When Safety Comes First

danger-2-50398103..When I lived in Guatemala City, military helicopters landed on my street one afternoon. On another day, two cops were shot dead just down the block from my house. In October, students protested for a week by firebombing buses, causing businesses to shut-down. When things got really bad, the embassy evacuated and that was my signal to leave the capital. I headed for the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, Livingston. Surprisingly, people in Livingston had no idea anything of consequence was happening in the capital.

..In Pakistan, I learned a friend who lived in Karachi never went grocery shopping without a school-supplied bodyguard. In Lahore where I lived, it was the opposite. Things were calm around the clock. At least until 9/11, and even then I felt no impending threat.

I think we’ll all agree that just because one area of a country goes off-kilter, it’s more than likely other areas will be safe and sane, at least relatively so. Were travel advisories issued for the whole of California during the Los Angeles riots?

ISR readers recently wrote:

I’m wondering about safety. Not petty crime (which you can find in any large city in one form or another), but safety as in “you have an actual chance of getting killed”. I suppose with the recent events such as those in Kenya and Nigeria it is important to evaluate this. So, off the top of your head, what are some places international teachers should probably avoid due to safety?

Keep in mind that I’m talking about “you might get killed” safety, and not “you might get mugged” safety, which happens in my hometown in the US all the time.

Is Egypt safe? What about countries like Bahrain? Bangladesh? Which countries in Middle East can be dubbed as “safe”? Which African nations are safe? What about Asia? Latin America?

..It could be possible for an entire country to be unsafe for foreigners, but I’ve yet to visit one. Before relocating to Kinshasa in the D. R. Congo, friends and family conjured up visions of Rwanda. Everyone warned me of the dangers to which I would be subjecting myself. Kinshasa turned out to be a wonderful experience, except for the school director, but that’s a different story.

..Given that entire countries or continents don’t normally drop into chaos, we invite ISR readers to take advantage of our When Safety Comes First Blog to ask questions and share information related to safety at various International School locations around the globe. Stay safe!

International Educators Keeping Each Other
Informed is what ISR is All About!

25 thoughts on “When Safety Comes First

    Like many places in South America crime is a factor in Ecuador however with planning and street smarts you can reduce your risks. I lived in Quito from 2011-2013 so I will only comment on this city. Overall I found that Quito was not a terribly dangerous city. Police reports show that most reported crime happens between Friday night and Sunday morning. Your main threats come from 1) Taxis,many who are not legal, who will temporarily kidnap you and force you to withdraw money from your ATM – late night express kidnappings are favored as they can force you to withdraw money just before and just after midnight. Once they have your cash they abandon you. 2) Petty theft on crowded public transport 3) Being in tourist areas, like the Mariscal, as these are targeted by criminals. Do yourself a favor and don’t wear expensive jewelry, don’t use your phone on the street/on the bus if you can avoid it, don’t have a lot of cash with you at any given time and don’t carry your bank cards with you unless you’re going to the bank. However despite all of the above precautions it sometimes is a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as a number of my colleagues found out with petty theft. The upside of all this is that generally if you give the criminals what they want they do not physically harm you although they have been known to use mace. Gun use is not a common occurrence in the city and common criminals tend to use knives. Life in the smaller towns in Ecuador are generally safer although the Esmeraldas bordering on Colombia is generally not as safe as other provinces so avoid night buses to this destination.

    Women sometimes feel self-conscious as males cat call and make comments as they walk past, however women when they are with a male companion don’t have the same problem for obvious reasons!

    Ecuadorian drivers are not the safest here and many people (including Ecuadorians) don’t buy cars because they aren’t confident to drive in the city however the public transport is very good until about 10pm and then you have to rely on taxis. There are lots of inter-provincial buses but bus accidents are a common occurrence here to the point that one company advertises on its tickets it’s good safety record with only 2 deaths in its history!

    There is air pollution but it is pretty minimal here. Quito is in an earthquake area and there have been a few tremors in the last few years. It is also surrounded by dormant volcanoes which have erupted in the last 20 years but the city wasn’t evacuated.


