Abuajela Elatrsh came to the United Kingdom from Libya as a refugee in 2017. His wife and six children joined him the following year. He has been talking to his friend and neighbour Benjamin Morgan about the family’s experience of the pandemic. The text below has been rendered from several of their conversations, recorded during evening walks in the summer and autumn of 2020.
I heard about it from another parent. She said, they’re going to close the school. It was a Tuesday, and she said, Thursday or Friday will be the last day. I said, why? She said, there’s an infection. Some sort of disease.
I’d seen it on the news, but I hadn’t given it much thought. You hear all sorts of things, and China was far away. It was lies on the news that destroyed my country. The militias would find a small incident, and make it big, so they could close the whole area and rob a bank, or whatever they wanted to do.
So I avoid the news. I like Westerns. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Or action movies. There’ll be someone who’s innocent. They kill his wife or his kids. So he has to find the killer, to get revenge, or to bring them to justice. Or he loses his son to a gang, so he has to find him, and he goes from country to country to bring him back home. Lots of stories.
I went to my wife and I said, they are going to close the school because of this disease. She started crying. My children, my children, I am going to lose them! Why this country? I told her, not only this country. Italy, the US, France. Most countries.
On the Wednesday I was leaving work and the boss said, you don’t need to come in tomorrow. Only two schools are opening, so we are going to close.
I work for a catering company as a kitchen porter. We prepare meals for different schools. The chef starts at six am. We come in at ten and start washing dishes. Cleaning and mopping. When the delivery drivers arrive to collect the food, they bring the previous day’s dishes. We wash them and rinse them. We prepare the big pots for the stove, getting the kitchen ready for the next day. We don’t go until we’ve cleaned everything, prepared everything.
In Libya I worked for an oil company. My department bought vehicles and equipment. Companies would send their bids and we would evaluate them. Then my colleagues and I would translate the bids. Some companies would apply in Arabic, others in English, so we would prepare one draft in each language.
From senior staff member to kitchen porter. I’ve had that feeling once or twice, I won’t lie to you. When there is some situation, or the boss is not satisfied. But now I’m used to it. Life is a compromise. Loss and gain. I lost something, but I gained other things.
My job in Libya was mentally demanding. Always a tray full of folders. You finish one job, they bring the next. They used to call me at home: what about this, can you describe that, why wasn’t this translated properly? My job here is purely physical. After I leave, no more thinking. I come back at three or three-thirty, the time my children are coming home from school.
My bosses wanted to train me to be a chef, but I told them no. I said, the hard drive is full. There are no files I want to delete.
After work I went to Lidl to do the shopping. There was a huge queue and people were taking all the toilet paper. I thought, what’s this? I called my Libyan friends and they said, you have to prepare. There will be no food. There is going to be starvation in this country because they will not bring any supplies from overseas.
From that day on I went to Morrison’s every evening, near to closing time. Back and forth, like an ant. Shopping shopping shopping. Oil, pasta, flour, sugar, rice, tomatoes, we filled a whole room. Later I regretted it. I thought, I shouldn’t have behaved like that. But we used to have these situations back home. There would be no food in the shops, and nobody had anything to spare.
The thought of getting sick didn’t enter my mind. Islam teaches that you can either accept your situation or not accept it. If you accept your situation and become contained, you will go to Paradise. God will be satisfied with you. If you don’t accept it, nothing will change.
We had a farm near the international airport in Tripoli. It was the dream of every militia to get hold of the airfield. So there was fighting. Sometimes you could go out, sometimes you couldn’t.
Once, just before dark, it started. Gunshots and missiles over our heads. We fled to another city, where my brother’s friend had a house. It was small but we stayed there for three months, until the fighting stopped.
We were always in motion. If the war came to one village, we would move to another to stay with relatives. There were always shortages, of food, of bottled gas. Long queues, and when you got near to the front, they would say: sorry, finished. Many times I came home without bread for my children.
When the oil fields closed, they cut our salaries. But I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about the shooting. You’d be crossing the road, and suddenly you’d be in the middle of it. Most of them were civilians, so they didn’t know how to use their weapons. Children would get caught in the crossfire.
I spoke to my brother on the telephone. I said, the school is closed, and people are queuing for supplies. I said, it looks like home! They asked, are there police on the streets? I said, no, but people are afraid.
