“What should I say? Praise be to God”
COVID–19 and people living as refugees in West Asia
The impositions of the COVID-19 pandemic have left us struggling to adapt to an uncertain world. We went to the supermarket one day and checked off our shopping list; on the next day the same shelves were bare, and we face a bleak future without toilet paper or other staples. The sudden obligation of social distancing interrupts our connections to friends and family, and we face the new calculus of how far apart we should remain. Video conferencing apps have become our new church buildings. More than ever, we wash our hands.
For our friends living as refugees in West Asia, COVID-19 represents more than an imposition – it’s a looming wave which threatens everything they have gained since they were forced from home. When the virus arrives, refugees will be among the most vulnerable. They often live in overcrowded and unsanitary living spaces, making hygiene difficult to maintain. Superstitious and inaccurate beliefs about how to fight sickness prevail, especially amongst older generations, stymying efforts to help people prepare. And, when the time comes, many people who are refugees will not be able to get the health care they need – late last year, government subsidies on doctors’ visits and medications were rescinded. This, combined with the lack of interpreters, means many will avoid seeking help.
In the weeks before the pandemic reached West Asia, we held a session about health and COVID-19 at our community outreach centre for people who are refugees. We expected to hear a lot of fear about the looming wave and its consequences. Instead, what we got was resignation. “We’ve lived through too much already,” said Zachary, an Afghan man. “Every day is like this already. Every day is a new problem. I can’t worry about the virus – I have to think about my mother and my brother. What should I say? El hamdullillah [praise be to God].” Others in our group laughed bleakly at stories from the West about social distancing or panic-buying. They could not afford to stock their pantries with toilet paper or rice or other essentials in case the markets were shut down. They could not afford the privilege of staying at home. They had mouths to feed and rent to pay, and no social services to protect them when the work dried up.
We fear for the health of our refugee friends, but we also worry about the peculiar paradox of this virus – that at the very moment when we most need one another, we are sequestered into isolation. Days after our conversations at the centre, many businesses and workplaces (including our refugee centre) were closed. We agreed with the decision, but we know that our centre had become an important place of togetherness for many people living as refugees. Without it, many have said they are feeling alone, returning to a place where they feel like the Other, out of place and dangerous. “Many people already say we spread diseases,” said our Iraqi friend Anthony. “We are already to blame for so many other things. Once coronavirus gets more common, we’re afraid they will forget that it came here on jumbo jets and not with refugees.”
As we wait for the wave to fall, there are no easy answers. Our prayers are that our friends who are refugees will be spared the worst of what will come, that we will have some part to play in rebuilding a feeling of belonging and home in the days after. But as our friends know too well, there are no guarantees. With Zachary, with Anthony, we can only look for reasons to praise the One we follow, who knew sickness and suffering, and whose heart was moved with compassion.
All names have been changed.