From a war zone to COVID-19: Interview with Syrian playwright and artist Nour Barakeh
Nour Barakeh is an artist and pharmacist who fled her native Syria in late 2017. Based in Austria, she works as a playwright and public speaker with a focus on migration and conflict as well as youth and female empowerment. In a recent interview, she shares tips for coping with crises.
Nour, you experienced the Syrian war firsthand and now are dealing with the COVID-19 shutdown in Austria. Have there been any personal connections for you between these events?
I have experienced a lot of similarities. I have seen empty streets here patrolled by police and been reminded of the deserted streets in Damascus during bombing raids. Everyone isolating in their regions; news that gets more frightening every day.
For some of us of a refugee background, it’s like ‘Oh my God, I am part of a big historical crisis again,’ so it brings back traumatic feelings.
At the core, both the Syrian conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic come down to disaster imposed upon the public. And at some point you find yourself out of choices: This is where you are, in the middle of a crisis that you didn’t initiate, and you don’t want to feel this way but regardless, you are forced to be part of something much bigger than you, and it’s scary and dangerous.
Of course, COVID-19 is fundamentally very different from what we have endured in the Syrian conflict. But there are connections in the emotional impact on the general population.
Today’s events bring back feelings of trauma. Ironically though, having lived in a war zone, I realize that I am somewhat trained to deal with this pandemic situation.
What are some of the psychological challenges that you experienced during the war and that you have also seen during this COVID-19 crisis? And what coping mechanisms have you found that transcend both situations?
The main psychological challenge is fear. It seems that fear is all that we have right now. It’s in our homes and in the streets. And when fear is combined with isolation, being separated from many of the people we love, it just gets worse.
Of course, that is exactly what we have also experienced during the Syrian war. The level of fear has changed gradually from phase to phase of the conflict, but fear itself has always been there.
In Syria, it has been the long-term realization that death is everywhere. Every single moment you can expect to be exposed to death or to lose loved ones.
We also have long-term experience with communicating mainly virtually with family and loved ones — actually, that has been the reality of Syrians for many years. Those of us who escaped the war are scattered across the world. As a result, our families are separated, and we have not been able to see each other in person for many, many years. Those of us abroad suffer knowing that our loved ones are still in a war zone fighting for life each day.
But there are coping mechanisms. For example, it helps to understand how connected we are globally: how something happening on a different continent can impact all of our lives and in some aspects literally overnight.
There is strength in understanding that there are positive situations for us to use this connectivity.
For example, in this COVID-19 crisis, you may lose your job, you may be sick, you may not be sure how to pay your rent, but you are not alone. Ultimately, you are part of a collective situation, and there should be solutions that include you.
Just to feel the connection to something bigger and to understand that you alone do not have this problem are important in releasing fear. It can give you the energy to calm yourself while opening new perspectives for proactivity in finding solutions.
The fear you describe seems strongly connected to uncertainty. Can you talk about that link and related strategies for personal empowerment?
Absolutely. In today’s uncertain environment, you just don’t know what the future will look like — from all sides. It isn’t only about life or death; it’s way beyond that.
We can predict that financial crises will come at the end of this COVID-19 pandemic. Our jobs, our whole planned lives can just disappear. That uncertainty is so difficult to bear.
The same dynamic has also been a huge part of many people’s experience during the Syrian conflict. From day to day, you have nothing to pin your hopes on. It’s impossible to think about the future in any sweet way.
Even if parts of daily life before the war were difficult, at least life itself looked stable. But every single day after the conflict started, we have known that life will never be the same again.
Fear comes from the uncertainty when nothing is guaranteed, nothing is constant. For many people, having a plan, a clear vision for the future is very important. And suddenly it happens that the only plan you have is to continue coping with the change.
But as much as that doesn’t feel like a plan, it actually is a real plan.
It is about taking things one day at a time, because we can’t predict the future. Living in the moment.
There are millions of theories to foresee how the future years or decades will be after the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, but the only thing we can control is how we cope with every single day right now. And to have each day as the unit of the future.
I know that sounds cliché but it is real… that’s how you can deal with the crisis of discovering that having a stable life is not the only reality, the only truth.
There is a loss of innocence in that discovery — along with a clear challenge to concepts such as trust and identity. How do you handle that?
In my experience, times like these present big questions around fairness, choice, freedom… Who is responsible for this situation? Is it me, my community, the government of my country? Who should I rely on, who should I believe in?
These are really, really difficult questions.
Regarding both the Syrian conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic, we spend a lot of time listening to news but don’t know what information is actually true. People seek the truth but never really know what to believe, who to trust. That leads to feelings of powerlessness.
In times like these, when you can’t trust many parts of the outside world, I believe that you need to start from the inside. Just coming back to your specific situation and what is going to happen afterwards for you — that is totally fair and totally normal.
The downside of turning inwards, however, is to feel alone. Feeling that you are the only responsible person, the only one to blame.
In short, it’s important to find a balance between trust and identity: bring the steering wheel back into your hands but within a broader context.
That process is not only about being in personal survival mode from day to day but also about tapping into collective energy. Even if you think only about your specific situation and try to find a plan for your future, you will also have to incorporate the perspective of other people.
It’s about finding synergies between your personal situation and the societal big picture.
That way, the solution that you get is not given. It’s taken.
You have so much wisdom around building resilience in situations of crisis. What advice would you give to a person with less experience who is really struggling emotionally right now?
First, understand that it is fine to have those feelings; it is fine to let them happen. It is important as much as it is difficult to feel scared, sad, grieving… whatever. That is normal in situations like this when we do not know what will happen.
We often lose faith when we feel like we don’t have the ability to change situations. But in my experience, thinking of people from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of approaches, I have seen that the desire to survive combines with our personal unfolding energy to create new possibilities.
For example, before the war in Syria, we didn’t know about a lot of our coping abilities until it was necessary to use them. Just believe that your own coping skills are there, and that you will be able to use them at the exact needed point.
All of us have faced serious times of one kind or another. So, when you have those uncertainty feelings, just realize that you have survived all of that and you will also survive this.
Maybe that seems self-evident, but on a personal level it can be new to discover.
Have you experimented with any new coping strategies during this COVID-19 lockdown?
Yes, I have! I used to enjoy drawing but haven’t done it for years. A few weeks ago, I started again, but with a new approach: just expressing myself without any judgment of the outcome. Slowing down to draw at my natural rhythm, exploring my feelings in the process.
I’ve discovered that with even very limited material, just paper and pencils, it is possible to rebound and rediscover creativity.
I believe that during these difficult times, the universe is unfolding inside each of us.
We can’t go out, but we can go in.