Raising Keiki in COVID-19: I Survived Middle East Riots and Food Shortages, so I was Prepared for Hawaiʻi’s Lockdown

As a military mom, I say if the Qataris can fly in 5,000 cows from Germany to ensure they have milk, Oʻahu can conquer any challenge.

Photo: Courtesy of Kathlyn Clore

Raising Keiki in COVID-19 is a series of personal reflections of parents living on Oʻahu during the coronavirus pandemic. Some articles were written by the parents, while others talked story with HONOLULU Family.

I have been social distancing ever since I moved to Egypt where I had to learn to avoid eye contact and not shake hands with the opposite sex. One military coup and regional blockade later, most of what I know about helping my family survive and thrive during uncertain times I learned in the seven years we spent abroad. 

As the wife of a U.S. Navy officer who specializes in Middle East affairs, we lived in Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar before moving our family to Honolulu in late 2019. We even made a family hashtag, #DohatoAloha. 

My 6- and 3-year-olds have traded in the desert sands for hula skirts, dancing in the rain and climbing trees. We are grateful to be able to enjoy gorgeous outdoor spaces now; this wasn’t the case the last time I had to stay home because of a crisis. 

Ranging from silly to serious, here are seven lessons I learned in the Middle East that have made me more resilient in scary times, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lessons are in line with the unofficial military spouse motto, “Semper Gumby”—always flexible.

Believe That Cows Can Fly

There will be solutions for living with COVID-19; we just don’t know yet what they will look like.

We could not have predicted the ways Qataris handled the blockade. At one point, the government flew in 5,000 cows from Germany on Qatar Airways cargo planes. Qataris grew a local boutique dairy into an industrial operation supplying the country with milk and yogurt (if you’re ever in Doha you can visit Baladna Farms with your kids to see a full-scale dairy in a desert).

They also organized closer ties with their Turkish allies and so the products on the shelf were, for several months, all labeled in Turkish. 

I’ll never forget that sut is the Turkish word for milk.

I now take strength in my Diet Coke stash and knowing that if the Qataris can fly in 5,000 cows to ensure they have milk, we on Oʻahu can conquer the challenges the coronavirus throws at our society.

Stock Shelf-Stable Milk and Other Faves

Eerily, I have spent recent weeks flashing back to another grocery-store panic-buying situation we watched unfold. About six months into our tour in Doha, Qatar, we awoke to learn that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt had blockaded the country. 

Saudi Arabia was the source of much of the food coming into Doha, so when it closed its land, sea and air borders with Qatar, everyone ran to the grocery in a panic! 

That’s one of the first times I bought shelf-stable milk, or milk pasteurized at a higher temperature that can be stored for months without being refrigerated.

I had flashbacks as I shopped for my family in March this year. I bought several cartons of milk alongside other pantry staples.

Most annoying about the blockade: The closest Coca-Cola plant was in Saudi Arabia, so there was no Diet Coke to be found anywhere in Doha. For months. I was amused to learn that my international stay-home mom friends in Doha were just as reliant on the drink as I was. If any of us found some, we’d buy what we could carry to share with friends.

Did I buy up as much Diet Coke as I could before the coronavirus crisis hit as hard as it has? 

You betcha.

When the System is Broken, Focus on Self-Reliance

When my husband and I began working at U.S. Embassy Cairo, one of the security officers there briefed us about Egypt’s lack of first-responder emergency services and its poor health care system. 

“Don’t worry,” he quipped. “When seconds count, help is only hours away.”

We considered that often when deciding how adventurous to be while exploring Egypt. Let’s just say we never rode in hot air balloons or forgot to buckle our seatbelts. And I rarely left home without a small first-aid kit and tissues in a purse; we often avoided salads in public to avoid “mummy tummy.”

I’ve been thinking about that embassy security officer’s quip lately. My family is trying to stay well and not overwhelm health care systems already burdened by COVID-19. 

We are being careful to sleep enough, to eat well and to get some fresh air. I’m also trying to keep an extra eye out for safety. I gently led my 6-year-old away from the climbing tree in our front yard this week because I realized we didn’t want to make a trip to the emergency room should she fall.

Sheltering in Place: Time Your Trips 

Photo: Courtesy of Kathlyn Clore

Our tour at U.S. Embassy Cairo started on an exciting note when Egyptians went to the polls and elected Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. 

That summer was exciting for me for another reason: I learned I was pregnant with my first child. 

I took the pregnancy test—purchased with my basic Arabic skills—soon before we were instructed to stay inside our apartments because of demonstrations that eventually led to the overthrow of the newly elected Egyptian government. We sheltered in place for nearly three weeks.

But babies don’t wait for military coups. I remember my husband and I scheduling my first ultrasound appointment for a time we believed there wouldn’t be protests in Tahrir Square, the famous gathering place conveniently located within walking distance of the U.S. Embassy and cycling distance of our assigned apartment.

Just like we did with that medical appointment, we are currently trying to time trips to the grocery for less-busy times, even if it means we will run out of toilet paper and have to rely more heavily on our booty washer (see below).

Look for the Upsides of Staying Home

Not long after we confirmed my pregnancy, the embassy ordered all non-essential personnel, including me (a part-time family support officer at the embassy) to work from home. This was fine with me. We’d already been banned from taking personal transportation to the embassy and were getting to and from work in armored vans. 

Working from home was a relief. 

The timing couldn’t have been better. I was in the throes of first-trimester nausea and tiredness (as a first-time mom, though, I had no idea what real tiredness was; that came the second time around).

The time passed in a blur. As officials in Washington became more involved in the situation, we began working odd hours because of the time difference. That also made it easier to work from home.

Wash Those Booties!

Photo: Courtesy of Kathlyn Clore

This military mom had the answer to toilet paper shortages when her daughters were younger.

Each house we were assigned to in the Arabic-speaking world had built-in bidets. It was always fun to watch Americans figure out what to do with those low basins next to their toilets—especially when they had toddlers! 

Nobody loves to splash in the bidet like a toddler; we instituted rules about which bidets could be used exclusively for kid splashing and which were to be used for their true purpose.

I came to love the bidet for cleaning diaper blowouts and potty-training toddlers. My kids got so used to it that they were upset when we visited our kūpuna on the Mainland and demanded to know why Grandpa didn’t have a “booty washer.”

As soon as we moved into our Honolulu rental we installed this “hoser” (as my 3-year-old calls it) and are now feeling pretty great about how we will survive toilet-paper shortages in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Set Red Lines. Then Step Away from the 24-Hour News Cycle

Protests in Cairo and blockades in Qatar produced stress rooted in uncertainty. As with the coronavirus, we didn’t know how events would unfold. And contrary to rumors in those countries, neither did our ambassadors. But they and other diplomats and security professionals at our embassies met daily to review what they called “red lines” or “trip wires”— thresholds that, if crossed, would result in certain actions.

In a crisis, it can feel exhausting following the news and trying to predict what might happen next. Some days I get sucked into Facebook or Twitter and read as much analysis as I can.

But ultimately, once appraised of the news, it’s my role to make decisions about what my family will and won’t do once certain thresholds are crossed.

Looking back, the fun times always happened when we stopped to marvel at the situation and plan for the worst while always hoping for the best.