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Coping with uncertainty: Insights from the real experts

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‘Our world changed overnight.” This sentiment has been expressed countless times since the birth of humanity: throughout the Irish famine of the 1840s, during the horror of World War II, during the Rwandan genocide of 2004, after the earthquake in Haiti of 2010, in the midst of the continuing nightmare of Syria. The list of natural disasters, human atrocities and pandemics seems endless.

Our world again has changed overnight. It is a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty as our lives have been upended by the global pandemic of COVID-19. We do not know what the next day will bring, who will get infected, how long we will need to be in sheltered in place or when life will return to what we once knew.

The whirlwind of emotions is palpable: anxiety, suspicion, worry, nervousness, irritability and fear. How does one cope? Where does one find strength?

For a brilliant lesson on how to be resilient in a time of profound uncertainty and danger, look at the true experts: refugees who wander the earth looking for a safe haven. The refugee lacks basic necessities, has no leader in whom to trust, feels alone in his or her struggle, must leave the past behind and look to the future with hope.

In 2004, my world changed in my first visit to refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa. I have had the privilege of meeting many refugees, from all parts of world, over the years during many other visits to their camps, and through my teaching and writing.

“Our world changed overnight,” is how Leon Rajninger described his world as a 9-year-old boy after the Russian invasion of his Romanian village on June 13, 1940. “The next day was the first time we had to stand in line for a loaf of bread.” After an excruciating ordeal of survival, he and parents spent two and half years in a small hut in a small Ukrainian town.

“Life really changed on Christmas Day in 1998. After the singing and dancing, the preacher was about to come and preach and we heard this buzzing noise outside.” The bombs fell that day in Wilita Sanguma’s village in the Congo sending him and his family on a perilous journey of survival.

Deng Jongkuch spent a year walking over a thousand miles with thousands of other “Lost Boy” in Sudan. “There was nothing in your mind except, how can I survive today? There was no end in sight. All I can think about was to keep walking. Otherwise I die.”

Leon, Wilita and Deng are survivors of war, displacement, and man’s inhumanity and cruelty to other human beings. Of course, radically different from a pandemic, their experiences raise the same challenges. How did they manage to go on? They kept going one day at a time, with some vision that there might be a better future., They possessed an inner resilience. They had perspective and hope. They looked to the future. They were determined, optimistic people who did not dwell on all that was wrong but looked at the good that was possible.

Leon recalls how he survived: “I keep going because of my drive to live. It is a daily task how to live this day forward. The people who stopped moving did not survive. My strength has always been my family.”

Wilita reflects on his past as he now goes through the challenge of the pandemic: “During a time of crisis, often our thinking shifts to self-preservation, undermining the fact that we are co-dependent. It was not until after years of reflection, after that Christmas Day, that I realized an important truth: we need each other. The power of community, the understanding that I am not alone, continues to drive my conviction to persevere through any challenge.”

Refugees are experts on survival and provide us with invaluable insights. Get through this day. Maintain perspective. Realize our deep connection to each other. Live in a manner that is meaningful. Have hope. Anchor yourself in the love of family and friends. Hold on to your vision of the future.

Life will return to a “new” normal, yet the memories of the pandemic will linger. Each of us has to personally respond to the question, will I emerge from this, with insights and strength, ready to embrace life more fully?

Lee Bycel is sheltered in place and is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom. He is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at USF and the author of “Refugees in America: Stories of Resilience, Courage and Hope” (Rutgers Press, 2019).

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