DANIELLE SHERRY is Coordinator of our Just Voices Speakers Program. She recently spoke to Just Voices participant ISAIAH LAHAI about the lessons that can be learned from the experience of being a refugee for those grappling with life during a global pandemic.

Just Voices Speaker, Isaiah Laha

“Rain does not fall on one person’s house alone”.

Has there ever been a crisis that simultaneously halted all corners of the earth all at once? As we come to terms with COVID-19, the devastating fact is that this is not going to impact a small section of our community; we are for the foreseeable future all in this together.

Understandably most of us are anxious about being confined, being isolated, feeling alone, losing our routines or losing our livelihood. However in times like this, it helps to turn to the people around us to share our fears, doubts and anxieties. By listening to others and drawing on our personal experiences, we begin to understand our feelings which can help to manage the heavy weight of anxiety within us.   

In my work managing the Just Voices Speakers Program at Jesuit Social Services, there is much we can gain right now from hearing about the journey of a refugee. Doing the heavy lifting in building community resilience is former refugee and Just Voices Speaker, Isaiah Lahai. 

Isaiah was a young teenager in Buedu, Sierra Leone when civil war came to his town.  When the invasion occurred, Isaiah was a few kilometres away from home. The attack was so swift and vicious he was forced to flee into neighbouring Guinea alone. Isaiah spent 3 days and 3 nights unsure whether his family survived. This was followed by 14 horrible years in 5 refugee camps witnessing death and unimaginable devastation. Since coming to Australia, Isaiah has seen Sierra Leone suffer the horrific devastation of the Ebola crisis and to this day, he supports his community as they continue to face poverty and the ongoing effect of war.  

Isaiah, how are you feeling about COVID 19? Is this time stirring up memories?

Naturally I’m feeling unsettled, but I’m also feeling hopeful that a better day will come. If there is anything we should focus on right now it is hope. This is not the end of anything. For a refugee the end is determined only when we are no longer breathing. 

By turning to others, sharing our fears, listening to their stories, and understanding their point of view we enlarge our perspective. Were other people’s stories important to you when you were in the refugee camps? 

Sharing lived experiences absolutely helps a lot even when we are all going through the same thing. We have a saying “rain does not fall on one person’s house alone”.

I gained a lot from listening to people in the camps. I had a friend who lost both his parents.  He also lost his house and was being chased by the rebels. They wanted to kill him. He was only 15 years old. He gave me hope and belief that this was not the end. I was able to really learn a lot from him. His support kept me going. Unlike him, I never lost my parents. My father, mother and siblings were still alive. We only lost property. Here was a boy that almost lost everything, yet he was still going.

When you were in the camps, did you ever wonder just how long it would take until it was over? What advice can you give us now?

We asked this question everyday. How long will this last? How long will we continue to be strangers in a foreign country? All you need to do is hang on and hold onto whatever you are doing. Believe that this is not the end. Tough times will come but they will also pass.

In times of crisis we are told that it important that we take time to reflect and reframe. Reflecting helps us search for meaning and understanding. Reframing helps us to see the COVID-19 crisis from many different angles. For instance, we may feel this situation may never resolve itself. But on the flip side, there may be opportunities for personal growth. What is your view?

In every story there is a positive aspect. If you want to live a peaceful life, put your mind toward the positive. During my time in camps, I tried to be positive all the time. To look at each day and say ‘this is another great day’.

Adjusting to the reality of this time is essential but we have to know that everything we are experiencing right now will not always remain the same. However we must adjust to the challenges and continue moving forward. Human beings are capable of adjusting to change. The best thing to do is to be calm. This won’t last forever.

You contracted chicken pox when you were in the refugee camps.

Yes. It was a very bad disease. It affected my whole system. There was very limited medical help available to me. The only remedy was staying home, isolating myself and following the advice given to me.

It was a challenge, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to adapt. When times like this come, people need to adapt. We are capable of adjusting. All that is required is putting our minds to it. 

What do you think about panic buying? Why do people feel the need to do this? 

Right now I don’t see many refugees who are panicking. What’s happening now is just adding to their experiences. We have faced many adversities, including starvation before and this is just adding to it.  However there is a correlation between what we are seeing right now to a refugee fleeing. People go to the supermarket to buy everything they can because they are afraid. When war broke out in Sierra Leone, people fled with whatever they could carry, regardless of its usefulness. Panic buying is a human instinct, borne from fear. If we can focus on hope, then our fear evaporates.

What practical advice can you give Australians right now? 

For me, my remedy is reassurance. There are three elements to this. The first is hope, the second is belief that this is not the end and the third is my faith.

What is also important to humanity is connection. Particularly when we experience uncertainty like the world is experiencing at the moment. There is solace in knowing we are not going through this scary time alone. Sometimes just speaking to another person can boost our spirits, help us feel less isolated and understand our feelings better.

We don’t know how long it will be until we get to the other side of this crisis but we must look towards the positives. But my way of dealing with this uncertainty is to think about hope. Ebola did not end all of us. Surely we will get though this as well.

Danielle is the Program Manager of the Just Voices Speakers Program at Jesuit Social Services. For more information about the program, please visit www.justvoices.org.au