What you need to know:
- If she had a choice, Arafa Ahmed would not have left her children behind in Kenya as she worked in Dubai.
- She shares her pain, frustrations and triumph in the challenging journey of being a long-distance parent.
Parenting is hard enough when the family is under one roof. But what if your children are hundreds of kilometres away?
Globalisation and the search for greener pastures gave rise to long-distance parenting. Such was the case with Arafa Abdillah Ahmed.
The 39-year-old completed her diploma in Hotel Management in 2004 at Air Travel and Related Studies Center in Nairobi, but could not secure a job.
Having been raised by a single mother who worked abroad, Arafa opted to follow in her footsteps.
“My mother was 17 when she gave birth to me. I saw how she struggled to raise me and I had promised myself that if I did not get a job locally after college, I would broaden my search, as I was desperate to fend for myself.”
Her friend connected her to an agent for overseas employment and she registered her details. After a few months, she was successful.
In June 2004, Arafa travelled to Dubai for work, starting as a Lifeguard. She would later get married to a Tanzanian in November 2006.
Her husband did not have a job, so he stayed back in Tanzania while she continued working in Dubai.
Arafa got pregnant on her honeymoon and left immediately for work, leaving her new marriage, her friends and everything she had attached herself with. She did not have time to enjoy her marriage as if she did not go back to work, their lives would have been more stressful financially.
She was 25 at the time.
“I was all by myself, expectant and in a foreign country. It was tough. I was young, many kilometres away from my country, my husband was in Tanzania and I had no family in Dubai. I still had to work to the last month before I could start my maternity leave.”
When she was due for delivery, Arafa took maternity leave and came back to Kenya to deliver herself of the baby in August 2007.
But she had to travel back to Dubai after her leave. Arafa’s mother, who was working in Saudi Arabia as an English teacher for a royal family, had to quit her job to raise help Arafa to raise her baby.
“I had to work to make ends meet. My husband had not secured a job at the time. Bills had to be paid. I cried for days, but I am grateful for a supportive family.”
Her mother was handy in raising her grandchild. Her grandmother died two years ago and her aunt, too, played a big role in supporting her.
“My mother looked at it like this: I was still young and had so much to achieve in life, she was also trying to come back home and take a break,” she says.
Together with other workmates who were also working in the company while their children were at home, Arafa had a support system that she could turn to.
With new advanced technology, Arafa was able to get updates on her son’s well-being.
When her son turned three, Arafa travelled with him to Dubai together with her husband who secured a job in the same country.
In 2011, Arafa discovered she was pregnant for the second time.
“I could not sustain two children in Dubai. My mother came again and took my son who was five years by then and my newborn daughter who was two months and brought them with her back to Kenya.”
Arafa says that she would cry herself to sleep countless nights. None of her children breastfed for over three months and they survived on formula before being weaned.
Careerwise, Arafa was soaring. After working as a lifeguard, she secured a job at Jumeirah Group of Hotels as a sales automation coordinator for nine years before joining Emirates Group as a cabin crew manager.
She always ensured that whenever she found time, she would travel home to be with her children after every two months. In February 2014, Arafa became a mother for the third time.
“A part of me felt that I should be with my children. But if I stayed in the country, I would be jobless.”
While everyone saw a strong woman on the outside, the mother of three admits she was struggling emotionally and it took a toll on her. Arafa painfully recalls how one time she wanted to change the diaper of her second baby but she asked her not to touch her as she thought of her as a stranger.
“My children needed time to get used to me when I came back on short breaks. Hence when my daughter was two years old, I tried to change her diaper on my second day with them and she started crying and screaming asking me not to touch her and calling my mother to change her.”
“That made me cry, and I knew that whatever I was planning I should execute it fast because I was going to lose my children’s love. No one knew the mental torture I had to endure and that was when I made up my mind and no one could talk me out of it.”
In December 2017, after working in Dubai for fifteen years, she decided to call it quits and return home to Kenya to be with her family.
“My children have always been raised in Kenya and my mother is still single. So we had to pool our resources”
They had also built a house and established themselves. Nevertheless, it was a difficult conversation to have with her husband, who was working as a security officer at Four Seasons hotel in Dubai and who felt that she should not return home.
