Coping with poverty in your expat destination

Being confronted with poverty can be challeging

Being confronted with poverty can be challeging

Expatriates coming from western societies are often unused to extreme poverty. Poverty in the shape of numerous street children, disabled people begging and visible hunger. It is something you probably don’t regularly see on your daily commute.

Being confronted with the extreme living conditions of the locals in your expat destination is never easy. Often it will lead to feelings of sadness and it is likely that you will compare the situation to your home country. This can give you insights of how privileged you are in this world which can lead to guilt and helplessness.

This type of grinding poverty is common in many top expat spots, so how do you cope? Do you turn a blind eye or are you left heartbroken every time when you see it?

You cannot help all of the people you see and it is not your personal fault. You can find yourself desperate and not knowing how to cope with the situation. What is the right thing to do?

How an expat dealt with poverty in Jakarta

During my time in Jakarta (Indonesia), I was also confronted with extreme poverty. A lot of people in Jakarta are very poor and barely have food to eat and a place to stay. But what struck me the most was the enormous contrast between rich and poor. You would find a shanty town of cardboard houses next to a 30 floor five star hotel. Stepping over a begging two year-old to get in a restaurant became a regular experience.

For me personally, seeing the young street children being forced to beg for money by older men was the hardest. I was told that in Jakarta it is illegal to give the children money, no matter how sad they look. Since the begging is often organized by older men who just use the children as bait for guilty feeling “rich” people.

I knew Jakarta has a lot of poverty, but I did not know it was this bad. I had no idea how to cope with the situation and looked for solutions.

First I tried to look away, ignore it. But after a while that seemed impossible. My solution was to buy candy and chocolates and keep them in my bag. Whenever a kid came to me, I would offer them candy, since that is something they do not have to give to their “handlers”.

Here are some of my personal tips which helped me to still make my visit a valuable experience:

  • Talk with the local people
  • Find the happiness in the communities (money isn’t everything)
  • Have an open mind
  • Don’t compare everything with your own country
  • Take some time for yourself every day to reflect on your experiences and to develop a better understanding for the situation.

So next time you find yourself being confronted with extreme poverty, remember these tips. If you know you are going to a developing country, try to prepare yourself for the worst. Read about the country carefully – not just the positive stories.

Don’t make it easy for yourself and think: “I can’t help them anyway”. Every little thing you do will have an impact. Even though the impact might be small and only for one person or child, it still counts.

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