The whole experience of having to return home early by strong recommendation of the State Department from my year of service in Israel is rather puzzling and difficult to put into words. While the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) was (is) worsening and we were starting to see many travel restrictions placed upon our site country in Israel, all of us German and American volunteers collectively and unanimously agreed that we wanted to hunker down and stay together. While the guest center and retreat house for groups with disabilities and pilgrims, Beit Noah, had been shut down indefinitely for (at least) two months, there was still plenty of work to do, enough beer/wine to drink, and board games to play at our home site in Tabgha, Israel. Situated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a magnificently, serene freshwater lake) we felt rather comfortable and calm enjoying the blossoming garden and the coming summer time. We were also looking forward to working outside, doing some gardening, landscaping, and working on some other bigger projects that could not be undertaken while so many guests were around. Additionally, while our families were unable to come for the Easter time celebrations as they all planned to before the blanket travel restrictions, we felt that we had a healthy support system and a kind of “second family” among us volunteers, workers, Monks, and Sisters.
However, our circumstances changed rather drastically after the German Ministry responsible for the safety and operation of all German volunteers abroad announced, albeit rather abruptly, that ALL German volunteers around the world were to return home ASAP. This message caught all of us by complete surprise and left us all feeling shocked, confused, and heartbroken. While relatively isolated at our site, we all had a strong feeling of safety as the famous Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, where we lived, had been closed down to guests, pilgrims, and tour groups (which regularly averaged in the thousands of visitors per day!) and the only people we were to come into contact with either lived at our site or were one of the four employees deemed essential. After the official announcement a day later, the five German volunteers and one Austrian volunteer (monk observer) booked flights back to their homelands while we were all still trying to grapple with the suddenness of our year of service together coming to an end. The next few days were a blur due to the emotional numbness, sadness, and shock we were all dealing with. The other American volunteer and myself were then left with the impossible decision of whether we should stay or not at our site without the 6 other volunteers, remain isolated without a guarantee of safety from our U.S. Embassy, deal with rapidly increasing travel restrictions, and also the strong possibility that commercial flights back to the States would eventually cease altogether in the coming weeks. Thus, it was with a heavy heart and a strong feeling of incompleteness that after only a couple of days after these unforeseen changes that I decided to book my flight back home, with my American colleague following suit thereafter.
My decision to come home was a difficult one that I would not wish upon anyone else. In deciding to come home I put forth my personal well-being, both physically and mentally, over my commitment to completing a year of service abroad as part of the Saint John’s Abbey Benedictine Volunteer Corps (SJBVC). The escalation of the global health Coronavirus pandemic in Israel had quickly led to a situation of heightened xenophobia and racism, specifically towards people of European and Asian descent. Surely, the reasoning behind this can make a bit of sense as the outbreaks had been heavily concentrated to Europe and Eastern Asia and has since spread globally. However, such “black and white” thinking and overt racial/verbal violence is toxic and shows the worst aspects of human nature in response to a GLOBAL health pandemic. How quickly the light-hearted jokes at the locale grocery and general stores shifted into overt xenophobia, nasty looks, and strong sentiment of being unwelcome (regardless of the level of the language barrier and whether the owners were Jewish or Arabic). Understandably, travel restrictions being put into place by governments around the world is well within their prerogative to ensure the safety of their citizens, to reduce the burden on their fragile healthcare infrastructure/hospitals, and to reduce the spread of the virus. That being said, it is unacceptable to blame people based upon their race or appearance for the lack of proper response or inaction of their governments to the pandemic (or in the Chinese Government’s case an outright denial and covering up of the virus). Governments, not the people, who do not act accordingly in response to the pandemic should and will be held accountable for their lack of a proper action to this global pandemic. People should remain vigilant, not expose themselves or others to unnecessary risks, and stay home but cannot be faulted for their race or nationality.
Going through the airport in Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion international airport was eerily out of a horror movie. The normally bustling and vibrant airport was almost empty and the usually packed security lines only took a matter of minutes to bypass. The security questioning from the border/customs Israeli security agent was rather relaxed and kind of a surprise as it seemed that they were more concerned about getting foreigners home than any possibility of encounters with extremist groups. Then I preceded to another more rigorous security checkpoint where security officers checked my bags for any potential weapons, bombs, radiation, and other red flags, the normal routine. After frantically shoving all my belongings back into my bag I then was very careful to not touch any surfaces etc. while making my may towards my gate where my flight was to be taking off. Wearing my mask and some plastic gloves I fit right in with the few fellow passengers that I observed while we waited for our flight to Newark, New Jersey to arrive. It felt rather ironic fleeing from a place that took so many preventive measures to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus into a so-called epicenter of the outbreak being New York City. Nevertheless, the flight was only delayed by an hour, everyone boarded fine, I had found a connecting flight that I could make in time to O’Hare Airport in Chicago, and I had a whole row to myself (silver lining?). Anyway, after about 12 hours in the air and watching Lawrence of Arabia (where I was coming from) and Mad Max: Fury Road (an apocalyptic film that seemed fitting), we landed safely and soundly in Newark. The flight attendants announced when we landed that there would be potential health screenings for the Virus when we arrived and to be prepared for some delays. This did not go over so well with some of the passengers as they demanded that they had connecting flights they absolutely could not miss. Eventually tensions cooled and everyone was scrambling to get where they needed to go and to make their next flight home. Returning through customs was kind of a blur and I encountered some people doing everything they can to help others and some people screaming at others frantically during this process. It all being rather stressful, I kept my head down and cool by clearing my mind of these tensions and focusing on getting home safe and healthy to my family. After a couple of hours, and what seemed like a couple of weeks, of security and customs checkpoints, I finally boarded my flight to Chicago and immediately fell asleep as we took off. Through all the hectic lines, delays, screaming passengers and security officers I had made my flight back and was returning home to be with my family in these unforeseen times.
Having since returned home and as I was recently in the process of self-quarantining for two weeks, I have had much time for reflection on this drastic experience. It truly feels as though the sense of urgency and emergency is that of a war time or another national crisis. Unfortunately for us and for others around the world, we are facing an invisible enemy that inflicts suffering and pain upon us all. It is now more evident than ever before that we are all living in an increasingly globalized world where pandemics and humanitarian crises in foreign countries are to be taken seriously by all governments. We, humans, are all in this together, for better or worse. Now is not the time to blame others for the Coronavirus but instead to band together with other countries across the globe to prevent further loss of life, to support our dearly beloved medical professionals on the front-lines of this invisible war, and to listen and heed with extreme caution the recommendations of our respective health, state, and Federal Government authorities. While certain people who are either asymptomatic, without preexisting conditions, or simply with better immune systems are not at such an extraordinary risk, disregarding safety precautions put forth by government authorities is irresponsible and risks the lives of those less able to fend off the virus. The onus is on all of us to pull through this pandemic by listening and heading public health guidelines. We must put forth the collective safety and well-being of all Americans and people worldwide over the needs and wants of the individual. We can and will get through this pandemic but first we need to put aside our differences whether it be racially, politically, geographically, etc. and recognize the severity of the situation. Millions of lives in our own country and millions more abroad are at significant risk and partisan bickering and juvenile xenophobic actions/rhetoric won’t help save any lives. Joining together, following government health guidelines, staying home, volunteering to help those most in need, and putting aside our differences for the sake of humanity is the only proper response that will save lives and restore our way of life to normalcy after this pandemic.
Originally published here.