Living in Fear of Germs, Not Bombs: Impacts of Staying at Home for Refugees in St. Louis

 In Culture, Feature

As residents of the St. Louis metro area adjust to life under new stay-at-home rules, the stress of the unknown is a constant. For some groups, however, the latest development is eerily familiar (and, paradoxically, much less restrictive). Military service members, for example, are trained in forms of emergency barricades like lockdowns and sheltering in place. Those who’ve been incarcerated also know the additional confinements of a lockdown. In the past few years, terms like these have become more familiar to educators and parents too, thanks to active shooter drills in schools.

Another group for whom being required to stay at home may bring up challenging memories is foreign-born residents who’ve experienced life during war, martial law or other circumstances that restricted their movements.

“For now in America, all the kids and the refugee people cannot go outside because the coronavirus is a germ,” says a refugee from Damascus, Syria, who emigrated to St. Louis four years ago. “But in Syria the threat was not a germ, but a bomb. It was the deafening volume of the bombs that kept us living in constant fear.”

Mawda Altayan, who emigrated with her husband and young child from Damascus three years ago, shares similar memories. “There is a lot of uncertainty right now.” she says. “My friends and I are all very worried.”

Bracing for health concerns
Although no bombs are falling in St. Louis, there is plenty to keep Altayan and her friends up at night. They feel nervous about the same everyday things as all of us, things like sorting through the deluge of conflicting coronavirus information and getting basic supplies like allergy medicine and thermometers—with the added barriers of doing it all in a new language within systems that are very different from those in their home countries.

“We cannot sleep,” Altayan says. “Usually I sleep all night and fall asleep in one minute. Now I can’t sleep more than two hours without waking up and worrying and checking my phone to make sure everything is OK.”

Rosie Lang, director of social work at the International Institute of St. Louis, is one of the service providers working to make sure new arrivals get the information they need. For example, her agency puts out automated calls in their clients’ languages so they have information about the International Institute‘s ongoing services while the staff is working from home, as well as COVID-19 facts and places they can find assistance with food and other essentials.

Perhaps most importantly, Lang and her colleagues strive to remind new arrivals they are very strong in many ways they may not even realize. “Individuals who have lost loved ones due to gun-related violence or lived in a refugee camp or experienced torture or been in a conflict zone are quite literally the survivors,” she says. “In order to survive, there is enormous resiliency that doesn’t go away.”

Feeling the effects on work and income
Jessica Bueler, who founded Welcome Neighbor STL, also sees plenty of resilience in the 52 families her organization assists from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Somalia, Congo, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Bosnia. “Our families have done a fantastic job at finding steady work and to be able to become self-sufficient. Two of our refugee families have even purchased homes here in St. Louis,” Bueler says. “But I am very concerned about how these families are going to be able to pay their mortgages and utility bills when they already live paycheck to paycheck and people are being laid off left and right.”

Lang agrees. “We’re particularly worried that folks are going to be losing their jobs,” she says. “Financial vulnerability is a big concern for our clients—and frankly in some cases was before this crisis hit.” Newly arrived residents often work in food service, hotels and casinos—industries hit hard by COVID-19.

One Syrian immigrant shared that the painting company which is her family’s only source of income has had a steady stream of cancellations. “This is very bad timing because spring is when construction is booming and everyone starts spring cleaning so they want to add a fresh coat of paint,” she says.

Altayan, who owns her own catering company and works closely with Welcome Neighbor, has also seen business vanish practically overnight. “Right now we have no catering events scheduled. Last week my company, Damascus Food LLC, was scheduled to prepare Syrian cuisine for five events. Now all of those events are cancelled. What will we do if this happens next month? We won’t know what to do.”

She’s entering what is normally her busiest time of year: Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast during the day and eat only between sundown and sunrise. “If we don’t receive our normally high volume of orders for kibbeh, grape leaves, lentil soup and kebsa rice with Arabic salsa, this will be our biggest loss of the year,” she worries.

Even if a customer were to book a meal with her company, she says, “We have no idea if we go to the grocery store, will the items even be in stock right now if I receive a new cooking order? These are all things we are very worried about. We are worried about if we must deliver an order, will the police or someone stop us and tell them to return home? There is confusion surrounding what the stay-in-home order means and what they are permitted or not permitted to do.”

Coping at home and with family
In addition to being a business owner, Altayan is also a mom. “The kids in the house is a big challenge,” she says, echoing the feelings of parents around the world. “Usually when they have spring break, they go to the park, do something fun. There is no sun, it’s cold now. Each day they look out the window looking to do something fun, to play soccer or play outside. But they can’t.”

