Trapped in Gray Skies: A COVID-19 Story 

Updated: Jun 25

| This is the 510th story of Our Life Logs |

Life is unpredictable. People understand that now more than ever. But we also know that every situation occurs for a reason, and nothing is permanent. All experiences change and impact how you grow. And that is what happened to me. 

I come from a small city in Pakistan called Sahiwal. I was born in the late ’90s as the youngest and the only boy of five children. We belonged to the upper-middle class, and my father worked as an engineer. Since I was the only son, I was well treated, and my education was always the top priority so I could bring honor to our family.  

My life was pretty smooth as I grew up: love, school, friends. When it came time for university in 2017, I chose to go abroad to study computer science at the Jiangxi University of Technology in Nanchang, China. My family all supported my decision.

Despite being so far away from home, I loved it there. Everything seemed new and exciting to me. Soon I made a lot of friends, including some who had also come from Pakistan. Attending school in China was great, and I was so proud to be in one of the best programs in the country. 

Much of my university life went off without a hitch…until November 2019. The fall semester of my junior year had just begun, and students all across campus were hitting the books hard. Then, as the cold wind of early winter blew in, my trips around campus started to bring whispers in the air—whispers about a virus. I learned it had a name: coronavirus. We heard it was rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan, just about four hours away from where we were. Initially, we did not pay much attention. We thought it was another random disease like the flu. We expected the news to vanish in a couple of days. But we were wrong.

At the end of November, Abdullah, my roommate from Bangladesh, got a fever. He looked terrible, and we were really worried about him. One of our friends took him to the hospital, and the doctor showed great concern. He advised them to both get tested for the coronavirus. The next day, Abdullah appeared better. But on the third day, the results came back: both of them tested positive. 

Our hearts sank. The air seemed to have frozen. 

The Chinese government immediately acted and sent my friends to a quarantine center. After that, they tested me and all our other roommates. It was terrifying. I started to realize how serious the situation really was. I knew in my gut that this was no normal virus if the government was getting involved. Thankfully, I tested negative, but another one of my roommates tested positive and was taken away. 

December 2019. A lot more news and whispers started to surface. The virus we thought so little of at the beginning had been found to be highly contagious. With overpopulation rampant in China (over five million in Nanchang alone), the country was in great danger. By January, it was in chaos. The news had taken over all the TV channels and other media outlets. New cases of the coronavirus, now labeled COVID-19, had increased to about 200, and in a country where people are constantly on the move and with us so close to the virus’ epicenter, we were terrified of what was to come. 

People were taken away to be quarantined and tested.

With each passing day, more and more cases were discovered. My parents were very worried about me. I didn’t want them to fret, so I told them things were fine. But really, that was a lie. Because of the language barrier, it was hard to tell just how bad it truly was from the news alone. And that made everything even more disturbing for us.

China began to shut itself down. They started by calling off public gatherings including events for the Spring Festival, the nation’s biggest holiday. Then they banned travel and closed schools, offices, stadiums, restaurants, and malls…all places that encouraged gathering. Living in Nanchang became harder. It became complicated to get food, let alone Halal food (food we Muslims eat). By mid-January, our stomachs were rumbling, but there was no sign of anything changing.

My friends and I wondered if it would be safer to go back to Pakistan. So, we started packing our stuff and booked the next available flight to Lahore. Except there was one problem: the flight was cancelled. I felt a chill run through me when the embassy delivered the news. Our government had banned all travel from China to Pakistan due to COVID-19. We were trapped. 

There was no other option for us but to stay in our hostel and pray. I cannot materialize the fear and emotions inside me at that time. It felt as if we were in prison, waiting for our death. The walls of the hostel felt like bars of a jail cell.  

The uncertainty of how the virus worked put us all on edge. Fellow students from other countries had been able to return home and we felt so alone. Stuck in our hostel without the option to go to the mosque, or really, anywhere, our only outlet to the outside world was through our window. But there wasn’t much to see but empty roads and closed shops. We had never seen the streets of Nanchang so empty. The handful of people we could see on the roads were wearing masks and trying their best to stay away from others. The whisper of death seeped from the walls.

Was this the end of the world, or at least the beginning of the end? I wondered. 

A view of the street in Nanchang outside our hostel.

