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I was 15 when I learned about the news ­– the whole family is going to migrate to Saudi Arabia and stay there for good. My father, who has been working there since I was barely a year old, was finally able to secure family status visa for us.

Lucky, huh?

But for a teenager like me, it was scary. We all know that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country, and even if we’re not Muslims, we have to abide by their laws and way of life. How am I going to enjoy being a teenager? How am I going to cope with my new classmates? Being a transferee is already a big challenge, what more moving to a country with a completely different culture and environment? If I only had the liberty to choose, I wouldn’t go. Even if it means giving up on the chance of finally being together as a family.

But since I didn’t have a choice — off to the sandbox, we go.

As expected, it was a struggle for us during the first weeks. Coping with the humid weather was difficult, and we had to get used to wearing “abaya” (women’s traditional clothing) every time we go out. Women can also not just wander around — you need a male companion (our father) all the time. The food is also very different. There’s no pork there, and even hotdogs taste different.

I missed everything about the Philippines.

The school where my sisters and I would be enrolled in was also a mystery to me. I kept on thinking — will I still be able to experience a normal high school life? I was young, immature and scared. A week after we arrived, it was already our first day in school. And when I set foot on the school grounds, I instantly felt at home.

The institution, called the International Philippine School in Al Khobar, is being run by the Philippine Embassy, catering only to children of Filipino expatriates in the Middle East. The school adopts Filipino education curriculum. Books are being imported from the Philippines, and the teachers are also Filipinos.

Being in the school makes you feel that you are in the Philippines and not in the middle of some desert. We speak Tagalog, learn whatever is being taught here, play the same games, and eat the same food. We have programs too like Linggo ng Wika, Intramurals, JS Prom, Independence Day, etc. It’s like you never left your home country.

My classmates and teachers were all very helpful in helping us adapt to our new environment. Soon, I saw myself having the time of my life — the prime of my teenage life. It was even hard to accept the fact that we had to part ways after graduation so we can continue our college studies in the Philippines.

My life as an expat child in Saudi Arabia taught me how to properly adapt to new environments and to respect other people’s culture and beliefs. I also learned to appreciate the sacrifices overseas Filipino Workers — our kababayans — have to make. I had great memories of my life in Saudi because I was there with my family. Without them, life in the desert will be lonely and uneventful. And to overcome it, one needs a lot of determination, patience, and sacrifice. This is the reason why I salute our countrymen, particularly those in the Middle East. They are my unsung heroes.

It’s been 10 years since we graduated from high school but we’ve never lost touch. Last August, we had a mini-reunion and had a blast reminiscing about our high school days. It also made me proud to know that each of us has become successful in our own careers. See? We didn’t miss much, did we?

But perhaps, if there is one thing that we really miss, it’s still our adoptive country, Saudi Arabia. This was proven by the fact that some of our classmates decided to go back and work there after getting their college diplomas in the Philippines. Those of us who were left here miss a lot about the country — the broasted chicken, shawarma, kabsa rice, the malls and Pinoy convenience stores, the school, our teachers. The list goes on.

What else can I say? That sandbox was our playground — and I will never ever forget the lessons it taught me.


May Buendia is a 27-year-old Journalism graduate from UP Diliman and now works as a consulting manager for an executive search firm in Makati.


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