The Value of Community During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Joan Dawber, SC
It is springtime. I look out of my window and see the beauty of a flowering pear in full bloom. Each day I go for a solitary walk and I end the walk by picking daffodils from our front garden to spread the joy of new life indoors.
I live in New York in the epicenter of the coronavirus in the USA. I find myself constantly praying for the women survivors of human trafficking who reside in the safe houses of LifeWay Network here in New York City. Over 104 women from 38 countries have sought safety in our housing program over the past nine years, and have lived with women religious who form the core community. The sisters, too, have been in my prayers and I recently contacted them to see how they are and how this virus is affecting life inside the safe houses.
At this time with the directives from the CDC to shelter in place, even those of us with good coping skills and stress reduction practices can find it most difficult to work with such uncertainty on so many levels. Given this fact, I wanted to understand how the coronavirus has changed the safe house living situation and how they are all coping. Here are a few responses from my phone conversations with the sisters in the core communities.
Overall as with any household, CDC precautions have been put into place such as additional cleaning and sanitizing protocols, quarantine procedure in case of illness, frequent hand washing and daily temperature monitoring. However, social distancing means that the usual supports are not in place for all who live in the house. It is much more difficult to run the house as a healing community with the suspension of all volunteer assistance, external programming and changes in staffing. The living situation can become tense.
At every stage of recovery, women survivors are working on meeting their own needs and focused on their own issues. With recent changes in the living situation due to the virus, they begin to experience vulnerability and so some of their behavior can deteriorate into more of an individual survival mode. This means they do not know how their behavior affects others with whom they live. Moreover, staying inside adds stress. It is extremely difficult for some of the survivors not to be able to go out of the house to their jobs and in some cases it re-traumatizes them – they feel captive.
A major impact on LifeWay residents and alumnae is actual job loss. This has an adverse financial impact and exacerbates the stress they already experience, causing serious setback for those who are working so hard to rebuild their lives. The Sisters in the safe houses, while dealing with their own emotions around the Coronavirus, strive to stay grounded, open and non-judgmental in response to dysfunctional behaviors.
In my conversation with the core community members I see they are working to keep balance in the houses, using ordinary processes to help ground the women survivors. One safe house found that following a routine each day helps to normalize the situation even amidst the uncertainty. In another, going out for walks while staying close to the house helps them not to feel house bound and helps disburse negative emotions physically.
In another house they are able to take care of the vegetable gardens that are beginning to grow and need attention. One survivor loves to cook and finds joy in cooking for others – it gives her a sense of purpose and creative outlet. Others have learned to put together jigsaw puzzles and find themselves absorbed in this task and peaceful. Another survivor has taken on the role of tutor and is assisting a newly arrived resident to practice her English. Each of the houses mentioned that eating together while observing social distance brings a sense of connection. Being able to do things together is the key – giving each other a sense of purpose.
Community is the still the lynchpin of the LifeWay Network safe housing program. Everyone works together to accompany women survivors as they move from trauma, isolation, and fear to regain their sense of self-worth, and reclaim their freedom.
Even in a pandemic, our major focus remains being together as community so that all will know they are not alone even in the most difficult of times.
Sister Joan Dawber, SC, is a member of the USCSAHT Board and the Founder of LifeWay Network in New York City.