For many Americans, the sustained uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic has been new. But for some refugees who fled to the U.S. from war-torn countries, aspects of the pandemic triggered painful memories of their pasts. Grocery shortages and the shutdown of government offices, schools and businesses felt like a familiar prelude to the hardship they endured in their homelands before they were forced to flee.
Health professionals in Chicago who work with refugees from countries such as Bosnia, Syria and Iraq, report that during the last 12 months, they saw clients present with a higher incidence of symptoms such as night terrors, flashbacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. For many refugees in the Chicago area, the mental association between shutdowns and forcible displacement was so powerful that they began making preparations to leave Chicago at a moment’s notice.
Melva Spahic, a 45-year-old manager of supportive services at Hamdard Health Center in Chicago, is among those refugees who struggled with traumatic memories during the pandemic’s first year. When she was 17 years old, her family was forced to leave their home in Teslić, located in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here is her experience, as told to WBEZ.
When I came here … I was 24 years old. I had a baby, 20 months old. When you’re leaving a country for good, the one things you want to bring with you was books, pictures, memories, those kinds of things. But what I brought with me was a suitcase full of anxiety, PTSD, stress disorders, panic attacks. Those kinds of things that it’s follow me through my whole life living here in the United States.
[But] I finally got myself together. I found a great job, and having family around me, and tried to forget what happened to me in the past. Even though it’s very hard, somehow I did manage this very well. And then this pandemic starts, and then everything kicked back in again.
Some of the aspects of living through this pandemic remind me of the war from back home. Being trapped indoors, seeing public spaces as dangerous places, being concerned about food. … So it triggers me again, like, oh my God, do we have to leave again? Do I have to start all over again somewhere else?
Going to the grocery store just to pick up necessary items, what freaked me out is seeing people grabbing toilet paper. I still don’t understand, why toilet paper? The things I worry about are food and water. As long as I have water, I can survive with no toilet paper. We bought water. We even … put some of the water in the car. Just in case, if we have to leave town, we have plenty of water in the trunk.
Even though my two children laughed at me … I packed a couple bags and leave it in the closet just in case of emergency. I also put all of our passports, birth certificates, all the documentation, immunization records. … And they laughed, like, ‘Mom what are you doing? Nothing is going to happen, this is going to go over in a month. We’re going to be fine. What are you freaking out about?’ But they don’t understand how I feel and the things I went through. Like, when you’re forced to leave home, there’s no time to think about, ‘Oh, where’s my papers? Where is my wallet? Where is my things?’ You just have to have it handy and prepare, so you can just leave and go.
And those couple of bags that I pack, it was in my closet for at least four or five months until maybe end of September. And then my kids was like, ‘No, mom, stop it. Breathe, take those things away, you’re not going anywhere, we’re safe, everything will be fine.’ Sometimes I feel like I need to breathe and I need to relax and I need to feel like I’m safe, nothing’s going to happen. But this is stronger than me. It’s something that I cannot control about myself.
Back home, we lived a great normal life, everyone had a job, everything is great and cool. And then suddenly war started, and I’m never going to realize why. And then, Serbian soldiers knocked on the door.
We had 15 minutes to leave our home. In those 15 minutes, there is nothing you can think about to bring with you. The only scary thing is like, where are you going and where they are taking you and why do I have to leave my home? We started panicking and crying.
They put us in the big truck, they closed it down and they drove us somewhere. We had no clue where … we are going. And then, after maybe half an hour driving, the truck stops, they open the door, and they let us come out. They told us, just go down the highway. … If you walk another half hour you’re going to see your army and your people. We keep walking and going and going until we come into the town. They call it a ‘safe’ town, but honestly it’s not safe at all. It’s just hungry people, scary people, and then you have bombarding all over, every day single day, all of the time.
My husband worked through whole pandemic. And then, every time he came home, bread is baked, so many different doughnuts, so many different pitas, Bosnian food. And he was like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you baking so many food? You’re going to gain weight, and you will make me gain weight. You need to stop this, stop right away!’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry! I cannot help it. I need to, I have to.’
During the wartime back home, we didn’t have any food. We had to wait for the airplane to drop down some of the food. So that’s why — probably, I understand now — that’s why I was preparing so much food. I even gained 12 pounds for less than two months. It’s anxiety, probably, or depression. I don’t know. Just feeding myself so much, because in case something happens, at least my belly is full for the next couple days.
The most things that helps me is, try to focus on something good. In April, since I was really freaked out and really scared of what’s going to happen, I called my friends and I started organizing food collecting. I reached out to so many different families in Chicago. I went and I picked up every single item from their home and I separated and packed everything. And I delivered those kind of like a basket of fruits and vegetables and cookies, coffee, tea, to their houses.
We should care about each other. We should help each other. We should be there for each other, doesn’t matter which religion, skin color. We are all human beings.
This story has been edited for clarity and length.
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.