For the past fifteen years, Ruth Fleurinord and I have laughed our way through most situations. We met during an internship in New York City, where she was born and raised, and since then, she’s lived and traveled all over the world.
She currently lives in Muscat, Oman and this spring marked the first time her mother was to visit her in the Middle East. While she was on the plane, her mother was informed the world was beginning to shut down due to the coronavirus. Though she was able to spend some time in Oman with Ruth, she’d eventually have to leave early to get out before the borders closed. Welcome to the pandemic.
So what did 2020 look like in Oman? How did the global shutdown affect her and her neighbors in Muscat? And what’s the view of America from way over there? I asked Ruth and just like she has every day for fifteen years, she gave it to me straight.
Ryan: Let’s start with a brief recap of how you got to Oman.
Ruth: I had the opportunity to move to Oman through different networks I was a part of and because Oman offers American expats a Free Trade Agreement that essentially gives them the same privileges as Omanis in terms of starting a business, that opened the door for me to do that.
At the end of 2019, I transitioned away from the networks that brought me here and I’m working in the advisory audit field as a project manager now but I’m hoping to open a business again one day. The entrepreneurial spirit is always in my heart.
Ryan: Give me an idea what Oman was like at the beginning of the pandemic.
Ruth: On March 15, everything shut down. People were confused about what this really was and they wanted to shield and protect Oman from anyone who might have the virus coming into the country. They closed the airports and anyone who didn’t have sufficient visa privileges were shipped back home.
Ryan: Are you saying people were deported?
Ruth: Not really, they will be able to come back, but ultimately it was xenophobia. The numbers were higher among Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and African populations mostly because of their living situations. A lot of people from those countries work in construction, on highways and in other people’s homes, and they are brought to Oman by companies to work. The housing situation for those companies varies greatly—some are set up in a one or two bedroom apartment where 15 or 20 people live while others are in dorms in labor camps that sleep hundreds—it all depends on the company you work for and who brought you into Oman.
The country thought that since the response was so quick to the initial rise of numbers within those communities, the pandemic would just be over here. But then Ramadan happened. It’s a holiday for gathering together after fasting and the numbers skyrocketed because people were ignoring the rules. When Omanis became the leading number of cases, they couldn’t blame expats anymore and that’s when the government locked down everything, mandated masks, put in checkpoints so people couldn’t travel from one district to another, and installed curfews.
Ryan: What’s the perception of America from there? From expats and citizens alike?
Ruth: A few months before the pandemic hit, I was put in a group of Americans who live here in Oman and it’s been a saving grace during this time. Seeing your home country fall apart so quickly—it was this catastrophic explosion all at once. Then we saw the unveiling of the racial tensions and how that blew up. In my perspective, looking at America and how they’ve handled things, it’s highlighted the individualistic ideals we hold as Americans. No one could get on the same page. America is supposed to be a superpower. It’s supposed to be an example. I think other countries waited to see what America did before they did lockdowns but by not seeing any responses from the American government, my friends here have said, “You’re probably never going back to America, right? They’re going crazy.” It made me feel a bit of shame for how all of this was handled.
There’s strength in caring about your neighbor. Even though there are a lot of holes in the system I’m currently living under, one thing that’s not fought against is wearing a mask. We were told to wear a mask and everyone wears a mask. The end. There are no rallies or protests. It’s just done. I have liberties as an American I really do appreciate and don’t want to turn my back on but this year highlighted how quickly this system we thought was so strong can fall apart.
The rest of the world was quick to shun us too. Last night I was with some friends and we were talking about the power of the American passport and how weak it actually is right now. We’re not allowed in many places. It’ll go back to normal eventually but the fact no one will let us into their countries because of the way America has handled this pandemic is sad. The system broke and it failed us.
Ryan: With such a year of upheaval, what’s something you will consciously leave behind as you move forward?
Ruth: Some people. There were some people in my life who, after transitioning massively from what I was doing before to what I’m doing now, I’ve realized I need to release. People who aren’t really lifegiving.
When all this went down, some people responded and others didn’t. If I have friends in America who are checking in on me almost daily and someone who lives 10 minutes up the road can’t check on you with a simple text, I need to release you so I will no longer be in a toxic space. I have to let myself keep growing. It’s still currently happening. Last week, I realized a friend was really bad for me and I’ve known him for as long as I’ve been here but I can’t afford to do it anymore. Life is so precious, we don’t know when it’s going to bend, and I don’t want to fill my time and space any longer with people who are uninterested not only in me but in the furthering of our lives. How can we continue to grow in relationship? I’ve experienced moments of joy in that because when the light comes on that they’re toxic and not god for you, and you release them, life is so much better.
Ryan: I’ve said a lot that 2020 has been a clarifying year. What has it taught you about yourself?
Ruth: I’ve learned I’m mentally stronger than I thought. Being a part of a lot of big organizations in the past like churches and non-profits, I’ve been under leadership who groomed or conditioned me to present my opinions to others for approval before I can voice it. When everything shut down, I thought I’d feel the extra loneliness of doing everything at home, locked down, unable to see friends. I thought I’d fall apart but I never did.
I struggle with depression and when lockdown was at 7pm and the cops were chasing people off the street, the whole country felt like it shifted. There was no interaction with other people outside, no calls at night. It was like a collective depression and those weeks were hard. I was missing my friends and family in the States and I reached out to the people I knew would be there for me, who were a reminder of who I was. I wasn’t only strong but it was also okay to feel these hard feelings too. This moment in time is hard, terrifying at time, but if this was a test, I feel like I passed. I didn’t unravel in the midst of massive life transformation and transition. I’m fully myself, in my own space.