The Tradition Issue — Dec. 16, 2020
How Immigrants Plan To Cope With Holidays Away From Home
Immigrants must find new ways to celebrate the holiday season during the pandemic.
A week before Halloween this year, I found myself poring over recipes and scrolling through how-to videos of dishes from back home in India—some I hadn’t tasted in months or even years. It was the week of Durga Puja: an October festival celebrated with much pageantry in the state of West Bengal, where I was born.
But as an immigrant in Canada who only ever went home during the two-week winter break from December to January, I hadn’t been there to celebrate the festival in half a decade.
This year, going home for even that short period of time in winter would be impossible due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, but I was determined to stroll down memory lane as much as COVID-19 regulations would allow.
I set about recreating some of those classic Durga Puja dishes—like luchi (a puffed, fried flatbread), begun bhaja (fried eggplant), and chingri malai curry (spiced shrimp coconut curry)—that could transport me back to Kolkata.
On a conscious level, I knew I missed the cuisine. What I didn’t realize at that point was that, like many immigrants stuck away from their country of origin this year, I was trying to cook my way back home.
According to Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor and psychologist who specializes in researching nostalgia at Le Moyne College in New York, this winter will be particularly difficult for those who can’t be with their loved ones, partly because of what the holidays have come to symbolize.
“The holidays have traditionally been the time that society allows people to take a bit of respite from their busy work schedules to reconnect with friends and relatives and to refresh relationships,” says Batcho.“The atmosphere of celebration associated with holidays makes people want to share the joyfulness with others. Celebrating alone can accentuate feelings of loneliness and sadness.”
On what could be construed as the bright side, Batcho says immigrants who voluntarily moved to a different country already live apart from their loved ones for long stretches of time, and are therefore better equipped to emotionally cope with COVID-19 restrictions. “They have the motivation and resilience to delay gratification and to look forward to a brighter future,” she says.
But for many who come from countries in turmoil, the pandemic adds a heavy layer of stress and worry for what their families are going through back home.
Nazanin Moghadami has lived in Vancouver, B.C., for fifteen years and usually goes to visit her family in Iran during the winter holidays. 2020 has been particularly difficult for her relatives in Iran. The country started the year by accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger flight and killing 176 people, eighty-two of whom were Iranian.
A little over a month later, COVID-19 locked down the world. Iran was hit particularly hard by the pandemic early on, with over 1,200 deaths attributed to the virus by mid-March. As a result, schools, universities and shrines were shut down, and a ban on cultural and religious gatherings was imposed.
For Iranians, this meant the community couldn’t properly celebrate Nowruz, or the Persian New Year, which takes place in March.
“First, it’s the pandemic, so the actual emotional and physical effects of it. But also … the economy is in chaos. Medical supplies are not available anymore,” says Moghadami. “Insulin is pretty hard to find; flu shots are almost impossible to find. COVID tests are very expensive. It’s been very, very difficult.”
She attributes these shortages and financial difficulties not to the pandemic alone, but mainly to sanctions imposed on Iran by United States President Donald Trump. These sanctions have instigated a paralysis of the country’s economy, weakening it in the fight against COVID-19.
“It’s been a very hard and isolating journey, and for those of us who have family back home, just seeing the impact on the economy and the disheartening [impact] on our people and relatives has been very difficult,” says Moghadami. “Everyone’s struggling, but there are certain things that make it very unique to the Iranian community.”
There’s not much Moghadami can do to help her relatives in Iran, aside from using virtual platforms to stay connected as much as possible. To maintain ties to home, she says she has been planning ways to celebrate Shab-e Yalda, an Iranian cultural winter solstice festival during which friends and families gather, share food and poetry, and stay up together on December 21, the longest night of the year.
“I was telling my friends, I want to invite people to quarantine from two weeks before the solstice so that we can get together, and at least have a gathering of maybe four or five people,” says Moghadami. “If that doesn’t happen, I have a bubble with my friend and my mom … and maybe we can Zoom other family back home.”
The feast on Yaldā Night is a crucial aspect of the celebration—and the part Moghadami looks forward to the most this year. The celebration involves platters of dried fruits and nuts, like figs, raisins, hazelnuts, pistachios, and special sweets—like flaky baklava, cardamom-infused chickpea cookies called nan-e nokhodchi, and sugar-coated almonds called noghls—for everyone to snack on throughout the night.
