An American Refugee In New Zealand – Stuck Abroad, Afraid To Go Home


Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

What A Strange World We Are Temporarily In.

(This is the 16th post in a series. Missed the first 15? Click here to see them all.) Technically, I didn’t flee America to escape danger and persecution. But, watching America from afar, I fear both of them if I try to return, which oddly makes me feel like a refugee. I keep watching these headlines, the kind that have kept me away from other countries at other points in my travels, and I wonder what’s really happening to my country.  During this time that I’m traveling, but not, here are the strange thoughts and feelings that pervade my mind.

Will I Ever Feel Safe Returning to America?

In 2001, when the World Trade Center was bombed, I was in Sydney, Australia, watching in horror. I felt so devastated by that act that, though I returned home to New York a week later, it took me almost ten years to be able to visit the place the Twin Towers used to be. I was afraid of replacing the memory of them in my mind.

Paihia at sunrise

Once again, I find myself fearful of returning to the city I was born and raised in, only to find it so significantly changed, I don’t recognize it as home anymore. Over the past three years I have traveled to places known for crime, theft, robbery, etc. I always felt safe in Manhattan, even taking the subway home alone in the wee hours. But, as unemployment skyrockets, and the homeless population grows, I fear the return of my city to the old days with prostitution on 42nd street, and fear of walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. Or, worse, the right street, at the right time, only to find unexpected danger. Not to mention concern that enough people aren’t taking the proscribed safety measures or maintaining social distance, so I don’t see how the virus will ever be contained. I will say, however, Governer Cuomo appears to be doing a fantastic job, thank you!

A friend who used to live in Manhattan made me aware of an action in New York where homeless people are being moved into vacant hotels on the Upper West Side. On the one hand, this sounds like a great idea to ensure proper social distancing is possible. On another, it seems like crime is jumping. What’s the real story? I’m not there, so I can’t comment, but hearing the story doesn’t inspire me to return home any time soon. 

Will I Even Be Able To Go Home?

Flights are few and far between and alarmingly expensive, but now there’s a rumor that America may close it’s borders to even American citizens. (I mean, who isn’t at risk of having coronavirus if they travel?) I wonder if I will find myself kicked out of New Zealand, unable to go to America, and trying to figure out where to go. Today, someone reminded me of the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal” where he lives in an airport. Well, at least that’s one option if all else fails, I suppose…

Will America Ever Learn How To Handle The Virus And Get All Citizens To Comply?

Clearly, living in an island country, is dramatically different than living in New York City. I mean, the entire country of New Zealand has fewer people than the island of Manhattan. After 102 days with no community spread in New Zealand, 4 cases popped up in Auckland on August 11th, 2020. On August 12th, the country went right back into lockdown with Auckland at level 3 and the rest of the country at level 2. Just hours after the announcement, I went to the supermarket and had to wait in line again, and all the plastic dividers were back up. They take this thing seriously, and don’t fuck about or politicize things. It’s clear that human life is the top priority, and politicians still mourn the few losses the country has had from the virus. It’s things like this that make me feel happily marooned here, as opposed to stuck here.

In stark contrast, the US President has appeared to vascilate on how serious the virus is until the country was devastated by it. With states left to create their own protocol, as if it is a NOT United States, I can’t imagine the virus spread stopping as borders are crossed. What irony that the President once referred to some other places as “shithole countries” and now he’s on the verge of making his own country one of them. I’m not a master of politics, and, truth be told, maybe it’s better to allow states to make their own guidelines. It’s just been really disappointing to watch the US President appear to be oblivious to what a role model he is for his consituents, failing to wear a mask, and failing to give a damn about how many people are dying, even holding live political rallies. His behavior no doubt makes other people feel justified in theirs; this past week, a bike rally took place in South Dakota. Thousands of people are gathering, and then they’ll go home, and probably won’t self-quarantine, let alone wear a mask. I understand that America is based on freedom. And, Americans, like everyone, are free to be responsible for protecting one another from the virus any way they can. I’m concerned that this is not how freedom is being interpreted by many people in America.

It Feels Like Layers Of Separation Are Being Created

One major issue there is that the virus has been so politicized and so mishandled that it feels like fights could break out over whether or not someone is wearing a mask. With unemployment surging, how long will it be before too many people are hungry and decide to revolt? Add to that this is an election year and I understand the president wants to ban absentee ballots, among other difficulties being put in place to vote. (Because, what’s the difference between a mail-in ballot and an absentee vote? Um, none.) I’ve been trying to get my absentee ballot since June 24th, no word on it yet, despite numerous attempts to follow up. At this point, I’m ready to film myself with a loudspeaker and publicly declare my choice of president if that’s what it takes!

