It was Jan. 10. I had returned to America from Italy.
The smells and sounds of long flight travel on my clothes and in my head. Oh good, the bags are here. Cold air on my face reminded me of where I was now. A sense of relief for having reached the end of the busy Christmas season. Here we go again, back to reality in Fort Wayne where I have lived for 15 years. Why is it that I can feel at home in two far-apart places – Mira (Venice, Italy) and Fort Wayne?
I left the airport exhausted, holding my little kids tight. Little did I know this was going to be my last trip visiting Italy before the pandemic outbreak.
In the past 15 years, I have traveled to Italy as often as I could, witnessed tornado aftermaths in my town, celebrated weddings, and the joys and sorrows of family life overseas. Nothing prepared me for the pandemic emergency.
After the first news about the coronavirus in China, the world's attention pointed to Italy next as an epicenter. My worries started piling up.
My parents are approaching 80 years old. Travel limitations are unclear. The pandemic has caused severe economic distress in a country, Italy, which had struggled to recover from the 2008 economic crisis. The lockdown.
During the pandemic outbreak in Italy, I lost a person I knew. Samar was her name.
Samar was a family doctor and our neighbor. I used to babysit for her kids. She was the 100th doctor to die of COVD-19 in Italy – she unwillingly made national news because of that. She was also a mother, a neighbor, a woman, a Syrian immigrant and a Muslim. In addition, she raised two kids who are doctors.
Watching the Italian crisis unfold from Fort Wayne, I have felt helpless – not being able to do anything to help my Italian relatives. During this entire time, from January until now, I have divided my attention and preoccupations between two countries.
I will keep with me forever some of the images of this pandemic in Italy: military trucks full of corpses, people singing at their balcony, the announcements of the rising number of deaths.
The crisis in Italy has definitely saddened me. Yet I have also felt a sense of patriotic unity.
Here in the U.S., I am director of Amani Family Services; I work with immigrant and refugee families in Allen County and advocate here for attention toward the needs of minorities.
I soon started wearing a mask and distanced myself from groups (I thought, after Italy, this is our turn to safeguard ourselves from similar tragic events).
The U.S. and Fort Wayne have lived this pandemic in different ways from Italy. Public disagreement over the use of masks has delayed a unified and inclusive response. The noise of dissent distracted us from working together – particularly to protect vulnerable populations.
Moreover, our emergency response systems lacked the full ability to help prevent and intervene when the pandemic hit many immigrants and refugees locally. While the crisis has brought some of us public advocates closer together, communication in relation to underserved populations has been partially effective.
The events of this year have the weight of history. I invite the public to take this event as an opportunity to focus on unity and coordination to provide emergency response to everyone, starting with the most vulnerable minority and limited-English proficient residents.
Irene Paxia was born and raised in Italy. She is executive director of Amani Family Services, a nonprofit organization serving immigrant and refugee families in Allen County to promote safety, encourage personal growth, and foster a spirit of belonging.