“Stranded! We are marooned!” said Paul Scott, a secondary school biology teacher at New English School. Scott is one of several foreign teachers working for international schools in Kuwait who have been caught out after traveling to visit their families over the winter break.
Many expatriates had not seen their families for over a year, and some decided to take the risk of travelling in the midst of a global pandemic despite the uncertainties involved. Scott travelled light expecting to be back home in Kuwait by early January. Little did he expect the emergence of the Kent variant that resulted in the UK being added to Kuwait’s list of banned countries. The new rule meant people travelling from the UK needed to do a two-week quarantine in Dubai.
Scott and his colleagues made the necessary arrangements to fly to the United Arab Emirates to complete the required period and be back in Kuwait before the start of the second school term. “The big problem we had is how quickly the rules changed; no one had time to adapt or make provisions for the new rules,” said Scott.
“By the time we landed in Dubai, it was no longer 14 days but 16 days before we could return to Kuwait. The rumour we heard was the border would reopen within seven days, so we thought we’ll hang on in Dubai,” he said.
Five flight changes and one visa extension later, all on their own expense causing financial strain, the teachers were still stranded in Dubai. With budgets, options and their Emirati visas running out, and still no date for the reopening of the Kuwait border, the teachers had to make a call. Some returned to the UK, while Scott decided to base himself in Turkey. Others sought refuge with friends and family around the world.
Jo (not her real name), who works for another international school, was also in the UK when she heard the news of the UK ban and rearranged travel plans. She is a long-term resident of Kuwait and was worried about the repercussions speaking to the media would have on her visa, so she asked to remain anonymous. “We were one day away from completing the 14-day quarantine in Dubai when the restrictions tightened,” she said.
By the time they made new arrangements, the Kuwait border was closed to non-nationals. It was just the beginning of a race to keep up with the rules. Teachers like Scott and Jo have now been in transit for more than two months. With jobs, homes and in some cases pets still in Kuwait and no announcement for the reopening of the border, they have had to deal with financial and emotional stress, while continuing to teach their classes online.
A year of uncertainty
“This has been over a year of heartache for all educators. We all look forward to the day our students are back in the classroom once again,” said Jo. “Emotionally, we have to be strong — the world has changed, and we must be prepared to adapt and be resilient. Everyone has been affected by COVID-19 one way or another. I am not going to pretend and say it has been easy. It has not.”
Pieter Meyer, an 11th and 12th grade business management and world history teacher at another well-established international school in Kuwait, also became stranded when he travelled to South Africa at the end of January to attend his brother’s funeral. “I thought it was going to be a quick two-week trip,” Meyer said. With the closure of the Kuwait border to non-nationals, he has been staying with friends and family in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“I have now dealt with grief in the middle of all of this. It is difficult. I am grateful that the school is accommodating teachers that cannot be in Kuwait. That is also a challenge from South Africa because there are a lot of power failures. Yesterday I moved to a new house to stay with a cousin of mine, because if there is a power failure, she has backup power,” Meyer said. “I am moving wherever the Wi-Fi is,” he laughed. “You plan your life around the new reality.”
Siobhan Doran, Deputy Director of New English School, talked about the challenges of managing staff scattered around the world. “While teaching remains online, it is true you can teach from anywhere, but it is not the best way of running an organization,” she said.
On campus learning in September
The ministry of health has now announced that schools will not reopen for on-campus learning until September 2021. But there still has not been an announcement regarding reopening of borders that would allow stranded teachers to return. “If you want to open schools, we actually need teachers standing up in front of classes,” Doran said. “By their nature, foreign schools have foreign teachers. We still have no idea how they are going to get back to Kuwait.”
New English School alone has 20 teachers stranded abroad. This is not taking into account other schools that have had teachers caught out by the border closure. Ziad Rajab, Director of New English School, said: “The authorities want us to continue the educational process while at the same time put up barriers which prevent us from doing our jobs.”
Kuwait is one of the very few countries in the world that have closed their borders to non-nationals who still have valid residencies and work permits. All the teachers interviewed said they are just waiting for the border to reopen and they will return to Kuwait.
“Our home is Kuwait,” Jo said. “We have two pets that we miss, and we are fortunate enough to have friends and colleagues who are willing to look after them. We have extremely good friends who have been kind enough to let us stay. They certainly did not expect two weeks to turn into two months. Without their support we honestly don’t know where we would be.”
Long-term residents like Scott have already experienced historical shifts in Kuwait. He was in Kuwait in August 1990 when Iraqi tanks rolled across the border. He was one of the “samidoun” — roughly translated as “steadfast ones” — as those who stayed in Kuwait throughout the seven-month occupation came to be called. He sees the irony of being unable to return to Kuwait now because of the country’s COVID-19 health regulations.
“I like Kuwait — it is an interesting country,” he said. “I have lots of friends there from years ago and I do a lot of work with the environmental protection agency. I do a lot of wildlife photography and work linked to the biology I teach. It is definitely a second home.”
Meyer moved to Johannesburg because there are more flights to the Middle East from there than Cape Town, meaning he can return to Kuwait more quickly as soon as the border opens. “It is a waiting game,” he said.