800s, and like so many old sayings, there’s a reason for its perseverance in modern language – it’s true!

Plan for all eventualities

When we embark on a new adventure, we desperately want to ignore the possibility that it might not work out as we planned. We want to move forwards with confidence and to believe that our new life will be filled with success, laughter and love. Those who move away from problems firmly believe they will be left behind and those who never experienced problems often believe they never will. A positive mindset – hoping for the best – is essential for expats; we wouldn’t get far without a sense of adventure and faith that it’ll all be OK – but equally important, is understanding what could go wrong and having a plan to extricate ourselves efficiently from potentially sticky situations.

Life doesn’t go to plan

As scary as it is to have to think about it, depending where in the world you’re planning to relocate, there are things that can go wrong. From earthquakes in Japan and hurricanes in the Caribbean, to losing your job in Dubai or dealing with civil unrest, there are some situations in which you might have to leave, or seek emergency help, in a hurry and you need to know where to turn.

In Tokyo, we needed to have an earthquake emergency pack to hand – enormous containers of water, tins of food, insulated blankets and so on. Thankfully, when the disaster of the big 9 magnitude earthquake struck in March 2011, we didn’t lose electricity or water, although food became a bit sparse after a while. But it was comforting to know it was there.

Work out your Plan B

Your plan B starts with a little bit of homework – if you’re moving from Tokyo to the UK for example, then planning for an earthquake is a waste of your time and resources; what you need is knowledge of your new home; specifically, history, politics and climate. If you’re moving to the Caribbean, learn the hurricane procedure; if you’re relocating to Hong Kong, find out about typhoons and ‘Black Rain‘.

Local visa laws

Let’s take Dubai as an example. For many expats, the job market in Dubai makes it the land of opportunity and the lifestyle there for skilled workers is certainly something to be envied. Lose your job however – and let’s face it, this can happen for any number of reasons – your permission to stay in Dubai is far from certain. UAE law means you can’t live there without the sponsorship of an employer and if this is withdrawn you could find yourself with less than a month to move on. We all know a month isn’t nearly long enough to plan, so you need to have those plans in pace from the outset.

Rehearse the drill

Depending on the nature of the emergency, your plan B may need to involve your whole family and should be clearly laid out and well-rehearsed so that everyone, even the smallest child, can follow them. Teach your child exactly what to do in an emergency.

In Japan, all schools run regular earthquake drills – dive under a desk and cover your head. There’s more, of course, and everyone undertakes these drills diligently. In Berlin, the schools ran ‘lockdown drills’ in case of an armed intruder. A bit different from the fire drills I used to have when I was at school!

To help you out, I’ve put together a list of things you might need to consider…

Emergency Services

Different countries have different numbers for emergency services (and some countries have more than one depending on the nature of the emergency!). Make sure everyone in the family knows, or can easily access these numbers. We suggest little laminated cards that can be kept in wallets, attached to backpacks etc to make it easy to remember.

Hospitals and emergency rooms

Where is your nearest emergency treatment centre and how will you get there? It’s worth going a little over the top with your planning; it may only be a short drive away but what if you can’t access your car? It may be on the main bus route from your local stop – but what if public transport has stopped? Know the route well and plan how to get there in every eventuality.

Designated evacuation zone

Like all schools and workplaces, you need an emergency evacuation plan. In the event of a disaster, you may not be fortunate enough to be with all members of your family. You need to have a designated meeting place that is easy for everyone to access and a response plan for adults. For example, the plan might be for mum to get the youngest children from pre-school and dad to get the older ones, before meeting at the designated spot. Teenagers are a little less predictable so they need to be able to get there under their own steam. Make it central to everyone’s work/school location, preferably a large open space and make sure everyone knows how to get there.

Emergency evacuation supplies

When the sun is shining, you’re full of hope and optimism and life seems like a great adventure, this can be one of the easiest things to neglect. In a country where emergency evacuation or natural disaster is a realistic threat, a pre-packed emergency bag that’s ready to go can truly save your life.

These contents are a good starting place, and consider what you consider emergency gear:

  • A change of clothes for all family members
  • ID and papers – passport, visa, etc
  • Cash
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Water sterilising tablets and a water bottle
  • A torch
  • Dry food rations
  • Fire-lighters/matches/lighter
  • Blanket or two – we had one of those silver, emergency blankets
  • Small first aid kit

Don’t make it too heavy to carry, keep it somewhere easily accessible and make collecting it a part of your adult response plan.

What comes after Plan B?

The immediate threat is over, you’re all safe and you have some emergency supplies. What’s next?

This is the most frequently overlooked stage of planning. Who can you contact? How can you get out of the country? Where can you stay and what will you do for money? Make sure you are registered with your local embassy or consulate; they can help you in an emergency by keeping you updated and helping you to access funds wired from overseas. Have some emergency savings if possible and a contact in your home country who can act as your advocate – forwarding you money and helping with transport arrangements. Have someone you can stay with at another location and a rough idea of what comes next.

It may seem extreme when you’re sitting in the sun and enjoying your new lifestyle but make time to go over the plans now and again to make sure everyone in the household knows what to expect. Don’t overdo it – you don’t want to scare the children – but be thorough and know in your own mind that everything is in place to keep your family safe.

Expats, by their very nature, are brave, resourceful and adventurous! You’ll be okay, just don’t leave it all to chance.

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