We decided we shouldn’t go out. You know the problem. You have been with us many times when we go to the park. We are a big family and we can’t move freely. You cannot stop the younger ones from touching people.
My wife liked staying indoors. She said, so long as you are with me and my children, that’s my world. I am not interested in the other world. But the oldest girl didn’t want to accept it. She would watch from the window. She would say, where is that girl going? Why is that child outside?
I left the house once a week to do the shopping. The first time, my wife was very worried. She met me from the garden door. She said, hand me your clothes. She put everything in the washing machine. She gave me slippers and said, go straight to the shower. Don’t touch anything.
We divided up the days. Time for studying, playing, watching TV. We said to each other, we are luckier than most people. Imagine a childless couple alone together, twenty-four hours a day! It can’t be easy. There may be a pandemic, but at least we have these children to keep us busy.
I had to relearn maths. Fractions, decimal points. I went back to the beginning, and tried to pass the knowledge on to my children. I bought pencils and piles of blank paper, and I made up rewards. A bowl of ice cream, or extra time watching TV.
In the third month we started staying up late. Sometimes past midnight. Once a week, for a treat, we would all sleep downstairs in the living room. We would bring the mattresses, blankets and duvets, and spread out. It was like camping. Camping in the house.
Sometimes I would get frustrated and shout at the children. All that jumping! My wife would say, that’s not the way. Go upstairs and have a nap. She is with them most of the time, so she knows them much better than me.
What I most regret is the education they missed. The school suggested Google Classroom, but it’s very hard to teach them all at the same time with only one device. Even if we had WiFi it wouldn’t be practical.
I want a good future for them. I am sixty years old, and they are very young. I don’t know whether I will see their graduation. I hope I will see it. I want them to be doctors or engineers, or at least to have a job that allows them to live in this world.
In the last week of June, we decided to go outside.
On the first day the weather was warm. We went to the park with their bikes. The children could not stop running and running and running, and fighting one other. It was a mixture of crying and laughing to see them, this freedom, this power they have.
Not long afterwards school started. But on the second day we got a telephone call. They said, one of your children keeps coughing. Please could you come and take them all home. Don’t bring them back till they have had a test.
I felt very depressed. What if my son has this virus? Did he get it from school, from me? I tried to make an appointment. I tried I tried. I called 119 [the telephone number of the UK’s coronavirus testing service]. They said, we cannot do anything. I called the GP, they said, no no no, don’t come to us. Try the government website. I tried. We couldn’t do it.
It was a bad night for us all. We had seen people die, we had seen people on oxygen. They are trying to breathe and they can’t. I imagined this happening to my children, or to my wife, or to me.
The school nurse found us somewhere to get tested. She said, can you walk? It’s forty-five minutes, an hour. I said, it’s easy, we are used to walking.
We got to the test centre around 2pm. They asked me, do you have an appointment code? I said, no, but my children have been sent home from school. Can you test us? They took our names, and gave us forms to fill in. Then they took us to a tent & did the tests. They said the results will come in 24 hours.
The next day, around 4pm, they sent text messages for me and two of the children. We were negative. I was waiting waiting waiting for the others. They didn’t come. I thought, why don’t they send them? They must be infected, that’s why.
But later in the evening more messages started coming through. All of us were negative, thank God! We wanted to fly from joy. I said to my wife, it is the same joy as when they gave me asylum. I was happy then and this day is the same.
I went to tell the school. I saw the headteacher, and I gave her thumbs up from a distance. She said, bring them straightaway. I said, oh they are ready.
The nights are longer now, and darker. I look at the news, and I see the infection rate is going up.In winter you cannot stop children from getting colds. Flu, coughing—at least once or twice each child. You give them cough syrup, lemon and hot water, steam baths. But it always lasts a few days at least.
What will happen? Will they send them home from school? It seems this winter will be a very cold one. Even in September I can feel it. I don’t know what we will do, how we will manage, if there is another lockdown. I am still afraid for my family.
There are lots of other details, some happy, some sad, but I am not a good talker. In Libya people say, don’t tell me how long you stayed in a country, tell me what you gained. What knowledge, what education? They will ask this about my children, and that is my main concern.
I hope I hope I hope this virus goes.
Abuajela Elatrsh and Benjamin Morgan
Abuajela Elatrsh came to the UK from Libya as a refugee in 2017.
Benjamin Morgan is a writer, researcher and welfare adviser.