During those days, the only hope we held in our hearts was the love of our parents and the assurance that they were safe elsewhere. They were the light in this darkness when everything around us was chaos.

We felt powerless, but we knew we could not sit in agony forever. First, we needed to solve our food problem. We couldn’t just let hunger take our lives. So, we collected all our available halal food and shared it amongst ourselves to survive on the bare minimum. After all our food ran out, we divided ourselves into teams of two to take turns leaving the hostel to search for more. We had limited money, but we worked with what we had and kept our hope alive. All the while, we prayed. Why wallow in fear when we could trust that Allah would get us to the sunshine again someday?

January 26, a Pakistani friend back home offered a lantern of more hope. He said that Pakistan had altered their travel ban. We were thrilled at the prospect of finally going home. Desperate to see if it was true, my friends and I rushed to the airport. But my friend was wrong. The travel advisory hadn’t eased up. It had in fact become even more strict. Our hearts were once more torn apart, and I started crying out of helplessness. 

Filled with utter sadness and anger at our situation, one of my friends took his phone out and started to record a video documenting our situation. In it, he begged Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan to bring us home. He posted it on social media and asked his friends to share our story around, but I wasn’t sure a video online would do any good. We returned to the hostel with heavy hearts and started praying to Allah again. 

Two more days passed, and we were running out of money. Still, I had the hope that this all would end. Like the Prophet Yousaf was saved in the belly of a big fish, we would be saved if we continued to hold onto hope. And soon enough that hope paid off, as a miracle happened. Our friend’s circle started sharing the video widely, and it went viral all over Pakistan. We had expected a few shares, but now the video was being shared on TV channels in Pakistan. Suddenly, the glimmer of hope felt like a beam and brought a soothing feeling to our troubled hearts. 

What we didn’t expect was that our video would inspire other Pakistani students trapped in different areas of China to make their own cries for help. My friend, who posted the video, was interviewed by several reporters over the phone. All this chatter and concern was what finally got us home. Prime Minister Imran Khan had taken notice of our problem and scheduled a fight to bring us back to beautiful Pakistan on February 3. We couldn’t find proper words to express the amount of joy we felt as we flew back to the arms of our family. Finally, we were not going to be alone.

Our family and friends waited anxiously as we landed in Lahore. We were tested once more (negative again!) and were sent on our way to be reunited with our loved ones. I felt such peace when I saw my mother’s overjoyed face at the sight of me. As she tightly hugged me, my heart was freed from all the worries and helplessness these last few months had brought me. 

Coming home to Pakistan felt like a second chance at life. I had survived a deadly virus that was now running rampant all over the world. The experience made me realize just how much we had taken things for granted—food, shelter, human contact. And most of all, I realized just how important it is to hold onto hope. Even in the darkest moments, we must remain hopeful, we must pray that there will be a rising sun after long, clouded days. I know that the world is going through hard times. I know that we all are fighting and struggling. But I believe there will be an end to this if we just keep going. All days come to an end, even the worst ones. 

 This is the story of Muaz Rana

Muaz is a 21-year-old Pakistani student studying in Nanchang, China. In November 2019, when the COVID-19 outbreak began, Muaz and his roommates, being only four hours away from the epicenter of Wuhan and swapped by fear, tried to return to Pakistan. But due to a travel advisory ban, they were forced to stay in China. They had little to do but hope and pray that they’d find a way out. They did their best to adapt and remain alive until their hope finally paid off after a video of them went viral online and Pakistani Prime Minister arranged for them to come home. He is currently home with his parents in Lahore, Pakistan, and is looking forward to returning to China to resume his studies after schools reopen. Muaz has learned from this experience that you must hold onto hope, even in the darkest moments. Sometimes, it is all we have. May the souls of the departed rest in peace.

You can find the videos of Muaz and his friends’ story reported on TV at the following links: 

https://www.facebook.com/100009918947140/videos/pcb.1085475378459750/1085475281793093/

https://www.facebook.com/100009918947140/videos/pcb.1085475378459750/1085475328459755

Muaz in China, 2019.

This story first touched our hearts on March 23, 2020.

| Writer: Zaid Mubbasher | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

#dream #COVID_19 #quarantinestories #China #virus #coronavirus #education #university #COVID19 #quarantine #Pakistan #pandemic #COVID

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