Issue 1.1

Life in the Shadow of the Pandemic

2020 was supposed to mark the birth of a brand-new decade that many looked to with optimism and good wishes. It started with bushfires, which killed as many as 500 million animals in Australia. Then there were airplane crashes in Iran and Pakistan; a deadly explosion in Beirut. And finally, a coronavirus pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks.

What irritated me most about 2020 was the fact that I could no longer put on my headphones, go to the tiny, run-down park near my home, and listen to old classic songs during my afternoon jog. Instead of running to forget my problems, I had to worry about how I was going to afford more hand sanitizers and masks, and how I wouldn’t be able to visit friends and family and enjoy the activities I used to.

This was a burden the world had to carry together. Many became prisoners at home. Isolation forced a huge number of people into episodes of depression and anxiety. Over 2.5 million lives were tragically lost, breaking the hearts of those left behind. In a broader sense, COVID-19 had altered all of our lives as we knew it. But it was not a new phenomenon for me. As the rest of the world was grappling with fear and confusion, I’d come to realise that I had been living in a state of pandemic since 2015. It was the year I arrived in Indonesia and became a refugee.

When the World Health Organisation first declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, public health experts indicated concern that refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people in camps and densely populated urban areas would be particularly hard-hit. By February 2021, around 50,000 cases of COVID-19 and 450 deaths had been recorded among a global population of over 80 million refugees and displaced people.

War, oppression, gross inequality, and religious persecution are just some of the reasons why refugees have fled their homelands. Over half of Indonesia’s 14,000 refugees are from Afghanistan, like myself, while the rest are from places like Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Eritrea. Most of us have been living here between five and 10 years. However, Indonesia is not a signatory of the United Nations’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which means we lack access to even the most fundamental human rights. We do not have permission to work, study, travel interstate, trade, own driver’s licenses, and all the other things enjoyed by those who lead normal lives. In 2018, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Jakarta reportedly announced that the chances of refugee resettlement are less than 2%, and refugees would need to wait 15 to 25 years before being resettled in a third country. 

According to Professor Heaven Crawley at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, “it is the poverty and inequality that kills people, not the virus.” The living conditions of refugees in Indonesia are particularly susceptible to devastating outbreaks of COVID-19. At International Organization for Migration (IOM) shelters, for instance, refugees are unable to maintain social distancing due to the communal sharing of bedrooms, kitchens, and other facilities. There is also limited access to clean water, sanitation, food, and healthcare — many COVID-19 cases in the community will go under-reported simply because refugees are unable to afford the costs of treatment. Most crucially, refugees are left out when countries prioritise the inoculation of their own citizens. Neither the UNHCR nor the Indonesian government have issued statements regarding the vaccination of its refugees to date. 

The effects of the pandemic on the world’s most vulnerable go further than we think. The closure of refugee learning centers has made education twice as challenging, even impossible, for refugee children who have already been denied adequate teaching resources. Faced with countless pressures and a life of uncertainty, psychological ailments among refugees have only grown worse since the pandemic. In the past 5 years, I came to know of at least 11 refugees in Indonesia who had been driven to end their lives out of sheer desperation, and a longing for escape.

Not being able to move freely often makes me feel like I’m sinking. As a refugee, I can only dream about going to university, or to all the other places my heart desires. Depression and anxiety are constant companions and have been since the moment my rights were taken from me. It is heart-rending. It is unsettling. There is a never-ending precariousness about my future; there is no break. I have to fight to stay strong every single day in order to survive, to find the courage I need to move forward even without the promise of an outcome.

I have always been living in a pandemic — the only difference is that I now have to wear a mask all the time and refrain from shaking hands. COVID-19 is a minor inconvenience in the greater scheme of things, because I know what I have left behind will always be worse than what I am going through. As I look back on the past five years, I see a resilient, stubborn, and strong girl whose virtues have helped steel her nerves against the turmoil that was 2020. Hardship has taught me that in the midst of adversity, I can remain courageous, tough, and resolute.

I may be safe from persecution and war, but Indonesia is still a cage, and I am a bird locked inside. I do not belong to this land, and it is not my nest. I am a migratory being who is a citizen of nowhere, yet I cannot fly in the vast blue and grey sky. So for now, I rest on my back and gaze upwards to watch other birds floating in the air. And I dream about being free one day and flying as high as I possibly can.

Homaira Zamiri is a 21-year-old Hazara refugee based in Indonesia. She is a former refugee teacher, a refugee advocate, and a community worker. She is also the co-founder and project manager of the Jakarta Bersatu Project, and an advisor board member at the Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies. Homaira enjoys music from the old days, gazing at the moon and stars, blowing dandelions into the blue sky, and creative writing. She does her best work in the absolute darkness of night, when the world falls asleep and the crickets begin to sing.