At Home at FIGT

April 3, 2012 — Leave a comment

I’m back in Houston after an unforgettable few days at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in Virginia, my sixth such conference. I know I am in danger of sounding stuck in the groove of a continually revolving record, (I wonder if that phrase holds any resonance for anyone younger than 40) however, year after year, I struggle to find new superlatives to describe the energy that swirls around the halls like a whirling dervish on speed.

The most challenging decision each day is which sessions to attend. I started with the pre-conference workshop offered by Elske van Holk of the Expatriate Archive, and Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing, both from The Hague. Listening to these two women, passionate about recording the personal journeys of those on the expatriate trail, whether current or historical, brought home the importance of such stories.

The caffeine offered after each session was superfluous, I was already running high without any infusions.

Roy Dunbar, a Brit of Jamaican heritage and the opening keynote speaker and immediate past chairman of the Executive Leadership Council Foundation, shook any of us daring to be complacent under our TCK (Third Culture Kid) hats with his reminder that we come in many shapes, sizes and colours. He took us back in time to Rwanda and the horrors of the now well-documented genocide of the 1990s, the one in which Kofi Anan described the world as “guilty of an act of omission.” Dunbar praised those Tutsis and Hutus who fled their homeland, thereby becoming TCKs, but who have since returned for their resilience, adaptability and persistence, along with their willingness to seek “wise counsel”. All traits of the TCK, whether Rwandan, European or any other nationality.

After an opening like that how could the conference fail?

FIGT continues to bring issues important to an expatriate life to the fore. A few years ago repatriation was one such example. This year the agonies of teenage depression and eating disorders in our TCKs, was bravely tackled. Kay Chapman broke the barrier of perceived shame by telling her receptive audience, “If our teen has a physical ailment like asthma or cancer, we do not feel ashamed. We should not feel it for mental health issues.” Chapman’s talk touched all present and spawned ideas for a book by co-authors of Expat Teens Talk, Dr Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit. Therapeutic artist Beth Eisigner summed up the session with the words, “so many spokes go into healing, not just therapy.”

How could day two equal that? But I had not reckoned on Kilian Kröll’s ability to probe the depths of Cross Cultural Identity, Lost in Translation. His panellists, Seema Lynch, Angela Mwape, Ardi Kuhn and Paulette Bethel spoke movingly of their issues with identity lost, and found, whether through colour, creed or lifestyle choice. Kuhn spoke for all when he said, “sometimes, there is not enough room to hear a story.” At FIGT that space is always available.

Another panel this time on promoting emotional resilience in expatriate children discussed why some thrive on the global treadmill while others struggle, and was ably facilitated by Jo Parfitt. The honey tones of Julia Simens entreated the audience to allow emotion to help make ethical decisions, and to help our children learn the words to express those emotions. The Rebecca’s, Grappo and Oden, had equally wise words. Ruth Van Reken, one of the founders of FIGT, suggested we allow ourselves to “unpack our bags and plant our trees” rather than live, waiting to move on. A tenet to live by whether expatriate or not.

The audience rose as one when Eva László-Herbert delivered the final words of the closing keynote. Discussing why nationality and citizenship cannot be used interchangeably, she etched her family’s genealogy going back three generations, through the maze that makes up Transylvania’s history. With vivid imagery László-Herbert took us from her great grandmother’s gracious salons to her own upbringing behind the Iron Curtain in the concrete blocks of communism, where speech was not free. Her emergence, from a chrysalis to a butterfly cautiously freeing her wings, took place before our transfixed eyes as she found her voice, and a home, at FIGT.

It was a conference to remember, and I am already looking forward to next year’s programme, along with the coffee and conversation.

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