Black Moms Abroad: Tanai Benard in Abu Dhabi
Words: Michelle No
Visuals: Jason Ward of Vivid Image Production
Making a life in the United Arab Emirates capital isn’t as glamorous as one would think, but for this mom, it's been worth the leap of faith.
You may already have heard about Tanai Benard, the 32-year-old mom of three who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2013. Her travels have caught the attention of the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Bossip, and more.
There always seems to be a sense of glamour when you hear about someone making the decision to pack up and move abroad. And though Tanai Benard and her three children’s lives include world travel and life in a five-bedroom complex in the incredibly wealthy city of Abu Dhabi, one couldn’t even begin to imagine the circumstances that led her to her current, happily settled situation.
Up until her move, Benard was teaching and living with her then-husband and children in Texas. A chance encounter would change the direction of her life.
“Someone who used to work at the school that I worked at was visiting from Abu Dhabi,” Benard explains. “I had never met her before. I asked someone, ‘Who is that?’ and she told me [the visitor] was from Abu Dhabi, [where] everything is tax-free and healthcare is free. Before that, the only thing I had ever known about Abu Dhabi was from Sex and the City.”
"The only thing I had ever known about Abu Dhabi was from Sex and the City."
This information couldn’t have come at a more opportune time—Benard, who never considered herself a world traveler, was looking for ways to save her abusive marriage.
Thinking the family needed a change of scenery, she applied for teaching jobs in Abu Dhabi at the end of March 2013 and by May had an offer to teach math to Emirati girls. But by that time, Benard and her husband decided to get a divorce and she decided to make the move with her three kids on her own.
While such a monumental change in plans would have set most people back, Benard was determined to move forward
“I didn’t stop just because I got divorced,” she says. “I didn’t try and figure out, ‘What am I gonna do next?’ I had already put in my resignation; I had already moved out and already had tenants living in our Texas home. I was basically homeless and jobless, [so] I had to keep pushing.”
Today, Tanai Benard calls a three-story complex her home, and counts numerous single parents living in her neighborhood among her closest friends. Her days consist of baseball and football practices, cooking classes, and travel, a new passion for both Benard and her children. (So far, the family has traveled everywhere from the Philippines and Bali, to Italy, Cancun, and Sri Lanka.)
“They have fallen in love with the travel,” she says. “Now their question is, ‘Where are we going next?’ They’re just as excited as I am.”
What was it like when you first moved to Abu Dhabi?
Moving was a complete shock. We had to adjust to the ways of a new culture, to the hot and humid August weather, hearing the call of prayer five times a day… Also, being that I am a woman, it was important that I became familiar with the local customs.
Upon arrival, my employer provided us with a hotel room we lived in for about three weeks. I think this was probably the most trying time of all. Before moving to the UAE, I had never hailed a taxi before, [and] staying in a 500 sq ft hotel room with three jet lagged and elementary school-aged children can only be deemed adventurous for the first week.
Within that three-week timeframe, I had to find us a new home, attempt to quickly furnish [it], process paperwork to sponsor their visas, [and] enroll them in a school, all while reporting to work on a daily basis and trying to communicate to a taxi driver in a city I was unfamiliar with. At some points I did feel overwhelmed and out of my league. After the first two months, life found some form of normalcy. The call of prayer no longer startled me, but rang as a friendly reminder for me to give thanks to the Heavenly Father.
What is your support system in Abu Dhabi like?
This year I have a nanny, so that helps. But we have a great support system of so many single parents here; I don’t think other people are aware of [that]. My kids have aunts and uncles from all over the world. It’s amazing the way people embrace you and your children. I have no need for anything. If something happens, I know my kids are good here.
Can you describe what your home looks like for us?
We call it a compound. Ours has a total of five villas in a row. They’re connected just like duplexes, and right next door to each other. I have a total of five bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms. I also have a terrace on my third floor and two outdoor terraces on both sides of the house, as well as a patio area downstairs that wraps around the side of the house. My company [pays for it by providing a housing stipend]. My rent is 125,000 AED annually (approximately $34,000 a year). Most employers offer a housing allowance or provide company housing for employees.
Initially each child had their own room, but my youngest son wanted to share his room with his brother for some odd reason. Then we have a guest room. I’m part of [Nomadness Travel Tribe], so when we have people come in, or if we have family over, we host them there.