On top of politics, race, creed, color and religion, conspiracy theorist has now been added to the list of ways we can separate from one another. When I recently asked a friend to kindly stop texting me conspiracy theory videos, he ended the friendship. At a time like this, I’m baffled at how many lines are being drawn in the sand, when I hoped we would find more ways to love and comfort one another.

Will Social Norms Depress Me?

I sit in this beautiful place, where the virus, for now, has been mostly contained. For months now, we haven’t worn masks and hugs, kisses and handshakes are common. It’s been a strange bubble of paradise so different than the rest of the world. (Though, as mentioned, we’re going back into lockdown again, so we shall see.) In virtually every other place on earth, the duration of social distancing, mask-wearing, and suspicion has endured so long that I fear it could have lasting implications on social norms. I’m a hugger but when will I be able to hug friends and family again, without worrying about getting one another sick?

“I wonder how long I’ll be marooned and when the US will ever feel safe to return to.”

A flower on a nature walk at Wharepuke in New Zealand.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I See Nature And Earth As A Being 

I had the weirdest experience the other day. I did a meditation in which I was told to ground myself by stretching an imaginary cord from myself, into the earth, and wrap it around earth’s core. I found myself momentarily stunned as I realized I felt rude placing my imaginary cord through earth. Wouldn’t that be violating her boundaries? I first asked permission to ground myself, and only once I felt it had been granted, did I proceed with the meditation. Living in nature has definitely changed my relationship to it.

Where Will I Go Next?

My visa will expire. Whether this year, or next, I will have to leave here. I wonder, where will I go? Will some other safe haven open it’s border to those of us coming from another haven, in time? Will I have to return home and live some strange life, confined to a box, using Skype to talk to friends across the street to avoid being in over-populated areas? I try to take comfort knowing many of my friends are living in New York, are doing ok, and so it may not be quite as bad as the papers make it sound, which is often the case.

Americans Are Now Taboo

When I arrived in New Zealand in February, this was a China problem. Pre-boarding each flight, I had to state whether I had been to China anytime recently. I still remember being in Lake Tekapo in March and being scared when an Asian man did a night sky tour in my group, and ended up next to me. I felt racist, but also like I should protect my health by distancing myself from him.

Ironically, I am now that person that people want to step away from. If a stranger doesn’t know that I’m not fresh off the boat, they might be afraid of catching Covid. In fact, at a recent run to the supermarket, I struck up a conversation with a woman because I noticed her American accent. It turned out she’s been living here for 25 years. When she learned I’m from America, she took a huge step away from me, and asked, “Are you Covid free?” Yup, the world is noticing the bad behavior of many Americans during this pandemic, and it’s making them afraid of having us in their countries. Who ever thought that would happen? 

Usually, however, people don’t step away from me, they just apologize. “I’m so sorry,” is this standard reaction to them knowing I’m from the US and it looks like a complete shit show from abroad and they feel badly knowing that I’m stuck away from home, and also afraid to return home. “Just stay here!” is the advice every Kiwi has given me. And, for now, I am.

I Want To See My Family, But…

I Skype with my parents each week, hoping they’re still safe, feeling a little less far for those precious moments. On a recent call, mom said she wished she could see me in person. Me too. I want my mommy. And yet, how awful to feel that me seeing my mom could end up selfish because of the possibility of infecting her, or anyone else I meet along the way. I’m dealing with some health issues, and without a best friend or family member nearby, I feel more alone, stuck in one place. I’m able to seek medical care, but unable to get live emotional comfort.

I Miss World Travel

I created a life of choices, and though I still have many, it feels like many of them have been cut off. I love New Zealand, but I miss Africa, I miss South America. Mostly, I miss the freedom of being able to travel where I want, when I want.

Despite all this, I realize I am lucky. I could have much worse thoughts and much worse problems. I’m sorry for all the losses the world is facing now and for all the deep suffering now happening. I hope, out of it, comes something beautiful for all of us. I’m lucky to be here, for now. I’m visualizing the virus mutating to some form that we no longer have to fear and hoping we regroup, as humans, in the near future, and find better ways to live together and respect the planet.

PS – if you’re reading this, and are also stuck abroad, from any country, stuck in any other country, please feel free to join our wonderful Facebook group offering support in these tough times!

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