COVID-19 and the Lessons of Life in Exile

Everything is unsettled.

Whatever you thought was steady and predictable has now turned out to be alien and dangerous. You can no longer interact with your family or friends or other members of your community face to face — never mind hug or touch them. Your routines and habits have been upended, and you face new deprivations, a reversal for which you were unprepared. Nor can you depend on long-standing safety nets that would supposedly always be there for you. As for strangers, you can’t tell which ones could imperil your safety, and who might offer assistance. Distance becomes the norm.

That’s a description of life for countless millions in the times of the coronavirus. Yes, but it also captures the daily experience — from the very beginning of history — of vast numbers of exiles and migrants as they discover how to survive a journey into the unknown.

Is it possible, then, that these uprooted men, women and children who left their homes behind for a new land — whether in search of more auspicious prospects or because they were fleeing a catastrophe — have some lessons to teach us now that the pandemic has, in some sense, made exiles of us all?

As someone who comes from a family of refugees — and who has spent his own life wandering, losing and gaining countries and languages — I trust that there is much to learn from the experience of extreme dislocation suffered by humanity’s expatriate multitudes.

First of all: the knowledge that you can subsist on less, that much of what you assumed was necessary for your well-being and satisfaction is not, after all, that indispensable.

Migrants soon perceive what has priority in an emergency, how to embrace and appreciate what is truly valuable and essential to our survival: the fact that we all have an inalienable need for lodging, food, safety, reassurances, health, for example — and, above all, the love and kindness of others. If you can hold onto that awareness beyond the current pandemic crisis, you may perhaps emerge from it a wiser person, more attuned to our basic human condition.

But we are a long way from the end of this crisis. When you are vulnerable, as exiles and migrants perpetually are, when you are close to the abyss, it is easy to be preyed upon. Morbid situations throw up a cast of unsavory characters, hustlers, cheats and demagogues, full of false promises and empty boasts of quick salvation. When one is adrift in unfamiliar, menacing circumstances, that is when extra care must be taken not to succumb to these unscrupulous seductions; what matters is to judge others by the consistency of their actions, and not be led astray by the momentary appeal of those whose words are ever-changing.

There will be grievous losses during this crisis, illnesses of those you love that you cannot alleviate, and funerals you cannot attend. As well as family births and birthdays that you cannot observe — festivities, marriages, anniversaries, graduations, all the glorious events that mark and make sense of the time allotted to us on this earth.

The emigres who are forced to witness from afar so many deaths without the consolation of their beloved kin nearby, who have also been robbed of celebrating the wonderful rites of passage back home, have come up with ways to cope with this pain of separation. They mourn by renewing their bonds with the dead that they must carry inside from now on. And they internalize the significance of more joyful festivities forbidden to them, fighting detachment and loneliness with a feast of memories and faith. Such trials can make you grow, test your resilience, take stock of the constancy of your connections.

Such a voyage of self-discovery is not an easy one, Again, like exiles and migrants, you now belong to two worlds: what was left behind and what lies ahead. Use the occasion to learn to look at the circumstances you now inhabit with new, disenchanted eyes; examine carefully, as strangers in a strange land might, what this calamity has revealed about our civilization. As happens often when disasters strike, this is a chance to reexamine what seemed the unshakable foundations of your social order, foundations that turned out to be built on dubious pillars and unquestioned presuppositions.

And when you go back to normality — just as exiles and migrants do, if they are lucky enough to revisit their homelands — behold with your new eyes the country you now return to, and remember that what seemed normal and enduring did not train you well for the threat that changed your life, and other threats to come. You — and perhaps large majorities — may conclude that the old “normal” world needs restructuring, too.

When you resurface, do not forget to look back on the dark night of the soul and the body you have gone through. Remember when you feared that there would be no room for you or those you loved at the hospitals, when you wondered if you might be among those denied the welcome and care required to heal. Try to connect that dread and potential denial to what so many remote refugees — usually viewed on TV, or on other screens — undergo every hour of every day, confronted by walls and border crossings, tumultuous seas and foreboding edicts: no room, no room. Our country is full. The ones who, right now, have no soap, no water, no distancing to protect themselves.

Think of these homeless and grief-stricken people when better times arrive and open your hearts and doors and cities to them. If you only listen, these displaced brothers and sisters will help you to understand that each of us may sicken and die one by one, but that it is the many who will save us — all of us together, one humanity in this era of mass migration and plague.

This article first appeared in the Washington Post.