Heather Proctor, 35, is a disabled United States veteran and a single mother. Currently, she is a photographer and film student. Born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey and has lived all over the world including Japan and Mexico, this Black expat now lives in Portugal. Last year, she co-founded Black in Portugal, a Lisbon-based group run by Black women that provides resources for the Black community and those looking to relocate to the country.
The calmness, ease, peace of mind and quality of life have always attracted her to live outside the United States. Her first experience living abroad happened when she was on Active Duty in the U.S. Navy for eight years.
“My rate in the Navy was an Aviation Ordnanceman. My job was to build 500-2000lbs bombs, quick strike mines, rockets and but not limited to loading missiles and various ordnance onto F/A 18 fighter jets. I also was an Aviation Ordnanceman instructor that taught students coming out of boot camp how to do their jobs in the fleet. I was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, in 2013, which opened my eyes to a different way of thinking and living,’ Proctor told Travel Noire. “ I also had many port visits while deployed,” she added.
After joining the military and deploying around the world, she has visited France, England, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Spain, Australia, Guam, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Bahrain, Mexico and Turkey 18 in total so far.
But, in 2010, Proctor’s life changed. “ I had a vaccine injury due to the mandated Anthrax vaccinations we are required to receive while we are deployed. It wasn’t until four years later, in 2014, that I found out I was misdiagnosed and finally diagnosed correctly. As an adult living with autoimmune issues (Sjögren’s and Lupus), my life was not the best it could have been,” the Black expat said.
Before moving abroad officially, Proctor spent many of her days in bed, taking medications after medications.
“I felt horrible with daily unbearable pain, along with driving 1.5 hrs+ each way to get quality medical care monthly. There were many days that I was not able to get out of my bed for days at a time. Life really had me doing a 180. I had just medically retired from the United States Navy and had much more free time to focus on my health.”
It was the moment she decided to travel with her daughter. She was about 11 at that time. She wanted to show her the world, just like the Navy did for her.
“I wanted to expose her to different ways of living and introduce her to other cultures. I wanted to give her the childhood I never had. The first country we went to was Japan. Yokosuka is the city she also fell in love with the place. I didn’t have the daily stressors that come with living in America. Although my health issues did not just vanish, my focus was shifted to looking at the beauty in my surroundings. Cognitive therapy also helped me with this new mindset.”
Portugal: A good country for Black Expats
In March 2020, Proctor and her daughter had planned to backpack through Europe around the same time COVID-19. “The world was shutting down. I didn’t want us to get stuck abroad. As a young, retired person at the age of 29 (at the time) and unable to work 9-5, it would be difficult to apply for a retirement visa. Doing some more research, Portugal kept popping up. “
Also, thinking about her daughter’s future, Proctor kept in mind that her daughter would be going to college in a few years. “I was previously unschooling/world schooling and wanted to place her back in school to prepare her for European college life. Becoming an EU citizen/permanent resident was also appealing. The process would only take five years. So, we relocated due to better climate, quality of life, ease of getting an EU citizenship.”
On arriving in Portugal, she could notice a big Black expat community in the country. “Although not everyone speaks English, the diversity speaks for itself. I don’t think many people know how big the Black presence is here since Portugal had previously colonized several African Countries (Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola, São Tomé & Príncipe, and Guinea- Bissau) along with playing a major role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade”, she said.
“There are also many Afro-Brazilians here as well. There are plenty of Black expats from America and other countries such as the UK and the Caribbean. The community in Portugal is healthy with a positive quality of life.”
Creating a group for Black Community in Portugal
The idea of creating a Black community where it could flourish and where people who looked like her could thrive also was born when she arrived in Portugal. ‘As soon as I landed in Lisbon, I began to get to work,” she said.
The Black expat started her group activities out hosting an event – a brunch where she met 11 amazing women..”I noticed such positive feedback that I created a WhatsApp group chat exclusively for Black women and women of color living in Lisbon or visiting long term. It is a safe place for women to navigate and provide each other with resources and support. Most importantly, it was to create organic and long-lasting connections and friendships while here in Lisbon.”
She hosted other events in 2021 with another veteran and a friend named Kam and created “Black in Portugal”.
“One thing that amazed me about Kam is that she also wanted a Black community to thrive in. She wanted to build a community here in Portugal too. So, it made sense to join forces and start a new brand. We didn’t know it would blow up and grow the way it did.”
Black in Portugal is an all-Black women-led business, Proctor said, adding that everyone is welcome to the events and meetups Black in Portugal hosts monthly.
“We are not only connecting expats, but we are also reaching local lack Portuguese and building organic relationships and bridging the gap. We provide resources and on-ground support for those looking to make the leap and relocate to Portugal. Another highlight is that we host our events at local Black and Portuguese businesses to bring more business and awareness to them. We have a list of recommendations that range from places to eat, co-working spots, hair services, realtor suggestions etc.”
Black in Portugal has expanded and reached more locals in its growing community. “ We have had 13+ events over the past ten months. We are now averaging 75+ attendees at our events. We are outgrowing many spaces we have our events.”
Proctor adds that the community is limited with funding, and they are now looking for sponsors, investors & donations to help us rent out a space long-term so we can be location-based.
“Our overall goal for 2023 is to raise funds and have our own space. The idea behind having our own space is that we don’t have to pay Euros just to rent out a space for an event monthly.”