Idaho Refugees' Wartime Experience Helps Them Through COVID-19 Pandemic

May 1, 2020

Americans across the country are grappling with limited movements and a lot more time at home. For many refugees, this is familiar territory and they have some valuable insights into coping with life under a stay-home order.

Like many Americans, Salwan Swidan and his wife, Dhuha Ali have had a lot more time with family the past six weeks because of COVID-19. But they’ve been under lockdown before — and under much more dire circumstances. 

“The most dangerous part was the snipers, actually, everywhere,” Swidan said.

The husband and wife lived through two U.S. invasions in their homeland of Iraq before coming to America as refugees. During the most recent war, their Baghdad neighborhood was torn apart by sectarian militias and street fighting.

“We lost everything in Iraq,” Swidan said.

And in Boise, their home for more than a decade, they’re getting through the new reality in much the same way they did in Iraq: through community. Here, the threat isn’t violence but a virus. Still it makes once mundane tasks, like grocery shopping, potentially dangerous.

Ali says there’s a saying in Iraq that “Your neighbor is part of your family. You have to take care of your neighbors up to your eighth neighbor far from your door.”

For her and Swidan that means never going shopping without asking their neighbors what they need. It means baking up a storm, dropping off cookies, baklava and other Middle Eastern sweets on doorsteps. 

And sending the kids to festoon the sidewalk with colorful chalk reminders of how to stay safe from COVID-19. One shows a hand holding up a bar of soap with a heart around it. Another has the words “Stay Home” with a picture of a smiling, googly-eyed alien. 

Swidan says that sense of community was strengthened by war in their homeland. The snipers and the militants meant leaving to get food or medical care could prove deadly. So neighbors pooled their skills and offered each other help.

In Iraq, Swidan and Ali were both doctors — Swidan a cardiologist and Ali a pediatrician. So they made house calls there.

“If you are skilled in something, you could help a neighbor,” Swidan said. “That way, they don't have to leave the neighborhood.”

And the family’s work on behalf of their American community goes beyond running errands and dropping off treats. They find themselves on a different kind of frontline —that of healthcare workers during a pandemic. Swidan’s brother, Marwan, reports to a Boise hospital every day to work as an infection prevention specialist.

And Ali works with cancer patients and must meet them in person for chemotherapy appointments. 

“We are risking our health, our own health,” she said. “But we took that oath when we joined medical school and we were knowing what we're going into. So, as I said, it is a bit of mixed feeling, but personally, I think it's more rewarding.”

Tara Wolfson, director of The Idaho Office For Refugees, says Swidan and Ali are just some of the many refugees risking their health to keep up essential services.

“They're working shoulder to shoulder with their American-born neighbors as part of the COVID response. And they're keeping our communities safe,” she said.

This pandemic has also given Ali and Swidan a chance to pass on their sense of community to their children who have mostly grown up in America. That starts at home, looking out for each other. There, the kids put on the occasional concert to cheer up their parents.

In one recording, eight-year-old Deema plays The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” on the keyboard.

Swidan says looking out for each other is more than just the polite thing to do right now.

“If we want to overcome this, we have to overcome it together,” he said. “There isn't every man for himself or there isn't a place for being a little bit selfish.”

A reminder perhaps we could all use right now.

Follow Heath Druzin on Twitter, @HDruzin

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