The Expat: Fiona Watson

CV: Fiona Watson
Born: Born in Malta, raised in Singapore
Age: 51
Profession: Founder of Todos Juntos dental foundation
Education: Journalism degree at the Ecole Internationale de Journalisme in Paris
Currently re-reading: When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
Last film seen: Warhorse
Gadget: My BlackBerry

Did you visit Argentina before you moved here?
Oh no. The United Nations just sends you! My ex worked for the UN’s International Organization for Migration and they send you — you don’t get to visit or choose a house or anything. You have to sort out a hotel and everything alone. That was with respect to the IOM.
We had come from Switzerland where we had been for a year and a few months, just enough time to have my youngest of four, Carlotta. When we left, she was four months old. In past experience, when I had moved to Senegal, I arrived with three kids and sat in a hotel for three days, which apart from anything else, is expensive.
So when we were told we were coming to Buenos Aires, I told my ex that I wasn’t going to a small apartment or a hotel, and that we should rent a temporary house, as there were now four children, plus the dog and the cat.

Do you remember arriving?
We came from the hottest summer in Europe and landed on the coldest winter’s day in Buenos Aires in 2003, sitting in a mini bus with our bags. It was awful and ugly and so miserable. We were all so cold! In 2003, every car must have been 30 years old. It was like going back in time.
We arrived at the temporary house and there was no heating. On the first night, the baby fell asleep and I got up at six the next morning as the kids started school immediately. She was so cold, I thought she’d died! I really did. I screamed and shook her, and she was frozen as she’d pushed the covers off in the night. There was no heating, all the electricity went out the day we arrived and the house hadn’t been lived in for a while. What a horrible arrival! I wanted to leave!

How did you find that property?
My ex had found it via a relocation agency when he came down to meet his predecessor. I gave him a list of products asking if they could all be found in the supermarket. He said yes but when I got here there was very little. There was cereal but just one brand which didn’t taste at all like cereal. And there weren’t any tampons! We drove everywhere trying to find them.
It’s hard to come here. Go to Europe or the United States and everything works. I wasn’t expecting everything not to work in Argentina, whereas I had in Senegal.

What did you know when you were sent here?
The options were Helsinki or Buenos Aires and the latter was an automatic decision. I was just so relieved not to go to Helsinki! It gets dark at 3pm, light at midday, so that’s three hours of daylight, plus the highest rates of suicide… I knew it was like the Paris of Latin America and I was told that I’d love it, people were in the streets at 3am. But I didn’t really do any research — I was going to follow my husband regardless!
Within a week, my Argentine neighbour got me involved with the Food Bank, so that kept me busy. Once the kids go to school, the husband’s gone to work and you don’t speak Spanish, it’s very lonely and it’s a long day.
But a housekeeper came with that house in Punta Chica, and although the mornings were cold and dark, she’d have the gas burners on to keep the house warm, and we’d come down to a laid table and a nice pot of coffee. I wasn’t used to that, and I loved those first weeks here but only for that reason!

How did your children adapt?
None of them wanted to come to Argentina! They were really happy in Switzerland and, for years, they didn’t like it. We had come from a little village where all the kids were out in the neighbourhood, cycling about, and they had a certain freedom. But when we got here in 2003, we had to be careful, of kidnapping, of this, that, look behind you when you get out of the car. There was a feeling of fear and once we found a permanent house, we lived behind walls. The kids couldn’t go out on the street like they used to and although they had a huge yard, they hated the feeling of being trapped behind walls for security reasons. Every other expat only had horror stories to share, so I was nervous for a long time. But it’s no worse than anywhere else, really.

Was there anything positive in the beginning?
Apart from breakfast, no! I’d left my life, friends, behind, and I didn’t speak the language and that was a huge problem. The kids’ school was smaller in 2003 as there weren’t that many expats, so fewer people to meet. There were hardly any restaurants, it was like a ghost town.

How do you make friends?
You stand at the school gate at 3.15 instead of at 3.30, and start talking to new mums. I joined the BA international newcomers’ transition group, which runs a course to teach you basic things, the ins and outs, which documents to carry or not carry around, and even takes you to a supermarket to show you the replacement for this type of flour! I didn’t do that part though, as I’d already been shopping by then!
I also joined the parent-teachers association and became the vice-president.
My Argentine neighbour came over with empanadas the day we moved in — the first and last time I ate them! — and she got me involved with the Food Bank. So I was busy, but lonely still.
And thanks to the charity I set up, I am friends with the dentists who work there, and also with people who work at the stable where my horse is. If you stay dependent on the school environment, you’ll never meet any Argentines, as there isn’t any need to. You can be here for three years, and never need to say more than gracias or adiós. But that’s not who I am — I couldn’t live like that.
I either spend my time at the villa or at the stables, and I love the combination of both. I love the school environment but it couldn’t be my everything, although it had to be in the beginning. But now I have real roots in this country.

How did you set up Todos Juntos?
In the first few lonely weeks, I opened the gate, looked left, looked right, run to the car, and locked the door — really! — and suddenly hear “tock-tock“. Of course I almost have a heart attack, and I see a little boy, about seven, and he said something to me. I didn’t think he was a risk so I opened the door but I couldn’t understand him. He was so ragged-looking and dirty, it was cold, he was in a T-shirt pushing a trolley with newspapers. I asked someone who he was and they explained he was a cartonero kid. It gave me a real shock. The last thing I expected to see in 2003, and it shows how ignorant I was of the crisis, was poverty. I expected it in Senegal but not here. And once I’d seen one kid, I started to notice more.

Tell me about running a charity.
It took about a year to set up, and there is no government help or tax breaks. For example, I pay around 500 pesos in banks fees for writing cheques every month. But it has to be legal. I started it with a US$500 donation from my brother-in-law, which was brilliant, and the rest came from my own pocket for fees and registration.
I visited the public health centres to see what the dental clinics were like. The chairs looked like they had come out of Auschwitz, the rooms didn’t have lead panels for taking X-rays and hadn’t been used in years while the dentists didn’t have any supplies.
So I asked for an appointment with the local mayor, which took months of negotiating, and when I did meet him, I said “lend us a room and we’ll renovate it.” And I started fund-raising big time in 2005 and opened the first clinic near the Cárcova slum in 2006. Since then Todos Juntos has seen more than 10,000 young patients.

How did healthcare workers receive you?
They were a little bit hostile, and my Spanish wasn’t very good. They found it hard to deal with the changes I wanted to implement, such as giving out dentist appointments. But it didn’t take long until all that settled down and they realized it was a good thing for the community’s children, they didn’t feel so threatened.
The previous mayor of San Martín, Ricardo Ivoskus, was great, for me and for Todos Juntos, as was the old health secretary. They were very appreciative of what we did in the end, although they didn’t win in the last elections. I haven’t met the new mayor yet so I don’t quite know where we are going.

For more about why Fiona couldn’t turn her back on the slum dwellers she met, click here.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 1, 2012.
Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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