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Q&A with Bernard and Sarah Robben – Nursing in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

The choice to work overseas is a big decision. Sometimes you just want to chat to someone who has done it before and find out what the go is! We sat down with Bernard and Sarah Robben, two Australian nurses who have recently returned from nursing in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They gave us first hand insight into their roller-coaster journey living in Saudi Arabia.

Where are you from?

Bernard: My wife and I are both nurses from Port Macquarie, NSW. We studied at the University of Newcastle.

Can you give us a snapshot of your nursing career thus far?

Sarah: We have been emergency nurses for 5 years and have both done post graduate degrees in this field.

Why did you decide it was time to take your nursing career abroad?

Sarah: We have always wanted to travel abroad. We decided after 4 years of work we would have enough experience to work confidently overseas.

So, where did you end up relocating to?

Bernard: We signed a 1 year contract & moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in January 2018. It’s located on the Red Sea & is one of the most relaxed cities in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia].

What was the reaction of your parents and friends when you told them and how did you manage that?

Bernard: My parents were not keen on me going because, back in the 1980s, they worked as nurses in a town 2 hours away from Jeddah. The experience they had was totally different to our time there. The new King is rapidly bringing the country into the 21st Century. Even in the year we were there, women were allowed to drive and cinemas were opened. In regards to friends and colleagues reactions, there was a lot of negativity coming from people who had never been there and could only comment on their basic and limited knowledge of the kingdom from what they’d heard on the media.

Moving to another country is a big decision. How did you find the transition from Australia to the Middle East?

Sarah: One of the best pieces of advice we received from our recruiter, Raquel at CCM, was to never pass up an opportunity if invited somewhere. We stayed true to this and met people on our first few days there. By the first weekend we were camping out in the desert with a group of people. From there we were invited to a party the next weekend and every weekend after. There were happy hour nights at the US consulate every month, balls at the British consulate and piano recitals at the French consulate.

Bernard: The group of people that we met were from every part of the globe with various different jobs, but everyone was in the same situation: away from friends and family & living in Saudi.

How did you handle the culture shock?

Sarah: The cultural aspect took a little while to get used to. Girls have to dress in abayas most of the time when in public. I didn’t think this was too bad because I never had to worry about what to wear. I would even go out to dinner in pyjamas because nobody could see what was under the abaya.

Bernard: The Saudi people are very accommodating. They are helpful and kind & they love Aussies. The patients are from all walks of like from Prince and Princess to people living deep in the desert. Due to the culture of reproduction within Saudi, there are a wide variety of medical conditions that are not seen in Australia or other developed countries.

Saudi has been in the media a lot recently. As a woman in Saudi, did you feel safe?

Sarah: We would often walk home to the compound from the hospital at night after work. Through living there and talking to the locals we learnt that for some Saudi women, life can be extremely difficult, restricting and controlled. Having said that, as an expat, I never felt uncomfortable at any time in the streets or shopping centres. Bernard and I felt safer in Saudi walking home than we did in Australia.

What part of your new life did you find the most surprising?

Bernard: Our social life and the friends we made. There are many activities you can get involved in like diving, snorkelling, kiteboarding, desert camping, local markets, hiking, consulate events, bike riding and many more. Beaches don’t compare to Australian and New Zealand beaches because we have the best in the world. But in Jeddah, there are private beaches in resort like places, and when you’re in there girls are allowed to wear whatever they want. All of these beaches have restaurants and dive spots.

Sarah: The Red Sea is one of the best spots in the world to dive. We would often go on day boat trips out to the reef or two night boat trips out to the islands. There are many dive instructors and you can get any dive certificates you need that are internationally recognized.

What was the food like?

Bernard: The food in Saudi is amazing. The local food is cheap and made fresh. If that does not interest you there are thousands of restaurants around with any cuisine you can think of. There is a large supermarket near the compound that has all the comforts of home including fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sarah: There is no Vegemite so I’d bring some from home. There are buses provided by the hospital that go from the compound to various places including the supermarket. We bought a car within the first month which provided us with a lot of independence but you could always Uber.

Moving countries, it’s a big transition! How did the King Faisal Specialist Hospital help with this?

Bernard: The hospital was very helpful with the transition. Someone met us at the airport and took us to the compound where a nurse from our unit was there waiting to show us to our accommodation. There is a week of hospital orientation and courses and then you go to your assigned unit where you get another week of preceptorship with a fellow nurse.

What was the accommodation like?

Sarah: Our accommodation was ok. We had a one bedroom apartment in the family section, we had access to pools, squash courts, gyms, tennis courts and a small shop.

What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you manage them?

Bernard: The challenges we faced were mainly in our department. Because they work with the American system we had to get used to the process. It’s very different than Australia & we still didn’t agree with the way they did things, but, it makes you appreciate the way we do things in Australia. Everything in Saudi happens at snail pace, this taught us how to be patient and also how to be assertive to push things along.

What career opportunities or professional development did you find there?

Sarah: There is a broad range of courses available for nurses free of charge. Depending on what department you’re in, there can be limited opportunity for advancement due to Saudisation [a program aimed to place local people into the workforce].

What was your most memorable moment?

Bernard: Way too many to choose from. The whole experience has opened our eyes. In the last 6 months we travelled to Egypt, Oman & Jordan. We are now traveling around Europe for two and a half months before we go back to Australia.

Sarah: Our goals were to travel, experience a new culture, learn a new language and save some money. We have met all these goals and more.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of travelling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia?

Bernard: If you don’t take this opportunity you will regret it. We had the time of our lives & met friends from all over the world.

Sarah: This was the experience of a lifetime.

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