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Jonathan Amissa, who owns a medical transport business, poses with a stretcher in front of one of his vans. He is wearing bright blue scrubs.
World Refugee Day

Meet the refugees keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic

When you’ve been without a place to call home, you work to give others safety.

Photo: Angie Smith/IRC

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, refugees who were forced to seek protection from war and persecution have stepped up to protect others. In the countries they now call home, they have volunteered to make masks, sew scrubs and support women who face an increased risk of violence as a result of this crisis. Because when you’ve been without a place to call home, you work to give others safety.

Meet some of the refugees helping to keep their communities safe during the coronavirus.

We are refugees but we also have potential and goals.
Jonathan Amissa sits at the desk where he sews masks. There is a white sewing machine and a stack of masks on the desk.

“For me, this is not a moment where you want to make money.” says Jonathan. “It's a volunteer thing, helping our community be safe.”

Photo: Angie Smith/IRC

Jonathan 

Refugee. Mask Maker. Front-line Worker.

“I want the world to know that even with the pain and the struggle, and with the obstacles we’ve been through, we can still be part of a community that welcomes us. We are refugees but we also have potential and goals.” 

Jonathan Amissa had been a business owner for barely two months when COVID-19 hit his community of Boise, Idaho. A refugee from Cameroon and a certified EMT, he runs a medical transport business that takes elderly and disabled customers to and from critical medical appointments. Jonathan and his drivers need protective gear to do their job safely. But in the early days of the pandemic, it was hard to come by. 

Luckily, Jonathan was able to improvise. Using sewing skills he had developed while tailoring used clothes in Cameroon, he made masks and other supplies for his team. He then distributed them to his community, including to other refugees with front-line jobs—all for free.  

“For me, this is not a moment where you want to make money.” says Jonathan. “It's a volunteer thing, helping our community be safe.”

Jonathan embraces his life in Boise even as he sees ways in which his new country needs to change.

“I’ve been thinking the reason [for the Black Lives Matter protests] is that we are not at the place we need to be. If you look at certain industries, like emergency services for example, you hardly see people who look like me.” he says of his experience in Boise. “People want to be treated with respect and dignity.”

Above all, Jonathan believes in the power of giving back. 

“The way to be is to love the people that you love, take care of your neighbors, and take care of your community.”

Refugees and asylum seekers are a big group of people with dreams and hopes, and one goal: we come with the goal of helping the country that opens its doors to us and our families.

“When people couldn’t find masks, I started to make a product that could help protect everyone,” says Lincy Sopall.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Lincy

Asylum Seeker. Mask Maker. Trailblazer.

As a transgender woman in Honduras, Lincy Sopall faced abuse, violence and persecution. After a dangerous journey through Mexico and several months in U.S. immigration detention, she was granted asylum in 2018 and now lives in Phoenix, Ariz. 

Before the coronavirus, Lincy was growing her fashion business—fulfilling a dream that dates back to her first clothing designs when she was just 9 years old. While the pandemic has made it difficult to reach customers, Lincy has improvised and pivoted to making the masks her friends and neighbors need to stay safe. 

“When people couldn’t find masks, I started to make a product that could help protect everyone,” she says. “Because people have to go out to do daily errands, protection is necessary.

“I know what we’re going through right now hasn’t been like any other illnesses. The most important thing is knowing that … we can keep on fighting. When you feel like you’re at the edge, you can share your own experiences with others. Then people can say, ‘If she can, I can.’

"Refugees and asylum seekers are a big group of people with dreams and hopes and one goal: we come with the goal of helping the country that opens its doors to us and our families."

I felt the unity of the world at war against this pandemic and I wanted to be a part of that.

“My response to the pandemic was a normal human response, to help my community through this crisis," says Ammar.

Photo: Apotolis Nikolaidis/IRC

Ammar 

Refugee. Mask Maker. Protector.

In 2015, Ammar’s* small town in Syria was overrun by ISIS. After initially making his way to Turkey, where he worked as a chef, Ammar crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece. He spent 10 months living in a camp on Chios island before moving to Athens, where he now volunteers to keep people safe and fed during the pandemic.

“I learned to cook in Istanbul; now I’m cooking 2,000 meals for vulnerable people who can’t afford to eat,” he says. “Daily, we’re producing masks and delivering them—some to hospitals, others to the refugee camps, and also to the community in Athens. 

“My response to the pandemic was a normal human response, to help my community through this crisis. I felt the unity of the world at war against this pandemic and I wanted to be a part of that. I found an organization making masks and another one cooking for the homeless. It’s been an honor to support society at this time.

“This World Refugee Day, I want people to know that refugees are useful people. They are not a threat. The only difference between refugees and other people is that we had to leave our home countries.”

We remember what this country did for us, now we want to return the favor. When the pandemic first happened, I kept thinking: how can I help the National Health Service?

"I feel so happy to be making scrubs for the doctors, they’re the soldiers in this war," says Jehad.

Photo: IRC

Jehad 

Refugee. Scrubs Maker. Health Champion.

When Jehad* was a tailor in his home country of Syria, his favorite thing to make was a three-piece suit, complete with bow tie. In 2013, Jehad and his wife Gina had to leave their life in Aleppo behind. Relentless bombing meant their city had become a ghost town. Now living in safety in Preston, UK, he’s turned his talents to a simpler garment: scrubs for healthcare workers. When local hospitals put a call out for more scrubs and face masks, Jehad rose to the challenge and volunteered his time for free. With a team of 300 volunteers helping to sew, Jehad has now made thousands of face masks and scrubs for the National Health Service.

“You know, it’s my honor to give back. Before COVID-19 I opened my shop from Monday to Saturday, 9am till 6pm. But since I’ve been volunteering, it’s 8am till 9 at night. We’re a part of this country—when the country suffers, we suffer—so we want to fight this pandemic with everyone else. I feel so happy to be making scrubs for the doctors, they’re the soldiers in this war.”

My husband’s always telling me to rest. I tell him, helping people who need me is how I get my rest—how can I not help those who need me?
Mariam gives a thumbs up. She is wearing a grey coat.

"I love doing charity work—helping Lebanese and Syrians—we are one family," says Mariam.

Photo: Elias El Beam/IRC

Mariam

Refugee. Community Educator. Women’s Rights Advocate.

“My husband’s always telling me to rest. I tell him, helping people who need me is how I get my rest—how can I not help those who need me?”

When Mariam*, a trained nurse, left Syria eight years ago, the bombs were falling every day. One smashed into the family’s kitchen while her daughter was making tea, breaking her shoulders. Her husband was also injured when a bomb exploded as he worked in their garden. “His chest was smashed with shrapnel,” Mariam says. 

Mariam and her husband packed up and made the journey to Lebanon. Their escape is still a blur. “How we managed to get to Lebanon? Who drove us? Under what circumstances? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that we made it here. The bombing was continuous above our heads. We fled through mountains, rocks, valleys, but it’s all vague to me.”

Now living in Bekaa, Mariam volunteers for the IRC’s women’s protection and empowerment team. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, she’s been running awareness-raising sessions with children, adolescents and elderly people on how they can stay safe and access medical care during the quarantine. 

“Most of the new generation here have lost their parents, or they live very far away from them,” she says. “I think I help fill that gap a bit. I love doing charity work—helping Lebanese and Syrians—we are one family.

“Some people have not woken up to what refugees and Lebanese people are going through. I ask the world to think not only about refugees, but also about the host communities. Because they are just as exhausted as we are.”

*Last name omitted at the subject's request.