Raising Kids in a War Zone Taught Me About Real Danger

Risk-averse parents lead compromised lives on the premise that they must protect their children from harm. But harm comes in many forms.

by Bernard Bleske
A drawing of a family having a meal through the window in a war zone
Ivy Johnson for Fatherly

We took our kids into danger.

Knowingly? Yes. But also no. That’s how it goes in Pakistan. We didn’t see a bloodbath coming but we weren’t entirely blind or deaf to the conditions.

It was 2007. My wife and I were teaching middle school history and high school English in the Florida public schools. We were secure, solidly middle-class professionals, but we wanted more. We wanted our kids to have more. We wanted to see the world, to have experiences unavailable in safe, flat, calm coastal Florida. You can own a home and raise two kids comfortably enough on a public school teacher’s salary in America, but you can’t hike the Himalayas or meet the Dalai Lama or offer your children the sorts of experiences that become family lore.

So we signed up for an International Schools fair, flew to New York, and interviewed for jobs in American-style primary education programs abroad. We were offered several interviews: Moscow. Lusaka, Jeddah, and Lahore. Before the meeting with Lahore’s principal, I turned to my wife and assured her we weren’t going to Pakistan. The interview was just practice. But the conversation went so well we followed up and they followed up and, in the end, we accepted teaching positions at the Lahore American School.

Our children were in third and sixth grades and slightly nervous but also excited. And it all seemed reasonable enough when we signed our contracts that January. Pakistan appeared to be on the mend. The Taliban were restive and democratic elections were scheduled for later that year. Lahore, a quiet, leafy city near the Indian border, had witnessed little of the violence and fundamentalism that sporadically plagued the rest of the nation. We gave notice.

But there were moments even before we left that gave us pause. A bombing at a police station. A political assassination. So, yes, there was danger and we knew it. We knew what could happen before it did.

A month into the first semester, six terrorists attacked a visiting cricket team at the Khaddafi stadium roundabout, about four miles from the school. We heard the grenades and gunfire as a distant crackling. A week later, a police station closer to the school was bombed, the explosion rattling our hallways. Not long after, we were all having an Iftar dinner at the Avari hotel when everyone’s phone went off at once. The Intercontinental hotel in Islamabad, 200 miles away, had just been bombed.

Once one starts cataloging the events, it’s actually hard to stop. One explosion silences a month or even a year of daily events, even if that explosion is miles away and all you know of it is what shows up on the news and social media. Violence rings in the ears. In truth, we witnessed little of the violence of Pakistan. We experienced it as television. Usually, since we didn’t speak Urdu, we watched broadcasts from the other side of the world.

And I don’t look back in horror. I look back at the speed with which we incorporated these events and threats into our day to day lives. I think about how the risk was presented from the outside, in American newspapers and media, and how it looked from the inside, from Lahore itself, where we were largely comfortable.

This is not to say we were blithe about the car bombs. For a while after we moved, I’d wake up at 2AM. in a kind of blind panic, wondering what we’d done, imagining the guilt and regret and sheer unbearable grief should the kids come to harm. But by morning, we’d be back to normal and off to work and none of that terror would seem real.

My wife had the opposite experience. A perennial insomniac and worrier in the safe arms of America’s abundance, she found the actualization of her vague and shapeless fears reassuring. She slept, finally.

Danger is often simply the unknown.

People back home would ask us how safe our American school was, given the rabid anti-Americanism of Pakistan and the ongoing bombings.

“We’re very safe!” I told them. “We have machine guns on the roof!” And that wasn’t all. There were armed guards in the hallways and policemen outside the walls. We lived in the Cantonment Zone, where the Pakistani Army had barracks and all the retired Generals lived. Bomb detectors used mirrors to look under the cars going through the McDonald’s Drive-Thru.

One fall term we missed three weeks of school because the Taliban had orchestrated suicide bombings at a University in Islamabad and schools on the border with Afghanistan. Still, Pakistan didn’t seem dangerous.

Even after Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, a city some 150 miles north of Lahore. (My wife wanted us to drive up there and get our Christmas picture taken, but I demurred), Malala Youssef was shot, and Pakistani Jihadists attacked Mumbai, Pakistan didn’t seem dangerous.

