Delaram: A refugee’s COVID story

How does a refugee seek medical care during the pandemic in a country that does not recognize refugees?
Esmail Ghaibi

“My dear aunt, where did they take grandfather?”

Delaram could hardly focus on what her niece, Fereshteh, was asking. She herself was grappling with many questions. The family of five is not complete tonight. Anguish is all over the house. 

The 17-year-old girl had just stopped taking anti-depression medication and was recovering. In her family, Delaram is like a mother to her two nieces and a nurse to her old and ailing father. She helps her mother care for the house and acts as a caregiver to her sister who has been unable to move properly after an incident requiring surgery. ‌But tonight, grief overwhelms her.

One Monday evening, she reached home later than usual and noticed that her father was not well. She did not know what had happened. She was scared, and worried. It was just three days ago that news spread in their apartment that the Covid-19 virus had reached their building. An Afghan neighbour had caught the virus. Nobody knew of it at first because the neighbour had hidden why she was hospitalized. Like other refugees, perhaps out of embarrassment, fear and stigma, she had decided to hide her pain.

Many thoughts passed Delaram’s mind. She too is a refugee who cannot afford to pay for a Covid-19 test. A refugee who does not have good memories about her experiences in hospitals. A refugee who is unable to speak English or Malay properly. A refugee who lost her job a few days ago, and a refugee who is still a child. She closed her eyes, touched her forehead, sighed sorrowfully, and told herself that she is not like the neighbour. She cannot weather this problem alone. But she did not know where she could go, whom she could contact and what she could do.

All of these fears and stresses had taken away Delaram’s ability to make decisions. But seeing her father in this situation was not easy. After a while, she remembered that an ambulance had taken the neighbour. She called Habib, the son of the neighbour, to ask him what to do.

Habib noticed that Delaram is not well. He told her to call an ambulance. She does not know how to speak English, so she asked Habib to help. Habib made the call, and the ambulance eventually came, bringing both Delaram and her father to the hospital.

They arrive at Ampang Hospital, but Delaram is not allowed to stay with her father because he is suspected to have Covid-19. Just before being taken in for the Covid-19 test, her father whispers something in her ear. His message sends shivers down her spine and Delaram gets even more distressed. It was a short message, but the look on his face in that moment left great weight in its meaning.

She did not have any option but to go back home. She told the rest of her family where her father was, and everyone was despondent. It crossed her mind that she should seek help from Mohammad. 

Mohammad is a young man from the Afghan community who helped her with interpretation a few times before. She called Mohammad and told him about her father’s situation. Overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, she wept. Mohammad consoled her and reminded her that in such circumstances, she must be patient and strong. He also reminded her to record information about the hospital and the department where her father was admitted. 

The day was getting darker and Delaram remembered that her sister, Elena, also had a doctor’s appointment that day. Elena experienced a head injury which gave her persistent headaches and needed monthly check-ups at the hospital. She decided to bring her sister tomorrow instead and began to prepare dinner.

What a cold and sorrowful dinner it was! After six years of gruelling life in Malaysia, this was not the first time that Delaram and her family felt as if they were drowning in the recurring pain and sorrow of the lives they do not get to live. But tonight, it is just the four of them. Fereshteh, her 6-year-old niece, broke the silence with a question.

“Aunt, where is grandfather?”

After momentarily losing in her train of thought, Delaram noticed that Fereshteh had directed the question at her.

Just as she begins to respond to Fereshteh, the phone rings.


“Hello, are you Delaram, Ahmad’s daughter?”

“Yes, yes I am Delaram.”

“I am Sara calling from Ampang Hospital. I wish to inform you that your father has the Coronavirus. He is not well. All of you must quarantine yourselves and if you have any symptoms, like coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, or have lost your sense of smell, you must do a Covid-19 test immediately.”

The call ended. 

Due to the language barrier, Delaram only understood that her father has the Coronavirus. Her father was already sick and is now even weaker. She could not take this anymore and did not know what to do this time.

Whom could she call? Would anybody help her? Should she go to her father? What should she do?

After six years of gruelling life in Malaysia, this was not the first time that Delaram and her family felt as if they were drowning in the recurring pain and sorrow of the lives they do not get to live.

Then, she remembered Mohammad, the interpreter. She called him and told him about the news. 

“Can you ask them when my father will be released?” she asked Mohammad.

Mohammad called the hospital and tried to gather more information about Delaram’s father. In a voice note, he told her that her father was being transferred to Sungai Buloh Hospital. He advised Delaram and her family to go for a Covid-19 test.

Delaram’s dread grew in her stomach. Sungai Buloh Hospital was far away and full of Covid-19 patients. She worried that her father would not get equal treatment as a refugee, and she would not be near enough to help him. She remembered her father’s parting words:

“My daughter, you will leave me here and won’t come after me.”

Delaram is now like a lost child. Then she recalled Rashad. She remembers him as a good man who organised a theatre group with young refugees to show a better representation of the community. She had heard that he helps people in trouble. When she called him, he calmly told her not to be worried, and that he would try his best to support the family in this period.

This reassured her a little, but her father’s voice rang in her ears, “My daughter, are you leaving me here?”

She called the hospital over and over. Finally, late at night, someone answered.

Delaram asked to speak to her father. She wanted to reassure her father that they had not left him, and they want to come to see him, but are not allowed to visit where he is.

But the hospital staff told her that speaking to her father is not possible right now, and hung up.

While worrying about her father, Delaram noticed that her cough had gotten worse. She remembered that she and her family must now get tested for Covid-19. But nowhere would the test be free for them. She must go to the Afghan community office, where there is usually aid for those in need. The community helped to collect money so that Delaram and her family could get tested.

Her mother had thankfully tested negative, but Delaram’s test was positive. She must spend a difficult two weeks in quarantine, far away from her family. Delaram called Mohammad again to ask for his advice. 

Mohammad told her to be in contact with Habib, the neighbour’s son, and seek his help to send food and a mobile phone to Delaram’s father. That night, upon receiving news that the mobile phone had reached her father, Delaram calls. It is a video call. 

Delaram’s father, who has been alone and in pain the entire time, cheers up upon hearing his daughter’s voice.

“Baba, I am also quarantined somewhere else. But I am fine. I tried very hard to come and see you, but they did not let me. I just wanted to tell you that we love you. Get well soon. The house without you, does not have enough air.”

— July 2021

“The house without you, does not have enough air.”

This story is commissioned by Innovation for Change – East Asia’s. It is part of a project called COVID-19 Stories from the Margins. Through the project, the hub equipped six individuals from marginalized communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Vietnam with skills to share their own experiences and lessons from the pandemic.


Huma: Diverse Culture Support for Persians immigrated

Health Equity Initiatives

Asylum Access Malaysia


This story was originally written in Persian by Esmail Ghaibi.

Illustrated by

Ang Hui Qing

Edited and Translated into English by

Saleh Sepas

Mohammad Esmail Ghaibi is an Afghan refugee currently living in CanadaHe wrote this story while he was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, waiting for his resettlement. In Malaysia, he worked with Health Equity Initiatives and the Afghan Community Centre to provide mental health support to his community during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also as a community advocate with Asylum Access Malaysia. He also volunteered with the HUMA team.


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