'It's never back to normal': For an Iraqi refugee in the U.S., lockdown triggers trauma

by Nellie Peyton | @nelliepeyton | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 1 May 2020 13:09 GMT

Farah Ibrahim (center) poses for a photo with her family in Virginia, 2020. Photo courtesy of Farah Ibrahim

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As coronavirus forces cities into lockdown, people who fled war say it is a familiar situation

This article is part of a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting vulnerable people around the world. 

WASHINGTON, May 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The last time Farah Ibrahim was told to stay home, she was in Iraq and there were bullets flying.

The 43-year-old fled the war in her country and came to the United States as a refugee in 2008. She has since become a U.S. citizen.

Ibrahim is now a social worker in Charlottesville, Virginia who assists immigrant and refugee families with integration. Many arrived from Afghanistan and Syria in the last few years.

About 63,000 refugees, or 0.2% of all the people fleeing war and persecution worldwide, were resettled in the United States and other countries in 2019.

Many of the people Ibrahim works with do not speak English and lack access to good information about coronavirus or about basic laws and services in the United States.

Since Virginia's governor issued a state-wide stay-at-home order on March 30, Ibrahim said she and other people she knows have had to deal with a particular kind of trauma: flashbacks of the violent situations they left behind.

Here is her story: 


"The first lockdown I remember was when the Gulf War started. That lasted from January to March in 1991. Interestingly that's the one I remember the most because I was younger and it was scarier.

We were on lockdown basically every night because that's when the shelling and the bombing started. And you didn't leave the house. Work stopped. It kind of crippled the whole life.

Then there was one in the mid-90s. But the biggest was with the U.S. invasion in 2003. It was really scary.

We were in Baghdad, and the terrifying part was that even before they enforced the curfew, if you were driving or crossing and you were in their path, everybody was shot because they thought that you might be insurgents.

Basically the normal became that if you go out in the street you might not come back alive, or you could lose a loved one - once they leave then you might not see them again.

When I had my baby, when I was going through labour I had to go earlier to the hospital because we couldn't risk the chance of driving during the curfew.

Before my brother died he lost one of his friends that way - he got shot because of the curfew.  

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I'm currently working as a family support specialist, and the population that I work with are at different stages of adjustment and adaptation to the life here. Some have been here less than a year, and some just got their citizenship.

We kind of joke about how we've been through this in a way. The idea of being confined in your home and waiting for god knows what is a similar feeling.

Some actually laughed about it. We were like, at least there's no shelling or bombing outside, which is like the bright side of things.

I think any feeling of not knowing what's going to happen definitely triggers my anxiety. The uncertainty, it's unravelling.

My husband and I were already panicking and panic-buying since the beginning of March and my kid was like, "Why are you doing this?" I said, "We lived in a war zone."

Our brain was functioning on the worst case scenario, like survival mode. The uncertainty of accessing basic food needs, that will not go away.

I did not think about the sanitizer or anything which should have been the case. We thought about the food because that's what we faced.

You come here, and you need to learn how to survive, and some haven't learned that skill yet or do not have the support - either financially or community-wise. It is concerning and stressful.

One of the Afghani moms was like, "Aren't they going to fine us if we leave the house?" I explained that no, you're afraid of authority because where we come from, authority retaliates.

Helping them be more informed I think is helping.

I know that we're hopefully all going to get out of this experience being stronger individuals and more resilient and appreciate life more and not take things for granted.

It's never back to normal. Whatever you lived before (each lockdown) never came back. You had to adapt to a new life.

I'm starting to do journaling and I'm starting to take walks more. It's been helpful. It's been advised that you should do something active so you can process all these emotions.

I think there is an overall appreciation that we're in a better place, but also it's a similar anxiety of not knowing what's going to happen and when it will end. It's definitely stressful to refugees."


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