Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cyprus, refugee volunteers Priscilia, Farxiya and Balqees have embarked with the UNHCR Cyprus team on a race to inform refugee communities and support them in facing the new challenges brought about by the pandemic. They are among the nine refugee volunteers of the UNHCR Cyprus Refugee Outreach Volunteer programme who have been translating key information into their mother tongues and disseminating to the diverse refugee communities across Cyprus; these have included official health advisories and other information relating to the emergency measures.
Access to accurate information is key in preventing the spread of the pandemic and the best way to protect us all from COVID-19. This is not an easy task to start with, let alone when it comes to reaching refugees who often live in the margins of host countries. As the case of Cyprus has shown, involving refugees themselves can be catalytic in this process.
Since mid-March Priscillia has been translating information into French and disseminating it to the African refugee community in Cyprus, which consists of a sizeable Francophone community. Meanwhile Farxiya and Balqees, both from Somalia, have been translating into Somali and reaching out to Somali refugees and asylum-seekers, who like most refugees in Cyprus, live in urban and remote areas and not in receptions centres. Other refugee volunteers have been translating into Arabic and communicating with the Syrian, Palestinian and other Arabic-speaking communities in Cyprus.
“Being a refugee myself, it was upon me to reach out to my community to enlighten them about the dangers and the way one can get and spread [the Coronavirus].”
“Being a refugee myself, it was upon me to reach out to my community to enlighten them about the dangers and the way one can get and spread [the Coronavirus],” said Balqees, now a University student in her early twenties, who fled to Cyprus without her family at the age of 15.
WhatsApp, emails, phone-calls and of course social media have been the most common means of communication between the volunteers and their communities. “Usually I disseminate the information through SMS, calls, but mostly through social media, which has become undeniably one of the most vital ways of reaching out to many people,” says Priscillia, a mother of four, who came to Cyprus 16 years ago from Cameroon.
Setting the record straight and correcting fake news has been an additional challenge for volunteers.
“Sometimes refugees and asylum-seekers are wrongly informed, so it’s necessary to further explain certain issues, such as for example, the difference between COVID-19 and common flu symptoms.”
“Sometimes refugees and asylum-seekers are wrongly informed, so it’s necessary to further explain certain issues, such as for example, the difference between COVID-19 and common flu symptoms,” points out Farxiya, a young mother of two boys aged five and three, and a qualified nurse back in her native Somalia.
One of the fundamental objectives of the UNHCR Refugee Outreach Volunteer Programme is to understand the needs and concerns of refugees living in the cities and more remote areas and identify the most vulnerable amongst them. Volunteers will then refer those cases to UNHCR and NGOs, which subsequently intervene with the relevant governmental departments in an effort to address and seek solutions to the grievances and hardships faced. This process has become all the more relevant during the pandemic.
While everyone has been affected by the health crisis, refugees have been among the hardest hit. “Refugees have been faced [since the outbreak] with additional difficulties, from lack of food; loss of jobs and shelter; substantial delays in receiving rent allowance and coupons; being left without basic necessities; even without credit in their phones to reach out to government offices and NGOs or friends, especially those who cannot afford internet connection because of little or no finance,” says Priscillia.
Another major challenge that asylum-seekers in particular are faced with is that they are not included in the General Health System (GeSY) and have no personal doctor to refer to in case they develop symptoms. “They have to call government hotlines and there is a language barrier there,” Farxiya notes and adds that the assistance that the NGOs and UNHCR provide are commendable and appreciated by the community.
Feeling fearful and anxious is a normal response, and such feelings are common to all people during these difficult times, regardless of status and background, refugee volunteers admit. “We all miss our lives as they used to be – going to school, work, hanging out with our friends, going out generally without panicking,” Balqees says. For such an outgoing person as Balquees, it can sometimes be even harder and missing her family, with whom she longs to be reunited, has become inevitably more intense during the lockdown. “Perhaps if my family was here, lockdown would have been easier,” she says.
Indeed, the containment measures provided an opportunity for Priscilla’s family to come even closer: “As a means to ease the tension and fear, as a family, we pray together, play together, watch movies, dance, sing, cook together and we just have conversations. We have always been a close family, but during this lockdown we have managed to have deep conversations together, talking about our deepest fears, our hopes, dreams, life.”
Many mothers will easily relate to Farxiya’s experience: “I mainly stay at home with my kids and try, sometimes very hard, to keep them busy and entertained during lockdown,” she says with an audible smile. While navigating through the daily challenges she doesn’t lose focus of her own personal goals and continues her Greek lessons online, feeling fortunate that her husband has not lost his job, as many others have as a result of the crisis. “Fortunately, my husband is still working [at a supermarket], and luckily, he has tested negative to COVID-19, at least for now,” she says.
“Refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants in general are not the enemy – Coronavirus is.”
While fear is natural, we must avoid people channeling this fear and anxiety into xenophobia, as Priscillia, rightly points out: “Refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants in general are not the enemy – Coronavirus is. So, whatever the government is doing to help its citizens survive the pandemic, foreigners should also be included. Survival is for all of us.”
“Cyprus is, for many refugees, their second home and the first for others. We feel the need to protect the country and its people with everything we have. All we need is a chance to show this. Stay safe and let’s keep our hopes alive,” Priscillia added.
Refugee volunteers, through their hard work and dedication, and after having set aside their own challenges, have taken a key role in protecting refugees, and indeed the wider public, from the dangers of the virus. If there is one thing that this pandemic has brought home is our inherent interconnectedness.
Regardless of origin, the wish and the hope that everything will go back to normal unites us all. And as demonstrated in many other countries as well, refugees have the skills and the capabilities to become part of the solution in facing the challenges we are facing, and we will continue to face, in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
Translated materials in Arabic, English, French, Somali and a number of other languages can be found on the UNHCR Help Platform.