How to move country during a plague: Stories from migrants on starting their lives again in the pandemic

From an Arab woman fleeing political upheaval in Lebanon, to a British man escaping Brexit for Spain. How have international migrants started their new lives during the pandemic, asks Alice Hutton

Friday 16 April 2021 20:39
<p>Many migrants, including Rana, not her real name, pictured in Istanbul in Turkey, were left in limbo when Covid caused world borders to snap shut</p>

Many migrants, including Rana, not her real name, pictured in Istanbul in Turkey, were left in limbo when Covid caused world borders to snap shut

In June last year, I rang Boston Police to report a crime.

My new Social Security Card, the ‘skeleton key’ to life in the US that had taken four months to be issued and had prevented me, as a fresh arrival, from applying for a bank account, mobile phone, health insurance, apartment or driving licence during the pandemic, had been stolen from the mail and used to open credit cards in my name.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the officer on the phone, “but if you don’t know the number, you don’t officially exist yet.”

How fitting.

In a year when I moved 3,200-miles from the UK to America just days before the beginning of the devastating outbreak of Covid19, when even the luckiest haven’t felt like themselves, someone had literally stolen my new identity before I even got to use it myself.

Alice Hutton’s wife, Mel, pictured in Beacon Hill in Boston, on their first day in the city, after landing just a week before the border shut

In March 2020, my wife Mel and I became two of the last international migrants to fly into the United States, before the official arrival of the novel coronavirus.

After six months of planning, we slipped into the east coast city of Boston, a place I had never even visited before, just seven days before the border shut.

Four days later we were in lockdown.

For weeks the frosty city was virtually silent; like a dystopian horror film where the heroine wakes up and finds that everyone has left.

We walked empty streets, sat in eerily quiet parks and read the menus of darkened restaurants through windows, hoping they would re-open.

Keenly aware of how lucky we were to have made it at all and not been separated or struck down with the disease, the next 12-months were an exercise in how to remain cheerful whilst repeatedly failing to get off the starting block, as we tried to safely and responsibly establish our new lives while the world came to a juddering halt and the fabric of society unravelled.

Work disappeared overnight, viewings for flats were cancelled, our belongings trapped in storage, and health insurance documents, so vital in a country with no public healthcare at the best of times let alone when the cost for a single Covid-related hospital visit in our state was $9,000-$50,000, were unprocessed for months. (Our travel insurance, helpfully, didn’t cover what it called ‘acts of God’.)

Inside the cupboard of our tiny, high-rise airbnb filled with 15-year-old, broken IKEA furniture, no WIFI or TV because we thought it would be temporary, was a single fork.

The MBTA in Boston in March 2020 when lockdown caused users to plummet and the city to empty

Making new friends during an airborne plague felt unwise, as well as fairly impossible given that horrified neighbours crossed the street or flattened themselves against walls, leaving our support networks permanently five-hours ahead on Greenwich Zoom Time.

The lack of a Social Security Card even cut us off from most volunteering opportunities.

“What’s Boston like?” asked friends and family.

“No idea!” we replied, making them laugh.

No, we literally had no idea.

It was eight weeks before we took any public transport. For months I kept getting lost just walking out the front door. 

I would turn a corner and feel completely disorientated. Was it left or right at ‘Boom Crispy Chicken’?

Lockdown restrictions had left us so little time outside we couldn’t build proper spatial awareness.

We felt in transit between our old and new lives, as if we hadn’t actually arrived yet and were still exploring the city via Google Maps.

And yet, we knew, from the constant sirens and red-eyed staff outside the hospital emergency room directly opposite our window, that what was happening metres away was unimaginably worse.

And that we, as people who didn’t really ‘exist’ until America came out of pause mode, could do very little to help.

If we weren’t careful, we could live here for a whole year but contribute no more value to our new country than a pair of tourists who stumbled out of Fenway Park after a Red Sox game looking for lobster rolls and got lost trying to leave.

Boston’s famous Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play, lies empty in July 2020 after the season was postponed since March due to Covid

Migration is an ancient, life-changing phenomenon that has shaped the world and the futures of the people in it for many thousands of years.

It alters our understanding of society, culture, language and geography as people respond to powerful ‘push-pull factors’.

