The harsh reality of teaching in the Middle East
As the plane landed at Kuwait International Airport, I thought of all the amazing experiences I might have living and working in the Middle East. Little did I know of the horror that awaited me.
The Middle East has grown in popularity among skilled workers hoping to earn dollars while living in a foreign land.
I initially signed with a school in Abu Dhabi, but changed my mind and decided to give Kuwait a chance.
I was employed by a highly esteemed American international school and many pupils from the royal family attended this school.
Pupils were allowed to dress in western attire and everything about the school screamed American culture.
Male and female pupils were not separated like in so many other schools in the Middle East, and most pupils spoke with an American accent. It was nothing like I had imagined it to be.
I was lucky to have my friend with me. We flew on different flights from South Africa to Dubai and met at the airport.
She was also a teacher from South Africa who happened to be offered a job at the same school in Kuwait.
We knew that we had to support and look out for each other because this was our first time working abroad.
Driving from the airport to our apartments, which were provided by the school, we silently looked out the window at nothing but dusty old buildings and desert sand.
When the mandoop (someone employed by the school to assist expats) pulled up to our apartment building, Cathy and I looked at each other in shock.
She didn’t have to say anything. I felt her disappointment. The building was ugly. All buildings in Kuwait looked the same, unlike the glamorous United Arab Emirates.
However, it was much nicer on the inside. It was clean and furnished.
The other teachers had arrived in August, but Cathy and I got there a month later so we had missed the induction and training. We had to hit the ground running and the very next day we were in class teaching.
It was an intense week, meeting the staff and pupils, and learning about Kuwaiti culture.
People appeared to be helpful and friendly, but in the Middle East everyone wears a mask, even the expats, so it’s difficult to find sincere, genuine people.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. You are forced to adapt to survive.
The school hired mostly American and Canadian teachers. I met just one from Australia, and the number of South African teachers grew each year.
My pupils were not very happy about getting a new teacher yet again. In the Middle East, pupils get new teachers every year and often teachers are replaced within the year.
These schools are merely a business; they sell education to the rich Arab customers. Teachers are dispensable; they are used and thrown away when suited.
My pupils took at least two months to warm up to me. Before the winter break in December, they had grown on me and their heartfelt messages at the back of their mid-term papers left me feeling warm inside.
I then realised that these were just teenagers acting out. They weren’t rude; they were just testing me. When I returned for the second semester I was just as excited to see them as they were to see me.
Lessons were difficult because pupils knew that teachers were not allowed to fail them. It was rare that a pupil would get less than an A- for any subject, and you can bet your life that parents would be there within the hour if you dared to try scoring them lower.
The school administration was as useless as a white crayon in these situations. If it’s more than one pupil with poor grades, then it was the teacher’s fault and often they were fired, so it became an unwritten rule that if a pupil failed, you would let them retake the test or make up for it by giving them a project for extra credit.
All classrooms had a camera and teachers were monitored all year round.
There was also a teacher who doubled as a hall monitor and often teachers would catch him standing out in the hallway, looking through the window into the classroom.
He claimed it was to monitor pupils, but I soon learned it was to monitor the teachers.
Teachers felt anxious all the time and whenever they would hear of a staff member being let go, they would wonder when it would be them on a flight back home.
This happened often, especially in middle school.
Cathy and I were relatively lucky because we both taught high school seniors (Grade 12).
These pupils were given priority over everything else and the main goal of the school, apart from making money, was to ensure that these pupils got into good universities in Europe and the US.
Grade 12 teachers were often asked to stay for a second year if the school felt they were doing a “good job”, and by good job I mean giving pupils an A+ (even if they clearly didn’t deserve it), and doing exactly what admin told you to do even if it meant “spying” on other teachers.
I felt like I was in a James Bond movie.
Cathy and I trusted no one and tried to get through the year with our heads down.
It was difficult because we both had such strong personalities.
In Kuwait you have no voice, you have no rights, you have nothing except the money they pay you.
While the dollars you earned there afforded you the opportunity to buy a pair of Prada shoes, Louis Vuitton handbags, Gucci sunglasses, Starbucks every morning, and meals in fancy restaurants, you lost a piece of your soul with every purchase.
As liberal as some of these Middle Eastern countries claim to be, a different story can be told if you are a resident there.
I still struggle with why the UN turns a blind eye to the people trapped in these countries living in the basement of their embassies because their abusive employer refuses to hand over their passports after they’ve escaped.
During Christmas, even though it’s not officially celebrated, many churches collect old clothes and food items to donate to these people living in embassy basements.