  2. The recent atrocity in Nairobi reinforces the impression I had working in Mombasa International School that Kenya remains a risk for anyone. A nearby hotel was wrecked by a suicide bomber and an RPG fired at a chartered plane. We had six security guards hacked to death on site. One of our teachers was beaten up in her own home. Another had a knife held at his throat in his bedroom at school accommodation. Compared to that, having to deal as a manager with abusive and threatening staff, incidents of inappropriate dress around children (“it was hanging out”), a threat towards a young ‘difficult’ child, and deliberate disruption of two public exams came as relatively small beer, particularly when Secondary School pupils achieved excellent results and created a positive classroom atmosphere. Full marks and respect to the Braeburn Group for taking over and managing several such Kenyan schools under particularly trying circumstances. Teachers just have to consider school positions with their eyes open and a constant regard for their embassy security reports.


    1. I agree totally. I lived in Nigeria for two years and never felt unsafe. However, a short visit to Kenya for a conference was a different story. I have never felt so unsafe walking down the street in my life and at one stage we were actually followed back to the hotel. Foreigners are definitely targeted in Kenya.


  3. To me safety is VERY important. Cleanness is too. Based on what I´ve read and my personal experience, nowhere in Africa or China are an option to me. I will try to get to Korea or Japan for my next post, otherwise I will get myself back home to civilized standards. I´ve had enough.


  4. The Bahamas has become exceptionally dangerous recently for westerners. Recently the Embassy closed for three days when one of our employees was rather brutally attacked on the way to church.


    1. I am curious – are you in nassau or freeport? I was looking at trying there but this is good to know…What is the underlying cause?


  5. Nigeria was the only country where I knew someone who was actually killed in a shoot out .. Police regularly shoot into crowds and panic sets in quickly. It happens everywhere . Beijing has been the safest place for crime .. But point is always be wary .. Nigeria has been the only place where I felt distinctly unsafe ALL the time , even the trip from the airport is fraught with danger.


    1. Interesting. I spent two years in Lagos and never felt unsafe. I went to the local market every week and had a wonderful experience. I went to the beach at the weekend and to the gym in the local police college with locals. I led a very normal life.


  6. I agree with the comments about South Korea. In Japan, people were polite, but not outgoing. In South Korea, if my wife and I even appeared to be confused, someone would come up to help us find our way… even if that person did not speak English. Ten years later, we still receive emails from former students. ###


  7. If you are considering China you should know that besides the pollution and food safety issues, driving is probably the most dangerous issue. At my school alone multiple people have been hit by cars just in the last year. Some injuries have been more serious than others. In general the driving is very unsafe and unregulated by the police. It is risky getting into any car or crossing the road here. Emergency health services are also very primitive compared to the western world.


    1. That is absolutely true! I almost forget about it! Another safety issue I had at SCIS was when we were sent to the annual trip, field trips or any other event on a school bus. SCIS would never provide or care about safety when asking us to take care of our students. It was a MIRACLE nothing ever happened but we were very close to crash several times. It got my attention how admin and teachers coming from countries where safety is so important, all of a sudden broaden their boundaries and consider this level of risk as “acceptable”.

      As Anonymous said, driving is a new thing for most Chinese people and therefore unregulated. I was lucky nothing ever happened to me but it was a common thing to hear about friends or colleagues being hit by a car or a scooter. Emergency services at China? Not there yet unfortunately.


  8. I live in Cairo, through the 2011 Revolution, as well as the most recent one, which I watched through the eyes of my friends and family while home in the summer…it looked awful, but I am back and things are fine! (other than the RPG attack on the building behind my flat!) I keep saying it is safe because it is! I feel safe at night, on my own as a female, living by myself, taking taxis. When you live in a city of 20 million, things happening on one area don’t effect the other areas. I managed to go back and forth to school, shopping etc. while I had friends who were stuck in their houses with no power because of protests outside. As other people have said, its your choice, do not listen to the news but contact expats and locals alike who live in that country. Saying this, just remember in politically unstable countries, there is always a feeling of unsure- could something happen? If you are a worrier, maybe somewhere else might be the best thing! Now, the sexual harassment and terrifying driving are something else to be scared of!!!


