I came to the U.S. from Guinea in West Africa when I was 17, just last year, to escape abuse by the uncle I lived with. I journeyed by plane to Ecuador, then on buses through Central America and Mexico. I was taken from an ICE detention center near the border to a shelter in Chicago and then to a foster care home in New York City.
In January, when I turned 18, I was moved to a group home for immigrants ages 18-24, who have asylum or are in the process of getting it. We are 14 young immigrants and four staff members living in a three-story building in Syracuse, New York. The program aims to prepare us for college and to work in the U.S.
I have had very little control over my life for the past year. And now there is a pandemic.
Two young people live in each apartment. We share the living room, kitchen, and bathroom, but we have our own bedrooms. My roommate, Aziah, is a White kid who doesn’t like going to school and plays video games all day.
Before the pandemic, three staff worked on the weekend, rotating every eight hours. We lived in a friendly way, including the staff. We visited each other’s apartments and helped each other out. My best friends here are Eayv, from South Africa, and Manan, from Ghana.
I Hear About a Virus
On February 4, I was in the library with my tutor for my Living Environment class. We were talking about cells and other living things, and she mentioned a virus called COVID-19.
I asked a lot of questions, like where the virus comes from, what it can do to humans, and if it would come to the U.S.
She told me I could protect myself from the virus by avoiding public places like restaurants and by washing my hands anytime I go out. She told me to get disinfectant to carry around and I did.
She said the virus seems to kill mostly older people, not young people.
“How is it possible that the virus knows the difference between older and younger people?” I asked.
She said younger bodies are better at fighting back against the virus.
The next day in Living Environment class, I asked my teacher more about the virus. She also said to wash our hands with soap. She assured us that adults were taking care of it and they will make sure we are safe.
I started watching news on a channel called France 24 and on CNN. More and more news was about the virus. I wondered how it had moved from animals to humans.
Painting My Sadness
They closed my school on March 10 and told us to stay in our rooms. That last day of school, some kids started dancing and singing silly songs about “coronavirus.”
That upset me. Innocent people are dying seemingly every second — how can people make fun? I thought people should take it seriously and protect ourselves from it until the end of this terrible moment.
They gave us a lot of homework for three weeks and took our cell phone numbers and emails. Our teachers shared with us all the updates from school in an app called Reminder.
The app tells me what my teachers want us to do in the homework they give us. By doing my homework, I learn some, but I miss being in the classroom, asking my teachers what I don’t understand, and doing projects with my friends. I miss everything from school.
I was feeling confused as to why this coronavirus is a bigger deal than everything. Often when something seems very serious or I don’t fully understand it, I paint about it. Once it is on canvas, I can keep looking at it and try to figure it out through my own thoughts.
As I prepared my canvas, I was feeling so sad for people in China and in Europe. I thought about people who are leaving their family and dying, or people who are losing their loved ones because of the virus. I started painting to pay homage to all these people.
The first thing I thought of was the orchid flower, which represents the innocence of the souls of the dead. Orchids also carry a sentimental message of undying love. That is why it is at the center of the painting. The soldier is in a war zone, but there is no war, only dead from the virus. The top of the painting shows a dead body sign.
The Whole World Was Sick
The virus started spreading through New York, and everything changed. We are not receiving any more visits from outside. All the staff but one stopped working, and she works the whole day. We drive off campus only for groceries, shopping, and to go to the hospital. A few residents still go to their jobs.
They brought us gloves and masks to wear everywhere we go and told us to keep six feet away from everyone. That was scary. That day it felt like the whole world was sick.
My roommate, Aziah, and I do our best to keep six feet apart, even inside. I clean the apartment a lot. I go grocery shopping once a week at Wegmans. I wear my gloves and the mask anytime I go out and when I get back I wash my hands for 20 seconds.
My daily routine is to sit in my room waiting for the real world to come back and counting the number of deaths of innocent people. Hoping that everything will be fine again, I do my homework and talk with my father and my friends on my phone.
I’m on my computer a lot, watching Netflix, or typing. I’m also creating a fabric pattern in Photoshop. I’ve been designing fabric and clothing since I was 14 back in Guinea, and I was excited that the art teacher gave me a project to design patterns that we will then print on fabric.
Impossible to Understand
Yesterday I went to borrow Eayv’s camera to take the pictures of my painting. He opened the door and put the camera on the floor. I stayed on the stairs until he closed his door, grabbed the camera and quickly came back to my apartment to wash my hands and the camera. Trying not to get the virus makes me feel crazy!
The whole last year of my life has been crazy: Being abused by my own uncle; a long journey by myself to the U.S.; shuttled to different unaccompanied minor programs; and now we are in a pandemic.
Even with all the dead from the virus, it seems like our leaders talk more about businesses than how to find the vaccine. We don’t have enough tests. I don’t understand it all yet, and that’s why I paint it.
Editor’s note: S.T. has a chance at sharing his gifts with his new country, thanks to the Office of Refugee Resettlement programs he’s benefited from. Children like him who are fleeing violence now may not be so lucky.