Resettled refugees in Covid-19 lockdown
In 2018, my life changed forever. From being stateless, after seven years held in refugee detention, I became a permanent resident of the United States. The outcome is beyond words.
Building trust in humanity was the most difficult part of my new life. I was free but, emotionally and mentally, I was still a prisoner. I, like other refugees, have not managed to overcome these emotions. There is no time to heal from our horrific experiences, and so we move on, masking our true feelings, as though things are normal. My concern is that there are many of us who will unknowingly pass the trauma we endured on to the next generation.
Despite having so many odd thoughts that pull me back, I wake every morning with a desire to gain knowledge. I tell myself that if I don’t try my absolute best to create a positive future, there will be no one to blame except me.
It took me nine months to complete my high school diploma and I sat my college entrance examinations in the fall. Spring saw my first semester in college. It was demanding and challenging, and I found understanding the education process the hardest part.
As I can only study at a community college for two years, I had to make sure I am taking the right classes and they are transferable so I can obtain a bachelor’s degree from a university. The pressure was tremendous and some days I felt extremely overwhelmed, but my professors were very helpful.
When Covid-19 interrupted our lives, all of my classes went online. I was scared because I didn’t know how I would teach myself all these new things. Statistics and biology were not easy to learn online and it was hard for the professors to conduct classes. Many students dropped out, but I persevered and completed semester one.
Despite the initial elation I felt with my college success, Covid-19 brought me back to square one. Everything seemed pointless once again. I suddenly felt lost. The atmosphere in America is eerie. People look at each other with fear and faces are covered with masks. There is no human interaction; it feels like Chicago, where I am living, is a ghost city.
In times like these, people look to our leaders to guide us through, keep us safe and access all of the information we need. I feel frightened when someone just reads a report about Covid-19 and answers questions about it without being an expert in the field of science, without seeking out evidence-based research, without weighing up the risks and with no forethought to the impact of what they are saying. It feels as though the US government is falling behind in navigating the crisis and things are getting out of control in cities such as New York, New Jersey and Chicago. Fear, misinformation and ignorance are spreading just as quickly as the virus itself.
Not being able to touch another human during this crisis reminds me of my life on Manus Island and in other refugee camps. But I didn’t let the systems destroy my internal strength then, and I won’t now.
I bounce back quickly from my depressing thoughts, somehow. My studies kept me busy and I now have had time to read, write and talk with my family and friends. I speak to friends from Manus and Nauru who are living in the US to see how they were coping during this time. Unsurprisingly, they are all suffering in various ways.
Amin was a stateless Rohingya from Myanmar. He was detained for two years in Indonesia and five years in Nauru. He lives now in Chicago.
“I was working in a hotel as a room service man but I lost my job in March because of the Covid-19. If it continues, I will have no money to pay my rent. I am not able to support my wife and daughter who live in Thailand,” he explains.
“My limited English has made everything unbearable because I don’t know how to access government services. The city is in lockdown, so it is hard to receive any help with any papers that I have to submit for unemployment benefits. It is like I am back in Nauru, without certainty.”
Shabbir Hussain from Pakistan came to America in January 2019 and lives in Philadelphia.
“I am working as a truck driver 12 hours a day and six days a week. I want to make America proud because it has offered me a new life,” he says.
“I lost six precious years from my life in Australia’s offshore centre on Manus. Covid-19 is bringing the trauma of my life on Manus back as there are fear and uncertainties everywhere. However, my work is keeping me positive, and being able to provide essential services to people now makes my life worth living.”
Pyae, a Burmese refugee from Myanmar, is living with his family in Portland, Oregon.
“I didn’t think I could live a normal life after five years of detention on Manus Island. I was traumatised by that experience but am recovering slowly. I was driving for Uber and Lyft and volunteering at a refugee organisation. All this came to an end with Covid-19.
“I am home and watching the news constantly. I am panicking about my bills and my car insurance payments. It just feels like I am back in detention again. I am receiving some unemployment benefits, which eases some pain, but I don’t want to live on government benefits.
“All I want is to go back to work because it makes me feel human.”
Zainal is a Rohingya from Myanmar who lives in Milwaukee with a Rohingya family. He only arrived in the US in January.
“I just had a month to see the world without any security guards around me, but it wasn’t enough for me to picture freedom. Covid-19 has arrived on my doorstep and it feels like I am locked up again after six years on Manus Island, and nearly two years in Indonesia.
“I thought I would be able to work and live a normal life, but freedom has surprised me differently. I am waking up with nightmares and hopelessness as life feels on hold again. I spend most of my time with the Rohingya family kids and cook different meals to help me cope. I want to work but it is going to be extremely difficult even when this crisis is over as I am new and have no experience working in the county. Living a normal life still feels like a dream.”
Faisal, a stateless Rohingya from Myanmar, resettled in the US in 2018. He lives with me.
In the pandemic, he says, “My life feels clueless again.
“I worked at a glass factory for five months and then worked at the airport at night and took a hotel management class in the morning, which led to a job at the Peninsula Hotel for a year, until Covid-19 arrived.
“I was taking English classes at Truman [college], but they went online. I didn’t have access to my school email because I was never taught how to use it. Everything changed so fast and I couldn’t process anything. I wasn’t able to read the emails that I received from work and school.
“I needed constant help from Imran just to understand what my managers and bosses were saying in their emails. I applied for unemployment benefits four weeks ago but am still waiting for an outcome. I was happy to be free and had a purpose to wake up every morning, but now I am worried about life as I don’t know what unexpected challenges there will be when this is all over.”
Aref is a Kurdish refugee and lives with other friends from Manus in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been here for nearly a year.
“I am so grateful to have a job during this crisis,” he tells me. “I am working at a manufacturing company in maintenance. I can’t explain how depressed and hopeless I was for six years on Manus Island. Depression tablets became my daily friends, and I lost hope of living a normal life like a normal human.
“All I asked from Australia was freedom and safety, not billions of dollars. I just wish Australia hadn’t made me endure emotional and mental torture for six years. I can’t forget the trauma, but people love me in America, and I love them back. I am gaining my faith again in our shared humanity.”
For all of us, this pandemic has made clear what is essential. It is difficult, and scary at times, but we feel fortunate, as we are free. That we have a home to keep ourselves safe.
Our refugee brothers and sisters are still suffering in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Australia. There are feelings of guilt, because everyone resettled in the US left someone very close behind. I wish we didn’t have to make this hard choice again and again in our lives.
I know my journey doesn’t end here. It actually began with my freedom. There is love, hope and kindness in my new life. I will continue to thrive and, one day soon, be ready to contribute my life to a better world.
All we need as human beings is freedom, education and a safe place to live.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Setbacks and strength".
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