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Managing the trauma of exile

Sandee Bengochea shares with Catholic News her experience of being stranded in St Vincent and the Grenadines away from her family due to the closure of borders from the COVID-19 lockdown.

Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken; I don’t see anything objectively” begins Louise Glück’s in her poem ‘The Untrustworthy Speaker’.

It is difficult to pen this without emotions.

So much has been written about the #triniinexile that I risk being accused of plagiarising as I write. The stories have all been told, from Trini families living in airports, to Trini babies drinking sugar water to survive, diabetics and cancer patients without medicine. Trinis grieving for their loved ones and Trinis begging for a lodging. Job loss and homes lost. I could go on, perhaps, some might describe, ‘ad nauseam’,  or some, as Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror!”

I have been out of Trinidad since March, my first six months in London and then in St Vincent, under the care and protection of the Catholic diocese.

I am in a liminal space.  In a situation where although my physicality feels safe, my mind engages in an ongoing state of ‘shadowboxing’ with emotions and noble, and sometimes not so noble intent.

I begin with the sacrifice. In the beginning it all made sense.  I was on the outside where the pandemic was raging and so protecting my beloved family back home, and by extension my countrymen was paramount. But then I began to question the context, as the pandemic raged at home, entering into the phase of community spread, I began to feel that we on the outside were like forgotten soldiers in a useless war.  But that story is for another time.

The deepest pain I have felt is when someone who I consider a friend remarked “Allyuh have to stay out there. Allyuh bringing in de COVID”.  Trini humour perhaps, but it cuts like a sword to the heart.  This is not a story about statistics and facts, it is about the emotions and pain of being on the outside.

You experience feelings of rejection, of a lack of compassion by those that you thought would understand. Even during the prayers of the faithful during broadcast Masses you hope to hear someone pray for the Trinis in exile, but I have never heard it mentioned.

Physically, I have always felt safe, but emotionally and spiritually it has been turbulent. The fear of never seeing my family again was real.  Suppose I contracted the disease?  Suppose I lose a family member?  These fears are many persons’ realities during the pandemic.  I had nightmares about the black plague and world wars when families were separated forever.  Waking up at nights with my heart racing and beads of sweat, experiencing panic attacks and self-medicating in the darkness of my room. Calling my husband hysterically insisting that he close the office and go home immediately despite his being alone there. Staring at my face now with permanent dark circles under my eyes.   Was I going to be the protagonist in one of those dark stories that make the history books?

As time passes, the human person learns to adjust to their new reality.  And so you begin to fear that you are being edited out of the story.  They have become used to your absence. Have you become a memory? The friend calls started getting fewer and fewer as you try to adjust to your own situation.

In John’s Gospel we read about the disciples on the boat with the sea raging, and they became afraid, and then they looked up and saw Jesus and He said “It is I. Do not be afraid”.

I have met Jesus in the gentleness of Maritza who journeyed with me from the start, filling in for my absence both at work and at home, while constantly lobbying for my return.

I saw His face in Bishop Gerard County who welcomed me into his community.  A warm well-lit spot where I felt safe and loved. Leaving there was a bittersweet moment.

There were friends who would message me almost daily with words of love and comfort:

my parish priest, Fr Matthew who keep in constant contact, my prayer group, Sister Ruth, and so many more of my spiritual family.

My fellow ‘Trinis in Exile’ who keep in constant contact with words of hope and consolation, Jesus was always there.

My story cannot end without mentioning Alba.  To gaze into the face of my granddaughter makes it all worthwhile.  Love makes you foolish and I would be a fool all over again to be with my daughter in London as she went through an extremely traumatic delivery to bring a child into the world at this time.  It is the decision that can only be understood by one who has loved and lost. A mother’s love is stronger than her fear of death.

As my story ends, my journey continues. I am now in Barbados, thanks to the love and caring of Fr Anton Dick CSSp and another beautiful Catholic family who have welcomed me into their home.

I continue to strive to treat the tragedy of my exile as my backstory and learn to be resilient as I manage my internal trauma.

Update: Sandee returned to Trinidad on October 16 and went into quarantine for the stipulated timeframe.