Continue your career abroad

A story about taking the courage to live in the moment

Hello to our Role Models series! Today I would like to tell you the remarkable story of Farsana and her life abroad. I have taken so many notes during our conversation as rarely, and I’m sure you’ll gain lots of inspiration while reading it!

Meet Farsana

Farsana was born in Afghanistan and emigrated to Germany as a child. She experienced her most formative time in Hamburg, studied law, met her husband, made her PhD and also opened her first own law firm. Then she decided to go abroad. First to Azerbaijan, then to Lebanon.

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Her law firm

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The trigger for moving abroad

In our conversation, I experienced Farsana as a very vibrant, strong, and hands-on woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants. Even at a young age, she was very determined. After completing her law studies in Hamburg, she joined a law firm with great ambition and gave 100% right from the start. Long working days were the order and her life revolved around her profession. Being a lawyer fulfilled her. She had chosen a field that was perfectly in line with her values and abilities. She says about herself that she is a workaholic in parts of her personality. Everything that made her happy at that time was closely related to her job. When she talks about that time, you can see the sparkle in her eyes and immediately believe that she really enjoyed her job.

"I think I was 90% work and 10% Farsana"

Nevertheless, the thoughts around having a family became louder and louder. She was happy in her relationship but the questions from the people around her about family planning didn’t stop. Being childless in her early 30s was unusual in Afghanistan, the country where she was born. At the same time, her partner no longer felt fulfilled by his job. The desire to go abroad was first and foremost his. So he decided to apply for the diplomatic service. Farsana accepted this, supported it, but did not let it get very close to her. How high was the probability that this would really work out? But when one day they received the acceptance, she had to swallow hard. A year of long-distance relationship followed for the training period of her husband before it went directly to the first foreign station in Azerbaijan. A country that was discussed but not necessarily on the top 3 list of most desired destinations. Suddenly everything went very fast. Farsana handed over her mandates with a heavy heart, packed her bags, and closed a chapter that seemed to be so all-encompassing and fulfilling for her. For her family, the decision felt right, but for her personally, she was not sure yet.

First expatriation – a tough school indeed

Looking back, Azerbaijan turned out to be a tough school. What is coming now is a reality for many expat partners. Farsana describes this period as one of the most challenging in her life. All of a sudden, the structured and well-filled daily routine was missing. The identification through the job fell away completely. The ground under her feet, which otherwise seemed so solid, was suddenly gone, leaving room for the really big questions in life. What am I actually doing here? Who am I without my profession? Am I happy?

Every day was filled with very contrary feelings. A constant up and down. All of a sudden it felt like she had made an unexpectedly big sacrifice. She was not used to defining herself by her partner. This was too much of a contrast to her previous life in Germany and it felt like a part of her personality had been taken away.

On top of that, she was pregnant with her first child. But while other expat partners seemed to thrive on the topic of family planning, Farsana found pregnancy difficult. Even when the child was born, it just didn’t seem as easy as it did for others. She felt like a stranger among the other moms who spoke enthusiastically about their own positive breastfeeding experience. As a mother, every action was evaluated and compared. So, the search for identity became even more intense.

"I felt like a complete stranger among all the happy mothers."

Distancing from the mainstream

In the end, adaptation is always a process. A process that takes time and demands a lot. Farsana began to self-reflect. She tried more and more to tune out the voices around her and focus on herself. Her partner always had an open ear and encouraged her. She said no to the mainstream and began to accept that she had to find her very own answers to her questions. She, who had always defined herself by her career, began to accept the role of a housewife, not as a victim but as a choice. She understood that it wasn’t just her husband’s posting. It was their shared posting. It was their joint decision and joint life plan. She understood that she could actively shape their lives, that she could be proactive in this role as well. This was a turning point for her!

While she just started to embrace this new identity, it was time to move again. Pregnant with their second child, it was back to home base Berlin and off to a whole new adventure. This time, however, she also realized that the role of the accompanying partner is not a rigid state, but requires a high degree of flexibility and adaptability. That flexibility can be seen as a burden or as an opportunity and it was all her choice. She now knew that she had freed herself to some extent from the constricting expectations on herself she had held before the assignment.

Don't be paralyzed!