  9. I have lived in a few of the dangerous postings. Bombs, burning, rioting etc.

    First point these things can creep up on you slowly as they escalate and then hey presto one day you wake up in the middle of it. You get to set your own level of risk. There is usually a reason we see some of these countries on the world news day after day. There is a reason why your embassy writes about risk levels in these countries.

    Next point, luck has a lot to do with it. Once I had it explained by a UN colonel that if the burners/looters had changed direction there was nothing that they would have been able to do to save our teachers. Other times I have found out I was somewhere something dangerous was going on afterward.

    Sometimes the bad things on the news are not your greatest risk. E.g. Egypt, the most dangerous thing anyone can do in Egypt is to drive, eat the food, or use an electrical alliance in their apartment.

    I have now chosen to live Dubai, safer than most, probably all Western cities, it is a pleasure.

    The point is it is a choice, do your homework and keep in mind the director has to put teachers in front of children, that is their job.


  10. Bahrain is safe. There are occasional “protests” that happen (usually tires being set on fire or things directed towards the police) but they are very easily avoidable as most of them happen in the middle of the night in villages that expats would never be in anyway, and the US embassy sends emails out letting you know if there’s an area to avoid on a certain day. Overall, I feel safer here then in any other place I’ve ever lived.


  11. If you’re looking for an extremely safe country, i.e., you can walk pretty much wherever you want at whatever time you want; people leave their purses in shopping carts and walk to other parts of the grocery store; lost items are returned from taxis, airplanes, other public spaces; and pickpocketing, break-ins, etc. are unheard of…then Korea is for you. That said, yes, there is crime in Korea. It is VERY rarely directed toward foreigners. In fact, crime in general in Korea is considered very shameful and crime toward foreigners would be considered a stain on Korea’s honor/reputation. I feel very spoiled here in terms of safety… but what about North Korea you ask? We don’t even think about it.


    1. The way you described Korea is the way I would describe Japan as well. I would add that in Japan children are generally safe to go to the store, ride the train on their own, etc. Everyone looks out for children to make sure nothing happens to them.


    2. So happy to hear that Korea hasn’t changed in that sense. I remember all that from when I was there in the 90’s and being shocked by how honest everyone was. I watched a woman’s purse when she stepped into the bathroom with her daughter in Seoul. No one even blinked at it.


  12. I worked in Bangladesh for a number of years and went home in June this past spring due to the escalating violence and poor treatment of teachers. Due to the high corruption levels and the approaching elections, the country’s political situation began to deteriorate last January. First of all, as part of their “democratic rights”, the government allows individuals to riot in the streets (which includes throwing rocks into store fronts and windows of buildings and torching cars, buses, etc., causing a shut down of major areas of the country some days. After much debate, the school director decided that the school would be closed on days when riots occurred. Then when the violence escalated and the school had been closed for many days, the director changed her mind and demanded that teachers brave their way to school and teach. Before one particularly dangerous riot, the direct told an administrator, “I am paying those teachers! That school WILL be open tomorrow!!!!!” As weeks went by, teachers were made to work on weekends to make up for the lost days. Then we found ourselves sometimes working 8 day weeks with the promise that we would have the day off IF there was a strike. Then into the spring when hiring new teachers, the director claimed that it was perfectly safe to live and work in Bangladesh and that you “learn to deal” with the riots. Remember, directors will say anything to get you to their school, because there is no way to deal with having to live indoors and watch clouds of smoke arise while radical muslims burn parts of the city down – while you get ready for work in the morning.


  13. The teacher referencing Shanghai made two excellent points: 1) “make up your mind on how much are you willing to deal with” and 2) “Most International Schools work for a profit and will make you work to the very last penny.” Oddly enough, the Chinese government doesn’t consider these factors when booting out older teachers for whom these considerations are often less important because their kids are grown and their pent-up desires for travel and adventure seek an outlet. jcm


  14. When we worked ad SCIS is Shanghai, admin did not take care of safety enough. Although Shanghai is a safe city, it has extremely bad health and pollution issues. For instance: In spite of having 300+ points of air pollution students were sent out to play or to have a regular PE class. Classes were never cancelled because of extreme pollution indexes.