“My husband did not understand because he felt that our children were doing fine, this decision to return home put my marriage on the rocks, I was leaving my husband behind but returning to my children.”
People did not understand why she left her job.
“You come back and all over sudden, some of your friends and family distance themselves from you. People do not need you when they feel you have nothing to offer. My mother remained my greatest support system.”
She says that when she came back to Kenya, she was like a total stranger to her children and they did not take her seriously whenever she told them anything as they were not used to having her around.
“One time my son told me that he would be happy if I went back to Dubai as I was unable to provide them with the gifts they were used to getting.”
The first two years after Arafa returned home, she fell into depression.
While working as a cabin crew manager at emirates, the department of peer support trained her to be a psychological first aider, so she understood all the signs of depression.
Together with culture shock after being away from home for so long and missing out on greater parts of her children's lives, Arafa became desperate to compensate for the lost time.
She instantly knew she was depressed. Nothing was happening the way she had anticipated and no job was coming forth. She was sad all the time and with no one to open up to as she did not want to stress her mother, she was determined to find a solution to her misery.
“I made countless job applications, had uncomfortable conversations with my children and explained the reasons why I was away and that now I was back so we could be a family.”
Her husband also eventually came back to Zanzibar following the Covid-19 pandemic.
To keep herself busy and to have a source of income, Arafa set up an online travel agency- Arafaiz Zanzibar Tours in Zanzibar. She started the agency because that most of her friends in the Diaspora used to ask whether it was safe to come to Africa, she hopes to change the narrative about our continent.
“My friends and colleagues thought that in Kenya, you can just come across wild animals on the roads, I was determined to change their mindset as western media is not doing a good job in showing the beauty of Africa."
As Arafa does bookings, her husband acts as the tour guide. This had made their tourists from abroad comfortable. The duo has also ventured into Air BnB businesses in Zanzibar generating income enough to have them settle back and be present parents to their children.
She agrees that her relationship with her three children aged 13, eight and six have not been the best they could have.
“I feel like I am starting all over again and learning now how to be a mother. I am discovering a lot about my children.”
Arafa has noted their fear that she will abandon them like before.
“When I am out running errands, they always ask where I am. They are scared all the time. We are not where we need to be, but I am sure that someday my children will look back and appreciate the sacrifice that I made to give them the life that they have and to ensure that they never miss anything in life.”
Whenever she stepped out, she would keep updating the mother of her whereabouts because her children would not stop asking if she will return.
For Arafa, choosing to travel abroad to look for greener pastures was never an easy decision to make, it was mental torture especially for women who need to be around their children to watch every milestone they make, this was the greatest sacrifice she ever had to make to ensure that her family was provided for.
People judged her harshly and asked all sorts of questions but in the end, she only knew how big her problems were.
“In an African family setup, relatives and family friends would openly ask me why I left my children, what kind of a mother am I, but whenever I explained my problems, no one was willing to help.”
She says that mothers are particularly vulnerable to the judgement of other women who wonder how any loving mother would choose to leave their child behind to pursue a career opportunity - a choice many men make when they take long-term posts far away from home.
However, fathers are expected to make sacrifices in their relationship with children and mothers are expected to choose their children above all.
And while fathers will get compliments on their abilities to parent alone, mothers will often be the subject of judgement, anger and even vitriol if she chooses to leave her parenting responsibilities to work on her career especially abroad.
“Was I being a bad parent by leaving my children? No, with the caveat that to move away and still be a good parent, you must still actively parent. That means keeping your relationship with them strong, staying super involved in their life, and being part of their support system.”
Arafa advises women who need to travel in search of greener pastures to do so while they are still young so that when the time comes for them to start a family, they can always return to their countries.
Arafa operates between Kenya and Tanzania. Her children go to school in Kenya and stay with her mother but when school close, they travel to Tanzania to be with their parents. Arafa and her husband see their children as often as they can, and alternate the visits.
Her advice to women thinking about leaving their families to find better prospects is “As long as you have a supportive family then you can do it, even though it won’t be easy but it’s very possible.”