In 1994, when I was two years old, my family and I were forced to leave our home in Bosnia and live in refugee camps for nearly a year. By sheer luck we became one of the less than one percent of refugees in the world who are resettled in a third country. Less than one percent! I marvel at this number frequently.
In our new home in Canada we slowly reassembled the pieces of our lives, which had been exploded in the war, but doubt remained that our luck would last. If you escape crisis once, how can you hope to beat the odds again and again against life’s relentless supply of tragedies?
A few weeks before the first case of COVID-19 was found in New York, I bought airline tickets to visit my family in Bosnia with my husband. The flight was to take us from New York to Munich and then on to Zagreb, where we planned to rent a car and drive two hours to the village where I spent the first years of my life. I have no memory of the war itself or its aftermath. In my mind I have only a black wall where I’ve hung the stories that have been described to me, the family photos, and the news footage interspersed between and behind them. The visceral fear of those times was only transmitted to me after the fact, and the result, in adolescence and adulthood, has been a certain psychic confusion; rootless anxiety with no apparent source and nowhere to go.
The last time I was in Bosnia, eight years ago, I was still baffled by these strange feelings. As we drove in from the west, through Slovenia and then Croatia, we passed a yellow road sign that said “Turanj,” and my stomach suddenly dropped. I had heard the name many times. In the stories I had been told, Turanj was the city where we had stayed in a refugee camp between 1994 and 1995. How shocking it was to see it leap from the depths of family lore and secondhand memory and have it appear plainly on the side of the road.
Before we canceled our most recent trip, we had talked about visiting Pula, the other city where we had stayed as refugees. Pula, unlike Turanj, has certain scenic qualities, with Roman ruins and a large coliseum in the city centre. To return as a tourist and see it again would have been, in my mind, closure of some kind. And maybe that day will still come, maybe even in the not-too-distant future, but the irony of being forced to leave one’s country and then—again due to forces entirely beyond one’s control—being unable to return, was too perfect. Here it was: crisis had come again.
As news reports about COVID-19 became more frantic I realized I had been unconsciously anticipating an event like this, an upheaval with a global scope, a mass reworking of society requiring emergency measures. That something smaller than a mote of dust could turn the whole world over in chaos felt somehow perfectly natural and logical. Seeing anxiety enter the public discussion, even as things veered into hysteria, had a strangely calming effect on me. After years of practice, I felt as though I was able to tread water in the fear, swim laps in it, while others fell in and splashed wildly.
I’m more than happy to stay indoors, where my apartment has smelled faintly of bleach for days. The hard, non-porous surfaces of my home have never been more frequently sanitized and my hands have never been more thoroughly washed. These behaviours are no longer simply my own little neuroticisms, but public health edicts that everyone has been urged to abide by. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers are now seemingly just as preoccupied as I am about public face touching, the cleanliness of their light switches, and the tickle in their throat they woke up with that morning. For me, the anxiety is nothing new.
I was not glad to see friends begin to worry but I was glad to connect with them through our shared fears. The dread has always been there for me; how pleasant it is to have company. Our group chat has been revitalized, we’re “checking in” and sharing more. Many have commented on this other side to the crisis: longer and more frequent calls with parents and friends, time at home with our loved ones, and also, a certain terrifying, heartwarming sense of savouring things while we still can.
My mother called me recently to remind me to stock up on food, and mentioned that she had just bought six pounds of Vegeta (a common seasoning in Bosnia) and a hundred kilograms of flour. During the war, when we still had a home with a garden, she would dry herbs and vegetables in the sun and mix them with salt to make her own Vegeta. Flour was marked up astronomically and hard to procure. “I’m not doing that again,” she said, “and I can’t.” I took to reassuring her, telling her that things would be all right. This was different from the war, I said. There would still be flour.
Early on the idea of renting a car or hopping on a flight out of New York and back to Canada, where my parents live, occurred to me more than once, but the trip itself filled me with more dread than the idea of staying. It was a queasy, gut reaction to escaping danger that I described to a friend jokingly as “refugee vibes.” What I wanted to do was keep still and stay in one place.
Just a few short weeks later, New York is now the epicenter of the virus outbreak in North America. The sound of a passing police siren or ambulance outside is suddenly more ominous and the idea that things will be worse this week than last week, and so on into the future, thuds in my brain all day.
It’s possible, but not certain, that this moment too will one day be only a memory.