How Arabs abroad are coping with life under quarantine

‘I feel more British than ever. I’m proud of the NHS and feel included seeing doctors from Iraq getting the limelight,” said a British-Iraqi engineer.
Friday 10/04/2020
 A banner displaying a tribute to NHS workers is seen on a construction outside the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre, London, April 9. (Reuters)
Pride and love. A banner displaying a tribute to NHS workers is seen on a construction outside the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre, London, April 9. (Reuters)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the globe, many have been forced to alter their lives under strict quarantine measures.

Arab residents in London shared with The Arab Weekly their reflections on life under lockdown and how they are managing to deal with the health crisis.

Zaheira Barok, a Yemeni woman in her fifties, said she was using the time to strengthen her relationships with family and take new classes. “I’m making the days count rather than counting the days. I’m taking online courses and taking life in slowly. We are robots without realising it. We need to listen to people more and think before reacting. Now is the time to work on our personality flaws, create new bonds with our families and debate with them.”

Barok added that she is grateful that she still has a job and doesn’t have to rely on government benefits. “Imagine the amount people will get now after this crisis? Almost nothing,” she said.

Barok, who lives with her elderly parents, has also begun homeschooling four of her grandchildren with online resources. She starts meditation with them at 7am to help calm them and begins teaching and guiding her older two grand-children from 9am to 12pm, before working with the younger two from 12.30pm to 3.30pm. Lunch is cooked in between by their great-grandmother.

Barok says that spending so much time with her parents can be difficult, but that she is working to keep the relationship healthy. “Their values are different to mine but I’m learning to let small arguments go,” she said.

She added: “Well I’m glad I divorced with my husband so I don’t have to be in quarantine with him.”

Feras Al Saab is a British-Iraqi education director for a non-profit who teaches young people to code via online learning. Al Saab said the crisis has pushed him to restructure his education model to accommodate people’s urgent needs.

“It used to take me months to implement but everything is more instant now because of its dire need,” Al Saab said. “Pedagogy is changing so people need to learn and adapt to how education is changing.”

Al Saab, who is currently in Saudi Arabia visiting family, said it was important for him to look after his parents during the crisis. “I chose to visit my 70-year old dad in Saudi Arabia who is a doctor and is at high risk, even though I am at high risk, too, because I have asthma,” he said.

“I feel responsible for looking after my parents as my culture is very family-focused. My biggest concern is if something happens to my parents and I’m too far away to save them. Even though I don’t live with my parents, a lot of Arabs do. There is a hierarchy in the family that we must do things that we don’t agree with if it makes them happy, which I believe is slightly less so for westerners.”

He added that the crisis has helped him realise that “you can live on much less than you think you can. There is a balance that doesn’t happen until everyone’s home. Employees had to adapt to employers’ needs, now the employers need to adapt to employees. Mental health is also going to be a big challenge six months from now if we are still in quarantine. I have always thought employers should grant sick days for mental exhaustion for their employees.”

Saudi Arabia has imposed strict curfew measures, allowing residents to leave their homes only for essential needs between 6am and 3pm.

Dina Al Jubouri, an Iraqi resident in Saudi Arabia, said everything has quieted down there and people are taking the measures very seriously. “People don’t really go out before 3pm anyway because it’s too hot. Everything is under control. There’s no traffic to go shopping and the shops have everything, even non-essential goods,” Al Jubouri said.

‘I’m surprised at how Arabs are taking this seriously. I expected them to leave everything to God and not change their lifestyle but they are actually taking it seriously,” Al Jubouri said, adding that there are regular temperature checks before entering supermarkets and that mosques are closed.

“Even the call to prayer has changed. Instead of encouraging people to come to pray, he is literally saying pray at home.”

“I do not feel the pressure of quarantine at all,” Al Jubouri added. “I am happy to be home with my two young children as I was away from them for a year and a half, which required a lot of self-discipline.”

Syrian-Pakistani Bilal Madhary recently attended the funeral of journalist Fuad Nahdi, who passed away from the virus. Few attended the funeral, but more than 8,000 viewed a live-stream of the service on Facebook. “In normal circumstances, hundreds of people would have attended,” Madhary said.

Madhary said the crisis has helped him realise “how important family is” and that “delaying your life is not good in achieving goals.”

“It would have been nice right now to have my own family. I need to push myself to marry after this epidemic ends,” he said.

Madhary said the crisis also made him think of his brother who recently passed away from bowel cancer. “He would be so annoyed at people fighting over tissue! It would have been hard to look after him if he was still alive, as he would not be priority over patients with the virus,” he said.

“The world is an illusion. Airlines and big institutions have dropped and this has shown how interdependent we are. However, I feel we are more ready than our ancestors were to deal with the 1918 flu pandemic. We have more of a fighting chance and all we have been asked to do is chill at home. Suddenly, the world shares the same problem.”

One 30-year-old Iraqi said it was particularly difficult for him to deal with his anxiety and hypochondria during this period.

“I’m one of the panic buyers as Arabs tend to cook for themselves,” he said. “My family are big carnivores so we have ended up overstocking on meat. We also bought large quantities of lemons and oranges because they are considered home remedies in the Middle East.”

The Iraqi man added: “This lockdown has given me the chance to build the confidence to drive my personal growth. Life has flown by and there was no time to reflect. I actually miss the family gatherings with the gossip and drama!

“I feel more British than ever. I’m proud of the NHS and feel included seeing doctors from Iraq getting the limelight… As an engineer, I feel guilty because I should be using my skills to volunteer on projects such as building the Nightingale hospital. During my darkest hours, this country welcomed me in but I haven’t helped the country in its darkest hour.”