A word with... Maryam Zahid

“Tests weren’t available, help wasn’t available…”

A word with... Maryam Zahid

“Tests weren’t available, help wasn’t available…”

Health Community Representative

Maryam Zahid is the Founder and Managing Director of Afghan Women on the Move, a charity that works to provide advocacy, social connectivity through social media platforms, settlement and mental health support to the Afghan community, and especially Afghan women, in the greater Sydney area. She is also a Domestic Violence Prevention Officer with SydWest Multicultural Services.

We talked to Maryam about her personal experience during the ‘Summer 2021/22’ Covid outbreak in Sydney and how her community experienced the situation.

Maryam, we heard that you contracted COVID in January. How did it all start for you?

I contracted COVID on 1 January, but by the time I actually managed to get tested and then get the results, because of the overrun test centres and unavailability of Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) at that time, it was 9 January. So, I was getting better, I was almost back to life when I got my result. Thank you very much. I already diagnosed myself.

What was it like for you and your family? How did you cope? What did you do?

My husband got sick first, very sick, and then I got it. I had a very bad fever, and I was quite tired. It was hard, we were both isolating in different rooms and my two teenage kids, one of whom got it very lightly and one not at all, were cooking and running the household.

It was tiring. I was mentally and psychologically exhausted because of the lack of resources that were available at that time.

We also couldn’t go to work but couldn’t get the paperwork to prove we had COVID as we couldn’t get tested… and I was worried about my in-laws who were also sick but in the end, after a few attempts, gave up trying to get tested and just said we have COVID and that’s it. We will wait 10 days, 15 days at home doesn’t matter. There was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of headaches and the physical pain that you get from COVID itself.

What kind of support would you have needed? What would you have wished for?

Have some cooked food delivered to us, so the kids didn’t have to go cook. I had a very bad headache. But I had to put this brave face on to FaceTime my daughter and tell her to cook this way or clean. So there was a lot of pressure for me to seem well while I was suffering physically and couldn’t even open my eyes. But our family is in the fortunate position that we have enough money and the skills to order food online and get what we need. Not everybody in our community is in that situation.

How do you feel your community is coping?

I know people, especially women, that can’t even afford to buy $6-a-kilo fruit and vegetables, because they don’t have the money. They don’t understand the information they are given and they can’t comply because otherwise, they won’t survive, or the children won’t eat.

There was a single mom who left her babies at home to come in get tested because she had COVID. She was FaceTiming with her kids the whole time. How scary to leave your kids at home to just get tested. She needed the official certificate to tell her work that she had COVID. And despite testing positive, she had to go back to her kids, right. She couldn’t isolate herself in one room as there was nobody to look after the children.

Another woman called me, a single mother with a six-year-old child. She was crying and saying: ‘Oh, I don’t want to go for testing because my son is six years old. And he doesn’t want to stay home. And she cried and cried and cried and said that she’s very upset that there is no help for such cases.

So, these stories of single moms that are at home without any support… It’s so sad. There was no support whatsoever for these women.

Maryam at the Our Lives event
The launch of “My Life, My Story” in February 2022. The exhibition shares 21 personal stories of women living outside of Afghanistan.

How is the mood in your community?

I think the community still feels very isolated, especially the new arrivals. We have a lot of new arrivals from Afghanistan due to the current situation in Afghanistan. And they are given instructions but there is no support. For example, when they get COVID, and they are advised to eat healthily, where do they get the healthy food from? Also, a lot of community members lost jobs, and who’s going to help them to recover and get a new job? The loss of employment made it so difficult for the Afghan community to get back on their feet. Our communities are struggling to find jobs.

Your organisation, Afghan Women on the Move, has tried to help where you can. What did you do?

We have received a small amount of funding from Multicultural New South Wales, for the prevention of COVID in the community. So, we have produced information resources about COVID in the Dari language.

We organised an Afghan, registered nurse to come and speak to our community about what to do when you think you have COVID. The restrictions were also constantly changing and we explained those in easy Dari language. We posted videos online on our community social media channels about how to do your own RAT testing and use the kits. Not everybody can read English or has that literacy level. So we demonstrated how to use the kits and recorded that. We used this easy language for the community to understand and had zoom sessions that we put online and on the socials too.

One of the Afghan Women On the Move Zoom talks.
One of the Afghan Women On the Move Zoom talks.

We made sure we worked with proper, professional organisations and workers to not add to the misinformation out there: nurses, community workers, doctors, psychologists, counsellors. We needed to make sure to not just assume things.  Because, as an example, I spoke to a woman who said that eating pineapple will fix everything. So she had nine pineapples in one week. I didn’t want my community to think COVID will be fixed by eating pineapples.

We used our creativity and got the help we needed to inform our community. We have done about nine, live, Dari language information sessions. Apart from psychologists, doctors and nurses, we have also talked to community leaders, even high school PE teachers. So when the kids started to go back to school, especially teenage kids, they knew where to get help for a healthy approach and healthy mind.

How was the response from your community?

We have had a good response from that, community awareness was good. But the thing is, with the awareness we have created other responsibilities. We tell them to go and get tested. We tell them to go and eat healthily, we tell them to look after themselves mentally, physically, emotionally. But where are they going to get the resources and services they need for that? Tests weren’t available, help wasn’t available. The elders that are living by themselves in our community – nobody was there to go and drop food, they couldn’t get any Rapid Antigen Tests as there were none, testing centres were overrun back then.

So what would you wish would happen now in terms of help for the Afghan community in Sydney?

I think there should be a lot of support for a community-based approach. Organisations like NSW Health should talk to the local community leaders to see what is needed.

With the COVID phase we are in right now, there have to be straightforward messages of job availabilities, funding for healthy lifestyles. There are a lot of community members that are suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-COVID symptoms.

I have a friend right now who is in hospital with her daughter. Her daughter’s whole body got inflamed, she’s 11. She had COVID before but now the doctors can’t tell what’s wrong and they diagnosed her with post-COVID symptoms.

There has to be some kind of seed funding for community members to go and help their communities, especially those that have lost their jobs to find some healthy approaches to their everyday life.

COVID hasn’t stopped here, right? There is a lot of work to do to help people find jobs, how to not panic when they feel that they have post-COVID symptoms.  People are starting to self-diagnose. And we don’t want them to self-diagnose, they still need to go to the doctor, they still need to be talking about if they don’t feel good. But that only happens if we have some help and some funding to continue our work.

Thank you very much for the interview Maryam!


You can find out more about Afghan Women on the Move here: afghanwomenonthemove.org.au