Our lockdown is only a glimpse into the difficult lives of the war-torn and displaced

This column is an opinion by Marwa Awad, a Canadian humanitarian aid worker who has worked with World Food Programme in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and most recently Italy. Previously, she was a journalist working with Reuters, The Guardian and Al Arabiya. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

You may feel that over the past few months you have learned what it means to be truly isolated. That your space has shrunk, your movement restrained, your freedom taken from you. No doubt, the COVID-19 lockdown has affected your livelihood and future. 

However, you also know that things will improve, eventually. Your government is providing continuous support. There is a reason to hope.

None of these certainties are available to millions of displaced families quarantined away from home in dreary camps and overwhelmed host communities around the world. For them, there is no end in sight.

I am a humanitarian aid worker who has worked with countless families and refugees in countries ravaged by war. I have seen how displacement and forced isolation can reduce their lives to the bare essentials, can strip them of their dignity, turning their world into a humanitarian nightmare.

In times of protracted violence and deadly stalemates, I’ve witnessed how many adapted to a life of quiet desperation, giving up on the hope of returning home.

One of them is Abu-Jamil, a 55-year-old Syrian and a father of six children.

He fled his home in 2013 as the fighting reached his neighbourhood in Homs, one of Syria’s badly-hit provinces. He and his family, with their meagre belongings, set out in search of safety and have been on the move ever since, their lives disrupted by a series of painful displacements.

Abu-Jamil sits amid the rubble of a destroyed neighbourhood in Syria where he once lived. He is now living in a refugee camp. In Syria, 6.1 million people remain displaced without a home to return to. (Marwa Awad)

Danger was always just a few steps behind as the conflict gradually spread across the country. The second time the family was displaced, Abu-Jamil lost one of his sons who was shot dead in the crossfire. The family had to keep moving, carrying fewer possessions and with fewer loved ones.

The last I heard from Abu-Jamil, he told me he had run out of savings and had no recourse but to move to a refugee camp to live in a tent, relying on humanitarian aid for survival.

Another is Naf’aa, who grabbed her son and fled her home in northeast Syria to escape death as airstrikes hit ISIS-held territories near her village.

I met Naf’aa in a camp for displaced families and she led me to her place – a bare tent with a portable stove to cook and heat water, a straw mat to sleep on and bags of rice and wheat flour she received from the World Food Programme. Her village was destroyed by airstrikes, and Naf’aa is now stuck in one of the closed and guarded camps in Syria’s northeast, with nowhere to go.

Naf’aa, a Syrian mother forced from her village by fighting, in her tent at a camp for displaced residents in Syria’s northeast. She says she hopes her 13-year-old son is able to resume his education soon. (Marwa Awad)

Having met these people, I realize how privileged I am to have the freedom to move back to safety and have the world at my fingertips, even as I observe the COVID-19 quarantine and despite the social isolation. Looking online, I am spoiled for choice; courses, shows, and many ways to communicate with friends and family.

Such a contrast to those trapped in camps and shelters across war-torn nations where children pass their time kicking dirt, idle and with no real future to look forward to.

At least in Canada and other western countries we know that our isolation will end eventually. Our isolation here gives us merely a glimpse into the difficult lives of the war-torn.

Governments across Canada are starting to ease our lockdown restrictions. As we move past this experience of what it is like to have our movement restricted, our freedoms curtailed and our daily lives disrupted, let us not turn away from the reality of war-torn people trapped in their own never-ending lockdowns.

As we learn what a loss of freedom and livelihood is like – and what it is like to regain it — we must remember the importance of humanitarian aid and call on our leaders to increase it, as well as find foreign policy solutions for the desperate families living in conflict zones.


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