COVID in me. Fascism in us. These two bullies threaten to live within us all. As I — and millions more — fight the virus, spurring this civil war in my body, I can no longer tell the difference between COVID-19, fascism, or inequality. All three threaten to destroy one thing: our ability communicate.
How did we get here, to this moment in civilization that threatens future generations?
Both COVID-19 and fascism destroy by de-storying, and are successful in this effort because they weaponize the most powerful tool we have as a human species: words, language, communication.
You see, the sounds you release happen at the tail end of a process where your mind, body, and voice sync together to emit an energy cocooned in a word, and liberated through language and expression. Your words do things. How you communicate — -verbally and non verbally — transforms the energy of ‘me’, of ‘we’.
As we emerge from the trenches of 2020 to enter into the unknown of 2021, we must bear witness that it is not just a virus that is killing so many of us, in the same way it is not just one political figure who spawns insurrection and fascism. No. The genesis, the omnipresent culprit here is language and words.
Inequality lives in language. From a human rights lens, words are what fueled an insurrection that almost destroyed and de-storied the United States and the votes of more than 70 million people. Communication — or the lack of representation within it — is being used to destroy and de-story the inalienable rights and protections of black and African American communities in the United States; and minority groups worldwide from Syria to Kashmir to Myanmar.
From a health lens, COVID-19 continues to de-story our communities by robbing our species of physical ways to communicate, listen, and heal. Healing needs the very things COVID weakens: socialization, communication, community. Some used words to falsely equate mask-wearing with giving up one’s rights. This cost lives, more than 2 million of them. COVID, in another parallel to fascism, is hellbent on killing black, brown, and indigenous communities at a rate 2 to 3 times higher compared to other communities, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Be it beating this virus in me, or, America overcoming fascism within in her, it is universal, what the great artist Basquiat prophesied: ‘words are all we have’.
Communication = human rights x health
#MeWeIntl remain focused and privileged to foster spaces where all people may exercise communication as both a human right and a component of health.
Throughout 2020 and the beginning 2021, lockdowns from COVID-19 in the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan persisted, and Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon lived with relentless and increasing socio-economic instability from COVID. Depsite this, our #MeWeSyria teams from February 2019-April 2020 reached more than 1,600 refugee youth and caregivers across Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan through our partners DARB-Syr, Mobaderoon Lebanon, Mercy Corps, and Questscope. When April 2020 hit, the lockdowns began. But again our community parnters and refugee teams refused to give up. From July to October 2020, our Syrian-led teams of community facilitators embedded in both Jordan and Turkey virtually led #MeWeSyria sessions to more than 128 refugees, with more than 90% of those reached being women and girls.
Our current refugee work in Turkey is happening through subgrants we are able to provide to two women’s led organizations: Women’s Support Association, and Zenobia. Over the next 4 months, our Syrian teams in Turkey and Jordan will reach an additional 1,000 Syrian refugee youth, caregivers, and alumni.
The virtual programs we’ve designed have been successful, and provided further learnings which we are now integrating into current phases of #MeWeSyria activated in November 2020-April 2021. One of the key take-aways from 2020 that we are pivoting to for 2021 are new self-care trainings and procedures. Before we started new phases #MeWeSyria in November, #MeWeIntl partnered with ally and psychologist Alexandra Chen to lead 2 virtual self care trainings for our network of 30+ Syrian community facilitators. Included in our collaboration with Alexandra Chen is the rolling out of a new self care guide book for refugee facilitators of #MeWeSyria. Our organization is also offering 1:1 psychosocial support sessions where volunteer community facilitators can meet with Alexandra Chen.
Our community facilitators in Mexico and Honduras also have been dealing with rising inequality, lack of mobility, economic insecurity, and COVID-related lockdowns. More than 18 of our trainees have virtually led both #MeWeMexico and #MeWeHonduras to more than 200 vulnerable youth and caregivers from June-November 2020. In January 2021 we launched our new phases with partners Oye, Honduras Social, Mujeres en Consensos, and Tejiendo un Sueno. Community facilitators are on track to virtually reach an additional 350 vulnerable youth and caregivers by April 2021.
I must take note of the incredible challenges Honduras is facing. Poverty and violence before the pandemic were already forcing many families to risk their lives to migrate to the United States. The pandemic has only amplified daily threats to food access, shelter, employment, and mobility. But if that was not enough, two deadly hurricanes hit Honduras at the end of 2020; flooding homes, taking lives, and shutting down fragile networks for communication. Our Honduran youth facilitators from Oye and Honduras Social are bravely leading emergency aid efforts, while continuing to lead weekly #MeWeHonduras sessions for people in their communities through mobile phone devices.
Similar to #MeWeSyria, a key shift in our community work in the Americas is to better support communities of practice with new procedures and tools promoting self-care. In January 2021 we partnered with Vivian Khedari Depierro , a clinical psychologist and researcher at Beyond Conflict, to lead 2 volunteer sessions for our Honduran teams to discuss and process the trauma they have been dealing with and how to begin formulating their own personal journeys in self-care.
Be it in #MeWeSyria or #MeWeHonduras, the local youth and caregivers leading our programs are combatting uncertainty by holding spaces where individuals may improve perspective-taking, emotion regulation, goal setting, and resilience.
More closer to home, here in the United States, the #MeWeIntl team are excited to team up with Albany State University, an HBCU in Georgia, to pilot the first ever #MeWeGeorgia with vulnerable and overlooked communities in the south-west of the state. Many youth and caregivers in south-west Georgia are grappling with some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, as well as drug abuse, and higher rates of COVID-19. #MeWeIntl will be engaging with youth networks to improve communication skills, psychological wellbeing, and to connect emerging leaders from under-represented communities to arts and communication projects that will positively shift mind-sets in their communities.
Replacing ‘i’ with ‘we’
The words within us carry energy to transform the world outside us. Malcom X demonstrated this when he once said: “Replace ‘i’ with ‘we’, and even illness becomes ‘wellness’.” The way we can move from illness to wellness is by moving from isolation to communication. Such a victory depends on all of us masking the face, not masking our word, nor language, and certainly not our voices.
As we enter 2021 witnessing transfers of military and political powers among policy makers and leaders, you and I cannot forget that it’s the daily transfers of power within ‘you’ and ‘me’ that writes the story of our human race. The transfer of power of the words and perspectives within us — and between us — is the most sacred thing, because your words, and your human right and power to communicate are the things that separate individuals as passive consumers of history, and individuals making history.
Let’s not wait for permission to represent ourselves in history, culture, and community. Words are all we have.
Mohsin Mohi Ud Din
Mohsin Mohi Ud Din is an artist and the founder of #MeWeIntl, a global nonprofit that uses communication skills-building and narrative interventions as tools for psychological wellbeing, leadership development, and community engagement.