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Six things I wish I’d known ...

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Susan M. Sandover on a Tefl career as a trailing partner, losing everything when evacuated from Libya, sharia law disinheritance and ‘risk-insurance strategies’

Susan M. Sandover was married to Bashir, a Libyan career diplomat, for 33 years. Dissatisfied with being just a travelling spouse, Sandover began her journey in the world of EFL 36 years ago. As she recalls in her memoir, ‘Teaching EFL gave me independence but there were unforeseen risks. It has been my breadwinner, my sanity and one of endless rewards, but also one of risks, some of which I have been able to overcome but the final one has proved insurmountable’ – sharia family inheritance law.

After experiencing with her husband ‘the traumas, difficulties and frankly terrifying experiences associated with the Gaddafi regime and US and Nato bombings, coups, a revolution and a blasphemy case’, the couple were evacuated from Libya to the UK. After Bashir’s death, Sandover was on the receiving end of the full force of sharia family law – she was entitled to inherit only one quarter of his property, despite three years of fighting in the courts.

With her memoir Libya. A Love Lived, A Life Betrayed – 9/36 (Susan M. Sandover, Troubador, www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=4113) to be published in November, the Gazette asked Sandover for her practical top tips and risk-insurance strategies for Teflers contemplating a long-term career teaching in a developing country (particularly as a trailing partner). Based on her own experiences and things ‘I wish I had known and done before it was too late’, we list below Sandover’s advice on the ‘drill’ when you face being evacuated home at a moment’s notice, possible ways to mitigate family law in other legal systems, and how to land on your feet and pick up your career again on arriving back in the country you left long ago.

JOURNEY Susan M. Sandover

‘Force majeure’ contracts

Teaching in Libya was never for the faint-hearted but there were excellent financial rewards. Those days are long gone and during the initial days of the revolution many teachers were left to their own devices to survive in the chaos. With no assistance to find an exit and thereafter no compensation for salaries, monies and possessions lost or looted, all that was received by teachers was a redundancy notice due to ‘force majeure’. However, Libya is not the exception, and to anyone contemplating working in a developing country I would strongly advise having an escape clause written into any employment contract. 

Many companies try to insert a ‘force majeure’ clause which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties occurs, such as war, strike, riot, crime or an ‘act of God’. Given the uncertain times in which we live and work, all attempts to do so must and should be strongly resisted.

Continuous professional development (with evidence!)

On realising that I would need a fulfilling profession which allowed me to work as a married woman wherever Bashir might be posted, EFL seemed like the best work option without there being any conflicts of interest. Armed with an EFL Cert and subsequently a Dip and by attending seminars, conferences and embarking on research projects, my CV shows that I have kept abreast with developments in EFL teaching. For anyone considering a return to the UK this is a must as it is insufficient to write ‘25 years EFL teaching experience in countries A, B, and C’. It is highly competitive when looking for a well-paid job back home.

Passports!

Equally important is the right to retain one’s passport, although temporarily it may be required by employers for purposes of visa processing. Don’t end up saying to yourself, ‘I wish I had,’ but rather ensure that a copy is made on a memory stick and a full-colour copy is close to hand to show as proof of nationality in the event of an escape on a government plane or ship. And don’t forget to copy onto the memory stick scans of all vital documents which could be lost and will be required when returning home in a hurry.

Getting money out!

Many teaching contracts have a percentage of salary paid in local currency. Always try to maintain the absolute minimum credit balance you can, as after having fled a country one may be unwilling or unable to return to withdraw the cash. Currently there are many countries with currency controls which will prohibit the transfer of funds. Don’t just think Africa, Asia and South America but also Europe – Greece being an example. Far too many teachers have fallen into the above traps but with awareness and taking preventative measures the risks can at least be minimised and one need never say, ‘I wish I had.’

Marriage and inheritance laws

My adventures in Libya, Jordan, Philippines and India are recounted – some humorous, some sad, but always uplifting. It was only when Bashir died in London in 2013 and I was alone that I experienced the full force of sharia inheritance law and its tenets as applied to widows. I was entitled to one quarter of his property, the balance going to his siblings, hence the subtitle of my book, 9/36. I in no way wish to promote a change in this law as it would be futile, but rather would urge wives married to non-British Muslims and where sharia law is applied to be aware of its tenets and to take preventative measures, thereby ensuring financial security in the event of the death of a spouse. 

I was well aware of this law but I failed to realise in retrospect that one should instigate steps today not leave it for tomorrow. For those who are not Muslim or married in a mosque there will be no entitlement to any of your husband’s estate and certified documents may need to be produced as proof. Most importantly, pay UK National Insurance contributions because at least you will then have a pension. I believed I would be well provided for through Bashir’s Libyan pension. So far I have failed to get any amount paid after three years of trying. Both partners must write a will and subsequently this should be translated, certified by the consul and then registered at the foreign ministry and counter-certified, and then filed with the family courts.  

Ensure separate bank accounts – preferably with your own in the UK, where a nest egg can be accumulated. Have a power of attorney for your spouse in order that you have control – not a male member of the family. One hopes and wants to believe the injustice I suffered is not the norm, unfortunately this is not so.

Tutoring!

Thankfully in 2013 with teaching I had a financial lifeboat as I found myself with neither a Libyan nor a British pension. The expertise gained over the years has enabled me to earn a living by English tutoring to both British and foreign children and adults. Of course, living in London the opportunities are endless and by signing up with two tutoring agencies I have been kept in continuous employment and earn at least double the amount per hour that I would earn in an English language school. I was fortunate that I had experience of working at the British School in Tripoli on English Sats and 11+ entrance into British schools.  

Parents are looking for experience and success in exam passes and by researching the ISEB website for specific schools one can familiarise oneself with the requirements of the various exams. If you register with an agency, it will apply for an Enhanced Criminal Record Certificate, a necessary protection in 2016. As one becomes known one will receive personal referrals, then business will start to boom. There are an increasing number of students being recognised with dyslexia – a further area for tutoring after taking one of the many courses on offer. Agencies are beginning to search for tutors to teach via Skype, especially with students from China and Russia. Teaching will never be the most lucrative source of income, but seeing a student’s joy on achieving success is immeasurable.

Tutoring has also allowed me to find the time to write my memoirs, which I hope will act as encouragement to other women following their husbands into an expatriate way of life to consider the option of EFL teaching. By highlighting the risks of working in developing countries I hope they will take on board some of my ideas on risk-insurance strategies. By detailing my personal experience of sharia inheritance disbursement and its marginalisation of women in 2016, this will act as an awareness beacon.