My Grandma’s Story Stuck Abroad: International Travel Amidst a Pandemic

Featured Image: Edho Pratama


When my grandmother, her sister, and her mother left Canada in the early weeks of 2020, they aimed to fulfill Gayra Nani’s (great-grandmother’s) final wishes. She was battling the final stages of breast cancer and at 99 years old, her condition only continued to worsen. She longed to spend time in her homeland of India only a few months after completing the holy pilgrimage in Mecca to deepen her connection with her faith. As her doctor eventually provided the clear to travel, the group soon embarked on a long flight to the culturally diverse lands of India.

Initially, the early weeks of their trip went as expected — frequent guests visiting the newly-arrived Canadian travelers, plenty of tea and delicious food, and an abundance of summer weather as an escape from the brutal North American chills. Whilst COVID-19 worsened in Canada, India appeared to be a nation untouched, managing the novel virus extremely well in comparison to the 1.3 billion-sized population. In March, I remarked to my mom, “It’s great they are in India right now, so much safer there than over here.”

As their returning flight date arrived in April, international travel restrictions ceased and it was almost impossible to return to their Canadian homes. Two immunocompromised women traveling internationally was a recipe for disaster, so remaining in India was deemed the safest option.

At home, tensions rose and my mother encouraged us to pray daily for their arrival. The trip became increasingly difficult for my Nani. As an elderly woman herself with medical conditions and little support staff, she struggled to care for her sick mother.

Additionally, the safety measures in India appeared to be far more relaxed than they should have been. Guests continued to visit my Nani and Gayra Nani, embracing them in hugs and kisses after months of separation — especially with the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan and Eid celebrations, this was inevitable. Everyone in my immediate and extended family continued to pray for their arrival.

The reality of international travel amidst a pandemic is not limited to the stories of irresponsible college students vacationing in Miami — it expands beyond that to people like my relatives stuck in a country longing to return home.

My great-grandmother passed away on a solemn June day as she took her afternoon nap — this was not COVID-19 related, simply her body giving into deadly cancer that sprouted 2 years prior as kidney failure. Although it was not a shock, she seemed invincible to her cancer these past few years. At 100 years old, she left behind 11 children, 25+ grandchildren, 15+ great-grandchildren, and 1 great-great-grandchild. She was buried in the very cemetery that her husband resides in, who passed in 2005.

Needless to say, the impact of her death transcended my entire family. She was the glue — no matter the difficulty, she ensured everyone remained together. Even with worsening health conditions and dementia, she always expressed her love, teachings, and stories. Whilst in my life I never could proactively develop a relationship with her, I will always be proud to have a loving great-grandmother who lived an entire century. Her loss, however, followed with lots of anger and blame; family members claimed if travel restrictions hadn’t prevented her return, she would be alive and healthy. Although it is impossible to determine the validity of this claim, she returned to God’s mercy in the very land she lived most of her life.

A few weeks after her death, an opportunity arose for my Nani to return home with another relative. Most elderly don’t fully understand COVID-19 and the measures that must be taken to ensure safety. Fortunately for my Nani, she was more aware and anxious about traveling in the pandemic, so as the trip extended for far too long, she developed the courage to finally leave. They experienced various layoffs in hotspot cities increasing their potential exposure to COVID-19 but they still safely returned to Canada.

Before the pandemic, arriving home after months abroad connotated hugs at the airport and frequent family gatherings. In this case, there was no affection at the terminal or hanging out at my cousins’ house. Instead, Nani quarantined in her room, confused about why she had to be locked away from her family after many challenging months.

To make matters worse, she began to feel sick — feelings of headache and chills left my mom in a constant state of anxiety for Nani’s health. She tried to hide it, but I was aware of my mom’s debilitating struggle — in situations like these, thoughts and prayers are really the only options. Thankfully, the symptoms subsided but the worry surrounding them perpetuated for some time after.

Since that summer of 2020, normalcy has slowly returned — well, as normal as things can get with a pandemic, but still “normal”.

This travel disaster has allowed me to reflect on the expansive effects COVID-19 has had on society beyond the traditionally covered issues of case numbers, deaths, recoveries, and testing capacities. I think about people like my Nani who were (or still are) stuck abroad with little governmental support, overwhelming fears of catching the novel virus, or remaining isolated from their families for even more months — these worries all exacerbated by being immunocompromised. Families are left in worry for the safety of their loved ones with little power to do anything.

We cannot sacrifice our elderly in this pandemic, for they have endured far too much.

Haleema Ahmed

Reader | Writer

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