Either moving towards something, like better jobs and education, with the privilege of passports, visas and plane tickets, or away from something, like political, economic and environmental chaos, sometimes with no more than the clothes on their back.

In 2020, the United Nations (UN) estimated that there were 281 million international migrants on earth, making up roughly 3.5 per cent of the global population.

But when Covid-19 struck in earnest, for the first time in modern history global travel came, if briefly, to a simultaneous halt and borders snapped shut, leaving millions in limbo.

As the UN wrote in its 2020 International Migrants report, the pandemic “affected drastically all forms of human mobility, including international migration”, with an estimated loss of movement of two million people in the first half of the year as “hundreds of thousands of migrants were stranded, unable to return to their countries, while others were forced to return to their home countries earlier than planned, when job opportunities dried up and schools closed”.

In a year of such extraordinary loss, it may seem a bit pointless to discuss the impact on those who voluntarily travelled out of family networks – either just before or during the virus.

But, according to Andrew Rasmussen, an associate professor in the psychological effect of migration at Fordham University in New York City: “If anything, the last year has highlighted that the migrant experience of overcoming insurmountable upheaval in your life, of social isolation and loss of identity ... increase in anxiety and depression, and striking out to start again in a new world, is now common to us all.”

Rana, not her real name, pictured in Istanbul, Turkey, after a ‘quest’ to leave her politically unstable home country, Lebanon, during Covid

For people who aren’t citizens of stable, western democracies, the pandemic simply added an extra layer of danger to an already fraught process.

After years of living under the threat of war, Rana, not her real name, left Lebanon for Istanbul in Turkey, in July last year, just two weeks before the deadly blast on the port in Beirut blew in the doors and windows of her old apartment, killing 210 people, injuring 7,500 and making 300 people homeless.

For the next few months the 35-year-old, who works in the media industry, lived out of a suitcase after all her belongings, and years of memories associated with them, were reportedly destroyed in a storage container on the port. She struggled to rent a flat because years of disruption in Lebanon left her without a bank account.

Like many Arabs, she wrestled with the notorious Turkish bureaucracy for legal resident status, only to be notified in December that her boyfriend’s permit had been granted, but that she had to leave.

“And go where?”, she told The Independent. “I had no home to go back to.”

She spent a quixotic four hours and 10,000 steps in the airport, looking for the visa office to get a vital stamp that would prevent her from being permanently banned from re-entering.

“The pandemic wasn’t even the most pressing thing on my mind,” she said. “I was in this confined space for hours, breathing in so many faces, swapping phones. I was in tears the whole time.”

After a tense three days she managed to return and started the application again, but this time she and her boyfriend will marry.

“I hope it will make a difference,” she said, buoyed by the fact that they recently found out that the blast didn’t destroy the container with all her belongings and childhood photos.

Rana added: “This is a quest to be anywhere legally that is not Lebanon. But I’m worried about putting roots down in a place where I don’t know if I can stay. Borders do not treat everyone equally.”

Hannah Copestake, 32, was forced to leave Australia, her home of three years, in July 2020 when the pandemic stopped some embassies from processing new visas. Pictured in her mother’s garden in Yorkshire after returning to the UK in July 2020.

Others didn’t move last year because they wanted to, but because they legally had to, after the pandemic caused many embassies to shut and stop processing new visas and work permits.

Freelance writer, Hannah Copestake, 32, had moved from the UK to Melbourne in Australia in 2018 after a divorce and had thrown herself into making it her ‘forever home’, finding wonderful friends and landing a job in government communications for the bushfires, and later, the virus. 

“I really thought this was the place where I would grow old,” she said. “But [after Covid] I quickly realised that my application for permanent residency was getting slower and slower. Eventually, I realised it wasn’t going to happen. I left in July without saying goodbye to anyone. I basically ghosted my entire life. It broke my heart.”

Back in the UK, Hannah moved in with her mother and stepfather in a village outside Selby in Yorkshire, and signed up for an MSc in digital society at The University of Edinburgh, hoping to make new friends.

But when classes became virtual before the start of term, she completed the whole course without stepping foot in the city or meeting a single student or lecturer in person.

Hannah said: “I feel a real sense of the suspension of time. I never got closure on my old life. It has been really distressing to stay in touch with friends in Melbourne who are having such a different experience of the pandemic.”

