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From death in Syria to quarantine in Madrid

Madrid during the confinement, April 2020. Photo by Mousa Mohamed, used with permission.

A Syrian refugee is searching for hope and freedom after all the difficulties he faced on his journey from Syria to Spain, only to face the unexpected: yet another confinement, but this time due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

We are not ready. We don’t have masks, nor gloves to cover those little hands or anything to sterilize them with other than some soap mixed with anxiety. 

We are a little concerned about this tiny invisible being called the Coronavirus. We believe it is too small to hurt those bodies that have already endured tremendous psychological and physical suffering in their native country, Syria, then once again on the smuggling routes through Turkey and finally in an environment of instability in Spain, right down to a quarantine that was never foreseen.

“Don’t worry, this crisis will pass,” I tell my two little girls, ages five and three, “… this dark cloud will fade, and each one of us will return to our own poems.” 

“Rest assured, ‘Corona’ is not a ruler who clings to power until their dying breath. It does not burn cities to ashes, nor does it kill all living beings indiscriminately without batting an eyelid. It is not obsessed with remaining on its throne, so there’s no reason to worry,” I tell them.

“After the quarantine ends, people will regain their freedom and return to their lives once more … You, too, will return to the school that you love and to the park where you played and had fun.”

With these words—not “Good morning”—I begin each day, answering their flood of questions.

“When are we leaving the house? How many nights must we go to sleep and awake before Corona disappears? What are we going to do today? What are we going to draw? What story are you going to read to us?” and dozens more of those sentences that end in a question mark. 

This is how they start their days in the small apartment where we have been trapped since the start of the confinement that began last March.

At first, it was almost normal. But then it gradually evolved until the world became pale and colourless, except for the watercolours that we mix to turn our days into paintings.

We soon realized that we had to tame those days with useful activities. We started with home exercise, then breakfast, followed by learning and teaching. All in that tiny room that can barely fit a bed, decorated with sheets of papers filled with vague scribbles legible only to us.

However, the stage on which our daily actions take place is a small hall decorated with a table and a few chairs and a plant that resembles those from back home. I tell my daughters stories about letters and teach them how to pronounce them, while my wife uses her brushes to draw magical paintings, before handing them over to the girls who decorate them with the most beautiful colours. 

These repetitive actions are interrupted with moments of staring out of windows to observe the few passersby as they head to food stores or enjoy a little walk with a dog—the only permissible reasons for leaving their confinement.  

These moments allow us to stray towards old memories. We have been through difficult days, and survived only because we were together.

We remember harrowing memories that we do not share with our daughters. Instead, we smile while enjoying our family games. We experience good moments and hope to create new and different kinds of memories. But there is no door to contain our old memories and instead, there is a gaping space where clouds float freely.  

The days of confinement may be reminiscent of times when we huddled in basements to protect ourselves from merciless bombs and missiles. Fear kicks in, but the fear here in Madrid is entirely different from the one felt in Syria.

The days spent in confinement reminds an ex-prisoner of the prison’s high walls. They remind him of those days in which he dreamt of flying freely away from the watchful eyes of those who kept him chained to those invincible walls. Nights are not similar though; being confined behind prison bars is different from being confined behind your own windows.

But the comparison is unfair. Here in Madrid, freedom is forbidden for your protection, and there in Syria, the deprivation of freedom is designed to make you die a thousand deaths. Then the world expects you to live normally, as if none of this took place.

Confinement here does not entail fleeing the home in which you were born. Here, you are meant to stay, while there you must escape to survive. Here, your home is a refuge -maybe from death; there it is a target. Yet, the similarities between them in suffering are astounding.

Our days in confinement are different from the times spent in displacement, circling borders of various countries in search of safety. Here, they tell you that you are safe.

But the feeling of instability is the same. When you live in a country where you and your family are given red asylum documents allowing you to stay for a few months it is a reminder that you are far from home and you have to leave soon. It is a reminder of your yearning for a stable home for your family, a home that will take months to find.

When you are a refugee, you leave home in the hope of turning a new page, but the old page refuses to fold.

After the confinement, we will live a new beginning full of positivity. We will fulfill all those dreams that were deferred for a decade. We will overcome these days as we overcome ones more difficult, but did we really overcome those days? Or are we still living them?We will overcome everything one day.

We will resist—Resistiré, original song by Dúo Dinámico.

Video shot in Puçol, Spain by Manuel José Gongora Aguilar, used with permission.

“Cuando pierda todas las partidas; Cuando duerma con la soledad; Cuando se me cierren las salidas; Y la noche no me deje en paz; Cuando sienta miedo del silencio; Cuando cueste mantenerse en pie; Cuando se rebelen los recuerdos; Y me pongan contra la pared. Resistiré, erguida frente a todo; Resistiré para seguir viviendo…”

“When I lose all the games. When I sleep with loneliness. When the exits are closed to me. And the night does not leave me alone. When I'm afraid of silence. When it's hard to stand. When the memories rebel. And put me against the wall. I will resist, standing tall against it all. I will resist to continue living ….”

With the words from the Spanish song “Resistiré”which became a symbol of hope during the confinement in Spain, with the increasing number of COVID-19 victims—a curtain descends to end another day of quarantine. 

From the windows of our temporary home we join our neighbours and the rest of Spain in communal applause every night to thank those who are working hard to fight the virus and to break the silence of our days. 

The little ones wait every evening to clap and shout from the windows, and with their cheers, they shout: We will resist!

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