The decision to take a job with OPM-SANG and move to Saudi Arabia is not always an independent decision. For many potential employees who have spouses, the decision to take a position in Saudi Arabia becomes a joint decision. Concerns raised by spouses range from how a female will be treated in the Saudi culture, to questions about employment and living conditions.
An informal spouses group does exist (largely female but does currently include one male), and their message is uniform: "Get involved!"
Lara Herrera accompanied her spouse, and while she now has a position working for OPM-SANG's G-3 (Plans and Operations), she continues to socialize and participate in activities with other spouses.
"It is a requirement that when we go off the compound, we must go with another person, or in our case we go in groups," Herrera explained. "With that, we become like a sisterhood - we are here for each other."
One thing the spouses encourage is to use your talents as a creative outlet. For Herrera, she had experience with personal training and began conducting classes for spouses and other personnel located on the American compound. "I have a spinning class that consists largely of active duty military," she noted.
But Herrera counts her evenings spent having dinner or participating in a group activity with other families/spouses as essential to enjoying her time in Saudi Arabia. Herrera says spouses like Stephanie McFarland and Cricket Leavitt are crucial to "initiating" new spouses into the unique way of life this small group of Americans enjoy in Saudi Arabia.
McFarland has embraced the small-town atmosphere of the compound, and is making the most of being in a foreign land.
"The (Saudi) women are very nice," and according to McFarland, are "as curious about us as we are them." She goes outside the installation an average of three or four times a week with whoever is willing and able to go, "and we try to capture new spouses and get them to go out."
While the majority of spouses are female, they have one regular male group member, a retired OPM-SANG employee whose spouse is still working, who acts as both driver and companion for the group outings.
McFarland especially urges newcomers to get out and buy grocery items from the numerous markets, where the selection of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats offer what McFarland sees as a healthier alternative to frozen foods at the commissary. She says most Americans are surprised by the number of restaurants and malls in Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis love to shop!" And she points out that even seasonal items like pumpkins can be found. While American women are expected to cover up, that is just part of being respectful of the culture.
McFarland said they have also taken tours of places like the Ritz Carlton and other high-end realty in Riyadh, which she called "a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
And as far as life in a small community, she was pleasantly surprised to find Grace Outreach, a Christian Church sanctioned by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and visits the compound for services each week. She also said the technology available to them makes life easier since they can use Skype, Facebook and other services to stay in touch with friends and family back home.
McFarland, like Herrera, cited how important it is for people to share their talents with others. "We've had someone teach us to make sushi," she explained. McFarland herself makes jewelry, and she praises Leavitt for sharing her love of plants and landscaping with others. "We can pass on things like plants to others when we leave," she said.
Leavitt, a master hairdresser, has chosen not to work for the first time in her life. But not working has allowed her to pursue other interests like gardening and landscaping. She has developed what she describes as an "emotional oasis" around her villa, making it green with native plants. She has also made it her mission to get everyone involved. "We tend to stalk new people," she said laughing.
But Leavitt is serious about making a difference during her time in Saudi Arabia. She and McFarland talk about a young spouse whose first language was not English and who also suffered a disability. They agreed that isolation can become easy in a place like this, but once they reached out to her, she became more confident about getting out. Helping others adjust has become like a full-time job for both Leavitt and McFarland.
Leavitt would like to start a newcomer's pantry, "where people departing can leave stuff they can't or don't want to take back like spices, pillows, plants, etc.," she explained. "And those just coming in would not have to worry about trying to buy or find these things."
On the lighter side, Leavitt and her spouse enjoy socializing, and are converting the terrace on the roof of their villa into an area for regular get-togethers, to include a band. "He has found some other guys who used to play, so they are practicing."
Herrera, McFarland and Leavitt are carrying on what they see is their duty - to make everyone who comes through appreciate the unique opportunity of living in Saudi Arabia and to pass on their knowledge and experience. As Leavitt summed it up, "Everyone needs to be needed."