Cristina Sosa, Canal Alliance Intake Specialist, talked to us about her experience since the COVID-19 crisis started and how her role supporting clients and community members has shifted during shelter in place. (Community members’ names have been changed.)
How has COVID-19 impacted you?
At the beginning of this crisis, I was struggling to understand exactly what was happening. I had recently moved to the United States from El Salvador, where I lived through two devastating earthquakes – the first in 2001 and then another in 2002. After the earthquakes, it felt kind of similar to this – like a pandemic – so I thought this might be something like that. Of course, I quickly realized this situation was not as simple to understand as an earthquake.
With an earthquake, you can see the effects when it ends. Now, I don’t even know if I’m safe at home because the virus is everywhere. I never imagined something like this could happen in 2020, since we’re supposed to live in one of the most developed countries; yet there’s no easy solution, no cure for this kind of pandemic.
Why did you decide to move to the United States? Can you describe some of the reasons that clients you know have come to this country?
The reason I moved to the United States was never due to a natural disaster, the economy, crime or anything like that. I moved here for personal reasons. I can tell you that working at Canal Alliance is something that I felt like I always wanted to do in El Salvador. I wanted to help my community. Working here now means that I can help my compatriots, who moved here for reasons very different from mine, and who are much more vulnerable.
Working as an intake specialist on our Social Services team and answering the hotline during this emergency is the best way to learn about the challenges that clients are facing during this pandemic. When I talk to clients now, I relive many of the things I went through in my country. It’s quite a strong feeling and a difficult thing to describe. I have to be strong for our clients. I tell them not to worry, I help them take deep breaths, and I try to help them come up with a solution or find resources for the challenges they face.
I understand that many clients I talk to may not be here for the same reasons that I’m here. I know that many left their country to escape poverty and gang violence. Sometimes, being on the phone with clients breaks my heart. I don’t even know what to say, and the best thing I can do in this situation is to listen. Even though they may not be here for the same reasons I am, they’re my compatriots and I realize that their pain may be my pain tomorrow.
What are some of the common challenges that you’re hearing about from clients right now?
I was thinking about and wrote something yesterday that I want to share here: the virus is outside, but inside there’s hunger, our children’s faces, disappointment, uncertainty, hopelessness, the recurring thoughts of “what are we going to do?” I know our clients won’t talk about these things out loud, but the more than 2,000 calls we’ve responded to in just the first month demonstrate what clients are feeling.
Clients understand that they shouldn’t go outside. But while they remain inside, they are hurting because they are hungry, disappointed, worried about what their children are going through, and of course experiencing feelings of uncertainty. Many of them are worried about what they will do if they can’t go back to their previous job because they’re undocumented.
Also, as a person of Latino roots, I have noticed that health has never been our top priority. Even if we are sick, even if we are dying, our top priority is to provide and care for our children. That is powerful, but many people don’t see it or understand it. While we have been communicating the importance of sheltering in place, maintaining distance, and wearing masks, it’s also important that we recognize that prioritizing our health is a personal and culturally-challenging topic for many Latinos. So, I always tell clients that the most important thing they can do right now is stay at home and take care of their health.
Is there a client that comes to mind who exemplifies increased need and perseverance during this time?
I’ve had the opportunity to listen to so many women who call for financial assistance and then want to talk because they have some level of anonymity over the phone. Often, clients who are calling just really need someone to listen to their concerns. Clients who call may feel comfortable talking to us because we don’t know them personally and because they know we won’t judge them. It’s incredible to experience that. Even if the topic of mental health doesn’t come up specifically, many clients want to tell us what they’re going through and what they’re feeling.
An example is a call I received from Flor*, a mother of three who told me she couldn’t sleep and had no idea what to do. After I helped her with our financial assistance application, I asked her if she wanted to keep talking and told her that I would listen. She gratefully accepted and told me, “I know that you are going to help me with $350 and that’s great, but I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know where my family will end up.” That was such a heavy sentiment that she expressed to me while crying. Flor also told me that she’s been able to acquire food through her daughter’s school, which helps, but that she’s very worried about paying their recurring bills. And she’s just one of the many people that I’ve spoken to who are in similarly stressful situations.
May was National Mental Health Awareness Month. Is mental health an issue that’s coming up for clients during this time?
Maybe it’s my personal experience from spending most of my life in Latin America and coming from a Latino culture, but for many of us, talking to a therapist or psychiatrist is something very stigmatized. You’re looked at as crazy or weak for talking about your feelings.
At the same time, when clients start talking to me, I understand it’s a form of therapy for them. They are able to let go of that ball of emotions they’ve held on to and pass it on to you. They may not see it this way because they are just calling for help.
We as Latinos are accustomed to not show any weakness, and talking about our feelings is considered our weakest point. Many clients don’t see how talking to someone can be positive, they may not understand the benefits of therapy. I think that clients feel that their family or other people will think they are lost or crazy if they seek out therapy.
Of the 1,500 or so calls that Pricilla and I have received, maybe 70 percent of those clients did some form of talk therapy with us, unknowingly. I’m not a therapist and I don’t have all the answers or the cure for their problems, but at least I’m there to listen, to ask questions and to try to find a solution with them.
What do you foresee to be some of the challenges that immigrants may face in the months to come?
There are no barriers between Canal Alliance and the community we serve. Clients are comfortable coming to us and telling us what they need. Right now, we’re trying to help them with what we can, providing financial assistance to help them pay rent or buy food, and connecting them to other resources in the community. Due to all the uncertainty at this time, I think that we will have to continue helping clients with financial assistance through our Client Support Fund.
Canal Alliance has always been accessible to the community. That’s why we continue to work through this pandemic: we see the need in our community. A few months from now, I know that clients will come to us and ask what they can do to help us. Like the client Pricilla mentioned, other clients will come to Canal Alliance to extend their gratitude.
What are your hopes for the future?
Somewhere I heard the statement that the virus doesn’t discriminate, that it attacks us all equally. But I don’t think we’re all the same; our experiences are very different. I firmly believe that this pandemic has shed light on the intolerance and apathy among human beings. As Latinos and immigrants, we are always in the most vulnerable sector. That’s been my experience so far.
I hope there’s a shift in the negative perceptions and narratives that tend to place blame on Latinos; that the changes we’re going through will bring recognition to the positive contributions we make. My hope is that just like Latinos are a force that moves this country forward, we will also be a force that can help change people’s minds.
Learn more about our Crisis Response & Impact
While we hear many devastating individual stories, we are inspired by the resilience of our clients. We are also heartened by the generosity of our volunteers and donors who support our emergency response efforts.