On the Front Lines

May 27, 2020

Article by Robert Carroll


In this month's feature, read how twin sisters from Iran went from religious refugees who couldn't speak English to important front line workers in the fight against COVID-19. Click here for COVID-19 resources in over 20 languages, or click here to learn what items you can donate to help families in need during this time.


Sona Barichi can’t hug her young son when she gets home from work even though he cries for her and doesn’t understand. She has to take a shower first. She keeps her clothes and shoes in the garage until they’ve aired out for at least twenty-four hours, and then she washes them separately from her family’s laundry to prevent contamination. After she is convinced that she no longer carries any germs from her long shift at work, she can finally greet her family. She can finally hug her son.

Sona must take these precautions because she is a respiratory therapist at Delnor Hospital in Geneva who continues to work every day with COVID-19 patients. Her twin sister, Hana, works as a phlebotomist for Elmhurst Hospital, and she, too, is taking care of COVID-19 patients daily. Both sisters, they tell me, are doing their absolute best to help every single person that comes in through their hospital’s door, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. As religious refugees from Iran, they know all too well what it feels like to be shoved aside, to be forgotten, to be refused. They also know what it feels like to be in danger.

“We are not Muslim, so it was hard. We have to take a lot of caution over there [Iran]. My uncle’s shop was recently robbed at gunpoint because he is not Muslim. And the government never helps over there. Every day, people are going hungry. People sell their kidneys just to eat. It’s a bad situation. It’s bad.”

Hana and Sona arrived in the United States on August 16, 2006. They were resettled by Catholic Charities, and soon after, connected with World Relief for help securing their first jobs as factory workers for Home Depot. But despite their good work performance and a praise from their supervisor, the sisters were eventually fired because neither spoke English well enough.

“Our supervisor liked our work,” says Sona, “But we couldn’t pass our English test and he had to let us go.”

That’s when Kara, a World Relief volunteer and friend to the sisters, decided to help out.

“Kara was a big reason I learned English,” says Sona.

Hana and Sona enrolled in English language classes in the Chicago suburbs. Hana’s husband, an American, helped her learn English, while Kara kept studying with Sona. Much of Sona’s English language training came from reading the Bible.

“We were working days and nights to learn English,” says Sona. “I was sleeping 2-3 hours a day just so I could have enough time to improve my English.”

After years of hard work, Sona and Hana were able to learn English and return to school to pursue their dream of working in the medical field.

“Our dad’s side of the family were all in the medical field,” Hana explains. “My dad was a surgical assistant. He inspired me to be in medicine.”

Sona agrees.

In 2014, Sona graduated from school and was immediately employed by Delnor. In 2015, Hana graduated and was hired by Elmhurst.

“It was always a dream to work in a hospital, and to help,” says Sona. “I see the sickest people get better and go home to live their life. That’s what I love about my job.”

“I feel like I’m here to help every person,” says Hana. “It doesn’t bother me anymore that some people look at me different because of my nationality or my accent, I’m there to help everyone no matter what. It makes me happy to come to work every day. It makes me so happy to help people.”

But now with COVID-19 taking its toll on the world, both sisters are once again faced with a grim reminder of the dangerous life they had fled. Both sisters deal exclusively with COVID-19 patients.

“I haven’t seen my family, my mom, or my sister,” says Hana. “Work is now very stressful. I do not want to get close to people. Every day, I see someone die. That really affects you. Just the other day, I was taking a COVID-19 patient’s blood, and ten minutes after I finished, he went into cardiac arrest and died.”

“It’s definitely scary,” says Sona. “People are very sick. Many are on oxygen. They need a good two months or more to recover. One of our first COVID-19 patients just recently recovered after forty-four days in the hospital. I’ve seen people recover after a month on oxygen, but they’re still too sick to be released from the hospital.”

“People need to stay home,” she continues. “They have to stay protected. Wash your hands. Use soap and warm water. Wipe down groceries. Empty boxes. Since grocery stores are not selling wipes anymore—they are keeping them for themselves—mix water with a tiny bit of dish soap and a tiny bit of bleach. I believe in bleach because that is all that we are allowed to use in the hospital. We are not allowed to use wipes.”

Not only do the sisters courageously help people in the United States, they also continue to help others back home in Iran as well.

“We send $100 back home to Iran every month,” says Sona. “We donate money to women who are not working due to the virus and who have children. Women are not as respected as men, and they do get jobs even in good times. They are not safe.”

Hana, meanwhile, continues to champion for the rights of her countrymen here in the United States.

“There are lots of language barrier problems with this virus,” she explains. “I know the language barrier is the biggest problem for many of them [COVID-19 patients]. My hospital had translator lines, but there wasn’t a line for Farsi. Farsi is the native language of Iran. So, I spoke my mind to the hospital administration and a line for Farsi was added.”

When asked what World Relief could do to help, Hana responds with an answer not related to COVID-19.

“More free English classes. More GED classes. It’s hard to get those classes even if you’re willing to work extra hours. Make more classes available for refugees. With more of these classes available, refugees are more likely to be a success. Their success will then motivate others who are happy to see the example.”

Hana and Sona have set quite the example themselves. Refugee or not, we can all be inspired by their work, their dedication, and their compassion for others.

“I’m not stopping here, though,” says Hana. “After the virus, I’m going to go back to school to become a registered nurse.”


Author

This article was written by Robert Carroll, Communications Manager for World Relief.
To contact the author, email him at rcarroll@wr.org.