Back in Berlin, Farsana was filled with drive and enthusiasm. They didn’t know how long they would stay in Germany. As a diplomat, your influence on that decision is limited and you expect to pack your suitcase again at any moment. Was it 3 years? Or even 5 years? No one knew and instead of letting it paralyze Farsana, three months after her arrival, she started to build up her office again. Her children were in kindergarten and she was able to devote herself to her professional projects. Again, opinions and contradictions came from outside. “Why do you want to put your 1-year-old child in full daycare?” 

Others were amazed but also confused and opposed to the idea of starting her law firm all over again. “Isn’t this a waste of time?” they asked. But this time she didn’t let it get close to her. She had learned to listen to herself. Others’ views and experiences didn’t have to be her own. Three years may seem short to others. For Farsana, it was an eternity. She asked herself what she had to lose and quickly concluded: nothing. For her, every day counted, every mandate was vital, and she longed for the intellectual challenges that fighting for the rights of her clients offered her. For her, it was not so much about the income but much more about the autonomy she could regain.

Transforming a traditional profession into a portable business

The day came when the next posting was just around the corner. This time to Lebanon. Farsana decided not to close her office again, but to take it with her. After all, a lot has changed in her profession as well. So why not digitize everything? She looked for a local business partner for the local appointments and synchronized her business so that she could take it with her to their next destination – Lebanon. And it worked! Keep in mind that the field of law is not really known for being the most modern fields! It can be very traditional and opposed to modernization from time to time. Many others would have never thought about digitalizing it. Thankfully, Farsana was in the right mindset. You could also say a state of growth mindset where she only saw opportunities and an intriguing learning curve rather than invincible obstacles. If you want to know more about the growth mindset I can recommend reading into the work of Carol Dweck or joining the next mastermind group were we discuss this concept frequently.

This summer Farsana will return to Berlin and this time there will be an office waiting for her where she can continue her work. She owes it all to the fact that during her last stay in Berlin she didn’t find the time too short to start something new. Sometimes you just have to start and see what happens without getting discouraged right away. What do you really have to lose? Farsana understood her situation as very privileged and took it as an impulse to make something out of it.

“I never asked myself if it would still be worth it because the answer would obviously be YES”

The book project: by women for women

The topic of women’s rights keeps Farsana busy even beyond her work (she wrote her doctoral thesis on the topic of women’s rights in the Islamic constitution). So, in all the hustle and bustle of life in Lebanon (we just remember the recent explosion in Beirut), the wonderful book “Killing the Good Girl” was born. The book addresses the topic of diversity as 11 women from very different cultural backgrounds tell their stories. The whole project was planned without external professional help and so each woman was able to contribute other strengths in addition to her story. A publisher was found quickly and you can see the wonderful result here. There is an impressive video clip about the book that I would like to include here. You can also get your very own copy here.

Currently, Farsana is already planning her second book and I am very excited about it.

Her tips for other expatriate partners

I think you can learn a lot from Farsana’s story. The time in Azerbaijan, as hard and difficult as it was, was in retrospect the breeding ground for all that has come. Expat life is always accompanied by upheaval. No stone is left unturned and one is exposed to constant change. Farsana has managed to create a foundation for herself on which she can build. She has readjusted and gotten to know herself once again and is firmer and more secure in her principles.

She recommends other women to create a wish list of things they always wanted to do. For her, it was this book project. Half a year after the move, at the latest, a wall comes up for many. The big questions come crawling out and often obscure the view. So, it is good to think about possible projects and wishes in advance.

She also recommends not to ask yourself the question “Is it still worth it?” too often. As her story shows, she sets the best example here. For some, three years may feel short, for others, forever. Many projects are not tackled because the expiration date of your expat adventure might hang over you like a sword of Damocles. Farsana recommends freeing yourself from this and answering the question “Is it still worth starting now?” with a yes more often. In her case, it has ensured that she now returns to Berlin in a made nest.

“I find that many are paralyzed by the expat partner role. I, on the other hand, have seen it as a great privilege.”

I am beyond grateful to Farsana for sharing her story with us! I am sure many of you are getting inspired by the drive and energy she brought to her expat adventure.

Farsana, I wish you all the best in your upcoming adventures and can’t wait for that second book!

Kate from Share the Love, expat, expat wife, expat life

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