As a retired doctor living alone in Switzerland, Marie-Claude was concerned about how to minimize her exposure to COVID-19. Then the phone rang. It was her friend Shadi Shhadeh, a Syrian refugee, asking how he could help.
“When the coronavirus started, he immediately called me: ‘Do you need anything?’ He almost became a son,” says Marie-Claude, in her late sixties, whose grown-up children live hundreds of miles away in Germany and Austria.
Seeking practical ways to help others, in the country that gave him safety, Shadi swiftly mobilized a network of volunteers in Geneva and Lausanne to shop and run errands for the elderly, the infirm and others at greatest risk in the pandemic.
The Syrian refugee community swung into action, drawing on a deep sense of responsibility for those in greatest need and years of experience surviving danger and uncertainty.
“We lived, and we are still living, a crisis as refugees,” says Shadi, 34, who is originally from Daraa, south of Damascus, and came to Switzerland in 2013. “That makes us probably in a better position to understand that there is a crisis and how to help.”
Switzerland, with a population of 8.5 million, has over 11,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, making it one of the 10 most-affected countries worldwide.
“We are a group of Syrian refugees, ready to help you stay at home by doing your shopping.”
When the pandemic was declared, Shadi’s wife, Regula, who is Swiss and has elderly parents, realized that many people would need help. She turned to Shadi to enlist his Syrian friends, who began putting up flyers in apartment block lobbies and supermarket foyers.
“We are a group of Syrian refugees, ready to help you stay at home by doing your shopping,” reads the colourful poster, which provides an email contact – [email protected] – for those who need help. Shadi screens the emails and assigns neighbourhood volunteers, who head out several times a day to shop on demand.
"A woman called and said, ‘I’m not a refugee, can I still use this service?’ I said, ‘Of course, we are all refugees now,’” says Shadi, who works for a Geneva humanitarian organization.
To minimize the chance of contracting or spreading the virus, he insists that the volunteers follow the strictest public health guidelines.
“The objective of this campaign is to help people to remain in their protected zone. In this case, the protected zone is their home,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to stress … safety.”
He adds: “These people are protecting themselves, but they are also protecting our medical system from breaking down. We need to support that.”
Breakdown of health services is something that millions of Syrians have experienced in the course of nine years of civil war, especially as hospitals became targets.
“So we know what is a medical system being down,” Shadi says. “We know people who died from little injuries because they received no treatment, and we don’t want to reach that. If we stand together now, we will support the medical system.”
The group’s volunteers are instructed to wash their hands thoroughly, wear protective gloves, disinfect shopping bags, observe a minimum distance and limit social chat with those they are helping to phone calls.
“Everyone can do this ... invite people to copy this idea and implement it.”
The network comprises 26 volunteers, 18 of them Syrian. So far the group estimates it has shopped for 100-200 people in Geneva and Lausanne, and their volunteer network is growing by the day. Regula, a communications specialist who came up with the idea, hopes the initiative will inspire others.
“I hope that the people who are able to do something can help, so that those who really shouldn’t have any social contact stay at home,” she says.
“Everyone can do this. All you have to do is print the flyer and hang it in your building or in the supermarket.”
Shadi wants all those who read this story to act in their communities. “I support, and I encourage and I invite people to copy this idea and implement it,” he says.
“If we have in every building one person who can help, it will be remembered decades later.”
With additional reporting by Sylvie Francis and transcription by Haude Morel.