From Italy to Libya, and the world, with love

An aid worker’s letter from coronavirus-stricken Italy.

A man plays guitar from his balcony in Turin, Italy
A man plays guitar from his balcony in Turin, Italy, during a 13 March 2020 flash mob organised to bring people across the country together. (Nicolò Campo/Sipa USA via Reuters)

Two weeks ago, I flew from the epicentre of one crisis to another, in my pajama top, praying the plane would take off and I would make it to my family. 

I’m Italian, grew up in the United States, and have lived in Tunisia for the past four years. I work for an aid agency that supports Libya, where fighting is forcing people to flee their homes, and more and more people rely on international assistance to get by.

Like many aid workers, I’ve been running away from home – in my case it’s Italy – most of my life, but when the prime minister announced a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, I got the last flight out of Tunis, with no time to change clothes.

I just wanted to get to my aunt, the fierce and infinitely gentle woman who raised me, and who still smacks sense into me when I do something silly (which is often). She is 94 years old. I don’t need to tell you what that means in terms of COVID-19; how vulnerable that makes her.

I made it to Rome but couldn’t get close for fear of exposing her; but it was a relief to see that she was there, and she was alright, and she was asking why I was wearing my pajama top. The world was falling apart around me, but I was home.

Not everyone gets to be with their loved ones. What about the people who never get to have a home, who live day to day fleeing conflict or poverty?

As I work through the lockdown, and the organisation I work for prepares its staff and the people we serve in Libya for the impact of COVID-19, all of this has changed how I notice the disease’s effects closer to home.

I see, even in an outing to buy food, people being either incredibly kind or completely dismissive of others. Much like war (as my aunt, who lived through World War II, tells me), this virus has brought out a dichotomy in how people treat each other, and in how we feel. A day in lockdown swings like a pendulum between frustration, gratefulness, anger, and, for many, a new social, political, international awareness.

Here’s where the opportunity comes in. On the humanitarian side, needs will rise; but perhaps for the first time, at least in the case of COVID-19, the same needs will be on the upsurge for everyone, with no social distinction.

“What about people across the world who are treated like they are virulent and unwanted all the time, not just when a virus is spreading and tagged as ‘belonging’ to their country?”

Borders mean nothing to this virus, so perhaps it’s time too that we define ourselves by them less. We can push past that initial urge to protect only that which immediately surrounds us, and apply that feeling outwards so that this renewed sense of identity we’re feeling now encompasses everyone. 

I understand why some people are turning inwards right now. At first, my aunt’s age made me feel the same, and vulnerability almost always brings along its friend: fear. There’s an urge to stop thinking clearly, and just protect what you fear losing the most.

But I get to choose how I respond right now, and so does the rest of the world. We can choose whether we disregard the pleas for everyone to stay home, or if, instead, we work together to beat this virus; whether we send medical supplies and assistance where they are needed; whether we want to be the kind of society that shields its vulnerable and embraces that we are all, truly, inextricably linked; whether this will make us kinder.

When COVID-19 was still a faraway thing, I came back to Rome for the weekend. Everybody was talking about the virus from China. Lips curled and sneered. The shops owned by Chinese immigrants dotting all the neighbourhoods quietly began to close, because nobody was going anymore.

A few weeks later, when the “them” became an “us”, I was suddenly part of a country that was treated like it was tainted. “This is ridiculous,” I thought to myself, outraged. “It’s not like this virus is Italy’s fault!” I inhaled the news, and grew angry. And then I realised, “this is what it feels like”. What about people across the world who are treated like they are virulent and unwanted all the time, not just when a virus is spreading and tagged as “belonging” to their country?

As a global community, when we eventually see the back of COVID-19, will we remember what it was like to feel unwanted? Will it change how we treat each other, first from day to day, and then from country to country? Will it affect how we view people who have to run away from something?

In the end, it was China who sent more than 30 metric tonnes of emergency supplies and a nine-member aid team to help us contain the outbreak. When emergencies crop up, whether thrown at us from nature or man-made, will we make the connection in our minds that there is no such thing as them versus us?

“When we can open our doors again, I hope we make space for all the world’s colours.”

All of this may seem simplistic, and it is not a call to a utopian reality. But we are an intelligent, brave world when we put our minds to it, and we can love our neighbourhoods and nations vehemently and still remember that it serves us all better to respond as an interconnected whole.

Living in lockdown has brought out a fierce love of home in me. When I can go to a football game again, I’ll do something I’ve never done before: I will paint Italy’s green, white, red, on my cheek, right where we’ll all kiss each other in greeting again. But I will also fill in the colours of Tunisia, Libya, and the stars and stripes of the USA. These are the places I love, that come with me, tucked in my heart wherever I go. When we can open our doors again, I hope we make space for all the world’s colours.

Here in Italy, people are writing a phrase everywhere – on little cards in people’s mailboxes, on bedsheets to hang outside their balconies, and as hashtags – that I hope is true: “Andrà tutto bene. All will be well.”

From Rome, with love,

Flavia

Share this article

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Donate