    The worst story I can tell happened on March 2013. That day, 19,000 dead pigs appeared floating on the Yangtze river. A little after, the well-known bird flu outbreak began right in Shanghai and the list of deceased arose exponentially. In spite of its modernity, Shanghai has not yet a western health system and therefore western medicines or vaccines are very scarce. The School Superintendent, Mr. Stubbs ignored these facts and declared that the show should go on. As a family, we evaluated the chances of getting stranded in China and left the country. Sorry, our safety was first. Needless to say that we were immediately kicked out of our apartment and we have not gotten our salaries yet.

    Most International Schools fulfill a market on those parts of the world with some kind of safety issue. My recommendation is to establish your own safety parameters and stick to them. Make your mind on how much are you willing to deal with. Do not wait for admin or local authorities to declare an emergency because then it might be too late. The fact is: Most International Schools work for a profit and will make you work to the very last penny regardless of your safety.


    1. I agree with you 100%. If you wait for the school director to make the decision to evacuate it may be far too late for safety. I had this exact experience in Pakistan. The consulate and embassy had sent all Non Essential Personnel home. This included family members of all employees. Yet teachers at the school were ordered to stay by the director. When the entire consulate and US embassy shut down and left town, the director insisted we all continue teaching. At that point teachers just began leaving of their own accord. I considered the man to be a fool who was taking chances with our personal safety in exchange for his pay check.

      The problem is that many of these directors act like we teachers have made a commitment to the their schools as if it were a military enlistment. It’s really time some of them wake up and get a life.

      I’ve not met a director with the degree of common sense I would bet my life on (well, maybe one). You must always do what feels right for you. If you wait too long you can get trapped in a country because the airlines will stop landing there. And don’t count on the embassy. They are in it for themselves, not you.

      Teaching at these school is ultimately just a job and not worth putting yourself or your family in danger. And yes, some of these “directors” will tell you anything to get your to come work at their schools. If common sense tells you that someplace is not safe, than follow that inner voice and refuse the position.


  15. Avoid Libya. It really is not safe and whether you are in Tripoli or Benghazi it is a hardship posting but very likely you will not be payed well.
    Libya has no strong government and the power lies in heavily armed militia and criminal gangs who clash with each other and the government. Expats stand out wherever they go as there are so few of them. The locals by and large may be friendly enough during the day but each city has definite no-go areas for expats. The threat of robbery, kidnapping or getting caught in a crossfire are very real.
    There is a huge number of looted weapons in the population and for most Libyan’s life is very hard. It is not safe to go out after dark and the road between Tripoli and Benghazi is notorious for ambushes, hold-ups and kidnappings. Libya is surrounded by unsafe and unstable countries. If the situation in Libya worsened, where could you run to? The country uses an exit visa system and the airports are chaotic. If you tried to leave in a hurry the airports would not be safe.
    There are schools in Libya which downplay the dangers, when trying to recruit staff. The school I was at even told us the western media had exaggerated the situation and that Libya was a welcoming, family friendly place to be with wonderful Mediterranean weather. Yes, the weather is gorgeous most of the time but they failed to mention the hijackings, car bombs, kidnappings, assassinations and murders and nightly gun fire. Nor the fact that we could not go out after dark, that we needed an armed escort to and from school and even shopping trips into town were ill-advised.
    Why even consider a country where alQaeda attack the US embassy, kill the ambassador and cause even the US Marines to (temporarily) pull out?


    1. Thanks for the information. I’d seen a lot of adverts for Libya and wanted to see more of N. Africa than the quick tour of Morocco I once took. And yes, the recruiters did downplay the dangers and the salary was shockingly low for a “hardship” posting. I lived in Kurdistan (N.Iraq) for two years, but the dangers there were really minimal and avoidable.


  16. Dont ever go to Delta Region in Nigeria , it is not safe, whilst you live on guarded compounds the guards are poorly paid and will bugger off at the merest sense of danger leaving you to the rebels and anti government kidnappers mercy. And woe betide of the government or Shell get involved as they only know one way of dealing with things and that is shoot first ask who you are later , if still alive


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