One silver lining, however, was volunteering for the newly formed Northern Independence Party and finding a common purpose and friendship with other team members scattered across hundreds of miles, communicating via Slack and Whatsapp.

“It’s been my saviour,” she said. “It makes me feel like I am helping to give people a voice. I always thought I was just a flight from home, but actually [the pandemic] made me realise that maybe a journey somewhere like Australia really is a once-in-a-life time thing?”

Clinical psychologist, Dr Sean Truman, co-founder of The Truman Group, which specialises in the mental health of expatriates, told The Independent that the pandemic has caused them particular anguish, with the company helping multiple families separated by sudden border closures. 

“This year really busted the comforting myth for western migrants that home is ‘just a plane ride away’,” he said.

“Even before the pandemic, expats suffered higher levels of anxiety, depression and social isolation, as well as addiction. What we are seeing now is major disruptions in people’s ability to forge new identities and feel a sense of belonging when they move country, possibly to a place where they don’t speak the language yet.”

Brazilian Kurt Daniger and his Romanian wife Norica, pictured outside the temple in their suburb outside Tokyo, where they moved in October 2019, months before the outbreak of the pandemic

One such new migrant struggling with a language barrier is Brazilian Kurt Daniger, 36, and his Romanian wife, Norica, 34.

After years of begging his boss at a live sports company in London to let him open an office in Japan, they left Croydon for Tokyo in October 2019.

“My first four months in Japan were a rollercoaster,” said Kurt.

“We found a place to live and had all these plans to do Japanese classes. Then, because we’re so close to China, we shut down for Covid much earlier than Europe. Suddenly, I’m working online all day in English, talking to my wife and family in Portuguese or English. I didn’t have enough time or headspace to learn Japanese properly.”

Daniger, who missed the funeral of his grandmother in São Paulo because he was unable to leave the country and re-enter, added: “They take Covid incredibly seriously here. The foreign communities are considered epicentres of Covid so it’s hard to make friends. I love Japanese culture and have dreamed about living here for over 10 years. It’s quite sad. I know enough Japanese to go shopping, but not to talk to our neighbours.”

The couple are scheming ways to make friends, including delivering gifts of fresh bread made during his wife’s online class that she takes with his mother back in Brazil.

Kurt said: “I don’t want to be just another foreigner who stays here a few years and then leaves and is not a part of the community. But, I’m still glad I packed my PlayStation in my suitcase.”

Juliette with her four-year-old daughter on a walk around a lake in West Berlin. The family moved to Germany in January 2020 with the toddler and a 12-week-old baby.

Moving country or continent with children is entirely a different experience to moving alone.

In January 2020, British civil servant Juliette moved to Berlin in Germany when her husband got a diplomatic posting, arriving with a four-year-old daughter and 12-week old baby son.

At first lockdown “wasn’t a massive change as I was mostly just staying in the house,” she joked.

Juliette added: “But it got more tough as time went on and we couldn’t go to the playground or find new friends for my daughter to play with, for when lockdown lifted. We live in a cul-de-sac with other British diplomatic families – Little Britain basically – so I don’t even get much of a chance to practise my German.”

She continued: “I didn’t realise how precious those ten weeks in Berlin were before the pandemic. We should have done more. The baby is terrified of people, we go into shops and he bursts into tears ... it’s very sad. It’s been hard not to wish away the pandemic, and get back our chance at a new start in this exciting place, when it’s also the early stages of your children’s lives.”

The pandemic, which has killed nearly three million people worldwide, has also frequently overshadowed some of the deep issues that were headline news before its arrival, including Brexit.

Andrew Gonsalves, a copywriter from London, was one of many British migrants who rapidly left the UK last year, when travel rules were briefly lifted, in order to meet the December 31 deadline to establish permanent residency in the EU.

Andrew Gonsalves, pictured in his new home city Madrid with his adopted dog Steve, after fleeing the UK and Brexit for Spain, last year

The 37-year-old told The Independent: “The UK didn’t feel like home anymore. I wanted to go somewhere where I could process losing my dad a few years earlier and hold onto my European identity. I decided, pandemic or not, it was now or never and chose Spain. I got rid of 13-years-worth of crap ... threw suitcases into my old car. If there was a chaotic way to leave your country, mine was that.”

