March 22, 2013 6:27 pm

Expat lives: from New Jersey to Jordan

Laurie Balbo talks about refugee camps – and camel milk
Laurie Balbo©Tanya Habjouqa

Laurie Balbo at the Abdoun Bridge in the Fourth Circle district of Amman, Jordan

Preparations for the football World Cup in South Africa brought US engineer Trevor Liddle, then 55, out of an early retirement. Liddle’s wife, Laurie Balbo, wasn’t at all surprised: “I knew he had another airport in him.”

It was January 2008, and Liddle was being asked to move from Little Falls, New Jersey, to Johannesburg to help engineer a new airport terminal. Balbo wasn’t sure about the move, and the more she read, the more South Africa didn’t seem like the right place to go – especially with a 10-year-old daughter in tow.

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“There was no way in hell I was taking this free-spirited kid over there, to a walled community where you’re afraid of everyone that doesn’t look like you,” she says. “It was tough, because it was my husband’s dream.”

Balbo and Liddle had spent their careers working on massive municipal projects – deepening ports, building skyscrapers, expanding airport terminals – a set of skills in demand for booming economies around the globe. When the couple balked at South Africa, Liddle was eventually offered Dublin, where he moved the following February. By May, Balbo and her daughter had joined him.

Balbo found the move across the pond an especially easy transition. “Ireland now is like the US in the 1960s,” she says. “They’ve even got pictures of John F. Kennedy all over ... It was a really easy slide into another culture.”

Balbo was preparing their daughter, Amanda, for another school year when Liddle announced he was moving to Amman, Jordan. A new terminal was being built at Queen Alia, the creaking international airport, and Liddle was to supervise the project.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Balbo, imagining having to follow her husband to another country, so soon after they had made plans to stay another year. “But we’re on the dogsled, he’s pulling us along. What am I going to do?”

By the time Balbo visited Jordan with their daughter, her husband knew enough of the country to co-ordinate a knockout visit: over four days the family toured the ancient sand-city ruins of Petra, swam in both the Red Sea and Dead Sea, hiked through Wadi Rum – a spectacular series of sandstone canyons – and camped in the desert.

In late 2011, Balbo and Amanda agreed to relocate. Initially, friends asked how the couple could uproot a 13-year-old girl to the Middle East. But a year and a half later, they’ve had more US visitors to Amman than they had during two years in Ireland.

Despite Balbo’s initial reservations – for one, the traffic in Amman is terrible and she still refuses to drive – her new life began to flourish, especially after she wrangled her own spot on the airport project, a position she calls “project manager without a title”. Every morning at 7am Balbo boards an employee bus to the airport. Her fellow passengers are mostly Arab, making the ride what she calls a lesson in local life. One day on the highway, she says, they even hit a camel.

“Whenever the US does something boneheaded, they all turn to me and point at the newspaper,” she says. “I feel like I should wear a Miss America sash and roses and, on behalf of America, apologise.”

Balbo has been moved by the influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan, fleeing the civil war in their home country. “They are living in fabric tents. It’s bitterly cold – there are scorpions, wind storms,” she says. “I’m not Mother Teresa, but there’s so much I could do.”

She has begun working with the NGO Habitat for Humanity. As work on the terminal project slows, she wants to use her engineering background to help improve refugee camps that, in Jordan alone – according to government estimates – could be home to as many as 420,000 Syrians.

This exposure to the instability of war might intimidate some mothers, but Balbo says the sobering lessons of a region in crisis have been an important educational experience for her daughter. One of a subset of “third culture kids” – having lived abroad so long, they aren’t quite American or European, nor are they really Jordanian – Amanda, now 15, attends a top private school in Amman. She’s one of 40 children in her freshman class, each of whom thinks it’s no big deal, for instance, to travel to Kuwait for a basketball game. “She’s so not in New Jersey any more,” her mother says.

Balbo acknowledges how lucky they have been. On an expatriate pay package, she and her family enjoy the top half of a two-storey house in the central district of Jabal Amman. Most Friday mornings, Balbo goes to an acupuncture salon, and recently she has begun the habit of walking home after each appointment. “I get lost every time,” she says. “I have a really bad sense of direction, but I feel safe wherever I am.”

On a recent wander, she came across a section of downtown where guns are sold. (“I had no idea,” she says. “They seem so peaceful!”) The following week she found a fabric centre where old men sit in the street with sewing machines, selling buttons. Turn any corner, she says, and you might find another old souk, or a tiny restaurant selling amazing local food – not that she doesn’t enjoy the city’s five-star dining, such as two “fantastic” sushi restaurants they recently discovered through friends.

Balbo is also excited to report she has recently started drinking camel milk, which she buys from a local man on the side of a highway. “He’s got five camels in a pen ... I’ve totally gone native,” she says.

The airport project is likely to keep the family in Jordan for another three years – long enough for Amanda to finish high school, and long enough perhaps for Balbo to figure out how to make the difference she hopes for. In the meantime, she says, “the only things I miss about America, really and truly, are friends and family.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● A high proportion of Jordanians and other Arabs in Amman speak English

● Overall, people are very friendly

● The weather is dry and cool

Cons

● The roads are dangerous

● There are few Jordanian women in the workplace

● There has been an increase in crimes such as car theft and petrol siphoning, in part because of an increase in fuel prices

What you can buy for ...

$200,000 A three-bedroom apartment in one of the main expat enclaves

$1.5m A 15-year-old six-bedroom villa in one of the best neighbourhoods. New construction can cost three times as much

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