But the most crucial ingredient is not easily found in Vancouver. “One of the biggest things in solstice is actually eating pomegranates, and it’s very expensive here,” says Moghadami, adding that one pomegranate costs as much as $5 in Vancouver.
On a traditional Yaldā Night, Iranians consume pomegranates on their own or find them featured in dishes like anar polow, pomegranate and rice infused with saffron and other spices, and masghati anar, a refreshing dessert that brings pomegranate seeds to the forefront.
Moghadami is ready to make the best of a bad situation. As with most celebrations, another important aspect of Shab-e Yalda is the physical act of gathering with friends and family.
Dr. Robin Mazumder, an environmental neuroscientist studying how physical and social environments influence the way people function, says one way to allow safe gatherings is for cities to provide spaces for them to take place.
“Not everyone has a giant house [where] people can spread out and feel safe, within the limits of what we’re allowed,” says Mazumder.
Moreover, as temperatures get colder, the familiar summertime pandemic escapes like parks and beaches, which offer a respite from the indoors and a safer space to meet friends and loved ones, are no longer a comfortable option.
“There might be some creative ways cities and other levels of government can give resources to people to maintain the traditions, particularly thinking about the implications that has on wellbeing,” says Mazumder. Ideas include municipalities renting out covered outdoor facilities, with the caveat that guests must maintain proper distancing and wear face coverings when in close proximity.
Mazumder also suggests cities diversify the number of religious or cultural celebrations that are represented in decorations that garnish the streets.
“We live in a very Judeo-Christian-centred society [in Canada]. A lot of people won’t think about the difference in privilege when you’re a part of the dominant culture and the whole city turns into a party that celebrates something that has meaning to you,” says Mazumder. “If we’re going to turn our public space into a celebration of Christmas, we should maybe think about ways to give space to other traditions.”
For Eldan Goldenberg and his wife, who just moved to Victoria from Seattle in September, not having the ability to return home for the holidays could be a far more isolating prospect.
Goldenberg says their original plan for Christmas, like every year prior, was to visit his in-laws who live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington; but they likely won’t be able to make it this year.
“My relatives are just across the strait and we thought we had a reasonable COVID plan—including quarantining on return—but we’re recently-landed immigrants, and what might still thwart us is how long it’s taking to get Permanent Resident cards,” he says.
The Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website notes that the agency is currently prioritizing applications from Canadians trying to return to Canada, vulnerable people, and people who perform or support essential services. Goldenberg says the current average wait time to receive a Permanent Resident card is about 120 days, attributing this lengthy processing time to COVID-19.
While the couple have all the letters and documents to confirm they are permanent residents in Canada, without physical Permanent Resident cards, they might have a difficult time re-entering Canada if they visit the United States; non-essential travel restrictions remain in place between the two neighboring countries.
According to Goldenberg, the lack of a physical card also prevents them from obtaining credit cards, drivers’ licenses, medical insurance, and even local phone numbers.
“We’re trying to figure out if there’s any way we can salvage this trip,” says Goldenberg. “We don’t really know many people around here, so we probably just wouldn’t do much if we can’t travel.”
While Goldenberg is grateful that video-calling technologies allow him to see and talk to family members in the U.S. and his parents in London, they’re not a substitute for real human connection.
“Normally, when we get together, it’s very low pressure. We have quite a lot of time, and we don’t necessarily do very much. It means that we can just enjoy being around each other,” says Goldenberg. “A video call is kind of the opposite. It needs full attention.”
For Goldenberg, despite the lonesome prospect of a Christmas without family, watching loved ones contract COVID-19 and take a long time to recover has put things into perspective.
“Seeing my mum take well over a month to recover really underscores that all these restrictions are actually for a worthwhile purpose,” says Goldenberg. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in how annoying it all is, but at the end of the day, the disease is still much worse than all the things we’re having to give up to try and contain it.”
Zoom, Skype and FaceTime give families one way to bridge long distances. According to Batcho, maintaining connections through these and other digital avenues, like texting and social media, is an important way to remind ourselves that the pandemic is bound to end eventually.
“[These means of connection] help us maintain optimistic feelings for the time when we will be able to get together in person again. They remind us that good times in our past can be enjoyed again once the pandemic is overcome,” says Batcho. “It is important to recognize that as time passes, conditions change, and that throughout history people have gone on to thrive after many different types of adversity.”