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How to Keep Your Family Safe While You're Overseas

Nov 19, 2015

The story appeared in the news on the same day as the Paris attacks, and was thus buried under an avalanche of stories about the events of that awful night. Right before the tragedy in Paris unfolded, ISIS released a video announcing that they were coming to Russia next.

You may have missed this story. But I didn’t. I live in Moscow, with my four children, my husband, a dog and a cat. So this story hits rather close to home. My friends and neighbors were talking about it even as we watched the news out of France, wondering if we’d soon face a similar crisis here.

I’ve been a parent for almost 16 years now, and I’ve spent most of those years living overseas, in places like the Middle East, Central Asia, and China. I know I can’t protect my kids from every danger, and living overseas makes protecting them even harder. But over the years I’ve learned a few things that ease my mind a bit when living and traveling in foreign lands.

Do your research. Before you go overseas, go to the State Department's website and look up what it has to say about your intended destination. If the State Department advises you not to go, don’t go. And don’t let your children go, either. Those warnings are serious business.

Connect with the Embassy. Before you get on the plane, register for the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. In the event of a threat, the Embassy will be able to alert you. In the aftermath of a terrorist event or a natural disaster, you’ll want the Embassy to know you’re in-country so they can provide aid or help you get out if necessary.

Get local. Watch the local news in-country, or find an English language local source. Monitor Twitter and other social media sites. They won’t always have accurate information, but they’ll alert you to activity in areas you need to avoid. And you do need to avoid large crowds, political gatherings, protests and riots. This should be obvious, no? But all too often, curious onlookers are injured because they followed a crowd and found themselves in a dangerous situation.

Prep the kids. My family practices for specific scenarios—everything from a fire or a bomb (follow police evacuation instructions) to a missed metro stop (go one more stop, get off and don't move; we'll come to you). We can’t know what scenario, if any, they’ll face, but we want our children to know that they need to avoid large crowds, pay attention to their surroundings and trust their instincts—if they see something or someone that seems strange, they need to tell an adult and get away from the situation. Will all of this talk scare them? Probably, yes. But do it anyway. You don’t want your child to freeze in an emergency.

Test the kids. When you’re out in the city, have one of your children lead you back to your hotel or house. They need to know how to get back where they started if they lose sight of you.

Keep your phones charged. You and your children should have fully-charged cell phones with all important numbers plugged in. By all means, invest in some portable chargers. But you need to remember that the phone system could be overloaded in a true emergency. They need to have your phone number and address memorized, and they need to know what to do if the phones stop working. (Older kids can find their way home without; younger kids can look for a mom with a baby or a policeman and ask for help.)

Consider what’s in your wallet. You and your children should each carry identification and cash in the local currency at all times. Tuck a hotel card in each child’s pocket when you go out, or print up cards with your home address. Make sure your credit card has a low balance, in case you need to buy a plane ticket, or several, out of the country in an emergency.

Snap a photo. Take a picture of each child on your phone before you go out touring in a crowded location—it will be a lot easier for local police to find your child if they have a current picture that shows what they were wearing when you saw them last.

Keep your pantry stocked. If you live overseas (and really, this applies to families who live in the States as well) you should always have extra water, non-perishable food, cash, medicine, a portable charger and flashlights in a safe place at home. If you get a text from the Embassy instructing you to shelter in place, the last thing you want to do is go out in search of food.

Have a go-bag packed. We keep a bag full of important documents in a safe place in our house: think passports, shots records, school records, baptism certificates, last will and testament, bank and insurance information. Only once have we needed to grab that bag and run, when we had 24 hours to vacate a post in an emergency. But it was great, in the stress of that moment, to simply grab that bag and walk out the door, knowing without looking that everything we needed to get back to the States and start over was with us.

Forewarned is forearmed. Thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong can be overwhelming. But knowing that you have thought ahead and prepared as best as you could will give you and your children a sense of power. Talking to your children in an age-appropriate way about the plans you’ve made, will help the whole family sleep better at night.

Don’t forget the big things. These days, everyone worries about terrorists and bombs on planes. But, despite what you may think after reading the news, those aren’t the real threats to families overseas. If you really want to keep your family safe, you’re better off worrying about whether you have the required vaccinations for your destination. Make sure your medical insurance includes medical evacuation insurance. Buckle your seatbelts. Pay attention to your surroundings. And don’t drink the water unless you’re absolutely certain it’s safe.

Whatever you do, don’t stay home. Go out and explore the world. Have big adventures with your children. Know that most of the people you meet will be welcoming. Talk to the locals, try local foods, go where the locals go. Teach your children that the world is a small place, one in which we’re all supposed to take care of one another. Prepare for the risks, certainly. Never going anywhere is the most dangerous option of all.

Donna Scaramastra Gorman is the author of Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse. She, her husband and their four kids have been posted in Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, China, Jordan and the U.S. They are currently living in Moscow.

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