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The scarcity of safety


My mother has particular habitsevinced by familiarity with needthat many might consider odd, but others, refugees like us, would find logical, an even reflexive. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t hoarding food and supplies: fifty-pound bags of rice underneath the kitchen table; cases of canola cooking oil in the basement next to paper bags of sugar and cylinders of iodized salt. Trang has two refrigerators at her house: the one inside, for perishables and heaping piles of leftovers, and the one in our garage that our landlord would have discarded had it not been for her intervention.


Beside the garage fridge is another freezer storing my mom’s coveted couponing finds: bags of frozen shrimps and scallops found for $5, processed goods like chicken nuggets and pancakes, for the kids, and cuts of meat and bone in case anyone has a hankering for phở that needs no shopping. The bags of spices brought over in suitcases from Vietnam need no introduction.


Downstairs, in the basement, next to my old bedroom, rests her stockpile of household goods: rolls and rolls of paper towels, boxes of laundry detergent, bottles of dishwashing liquid, and overflowing packages of toilet paper. My mom wields her BJ’s Wholesale Club Membership card the way some wield their designer handbags. None of this had anything to do with COVID-19, until it did.


In March and April, many Americans headed to grocery stores and wholesalers scouring—and emptying—shelves. They filled their pantries with dried and canned goods, and purchased enough toilet paper to cause a temporary national shortage. Some drew parallels between these efforts and those of refugees attempting to insulate their families from suffering and hardship. To a limited extent, I have to agree. While the pandemic-caused chaos played out in congested shopping spaces, and was broadcast on evening news channels, my mother stayed safely quarantined at home, cushioned by her practices of housekeeping and homemaking, long-informed the traumas of scarcity.


I didn’t need to ask what other preparations she had made. I know there’s a bank account somewhere with enough money for emergency flights elsewhere, anywhere. I also know that all of our passports are valid, having been the one to procure them after Trump was elected.


While these precautions were not arranged in direct response to the pandemic, they show how many refugees live for the remainder of their resettled lives, long after the powers that be have stopped considering them refugees. Before the refugee flees, they think about survival. Once they’re hand-selected for resettlement, they hold onto hope. After resettlement, life often remains a never-ending process of preparation for the future’s worst-case scenarios.


Embedded in these survival reflexes, made apparent by COVID-19, are painful memories of disruption and uncertainty. My mom lives her life this way because she faced years of hunger as a child in post-war Vietnam. A friend in Utica told me that, after spending the loneliest period of her life isolated and bedridden with tuberculosis in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, she has no problem with the new American quarantine mandates. Another friend joked that at least this crisis could be weathered with her food of choice, rather than the unending dried fish and rice served in a Southeast Asian refugee camp.


Other families I know take a forward-facing approach of exceptionalism, believing that the scarcity they escaped could never manifest here in America. My mom might have made her preparations, but I know a part of her desperately wants to believe this too.


Language barriers, unfamiliarity with bureaucratic systems, and fears—of how the horrors of the past could materialize once more—intensify refugees’ pandemic-era struggles, which on the surface may seem no different than what other immigrants and citizens in America are facing.


As a national recession looms, many refugees have been laid off, or are temporarily unable to work. Others, as low-wage workers, are forced to choose between earning an income or risking their lives in workplaces unable to accommodate social distancing measures. At meatpacking plants around the country, refugees have died after contracting COVID-19 because management neglected their health and safety. Virulent racism casting Asians as vectors responsible for the virus—inflamed by the President’s use of terms like “China virus”— has caused both verbal and physical attacks throughout the country.


Locally, ensuring our entire community’s ability to face this pandemic has proved a major challenge. Our Utica community, composed of 42 languages, needs translation 42 times over; no assumptions can be made about anyone’s level of medical or scientific literacy. Sometimes even the best preventative efforts are no match for socioeconomic realities: many refugees live in multi-family or inter-generational homes out of custom or economic necessity, rendering self-isolation or quarantine nearly impossible. If someone contracts COVID-19 at their workplace, they would run the risk of giving it to their whole family.


In Utica, there is a resounding sense of solidarity. Activists and councilors collaborated to secure funding for rent relief, while community members have rallied to support local restaurants and businesses, including those owned by refugees. Throughout New York state, testing is free and widely-available, while companies like Chobani Yogurt have taken the initiative to run local clinics geared toward their refugee neighbors. Moreover, The Center, our local resettlement agency, has coordinated a language access campaign to raise awareness about the virus, also providing remote client services.


Regardless of our best efforts, refugee communities will feel the pandemic’s downstream effects for years to come. The federal government, citing COVID-19, has stalled the refugee resettlement program despite public health experts’ warnings that vastly overcrowded refugee camps could lead to widespread refugee deaths. Across the world, refugees who were cleared for resettlement before the pandemic wait in limbo for an unknown date, possibly years away. At the southern border, COVID-19 has exacerbated an already-rightless predicament. Federal agents are turning away asylum-seekers for public health “reasons,” forcing them to stay in unhygienic camps and shelters in Mexico.


By the time it is safe again, which federal administration will we be living under? Can they marshal the political will to restore these humanitarian pathways?


Despite, or perhaps because of everything, I still fear the worst that could happen when my mom clocks into work. She worries about food to feed our family, even though the days of scarcity have passed. But I worry about her.


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