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Connection in the age of distance

Migrants and refugees know what it means to be cut off from society, and from their loved ones and cultures far away. At a time defined by separation, let’s listen to what they have to say about coping and connecting in the age of Covid-19.

For millions of people around the world, 2020 has been a year of estrangement and distance from family and friends caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic. But for people like Hussein, who fled the Syrian conflict in 2015 and joined the great wave of migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East, separation from family and friends is nothing new.

The coping mechanisms he has devised to deal with isolation and loneliness are now proving useful in times of pandemic. “You have to go inside yourself,” says Hussein, who now lives in Amsterdam and is seeking asylum. “You have to find the things inside you that give you stability.”

This inner strength has been the core of Hussein’s way of dealing with life upturned by conflict and he believes it has helped him with the new social distancing norms imposed by Covid-19 regulations.

“For me, it’s maybe easier to deal with it because I have done this before,” he says, referring to his many years experience with maintaining long-distance connections with his family — mother, father, four brothers, four sisters — now scattered between Syria, Kuwait and Europe.

“It is something I have experienced because of the situations I’ve had in my own life. But now people are experiencing this because of Covid and [they are] being pulled out of their comfort zones.”

“You have to go inside yourself. You have to find the things inside you that give you stability.”
Hussein Youssef, Syrian refugee living in the Netherlands

Stability through sports

For Hussein, much of his strength and stability is found through sport and exercise. Although lockdowns have forced many gyms and sports clubs to close, Amsterdam’s parks still provide much-needed space for physical recreation.

“Sport is something that belongs to me and I belong to sport,” he says. “It’s a good way of life. It always helps you to be yourself because you are able to control your body and use it whatever way you want”.

Hussein has also found a sense of stability and belonging through his work as a “neighbourhood host,” the unofficial name for people employed by the local district to help solve minor community problems, keep streets clean and help people find nearby resources.

“It’s a very nice opportunity for me to do something that is so similar to the way I think,” says Hussein. “Because I like to do things right and so it’s nice to do the right thing for others.”

1)  “I used to see my father with a black beard and now it is white,” Hussein says with a chuckle. “This is how you realize that time is passing.” While technology allows him to stay in touch with his parents in Kuwait, and brothers and sisters in Syria and Europe, it doesn’t replace being around the ones you love. “Sometimes I don’t feel like talking so much. I just want to be around them.”

2) “For me, it’s maybe easier to deal with [the separation caused by Covid-19] because I have done this before,” says Hussein, referring to his many years experience with maintaining long-distance connections with his family.

‘A feeling I am home’

Nothing replaces being around family, he says. Modern technology has made that a lot easier and video calls between him and his family are now frequent. But he still feels the distance.

“I used to see my father with a black beard and now it is white. This is how you realize that time is passing. Sometimes I don’t feel like talking so much. I just want to be around them. I just want to have that feeling again that I’m home – just hanging out and someone is laughing and someone else is watching TV – this kind of feeling that you can never get through Skype.”

It’s a feeling many people around the world have been trying to get used to since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The advice of Hussein, to find internal sources of stability, through the things that have meaning to us, may help us all get through.

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