Feelings can contravene facts.

There’s always a calculus we do as parents, balancing unknowns with knowns, measuring our own happiness against that of the kids, making sacrifices for future gain, and weighing the cost of security against the rewards of risk. If danger were always the main concern, parents would keep their kids locked up inside. But it isn’t. Danger is one concern. Harm is another and that comes in many forms.

We put helmets on them when they bike. We strap in the seatbelt. We close up the cupboards of bleach, put bars on the bed so they don’t fall, cover the pool. But harm’s way is a broader thoroughfare than injury. Harm can take the form of lassitude, luxury, or license.

Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, I believe that danger protected our children from harm.

Danger gave us things as a family that we could not have found any other way. Given the life choices my wife and I have made – to be schoolteachers, to follow middle-class paths of steady paychecks, safety of its own kind, security of its own kind – we would not have been able to provide our children with the kinds of life experiences we ultimately did without taking a significant risk.

There were benefits to living in Pakistan that far outweighed the risks (of course, I would not be saying this if my kids weren’t fine). Danger and the attendant discomfort it brought was one of them. For us, the inescapable discomfort of living overseas, in a developing country, is what helped make our kids who they are today. It gave them compassion for the less fortunate, exposed them to other lives and other views, reinforced our own good fortune. Danger made us stronger as a family, dependent upon each other. At ease together.

We could have canceled our contracts. No real harm would have been done. We didn’t. My wife continued to sleep well at night.

In the years we were there, Pakistan consistently made the lists of ‘Most Dangerous Countries’ – competing for honors with Somali, Yemen, and Sudan. We laughed this off.

After three years, our children were ready to enter middle school and high school. It felt like time to relocate. In 2010, we signed up for another international schools job fair (this time in Thailand) and accepted positions in Dubai. Dubai regularly makes the top three list of Safest Places in the World. We accepted the jobs for the same reasons we went to Pakistan: great interview, good school, interesting location, reassuring research. After Lahore, safety wasn’t even an afterthought.

Dubai was a lot like Florida: sunny, hot, and sandy, but also flat and safe and wealthy. We liked Pakistan more.

We preferred Pakistan in no small part because the security and luxury of Dubai created other pressures. The social and academic stress of The American School of Dubai was immeasurably more intense than Lahore. The wealth was curiously flattening, somehow less exotic — the place felt less special than one caught up in revolution. Without threat, luxury loses depth and meaning. All that’s left is a vague pressure, a quiet whispering of a truth that can only ever be muffled: All things can be taken away no matter where you are.

This was the voice that kept my wife awake in Florida, the one she could sleep through in Pakistan knowing we’d done all we could to keep safe, knowing it was real.

And what about our kids? Did the revolution center them? Did comfort unmoor them? Are they academic and social superstars? Our daughter graduated high school in Dubai. We then moved to Cali, Colombia, giving absolutely no thought to that city’s reputation. Our son graduated. They are now, at 19 and 23, pretty normal as far as these things go. Extremely average young Americans. Both struggled with the first few years of college, but largely sorted things out. They have relationships, part-time jobs, and so on. They’ve neither thrown us any great tragedy nor reached some fantastic success. They are, to be frank, quite normal. Neither seems to resent us for our choice to move overseas.

It’s easy to argue that the number one job of a parent is to keep his kids safe — to keep them from danger or out of its proximity. And yet that charge, compelled as it is by anticipation if not neuroticism, is fundamentally impossible. Ultimately the world is dangerous, unpredictable, and complex. Danger can’t be avoided, but harm can be mitigated. We tend to miscalculate risk.

I tell myself that my sensitive daughter would have been absolutely destroyed by the American middle-school experience, that my son’s lackluster high school academics would have left him bereft of anything but the video games he was most passionate about wherever we found ourselves. But,really, I don’t know, because those hypotheses never got tested.

Hindsight is better than 20/20. Hindsight makes the past seem inevitable, whether it was or not. Had something happened to our children, you’d be reading something else. I’d be writing a tragic one about being foolish and blind. Or, more likely, I wouldn’t be writing at all.

But I am. Because I think it was worth the risk.