If you are a woman, then brace yourself to be treated like an object.
There are many maids from Somalia, Kenya other African countries, as well as Filipinos who are raped and abused by the families they work for.
If you think the Middle East has a zero-percent crime rate, it is because crime is not reported. No woman would dare report a rape if should would be sent to prison for it.
You would need more than just your word over a citizen of the country, which is why I didn’t report my assault when it happened.
I was home on that day. I had severe bronchitis (thanks to the pollution) and had lost my voice. It was impossible to go to class to teach.
My bank consultant usually came to school if there were papers to sign, but this time it was urgent and when he called I told him I was ill and at home.
He said he was in the area and offered to stop by so I could sign the documents.
I thought it was okay to let him in because we did this in South Africa without giving it a second thought; insurance consultants come over all the time.
After I signed the papers, he refused to leave and he tried to force himself on me.
I knew that nobody would hear me scream because all the teachers were at school.
There were two people who lived in our building who were not teachers - one was a contractor for the US Army and a very good friend, and the other was a maid who cleaned the apartments owned by the school.
I tried to fight him off and I couldn’t.
I begged him to stop while tears rolled down my cheek.
I then accepted what was going to happen to me.
It was at that moment that Esther and her little dog, who just wouldn’t stop barking, stepped out of the lift and into the hallway.
He asked who she was and I told him I was expecting the maid.
He let go of me and left my apartment. He had no idea that Esther lived on my floor across the hall from me.
I dread to think what would have happened if she didn’t show up when she did. I told her everything and she said it happened all the time in Kuwait.
I told Cathy and my vice principal, but asked them both not to disclose the incident to the school or police.
I didn’t have a choice: I had to remain silent.
The police and the society that I lived in would blame me for letting him into my apartment.
I would be shunned by all and the school would want to cover it up and get rid of me as soon as possible to hide the truth about life in Kuwait.
After that experience, I felt completely helpless. I realised that feeling of helplessness does not just exist if you are a woman being attacked by an Arab man. No, it exists always if you refuse to give in to the norms of their society.
It exists if you stand up for yourself or others.
It exists if you refuse to be a mindless zombie because nobody will stand with you.
You have no rights and you will have no support from other expats.
You will be shunned and thrown to the wolves, and if you are lucky you will get a ticket back home.
I certainly didn’t want to live this way and even though I had signed with the school for a second year, after my seniors started final exams, I packed whatever I could into my bags and left.
The school decided not to pay me for May and my three-month summer vacation gratuity, but it was a small price to pay for freedom.
The Middle East gives so much and you can finally buy all the things you’ve ever wanted. You can pay off debt in South Africa in one year that most South Africans take 20 years to pay off.
But it takes so much more from you: your identity, your beliefs, your voice, until there’s nothing left but an empty shell just waiting for the morning so you can get your daily fix of vanilla latte from Starbucks.
Cathy and I left Kuwait with a new understanding of the Middle East. She says it’s made her stronger and she now knows what to do to survive there.
She left South Africa in August to start the new school year in a different Arab country. I wish her all the best and I know she’s doing it because, like so many other teachers in South Africa, it’s a daily struggle to work so hard and be compensated so poorly.
I am teaching in South Africa again. After all I experienced, I don’t think I will ever return to the Middle East on vacation or to work.
When the plane landed at OR Tambo in May, I could feel my eyes swell and before I knew it I had mascara running down my face. I wiped away the tears, trying not to feel silly for being emotional.
The ground staff at the airport greeted everyone as they parted ways to the exit or connecting flights.
There was a pretty young lady; she had her hair braided back and was wearing the warmest smile I had seen in a long time.
She looked at some with their different passports in their hands and said, “Welcome to South Africa”, and then she looked at me.
I didn’t have my passport in my hand, just my hoodie and smudged eye make-up. She said, “Welcome home”, and reached for my hand like she knew the hell I had lived through.
I’ve always been very patriotic, but never have I been prouder and happier to be a South African than at that moment.
Many people leave South Africa because they feel unsafe; how ironic that I only felt safe once my feet had touched South African soil.
I think it takes leaving to appreciate what we have, and as we celebrate Women’s Day and Heritage Day, let us not forget that we have a beautiful country with people who are genuine and smiles that are real.
Let us remember how far we have come and even though we have not reached our potential as a nation, we have a unique democracy that is admired around the world and freedom that nobody can take from us.
* The writer has asked not to be named for fear of jeopardising her current employment and future opportunities.