Germany initiated calls for the population to voluntarily isolate themselves in the beginning of March 2020, in response to the spread of the new Coronavirus (COVID-19). Eventually, the disease accelerated, as did Germany’s tightening of restrictions and decision to stop public life. At the time, I had started to home quarantine, after previous contact with an infected person. This isolation coincided with the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the events of the Syrian “revolution,” and its aftermath, which brought back memories of curfew, and the beginning of my journey of successive isolations due to my displacement from Damascus to southern Syria, to Jordan, and then to Germany.
The Illusion of Previous Experiences
I used to think that what I previously went through would help make the quarantine period a mere convalescence, especially in comparison to my German friends who are unable to cope with this situation. Recognizing that it could force us to stay put for many months, I was trying to play the quarantine down to them by comparing it to my hiding for several months in Southern Syria under bombing. I have told many stories of how we were able to adapt, no matter how severe the situation was, and how the society quickly embraced the new lifestyle even with death and scarcity of supplies by inventing survival methods and having fun through the most tragic incidents. I told them how some people living nearby towns used to sing for several seconds as they saw the light of bombshells appear in the sky, as this period was the time they had to hide before the explosions. The next day, the dead were buried, and life went on.
These stories were comforting to friends, but once I went through self-quarantine, I discovered that this experience was completely different and might be more difficult. In wars, there is a struggle for survival where time is used to search for means of heating, supplies and safety mechanisms for the continuity of life. The difference is that here everything is available, a safe place, food and necessary necessities, and the government has started to facilitate procedures to deliver aid to all segments of society.
Right now, there is no struggle for survival, just waiting and trying to protect the elderly. But as a Syrian refugee, the German state provides me with all the necessary information about cases, procedures, the readiness of institutions and the health system. Such news from Syria is almost non-existent; there is no way to know the number of infected in an exhausted country with a non-functional health system, especially after the destruction of so many hospitals. This prolonged time of waiting was filled with fear, especially fear for what might happen in Syria. This fear is more terrifying than the war itself because war has more clarity, and after nine years, many have Syrians mastered the ‘survival game’ there.
The Gift of time does not mean preparedness to achieve
Although this stage may be an opportunity to refine some experiences, learn the language for us as refugees here, or even work on new projects with all the free courses offered by scientific, cultural and creative platforms, this is not easy. My lifestyle didn’t change much before and after the isolation because I was working from home, but the general atmosphere and the acceleration of news and changes in reality here and there – I mean Syria – have made focusing on starting new things a luxury we cannot handle or, cannot accept. There are many issues that Syrians were trying to resolve, such as residency papers, family unification procedures, asylum requests; all of which have been now stopped. While some believe that this cessation will not affect their cases, it is a new blow added to the bureaucracy they were facing before the outbreak of the virus. Small projects are forced to shut down, courses have been canceled, and opportunities to see family again are out of reach.
A journalist friend here, who rarely left his home before the outbreak, has shared that although seemingly nothing has changed, he now cannot work or achieve. There is a state of frustration embodied in all attempts to escape from the past and try to start and rebuild again.
Now they will understand why we are not integrating in the way they want us to!
Souad – alias – has lived in Germany for four years, and since she was pregnant in her first year here, her life has become dependent on her child, who takes all of her time. Souad says she now feels pity for the Germans because they will now be able to understand what she has been suffering from for four years. They will know how it feels when you have no one who asks about you, no one knocking on your door, and how it feels not being able to give the kindergarten another person’s number and address to call if your child needs you and you are not available. You do not know the language, or the place and you are required to be grateful, integrating and cheerful. People will now understand how this isolation affects their way of life and their ability to pursue life or work; how it consumes your energy to live life.
In the early years of asylum, there were and still are financial allocations for programs to integrate refugees and help them integrate into society. However, many of these projects focus on things that do not come close to the root of the problem but rather try to highlight success stories or job opportunities or cooking festivals, etc. This epidemic may ultimately help them understand the profound problems of trying to integrate. Or at least, it may break communication barriers and put an end to prejudices that are based on what the media broadcasts, and replace them with personal experiences of isolation within society itself.
The psychological effects of this isolation are still unknown because the world has not witnessed such a pandemic for several generations, Although the refugees here have the support needed for their existence, this new crisis adds to their previously unaddressed problems.
When Saeed -alias- asked refugee social media platforms on how to seek psychological support to help him face this quarantine, many refugees attacked him. They cited what detainees in Syria or refugees in the refugee camps in northern Syria or those that are stuck between international borders go through. As if thinking about the misfortunes of our refugee brothers should prevent us from having any psychological difficulty!
Many Syrian refugees do not enjoy the luxury of isolation. In Syrian refugee shelters scattered throughout Germany, where bathrooms and kitchens are shared, and every room may contain 4 roommates, the elderly cannot be transferred to nursing homes due to the new laws that apply to these homes, preventing them from accepting any new resident.
Procedures in refugee shelters contravene the rules established by states to combat the virus. The latter have reached many refugees. In Euskirchen, western Germany, the shelter residents have been all quarantined due to the outbreak there.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for asylum seekers who still don’t have their identification documents. Refugee rights organizations are demanding that they are allowed to be tested, and are suing states over shelter conditions, and demanding the placement of refugees in separate rooms in the hotels that were closed due to the interruption of tourism.
When Merkel announced that 70% of Germans could be infected with the virus, refugees on social media said, “Thank God, we are not Germans.” Humor was the beginning of their attempts to escape this new kind of isolation. In surviving this, refugees demonstrated real integration in the German society through numerous initiatives such as helping Germans in farming, sewing masks, helping the elderly and even walking their dogs. These include initiatives such as the “Wuppertal White Hearts” initiative and the Coronavirus Warriors initiative in Cologne. This new isolation has brought hope that may contribute to real integration (not one influenced by the media) after the pandemic is over.