After a “car crash” of a start in which he missed the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao because his negative Covid test result accidentally arrived 90-minutes after departure, he took a boat to France and drove for 16 hours to Madrid, arriving with a month to find a flat, job, bank account and apply for residency.

Eight months later, he has friends, a dog called Steve, and the beginnings of a supportive, LGBT+ community after becoming “the mute in the gay running group”.

“I’m learning Spanish,” he said, “but for now I just nod and run where they run.”

He added: “There are degrees of immigration. Without the pandemic Madrid isn’t far away from the UK. With the pandemic it might as well be 5,000 miles. Step by step, day by day, I’m surprised how quickly this has started to feel like home. Even when feeling homesick, I go stand outside and the light in this city is incredible.”

He continued: “The funny thing is, that although it was difficult leaving my mum, a few months ago my brother announced that he was also moving to Spain. Now both of us will live here, she’s suddenly talking about leaving. And it hit me that I don’t think the Gonsalves family live in England anymore.”

Keren and Jonno, who moved to Australia just three days before the border closed, pictured at their May lockdown wedding in Sydney, with ten in-person attendees and 400 guests on Zoom

There have been other happy endings too.

Keren, 35, who was born in Israel but moved to the UK aged six, landed in Sydney with her Australian fiancée, Jonno, just three days before the border shut in March 2020.

After quarantining and cancelling their big wedding, they decided not to wait and got married in lockdown in May.

“In five days, we rallied a photographer, hairdresser, make-up artist, florist and rabbi and put together a most beautiful and special wedding”, said Keren. “Thanks to Zoom, overcoming the 10-person limit to allow 400 people from around the globe to join us. Many of whom were in the UK, at 6am, fully dressed in their wedding best, sipping on champagne.”

The social media marketing manager, who was unable to attend her grandfather’s funeral in the UK and took nine months to find work due to the impact of the pandemic on the job market, added: “My whole year here has been a silver lining. I cannot believe my luck at being in Australia this last 12 months. Before meeting Jonno, I hadn’t even been here on holiday. All of a sudden, I find myself living in one of the only countries in the world that has any semblance of normality. I hear so many horror stories of people being trapped abroad, having to make snap, life-changing decisions, but our move was planned and luckily timed, just before the world closed its doors.”

Earlier this month, President Biden fulfilled the tradition of a new US president recording a welcome address for the swearing in ceremonies of new citizens.

In the video, he recalled the journey his own Irish ancestors made nearly 200-years-ago when they fled the Great Famine that killed an estimated one million, and praised his country as “this great nation of immigrants”.

In the 1min42 second speech, made during a time of racial tension and after four divisive years under President Trump, Mr Biden said: “You all have one thing in common: Courage. The courage it takes to sacrifice and make this journey. The courage to leave your homes, your lives, your loved ones, and come to a nation that is more than just a place but rather an idea. Thank you for choosing us and believing that America is worthy of your aspirations.”

Alice Hutton pictured on the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts, in October 2020, after arriving in the US three days before the border shut in March

One year on from our comic, slip-on-a-banana-skin entry into the United States, our cobbled together life is stabilising .

We found a place to live, adopted a cat, made friends with warm-hearted people who leave plates of cake outside our front door and hosted socially distanced outdoor movie nights in our garden, so that our neighbours could watch safely from their balconies.

Last week I got a WhatsApp call from a friend in a park in south London where I cheered on her baby learning to walk, followed by a Zoom meeting with a Boston community centre where I now volunteer.

Technology has, in many ways, brought some of us closer. Whilst the pandemic cut us off from our usual social habits, and opened us up to new ones, or in fact, old ones.

At the end of last summer, yearning to find our gay community, we signed up for Dykes with Drills; a non-profit building collective who were renovating a dance academy on Cape Ann, outside of Boston, that was in desperate need of repair.

In the sweltering heat, covered in a mask and sun cream, and surrounded - at a distance- by beautiful queers in their dungarees and backwards caps, I felt revived and ready to learn how to operate power tools in 35C.

Afterwards, as the sun dipped, I stepped into the field behind the barn, enjoying the breeze on my face. A woman called ‘Bucket’ reached a hand into the pocket of my jumpsuit and deposited an ice-cold beer.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments