I’m not a quitter. I am stubborn and strong minded, I hate showing signs of weakness, I hate asking for help and I hate giving in. This, however, is different. Here is how I learnt an expensive and upsetting life lesson. This is no literary masterpiece as I am writing it very quickly whilst packing to essentially flee the country.
I arrived in Casablanca seven days ago. I was met at the airport by an abrupt Moroccan man who told me I asked too many questions and spent the whole 45 minute journey to the centre smoking with the windows shut and not really talking to me. He dropped me at a hotel and left swiftly. It was 11pm at night, the hotel staff only spoke French and Arabic and put me in an extremely loud room that stunk of stale smoke, where half the plugs didn’t work, with no internet and no information. I couldn’t call anyone and I knew no one in the country, nor the language, I didn’t have a welcome pack or a map. Not a great start, but I’m used to roughing it and wasn’t expecting luxury so tried to sleep.
The next morning my boss met me at 10.00am, he was an old, American man. He asked how I was and I replied ‘Nervous’ and he said ‘Erm, why?’ From that point I thought there was something odd about him. He was very awkward to talk to, very vague and just not really with it. All my questions were avoided or not properly answered. Questions about health insurance, other staff, contracts, bank accounts, work permits, accommodation. All really important things he’d assured me in email correspondence were sorted. Allow me one anecdote to try to explain his strangeness; enquiring about medical cover that I was promised, I asked “If I am run over tomorrow and I am unconscious, am I covered or will I be settled with a huge hospital bill?” His answer was a rant about pharmaceutical corruption in the USA and then said ‘if anything happens, err I guess you could ring me and I’ll sort it out and we can probably pay for it” Not the answer you want to a life or death scenario. He also then went on to tell me horror stories about the hospitals and doctor corruption here, including a disgusting one about his own colonoscopy! I then asked when I’d get to meet other new staff and teachers, who he’d told me in emails were around, he replied that there were no other new teachers and the rest of the staff wouldn’t come back for 10 days. He made me feel really stupid for every question I asked and belittled all my concerns; it was like he just could not understand being a new person in a new country and lacked any empathy. He then went back to the school and left me. Thus leaving me completely alone, in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, with no help or knowledge. Usually when you are hired from abroad, companies give you a full induction, you meet other new staff, you get a welcome pack, a map, they help you with accommodation, they put you in contact with other expatriates, they look after you, they tell you where banks, supermarkets etc are. They help you register with doctors, open bank accounts and meet people. I was given none of that, I was the only new teacher, abandoned in a hotel room for the next 10 days with nothing. I cant explain how frightening this is in a country you have never been to, with a completely alien culture where you know no one. On top of this the hotel staff were really rude to me, trying to get me to pay for things the company was supposed to pay for, to the extent that I had four staff shouting at me in Arabic one evening and suggesting I was stealing and lying about my job.
My company had also promised they’d find me accommodation, a huge deal when you’re moving abroad and something really difficult to organise anywhere let alone a foreign country, especially where it’s harder to figure people out or read them because of cultural differences. They’ve known I was coming since October, yet they had found me nothing. They left me alone to look for flats (all the adverts were in French and Arabic) and when I asked for help they suggested looking at a range of unfurnished apartments costing at least £400 a month, and suggested I borrow money from the company to furnish it. That meant a new fridge,a washing machine, a sofa, a bed, a TV, curtains, everything. As well as paying a month’s agency fees and 3 months rent for deposit. So that’s nearly £3000 upfront costs for somewhere to live and I’d only been here for a few days. There was no way I was going to pay that sort of money and be tied into a 12 month rental contract for somewhere I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay and where my wage wasn’t that high.
So, the first few days were horrid. I couldn’t leave the hotel without being hassled by men and made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable. There are no women on the streets or in cafes, certainly no western ones, it’s really the male domain. This was something I was expecting and could deal with. I’m used to being hassled in Vietnam, except there it’s more harmless, here it’s scarier because the men are much bigger than you and not used to foreigners. People try to touch you in the street, they make kissing noises, they slow down in their cars and hang their heads out to stare. Again I knew this would be the case, I’m not naïve, but then I didn’t think I’d be completely alone to deal with it. I kept thinking things would get better when I met other staff, because I could walk around with them. But it turns out there aren’t really any other staff. Only Moroccan part time teachers who keep to themselves and a few older, married, Swedes and Americans. There is also no expat community, no one under the age of 35, that’s not an exaggeration, the only foreigners here are French and perhaps a handful of older people from embassies who as far as I can tell are in hiding and impossible to find. I was feeling so isolated, worried and annoyed at the lack of support or answers I was getting from my school. They had hired me knowing I was coming alone, knowing my age and gender and knowing what Casablanca was like. Yet they painted a rosy picture, promised so much, said there would be other new teachers, but offered no welcome at all. Over the next couple of days my boss and employees at the school said and did further questionable things that set off red flags in my head. Despite this I also felt like I was being a wimp and was just being paranoid about the company.
However, one British lady at work took me under her wing and vindicated everything I’d been thinking. I owe her so much and will be eternally grateful for her honesty. She said she was so disappointed and angry with how I’d been treated and wished she could tell me some good news, but that there wasn’t any. Every hopeful question I asked her was met with a sad headshake; there is no expat community, she said every foreign teacher she knew had been mugged at knife point (day and night time), one student was murdered behind the school last year after class, there is nothing to do in Casablanca, females can’t go out alone at night and that I really shouldn’t trust my boss. She even said she thinks the boss is ‘losing it’ a bit and gave examples which led me to feel even more uncomfortable with who I’d been hired by.
I said to her that I didn’t want to quit and was hoping things would get better once term started and she replied that I was waiting for some big epiphany that wasn’t going to happen, she said nothing will change, this is how it is here. She also mentioned that if anything it would get worse as it wasn’t a nice working environment, staff were ‘colleagues’ not friends and people gossiped and lied. She’s worked extensively in the Middle East, loved it and concluded Casablanca was a huge disappointment that would make me really unhappy. Again this upset me, but I thought ‘things will get better; I can take language classes, volunteer, save some money, travel’.
Except I found out I couldn’t do any of those things. I was told by numerous people that travelling on the trains as a woman on your own is too risky, besides on my salary it would also be expensive. Part of my employment benefit is supposed to be ‘paid for’ language lessons, however the woman told me that no one has ever gotten this, and even my boss told me there are no good language schools and you can’t learn Arabic because they only teach Moroccan dialect. I thought I could volunteer, but days of researching led to nothing. So, at this point there already seemed to be little trade off. At least I can save some money I thought. I was wrong about that too, I finally found out (again from the British lady, the only person who’s been straight with me) I’d be taxed 40%, not only that but I would get paid in cash. You can’t send home cash without a bank account, you can’t get a bank account without a work permit, something that involves needing a visa and a lot of bureaucracy and bribary, something the school expect you to pay for and organise completely by yourself. The woman told me that it’s taken the school up to a year to get people bank accounts, in the mean time your documents (passport, degree, teaching certificate) are posted off to unknown premises. She also told me a number of other staff had left within two weeks, or stayed for the year and been extremely stressed and unhappy.
So by this point I was despairing. There was no one to talk to, no other new staff, I couldn’t walk around safely, I couldn’t achieve anything I’d come to do, I couldn’t eat anything (nothing vegetarian), I couldn’t save money, I had no where to live, my company were untrustworthy. I then found out that part of the wage (a third) is paid as a living allowance but you can only get that with proof of a rental contract, thus I’d get even less money than I first thought.
So, this afternoon I sat down with the lovely lady and we had frank conversation. She said that if she was me and I hadn’t signed anything I should leave right away before I get trapped by a contract. I tried to think of positives; usually if you’re living abroad there is a balance; you might get paid an amazing wage because the living conditions aren’t great, or you might live somewhere truly amazing but not get paid much. Here there are no positives, it’s an unsafe place to live, there is nothing to do, no one to talk to, the wages are low and the accommodation costs are high, the company don’t look after you or stick to their word. They’d lied to me, misrepresented the lifestyle and hadn’t followed through on promises, they’d left me to entirely fend for myself and there was no positive thing at all to stay for. I decided that I could be stubborn, stay for a year and be utterly miserable. Or, as I said to the woman, I could admit defeat and leave. She said that I shouldn’t feel like I had been defeated, I should put myself first and that the company had misled me, they had put me in this position and that I shouldn’t feel bad. Which was lovely of her, she’s a guardian angel. She also said she has had enough of them messing her around and was leaving after this semester. Seeing as she was the only other person I knew in the city I decided I definitely wasn’t staying if she wasn’t!
You may be thinking I was foolish or naive to come, that I should’ve known all this. I knew full well it would be a hard place to be a young, single female, and it wouldn’t be as social or the same as Saigon. But I wanted the challenge and I thought other things would make it worth it; a close knit group of colleagues, learning French and Arabic, saving money, a nice living and working environment. Things I was promised by a respected company that has schools all over the country. But these things never materialised and there’s no way I could have known that before coming. I knew Casablanca as a city wouldn’t be that great but I thought it might be a good base and worth putting up with for other things, I was wrong.
So, after talking to parents and friends, I decided that I’d given it my best shot, but that a year of being completely miserable, bored, alone and scared was not worth it and I wasn’t going to get anything out of the experience. As I haven’t signed a contract yet it was leave now or stay and work, be lonely, get into housing debt, risk not getting paid on time, risk not getting a work permit, risk losing my documents, risk my personal safety. A week here alone was bad enough, I don’t want to do it for a whole year, especially with a bad job. I have nothing to prove to myself or anyone, I know I can handle moving abroad alone, I’ve done it in Hungary, in Vietnam, and I don’t owe the company here anything after how they’ve ‘welcomed’ me. So, I went with my instinct and booked a flight home. I’m lucky it’s not too expensive to fly home at short notice!
After such a fantastic 2011 and 2012, I feel like this is the universe telling me I’ve had too good of a time in life so far and deserved a difficult year! Bring it on.