In my work at World Relief, I am constantly reminded of the strength and resilience found in people who have faced great hardship to not only come to the United States, but also to rebuild their lives here.
Now, with a worldwide health crisis and a national reckoning of racial injustice, many refugees and immigrants must once again stand firm in the face of struggle and find power in their resilience.
Take for example, the story of twin sisters, Sona and Hana Barichi, who are not only standing strong for themselves and their families but are working hard every day to provide care for their entire communities as the country continues to struggle with COVID-19.
Sona can’t hug her young son when she gets home from work even though he cries for her and doesn’t understand why. First, she has to take a shower. She leaves her work clothes and shoes in the garage until they’ve aired out for at least 24 hours, and then she washes them separately from her family’s laundry to prevent contamination. She takes these precautions because she is a respiratory therapist at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, IL where she works with COVID-19 patients.
Her twin sister, Hana, works as a phlebotomist for Elmhurst Hospital, about 40 miles down the road, where she, too, cares for COVID-19 patients. Both sisters tell me they 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 forgotten and refused, to be in danger with lives on the line.
Life for Hana and Sona was not always easy or safe in Iran. As non-Muslims, their lives were often at risk because of religious extremists who often terrorized local communities.
“We are not Muslim, so it was hard,” Sona said. “We [had] to take a lot of caution [in 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.”
The sisters fled their home to escape persecution and were resettled in the United States in August 2006. Soon after, they connected with World Relief Chicagoland who helped them secure their first jobs as factory workers for Home Depot. But despite their good work performance and praise from their supervisor, the sisters were eventually fired because neither of them could pass their English test.
“Our supervisor liked our work,” Sona said. “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. The women enrolled in an English class in the Chicago suburbs. Hana’s husband, who is American, helped her study in the evenings, while Kara studied with Sona.
“We were working days and nights to learn English,” Sona said. “I was sleeping [just] 2-3 hours a day just so I could have enough time to improve my English.”
“Kara was a big reason I learned English,” she added.
After years of hard work, Sona and Hana were able to improve their English enough to return to school in pursuit of their shared dream of working in the medical field.
“Our dad’s side of the family were all in the medical field,” Hana explained. “My dad was a surgical assistant. He inspired me to be in medicine.”
In 2014, Sona graduated from school and was immediately employed by Delnor. A year later, Hana graduated and was hired by Elmhurst.
“It was always a dream to work in a hospital, and to help,” Sona said. “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,” Hana said. She said that people sometimes look at her differently because she’s from a different country and has an accent, but she doesn’t let it bother her anymore.
“I’m here to help everyone no matter what,” she said. “It makes me happy to come to work every day. It makes me happy to help.”
Recently, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risks and challenges of going to work for both women. The stressors have reminded them of the danger they faced back in Iran, and Hana said she hasn’t been able to see her mom or sister due to social distancing guidelines at her hospital.
“Work is now very stressful,” she said “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,” Sona added. “People are very sick. Many are on oxygen. They need a good two months or more to recover.”
Nevertheless, the sisters continue to show up and help those in need at their hospitals in the U.S. while also helping others back home in Iran.
“We send $100 back home to Iran every month,” Sona said. “We donate [the] money to women who are not working due to the virus and who have children. Women are not as respected as men, and they don’t get jobs even in good times.”
Hana has also become a champion for the rights of her countrymen here in the United States.
“There are lots of language barrier problems with this virus,” she explained. “I know the language barrier is the biggest problem for many [COVID-19 patients]. My hospital has translator lines, but there wasn’t a line for Farsi, the native language of Iran. So, I spoke to the hospital administration and a line for Farsi was added.”
The United States is not just a home to Hana and Sona, it’s a community in which they are deeply invested. So invested, in fact, that Hana plans to go back to school to become a registered nurse once the threat of COVID-19 has subsided so that she can expand her field of care to all patients that arrive at the hospital. Resilience is a trait that doesn’t rest.
*this story was originally published by World Relief Chicagoland.
Rob Carroll serves as Communications Manager for World Relief Chicagoland. Rob’s professional background includes time spent in publishing, design, marketing and communications. He has written and edited for numerous outlets, and he even spent a year as the Managing Editor for a respected peer-reviewed science journal published by Oxford University Press. He views his current work with World Relief as a true vocation — a place where his experience and skill can help the greater good.