Being a US citizen and an immigrant is like constantly being in two worlds at the same time—except that these past four years, both worlds seem to be unrelenting in their demands on your emotional reserves.
In the world that you physically inhabit, you experience trauma, inequities and utter lack of cohesive leadership exacerbated by a pandemic. This, in a well-resourced country where you at least have a shot at a ventilator and oxygen should you need it. No matter how unpredictable the leadership has been at times, you know deep in your heart that the democratic institutions are resilient enough to weather this tsunami. After all, you left your country because of this promise.
In this world, you are vaccinated and so will be more than half of the population before the end of the summer. Access to vaccines is not the problem. What keeps you up at night is vaccine hesitancy, and the rush to lift mask mandates.
You remember how strained your hospitals were when this pandemic started. Your patients’ surgeries were cancelled, and all resources were diverted to saving lives. As a physician, you saw your front-line healthcare colleagues risking their lives. You saw them break down from sheer exhaustion, witnessing too much loss and feeling powerless against this microscopic giant. They attempted to care for others while whatever was left of the American safety net was quarantined. You are scared that there will be a new wave of virus variants that find safe havens in the many that are unvaccinated.
As a mom, you worry about how much the loss of social interaction in virtual schools will impact your children, especially given that you moved your family across the country in the middle of a pandemic and racial unrest. You are traumatized by what happened to George Floyd. On your way to his memorial site to pay tribute, your 7-year-old daughter says, “What if there are cops there? Maybe we should go home and put on a white person’s costume.”
You wonder how much more trauma Black children are feeling but not verbalizing.
Just when you start to take solace in a collective awakening powered by Black Lives Matter, Daunte Wright gets shot dead at a traffic stop in a suburb not too far from you. And you have second thoughts about letting your 16-year-old son drive. You try to have “the conversation” with him about driving while Black — put your hands on the wheel, don’t hold your phone in your hands in case it gets misconstrued as a weapon, and now, don’t hang an air freshener.
What? The look on his face makes you feel a mixture of sadness, anger and helplessness. Sadness and anger because this conversation is stripping him of his innocence. Helplessness because you know that he can follow these instructions to the T, and still have no control over someone else’s fears.
In your second world, the vibrant African culture in which you grew up under the shadow of a communist regime, you have invested most of your professional life as a global health champion partnering with local heroes to improve healthcare.
Here only 1 percent of the population is vaccinated. You know that if people get sick enough to be hospitalized, they probably will not have access to oxygen or a ventilator to save their lives. This includes healthcare workers and your own family.
In this world, you are frustrated by a leadership that is too distracted by war to prioritize public health. Nothing is predictable. Here, a man-made conflict started without warning and thousands continue to die.
In this world, your heart is broken by the sheer volume of destruction that war has brought to a fledgling healthcare system, precisely when these services are most needed. You cry for your sisters who are victims of gang rape and mothers who are delivering babies alone in their homes and out in the open as they try to escape violence. Some endure devastating childbirth injuries, leaving them with holes in their bladders and rectum, leaking urine and feces, mourning babies who didn’t survive. In this world, children and adults and pregnant women are starving or dangerously dehydrated, and thousands are internally displaced. Many have witnessed their family members get killed.
They don’t worry about a pandemic because they don’t know if they will live another day.
To walk in the shoes of an immigrant is to inhabit a world of uncertainties and losses that we have seen during this pandemic and then multiply it by two or three or four. When a friend asks, “How are you doing?” you think to yourself, “Depends which ‘you’ you are asking about.”
But there are silver linings because, when you are living in two worlds and one clearly tips the balance on pain, the problems in your other world seem small and you learn to be grateful. You appreciate your privileges. You take comfort in the traditions of your culture, the smell of coffee brewed in a clay pot merging with the smell of incense. And you persist.