How the COVID-19 Quarantine is Bringing Back My Experience as a Refugee

A Former Refugee from Iraq Shares Her Reflections on the Global Pandemic

Photo by Levi Clancy on Unsplash

Basma Alawee came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee in 2010. She is currently the Refugee Organizer with Florida Immigrant Coalition and We Are All America and the Co-Founder and Executive Director of WeaveTales. She is an active advocate for refugee rights and protection based in Jacksonville, Florida.

Growing up, I never trusted the future. Born in a war-stricken Iraq, I was raised with the saying “do for this life as if you live forever, do for the afterlife as if you die tomorrow.” From some point on, we stopped making future plans for vacations, work, weddings, and not even birthdays. Every time we planned something, we were hit by war or our streets by a car bomb, or a community or family member died. In 2003, I remember that I was planning for my high school graduation but everything stopped when the war hit Iraq again.

In 2007, as I was joyfully planning for my wedding — the day that every girl dreams of — everything was suddenly canceled when a tragedy struck my family. The militia had attacked and killed my uncle in his house with 16 gunshots. This event caused huge pain and trauma to our whole family that lasted many years. My mom fell ill and the entire family went grieving for two full months before my wedding. Despite the sadness, life continued but I didn’t have the guts and courage to move forward with my wedding. Everything was uncertain and I didn’t want to take a risk. So I canceled the wedding. I was still able to get married eventually but this time, it wasn’t planned out — just a small family gathering in the midst of the grievance.

Despite the sadness, life continued but I didn’t have the guts and courage to move forward with my wedding. Everything was uncertain and I didn’t want to take a risk. So I canceled the wedding.

As a human, we tend to forget our disappointments and always want to hope for the best. Now, after years, the current global pandemic reminds me of the fact that we should not take life for granted. Just like those times back in Iraq, I had many plans this year. I was planning to meet my mom in Turkey in two years, go to London for the Athena 40 Forum, hold many community events, and most important of all, I was about to launch WeaveTales, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit organization that I co-founded last year to help refugees worldwide through storytelling.

Only this time, it’s not just my plans; the whole world is on lockdown and quarantined just like me. Over the years, I have become flexible enough to change plans and adapt. However, using the quarantine to spend time with my family still seems like a distant and guilt-ridden idea given the dire situations of refugees worldwide.

Many of the refugees living in refugee camps were already placed in dismal living conditions over the winter. Photo Credit: Rabia Savas

Every day, I take an overwhelming volume of calls from refugee communities not just in the U.S. but also in Turkey, Iraq, and Africa. COVID-19 has impacted everyone but most severely, over 70 million displaced people globally. Their needs vary; feeling insecure, losing a home, being deported, losing legal protection, becoming homeless, losing healthcare, losing employment, and dealing with emotional triggers from having an unclear future. I know that I am more privileged than any other refugee because I get to stay in a safe home with my family continuing my work from home when there are more than 70 million humans who do not even have the opportunity to stay home because simply they do not have a home.

The crowded living space and increased needs for basic goods and equipment are compounding the difficult situations in refugee camps nowadays.

Photo Credit: Rabia Savas

A home for refugees is not anything special. They are not looking for a fancy house or life-long stability that nobody in today’s world could easily afford. For refugees, home is all about feeling safe, welcomed, and being able to give back to the communities without prejudice and barriers.

Despite the pandemic bringing up feelings of worry and fear, I’ve had the privilege of observing several acts of kindness including local families donating home-cooked meals, masks for medical professionals, and tie to create accessible resources to our community. I’ve witnessed medical professionals who were once not able to serve their communities in America because of immigration restrictions, receive a temporary certification to help on the front lines. People have given countless hours towards translating government orders, medical orders and keeping the Jacksonville Muslim community knowledgeable and prepared.

For refugees, home is all about feeling safe, welcomed, and being able to give back to the communities without prejudice and barriers.

The world is fighting against the pandemic together and we cannot win this fight by marginalizing or stigmatizing refugees. As I document the stories of refugees worldwide in the time of COVID-19, I am learning more about the instances of racism and attacks targeting refugees as scapegoats. These events should not be condoned under any circumstances; however, what is even more important is for us to be reminded of the spirits of compassion and humanity that are missing in today’s narratives surrounding refugees. Just like everyone else, refugees are also humans who want to be included and help out those in need.

After all, their home isn’t far away; it is where they are accepted as a full member of the local community.

By Basma Alawee basma@weavetales.org

Edited by Seyeon Hwang seyeon@weavetales.org

WeaveTales collects and share the stories of refugees around the world to correct misperceived narratives and empower refugees to find a safe home. www.weavetales.org

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