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Faith helps Israeli family navigate living with COVID-19
On Pentecost, Hedal Farraj was able to pray with her family in their local parish church in Nazareth’s Old City, just as places of worship were opening up in Israel following two months of quarantine imposed because of the COVID-19 virus.
It was a much needed prayer time for her, because as one of the people to contract the virus during its initial onset in Israel, she had been quarantined in her bedroom away from her family for 11 days during Holy Week and Easter and was not able to celebrate the holy days with them even in their home.
But after she recovered, amidst all the furtive phone calls she had received asking if it was really true that she had been sick, she realized there had been another purpose in her being ill. With her faith, and her strict following of the social distancing rules, which kept her family members safe while she recovered from the illness, she could serve as a role model for other people during the early outbreak by banishing the stigma and fear associated with the disease so that people would not be afraid to get tested and get medical help if they needed it.
“We can take something good even from a difficult situation,” she said. “I realized I could be a role model for others. I could send this message that I can also overcome this. It is not easy; it is very difficult both emotionally and physically, [but] you are able to contract the disease and behave in a way that you won’t infect others by following the instructions of the Ministry of Health and with God’s help.”
So she posted on Facebook confirming what everyone had been already whispering about: that yes, she had contracted the virus and had now recovered. Friends and acquaintances called and chastised her for making her illness so public, because “now everyone will know,” they warned her.
“I told them there is no need to whisper about it, there is no shame [in catching the virus], and I asked people to take care of themselves,” she said.
As of late June, there have been 22,044 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Israel, with 308 deaths. On June 24, the Health Ministry reported 532 new confirmed cases of the virus within 24 hours, the highest number of daily virus diagnoses since April 9. Since the beginning of June there have been almost 4,972 new confirmed cases of the virus. Health officials are warning of a second possible wave of the virus if social distancing measures are not strictly enforced.
After experiencing shortage of breath Hedal, 33, had gone to be tested on Palm Sunday. When her results came back positive the next day, she and her husband, Shadi, were thrown into a whirlwind of anxiety and uncertainty.
“You don’t think about yourself (at these moments) you think about your husband, your children, your in-laws, if maybe you could have infected them,” said Hedal, an organization development consultant.
But immediately the young couple put into strict practice the directives they received from the local health authorities, and while Shadi cleaned and disinfected the whole apartment, Hedal went into self-quarantine in their bedroom, using a separate bathroom and keeping all her garbage and laundry separate as well.
“We were very careful even before, and we taught our children how to wash their hands, [but] after all the care we took I still got sick,” she said. However, following her diagnosis they saw that because they had followed the social distancing directives issued by the government even though they were unsure about them, none of the other members in her family got sick.
The most difficult thing was having to be away from her three young children, especially the youngest who at 2 years old could not understand why his mother was in the bedroom and would not come out to see him.
Using her faith as a way to strengthen herself during this time, Hedal followed the Holy Week liturgy while in quarantine, while outside the bedroom door her family also prayed.
Video calls with her sisters and parents in her village just outside of Nazareth also provided her with much needed emotional support, she said.
Her mother-in-law, Mariam Farraj, continued to light incense morning and evening at the shrine to the Virgin Mary she has in the small courtyard of the family’s multi-story building. On a small transistor radio she played the prayers broadcasted on a religious radio station so the smells and sounds would reach Hedal, who lives with her family on the second floor.
The familiar smell of the incense and hearing the liturgy was soothing, said Hedal.
“Our faith helped us. I don’t think I would have been able to be alone for 11 days without prayer and without my faith in God,” Hedal said. “It was the week of Jesus’ journey and his crucifixion, and I felt closer to his suffering. In this week I understood I had an inner strength that gave me a deeper faith that there would be a light at the end. I learned to appreciate more what I have, with a good supportive husband, my children, parents and parents-in-laws and extended family.”
They came out of the experience with a clearer sense of who they are as a faith-based family and as a couple, Hedal said.
Hedal’s quarantine also gave Shadi a new appreciation for all the work his wife did on a daily basis. Although he normally takes part in child-care and taking care of the house, Hedal takes on the bulk of the responsibilities. He realized that he, too, could take care of the children on his own.
“It was a bad situation, but we found the good from it as well,” he said. “We found that being a strong family is when your family is united.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.