At 28 years old I was ecstatic to finally be finished University and starting my career in Cancer Treatment. I was having a blast living on my own and partying with friends. Life was great aside from the fact that I was drowning in student debt. It kept me awake at night not knowing how I would be able to pay my rent, save for a house, and still manage to pay off 8 years of University.
Until one day, I received an email that would forever change my life. It was from a job recruiter offering me a very attractive package to work at a cancer center in Saudi Arabia. My initial thought was ‘absolutely not, that would be absurd.’ The package sounded too good to be true and the thought of moving to the other side of the world by myself made me want to vomit. Yet the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be exactly what I needed.
Long story short, the next day I handed in my resignation at work, packed my bags, and became a non-resident of Canada. Eeeeek!
Upon arrival at the Saudi airport, I was greeted by one of my new colleagues and soon-to-be neighbor in the female housing compound. She handed me a black abaya and matching head scarf to put on before leaving the airport and we called for our ‘safe taxi’. She then gave me the low down on a few of the things I should never do as a woman in the Kingdom. Never leave your compound without your abaya or head scarf. Never go anywhere alone. Never take a regular taxi. And never be seen in public with a man (ie., no public dating).
Sure, no biggie! Some of the other female expats had issues with the restrictions such as covering their hair, but I was so grateful to be in a country that doesn’t allow tourism (or didn’t at the time), and who was paying me a fabulous salary to be there, so of course I would respect their culture.
The only thing I knew I would miss was wine! I loooooove my wine and had many moments of ‘wtf was I thinking moving to a dry country.’ Ahhhh… As soon as I settled into my apartment however, I was greeted by some lovely Irish neighbors who introduced me to the art of bathroom wine making. That’s right…3 ingredients…juice, sugar, and yeast in a water bottle with a balloon at the top (to create a loose pressure system), and voila! 3 week later you have semi-tolerable wine! It was yeasty and disgusting, but it filled the void and did the trick. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
My first week of work at the hospital involved an orientation with a number of different presentations on Saudi culture and lifestyle. One of the presentations discussed incestuous marriage, which refers to marriage amongst relatives, mostly first cousins. Although it is increasingly known that incestuous breeding brings about rare disorders related to genetic abnormalities, it continues to be legal and quite prevalent in the country. Since cancer is quite often genetically linked, I had the privilege of treating some rare forms of the disease that I may never have seen in Canada. I also met children with rare forms of cancer, who brought so much light and appreciation into my life. Children just want to play and have fun even when they’re ill. It’s always heartbreaking to experience, but rewarding to think that we’ve made such a compounded difference in their lives.
Needless to say, career-wise this was an extremely eye-opening and educational experience that I am forever grateful for. On a personal level, moving to Saudi was also the best decision I could’ve made at that time of my life. My initial goal was to stay for a year or two, do some travelling and pay off my student debt. Little did I know that life would become so enriched with friends from around the world, travel to areas I didn’t know existed, and experience an array of amazing cultures.
One year turned into two, two into three, and before I knew it, the Middle East was my home for over six years!
My advice to all of the medical professionals, teachers, engineers, or other professionals who are considering a stint in the Middle East…do it! Don’t think twice, expect the worst but hope for the best, and you will come out a more cultured, appreciative, and educated individual.
Please feel free to reach out at any time with questions or concerns. I'd love to hear from you!