What is Nomadness Travel Tribe?
It’s a traveling community on Facebook. One person will say, “Hey I’m going to Dubai,” someone else says, “Cool, I’m coming with you,” and they’ll just meet up. Sometimes they’ve never met before. I’ve been to Atlanta and another single mom who I’ve never met said “Hey, I have an extra room. You can stay with me.” So I always pay it forward when people come my way. We’ve hosted a few people this year.
If I could tell you how amazing they are, and how they’ve come through for us... For example, maybe two weeks ago my stepfather came to visit us and he fell ill; he ended up in an ICU in Abu Dhabi. He had international insurance, but the hospital refused to work with an insurance company. They wanted us to pay cash, or they said that the police would get involved. And that here is no joke—they will put you in jail for any debt and won’t let you leave the country.
So I posted something in the group saying, “Hey, if you’re a traveler and think you’re insured, [know that] it’s always at the discretion of the hospital whether the insurance will be accepted.” It happened to be that one of the people who was in the Travel Tribe was Head of HR for the hospital. She saw the post and made a call to the CCO, who then sent reps to the hospital to my mom, and they got everything situated. If I had never been in the Tribe, we’d still be stuck in the situation… And that’s just one thing they’ve done for me.
What are the benefits of raising your children in Dhubai?
[They’re now] multilingual. They’re required to learn Arabic, and their school also offers French.
I think [my kids also] enjoy having friends from all around the world. My youngest, Dezmond (8), has a best friend from Syria, while my daughter Iyana (11) has a best friend from India. That’s something they might not have had access to in America. And because they have friends from all over the world, if [they ever] visit those countries with those friends, they’ll always have someone from there able to show them around.
What have been some challenges your children have endured living abroad?
I think their greatest challenge is they’re missing their family. They’re missing the relationship that they had with their dad. In the last two years, they’ve only seen their dad for five days.
Has he visited you in Abu Dhabi?
He actually is supposed to, but he hasn’t yet. Not yet.
What are some difficulties about raising kids abroad that most people wouldn’t think of in the States?
My biggest challenge is do I tell them about what’s going on in America in terms of the racial divide and police brutality. Here, for us, it’s not the color of your skin, but more the color of your passport, if that makes sense. With us carrying a blue passport, we’re legitimate. We’re okay.
Have you considered staying abroad to protect your children?
Yes. Yes, I have. I don’t have a time frame at this point of when I’m going back because I do have two sons and I have to make sure they’re safe. That’s my number one concern. So I struggle with, Do I tell them, or do I allow them to keep their innocence? They’re very intelligent, so I think they would understand it. But I don’t know if I should [tell them].
So you have no plans to return.
Not at this time no, because for one, I am a single parent and I know what the struggle is like financially [in America], especially for educators. They’re not paying much there, and they’re not valued as much. So I know [if I were to go back], I’d possibly be going back to struggle, [especially with] trying to keep the lifestyle my kids have become accustomed to, of traveling, [playing] football and baseball, and [taking] baking classes. Would I still be able to do that if I went back to America?
How do you travel with three children, logistically speaking?
I could say I’m blessed with a great group of children. Everywhere I go, people are like, “Oh, they’re so well-mannered.” And they are. They are made to travel. They have traveled twice unaccompanied from here to America without me. They know how to get on planes, they know how to behave, they know how to do what they need to do. So logistically it’s not a problem. Financially, I mostly travel on deals, and we do more cultural things—we go to temples, we go to mosques, we hike up mountains and do jungle safari. So traveling with an extra three is not that hard.
What advice would you give your 2012 self, before the move, before the divorce?
I lost myself trying to save my marriage and trying to save my ex-husband, so I would let myself know that sometimes it’s okay to let go, and it’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to take a leap of faith and be confident in yourself.
I can’t say it’s sunshine and roses every day. Whether I’m a single parent here, or I’m a single parent in America, I’m still a single parent and I still have my single parent moments. You do get lonely, and I do wish I could call my mom and say, “Hey mom, I need to talk to you. Can you come over?” And of course dating is always an issue as well. But I can say, 80% of the time, it’s awesome. The other 20%, I’m like, I need to be home right now. This is my last year. But I’m here for a purpose. I’m here for a reason. So I need to stay.
Michelle No is a freelance writer based in New York City.