Other social routines are affected too, from large gatherings at mosques to smaller intimacies. “In Middle Eastern culture, it is typical for women to kiss each other on the cheek when greeting one another,” Altayan says. “The women have all stopped this practice of having any physical contact with one another.”

Losing these basic human interactions can have a real impact on well-being, especially when people are already under duress. Lang, a licensed clinical social worker, points out that “times like these are really what touches our humanity.”

She says loved ones and friends who’ve formed a strong connection are well positioned to help those whose past trauma may resurface during the current situation. If a friend or family member is talking about memories that are affecting their current actions, Lang suggests focusing on the differences as well as the similarities between then and now.

“Bring it back to the present moment,” Lang advises. “Do that without invalidating the fears. We’re not in Mexico, we’re in St. Louis. There’s not cartels. We have different security systems in place here. We have safety to walk in our neighborhoods. [The fear] feels the same—but it’s not the same.”

Living in Fear of Germs, Not Bombs: Impacts of Staying at Home for Refugees in St. Louis

Even under a stay-in-place order, Lang says, “We have an image that we can’t go outside, and that is not the truth. We are not under martial law. We are not under military control, like some of the individuals were in their home countries. We’re not seeing issues with the supply chain. It’s not that a road was bombed out and food trucks aren’t coming. The food is coming. We have these things that give us security.”

One strategy Lang recommends is to focus on physical sensations—like putting your hands into dirt in the garden—in order to help connect to the present moment. (An exercise that can be very grounding is to focus on each sense one at a time, for example by listing five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.)

Connecting across the community
When it comes to ways the broader St. Louis community can support foreign-born residents during this time, Lang suggests “cultivating kindness first and foremost. … It doesn’t have to be big acts. It’s the tone of voice, our ability to reframe how we see others. If someone is acting angry, is it because they’re an angry person or is it because they’re triggered?”

Another suggestion is to “cultivate a sense of normalcy—even if it’s a new normal. For instance, in the business world, if you’re having a remote meeting with your team or doing video calls, consider starting and ending a video conference with some relaxation strategies.”

Finally, she says, “the other big things are connections: connecting to the present, connecting to the community and connecting to professional help.” Just as with the strategies above for connecting to the present, Lang suggests being creative about connecting to each other. “There’s a lot of ways to stay connected; it just doesn’t always look the same,” she says. Get in touch with neighbors; schedule virtual happy hours; support others’ creative efforts to connect with you.

Lang is aware that some people—and not just those who’ve experienced trauma in other countries, but native St. Louisans too—may find it beneficial to speak with a professional therapist or counselor, many of whom are working virtually during this time. The International Institute can provide mental health therapy directly to foreign-born St. Louis City residents through funding from the St. Louis Mental Health Board. Another option is to call the 24-hour hotline from Behavioral Health Systems at 800.245.1150.

“We hope that the silver lining from this scary situation is that Americans will have a much deeper understanding of the trauma refugees experience when fleeing a war-torn country, what it means to literally be scared for our life,” says Bueler. “We hope that St. Louisans will come together and show more compassion and empathy towards refugees after all this is over.”

As for Altayan, the Syrian caterer, wife and mother, her wish is simple: “My hope is that the coronavirus will die and we will have the life again.”

Welcome Neighbor’s donation page includes links for online payments and Amazon wishlists for families in need, as well as the mailing address for checks or gift cards to stores such as Walmart, Amazon, gas stations and grocery stores. It also welcomes in-kind donations of diapers, dish and laundry detergent, soap and thermometers. E-gift cards can be sent to

The International Institute welcomes cash donations online and by mail. Gifts designated to the Tao Fund go directly to those in need for emergency assistance with rent, utilities and food. The Institute provides services to more than 5,000 immigrants and refugees annually. Many of them are struggling as their jobs and small businesses are jeopardized by the effects of the coronavirus. The Institute also appreciates donations to help in light of the recent cancellation of numerous fundraising events.

[Editor’s note: Fundraising events for both Welcome Neighbor and the International Institute have been affected by the health measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For example, the supper clubs and catering events Welcome Neighbor hosts—111 to date, raising more than $171,000—are on hold, which places a financial burden on the cooks who have built up successful catering businesses over the years. Each organization shares frequent updates on social media feeds.]

Images courtesy of Jennifer Burk.

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