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For U.S. immigrants, pandemic widens the chasm between two homes

By Menal Raach ::

Maggie Escobar poses for a photo in Grizzly Peak, Berkeley, CA, on August 3, 2021 Photo by Menel Raach

As a young Colombian immigrant, Maggie Escobar was struggling to adjust to married life and work as a waitress in the Bay Area when a global pandemic sent her reeling.

After losing her job, the 29-year-old Berkeley resident fell into a deep depression. Her worried husband suggested she seek counseling — a critical step in Escobar’s journey toward overcoming childhood trauma in her native home.

“Behind that smile lies traumas and struggles, so which emotion do you want, my sad or happy face?” Escobar said recently while posing for a photo at Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills.

For Escobar and many immigrants across the Bay Area and the United States, the pandemic has heightened long-standing feelings of disconnection and trauma. Their ongoing struggle to assimilate and thrive in their adopted land has been met with fresh worry for loved ones they left behind, often in countries where the pandemic is made exponentially worse by poverty, political instability and violence. The greatest heartbreak: losing a loved one and not being able to return home to comfort and grieve.

Mounira Saghi Chaabouni is visiting her daughter Sirine Chaabouni in Chicago on May 22, 2021.

Mounira Saghi Chaabouni, a 63-year-old fashion designer and immigrant from Tunisia living in Houston, could not attend her sister’s funeral service in July because at the time, Tunisia had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world.

“It was painful to lose my sister while I’m abroad. I spent all day in a chair; I couldn’t move or eat, I felt too hopeless,” Chaabouni said. “It’s tough to lose your loved ones when you live abroad.” 

At the same time, the pandemic has forced many immigrants to this country to finally, sometimes painfully, let go of past grievings, forge new relationships and move forward in their healings. Realizing they may never go back, many now are emboldened by their only choice: moving forward.  

‘I feel like God brought me here.’

Growing up in Cali, Colombia, Escobar struggled from an early age with family dysfunction and poverty. She quit school at 16 to get a job and pay her mother’s bills but the money wasn’t enough.

Things got so bad, Escobar’s grandfather kicked her mother out of his house over his feelings that she was taking advantage of him. Feeling desperate, Escobar agreed to move to the United States in 2018 to join her fiance and support her mother financially from abroad.

“I wanted to provide her a better life and (I didn’t) want her to feel humiliated anymore,” Escobar said.

Escobar struggled with homesickness after moving to the United States. But after the pandemic hit, she found herself jobless and confronted by the traumatic events from her past. Unemployed now for three months, she acknowledges feeling overwhelmed by bad memories.

“All my childhood traumas and painful experiences surfaced,” she said. “I wasn’t able to shut down those memories.”

With therapy and her husband’s support, Escobar began reconciling with her parents, something she said is “essential to overcome my homesickness and focus on my future.” 

She also helps support her family financially. 

“I feel like God brought me here to be in a better place and help my loved ones during a difficult time like the pandemic,” Escobar said.

Losing a sister

Chaabouni has fond memories of growing up in Tunisia at a time when the country was politically stable. She recalls the beauty of her hometown, the excellent public schools, hospitals and public transportation. But the social and economic situation had begun to deteriorate significantly by the time she left in 1991.

Chaabouni and her husband have carved out a comfortable life in the United States. But the pandemic only reinforced her feelings of regret and guilt over conditions Tunisians still live under. 

“I realized during the pandemic that I no longer recognize my country,” she said. “The radical impoverishment of the middle class shocked me.”

According to the Associated Press, Tunisia has the highest daily death rate per capita in the world from COVID-19. More than 20,000 Tunisians in a nation of fewer than 12 million people have succumbed to the disease.

“It broke my heart to see people dying every day because of a lack of oxygen. I felt so sad for those poor people.” Chaabouni said. 

Losing her sister to cancer was a particular blow. Chaabouni made the heart-wrenching decision not to return home for the funeral, over concerns for her own health. 

Although she prepared to face sad, unexpected events like deaths after leaving her native home, Chaabouni felt overwhelmed by the emotion of having to grieve her sister’s death from afar.

Yet, like Escobar, she feels a stronger connection to her homeland and with the people still struggling to survive. She said she feels closer to her family than ever and she helps support several families financially.

“The COVID-19 brought closeness to my family regardless of the physical disconnection,” she said.

‘Down as hell.’

Photo by Amit Botadkar

Imad Hashmi, a political refugee from Iran living in the Bay Area, also has felt the sting of not being able to say goodbye to a loved one.

Hashmi has been living in exile since 2012 when he fled his homeland seeking safety from political oppression and being arrested by the authorities. While he has no regrets about leaving Iran, he acknowledged the pain of losing his grandmother recently and not being able to attend her funeral. Such is the continuing cost for his freedom and restrictions imposed by the pandemic. 

“For two weeks I was down as hell when I heard that my grandmother passed away. That was my hardest two weeks in the United States,” Hashmi said  

He said his grandmother’s death and the incalculable loss from the pandemic had brought home how precious life is. 

“The pandemic … taught me that death is part of life, and there could be no meaningful life without it,” Hashmi said

Escobar, too, has found a new appreciation for the world she left behind and for her unfolding life in the United States.

“I appreciate my life here more than ever,” she said. “I’m grateful that my family is safe and my people are alive in Columbia. I’m feeling thankful for being able to contribute to their safety and happiness. That makes me feel happy even though I’m physically disconnected, but we become more emotionally closer.”

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This entry was posted on September 21, 2021 by .
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