The narrative frames we are accustomed to of ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ are not singular ones, nor are they true. None of us is one story. We are myriad stories living within us. Despite culture and the media’s demonstrations, the narrative lens of ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ can and does coexist with ‘teacher’, ‘healer’, and ‘leader’.
In the pre-pandemic world, the arrested narrative of displaced and vulnerable communities such as migrants or refugees portrays them as singularly ‘weak’, ‘in need’, and ‘helpless’. Today, with Covid-19, nothing has changed save for the fact that these communities are perhaps even less visible in public discourse than they have ever been. There is not doubt these communities are the most vulnerable and will face immense threats and challenges in a post- pandemic world. But within this new constant of globally-shared disruption induced by Covid-19, it is also overlooked that communities of migrants, refugees, minority groups have been navigating and enduring inequality before the pandemic, and some of these communities have much to teach and share with those of us facing such dramatic disruption all at once for the first time in our lives.
Now more than ever, ‘me’ is ‘we’. And yet, the ideas and perspectives of ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘vulnerable’ communities remain underrepresented in today’s global public discourse around the pandemic.
What do some refugees, for instance, who have been living in isolation, and economic, and physical insecurity before COVID-19, feel and observe in today’s world? What messages, lessons, or approaches do such resilient communities reveal to societies grappling with systemic physical and mental disruption for the first time in varying degrees? What is the role of today’s privileged — (I’d call us lucky) — in resisting against a return to ‘ the way things were…’?
I discuss this with a Syrian friend and colleague who has been living as a refugee in a host country for more than 4 years. Before the war, he was studying to be a dentist in Syria, and then within days found himself having to comfort kids on the street whose parents had disappeared or were murdered from war. Facing the mandatory military service — he was forced to leave his homeland and enter a situation of isolation, economic insecurity, and discrimination so that he could at least maintain his values of non-violence and peace.
“There is a sense of fear that this virus does not recognize you if you are a Syrian or not Syrian, or this sectarian group or that one. This is an opportunity for people to work together. I feel hope because before this new crisis happened, people were fighting with each other, but now it is showing itself as a human issue — I hope this makes people work together on one challenge, not against each other.
For Syrians, they perceive this virus with less fear because we have already been living with the worst. Some of us, as refugees, might feel a greater sense of equality with the world now. It might be weird to say this, but it’s true. Some of us feel it is better to get sick than to be ignored, and it is better than not being recognized and not having any basic human rights, as most Syrians have been living with.”
So how has one Syrian refugee been coping with years of isolation, fear, and insecurity before this pandemic? What lessons would he like to offer a world facing — to a lesser degree — physical and economic disruptions each and every day?
“I do breathing exercises and practice mindfulness in any and all simple activities — whether it’s housekeeping or studying topics and reading. Being present in the moment I am in. I also try to do sport activities so I have better physical health and sleep.
I cook. Cooking is great for me. I am a good cook. It is a practice of experiencing different sensations, and being present and engaged in something with focus and attention.
Writing helps. I write the things I have been putting on the roof or shell of myself…things I never had time to think and write about before. For example, letters of love and support to myself and other people in my life…my future goals…reflection of the things happening right now so I can process things better. I write what I need to process and reflect. Most of the time after doing this writing, I feel a release, and sometimes more relaxed after I write. Also, I can work on creative ideas now more too.
I also put mirrors in different parts of my apartment so I can see myself multiple times throughout the day. So I am literally trying to see myself more. Most importantly, trying to love being home, and to not complain about being home or alone, but to invest the time being alone — because it’s precious time. It’s a sacred way for self communication.
In the ancient past, people went to caves and mountains to reflect and meditate. Right now, this — your room or home — can be your cave to make a better relationship with yourself. It is a great opportunity people should not waste.”
I see one commonality in my ten-plus years of work with thousands of migrants, refugees and at-risk families across more than 15 countries: an arrested ability to communicate with yourself and others transforms into a arrested development of your entire community, and risks disconnecting crucial human social networks necessary for survival and innovation.
This is true from the deserts of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to the La Bestia train tracks next to migrant shelters in Mexico where we serve. And yes, it is also true for those of us in America.
Why? Chronic stress and fear introduce changes in how the brain and body communicate, and this internal communication impacts our internal stories, and capacity to regulate emotions, set goals, and maintain positive social relationships with our surrounding environment. The same is true for the body of our collective human species.
How we communicate now, and the stories we tell ourselves now — as a human species — and the perspectives we take in now — -will shape the narrative of the world and its existence after this pandemic passes.
As the drums of politics and economics and culture begin to beat the rhythm of normalization, let’s not forget that the world before Covid-19 already had us normalize things which should never be normalized — climate change, war in Syria, migration and the forced displacement of more than 60 million people, racial and economic discrimination, and health care disparities — just to name a few. The pre-pandemic world fueled and enabled the disruption of all people and our planet today.
Whether it’s Covid-19 virus, climate change, or polarizing politics — our greatest test right now will be how to build and uphold self awareness and reframe healthy communication within ourselves and with each other in a time of social distancing, economic shutdowns, and border closures. The burden of this test falls largely on those of us privileged enough to work from home… privileged enough to even have a home…privileged enough to have technology and a pay check.
What are the lessons and mindsets you are discovering inside this historic moment that you want to maintain in the face of normalization after this pandemic passes? Where to even begin?
“Remember,” my Syrian friend tells me, “there is always something to do, and always something to control, even if you feel you have no control. How you eat. Your breathing. Your physical health. Your relationships. In a time where your life is disrupted, remember you have some control. Try to see it not as a disruption but a station, to sit and reflect on your life.”