How I Entered a Pandemic while Healing from a War’s Wounds

Seven years ago, I raced against melting wax, three sticks of candles surrounding papers scattered on our dining table. Today, as I sit at my dining table in a different country, many years later, counting the days until when we will be free of social distancing and quarantining, I think: what’s the difference, if there are any, between a war and a pandemic? Both are fatal, both allow fear to fester in our bodies, and both prevent us from carrying on with our lives until we somehow get used to it. I’ve experienced both, no break in between to heal the wounds of the war, now with constant fear of illness residing in my body. Two weeks into social distancing I came to learn that wars and pandemics are definitely not the same.

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When the war began in Syria, my father bought sticks of candles in bulk. There were never enough candles to light the hours of the day after the power went out and the bombing continued. When the war arrived, the days were long, almost as long as we feel they are now during the outbreak of coronavirus. Now, however, I get to pick whichever corner in the house I desire and do all the things I want, from reading books that have been sitting on my shelf collecting dust, knowing that when I run out I could easily order more to be delivered to my doorstep, to writing poems and scribbling words in my journal about my daily life during my first pandemic, to watching movies that make me laugh, forget, and cry, to attempt cooking Syrian dishes I never had the time to try and make.

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When the war started, I picked a chair and named it my favorite. It was the one closest to the three marble steps separating our living room from our dining room, the one closest to the tallest candle. You would think I chose the corner, but the corner chose me. She declared me her own. I surrendered. When the sun descended, I would cross my legs, wrap myself in a blanket on top of my jacket worn on top of the thickest pajamas I would find, and, leaning over the edge of the arm of the chair closer to the candle, I would squint my eyes and dive deep into the lives of those who lived within the cover of my books, those I envied for living a safe life. Every time I opened tothe first page of a book, I refused to abandon it until the candle melted onto itself and disappeared into the shadow of darkness.

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The pandemic does not fall far from the war; they both hold dear the fear of the unknown. For seven years, the Syrian people continued their lives living in the unknown of what tomorrow may have hidden for them. They would step outside their homes, unaware of what awaited them beyond their wooden doors. On a good day, they would come back alive, enter the house and count the members: if all were present, then they checked off another day. Now, living behind closed doors, social distancing to eliminate the number of illed and killed, we wake up and check our temperatures hoping it is below one hundred degrees, get on social media and check everyone’s stories to see who to blame for leaving their house, who to blame for throwing a party, who to blame for not social distancing, resisting life’s temptations, and we thank those who risk their lives every day to save the ones struck by the virus.

During this hard—never before experienced—time, ask yourself: what brings me comfort? It could be the stories hiding behind covers, music played by your favorite artist, words written on plain pages, meditation in the morning right before your coffee, exercising in the afternoon with whatever you can find around your house, or maybe it could be nothing, just sitting there staring at blank walls, thinking when will this end and how life may resume. I assure you that lack of creativity, productivity, and achievement during this time is normal. Don’t push yourself beyond your limit in a time when your body needs its peace the most; don’t push your brain to think or stir another way, let it rest on the pillow where it wants to be until it asks you to proceed.

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During the war, my escape was the university campus, it was the only excuse I could present to my parents to let me leave the house. The questions of: when are you leaving? When are you coming back? How are you getting there? Call me when you arrive? Let me give you a ride? become routine with my morning coffee. Now, as I sit on the chair my body chose this time around, I wish I had my parents near to ask me all these same questions when I go to buy groceries: did you take your mask? Do you have a hand sanitizer? Wash your veggies and take off your clothes to wash them after you come back. 

The trips to the grocery store became the highlight of my life. When I walk to the store, I can see people’s desperation for a human connection, each walking six feet apart, masks covering their faces as their eyes bounce off each other. I hear them saying: I see you. I feel you. And I know what you are going through, hang on, we will be okay. On one of my few trips to the store, a young gentleman stopped me mid-aisle to ask: “Have you ever made Thai iced tea at home?” I took a step back and politely asked him to repeat his question. It was unexpected. He did not care about whether or not my tea suggestion was appropriate for his homemade Thai iced tea, he just wanted to talk, and I do not blame him.

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The things I can tell you about loss. Both wars and pandemics register many losses. One question comes to mind when talking about human losses is: why? I’ve asked myself this question many times during the seven and continuing years of the war in Syria. Why are humans capable of hurting each other in the most crucial ways possible? Why do we deserve this? Why did I have to leave home? Why did home leave me? Why did I lose that many people? And why have I become numb to pain?

Now, I ask myself: how? How could this tiny, unseen virus take so many lives that we cannot count anymore. It enters your body in an unexpected way, it chooses a vulnerable organ and resides. It takes over and multiplies, invades all the space around it until you are unable to breathe. On some occasions, the virus decides to quit and leave, but in many other cases it wins the war, not only the battle. It becomes so real when it hits someone close to you. First, it was only: let’s stay home, read the news, pray for those who have caught it, and pray for those who didn’t. Then within one night, it becomes so real when you receive a call that you’ve lost a family friend to this savage virus. And then you ask yourself: now what? How can I be capable of feeling sad and not feeling anything? Can a human experience so much sadness that they become numb to pain? Dried tears. Feeling guilty. Praying for a release. And feeling helpless. Brace yourselves, this is not the end.