South Africa’s battle against the deadly Covid-19 is causing misery for a mother who has been separated from her baby.
Little Talia stretches her arms out as she yearns for the warm embrace of her mother, but she is on a video call and more than 7 000km away.
They are collateral damage.
Wajieda Tabasum Ahmed has been living out of a small suitcase for more than 60 days. She has been left stranded in Cape Town because of the lockdown to slow down the rapid infection rate of the coronavirus.
“It has been the most painful two months of my life,” the 38-year-old told News24 about the separation from her young family.
“I left my husband and my daughter who is only a year and a half. I was still breastfeeding her. She is unhappy and I’m worried about her emotional state.”
It all started with a passport
Ahmed left Bahrain, where she has been working and living for seven years, on 1 March to renew her passport.
Despite applying to renew her passport on 2 March, after countless queries, she only received it after the lockdown was implemented.
“I wasn’t able to leave the country before the lockdown without my passport. It’s ridiculous how long I had to wait before it arrived.”
Flights in and out of South Africa were suspended on 20 March, while domestic flights were also cancelled.
However, the government undertook some repatriation flights to bring home about 3 000 stranded South Africans from more than 31 countries, while hundreds more entered our country through land borders. Travellers stuck in the country were also allowed to return to their homes.
‘Please allow me to return’
“I have been emailing, calling and contacting so many government officials, including President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, to reunite me with my baby and husband,” the helpless mom said.
“Please allow me to return… The Bahrain government is aware of my situation and will give me special clearance to enter based on my delicate situation,” reads part of an email seen by News24.
Ahmed also tried to bring her daughter and husband to South Africa on a repatriation flight, but this was turned down because they are not South African citizens.
“South Africa is only admitting South African citizens in RSA and only pre-approved travel is permitted by RSA government. You have stated that both your child and husband are Egyptian citizens; unfortunately this means they fall [within] the category of persons who currently may not travel or be admitted in RSA and the Embassy cannot override the country regulations. The option for now is to let them remain where they are and stay safe from the Covid-19 virus,” reads part of a response from the SA Embassy in Riyadh, which oversees queries for South Africans living in Bahrain.
“They will not allow me to leave and they will not allow them to come to me. As it stands, international flights will likely open at Level 1 of the lockdown, which could easily be six months from now,” said Ahmed.
‘I’m lost without her’
News24 contacted the departments of transport, cooperative governance and traditional affairs, international relations and cooperation and home affairs. A solution offered to Ahmed was to arrange a chartered flight, but she is in no financial position to do so.
Home is not home without Ahmed, said her husband Shady Gamal Elghandour, who works for the Ministry of Education in Bahrain.
“I’m lost without her. The most important part is she knows what our daughter wants without her having to ask for it. We need her.”
Although Elghandour tries his best to console their daughter, he said she needs her mother.
He has no support system in Bahrain. “This has been one of the most difficult situations I have ever been in.”
Elghandour explained that it was painful to see how Talia’s behaviour had changed. “I can see she is not the same as before and it worries me. She wakes up at night and cries while looking at the bed where her mother used to sleep. She also refuses to drink cow’s milk.”
Wajieda Tabasum Ahmed on a video call with her daughter Talia.
Psychologist Leila Abdool Gafoor, who specialises in working with children, said weaning from breastfeeding is more difficult emotionally than the lack of milk at one and a half years old.
The breast, she explained, becomes a comfort object for the child to soothe and feel safe, but with the mom being away, this is a gap that the dad would have to fill in other ways.
Gafoor also said toddlers around one and a half years old oscillate between fierce independence and clingy neediness as they begin to walk and explore the world around them.
“As a primary caregiver, a mother would be a child’s safety net so, after a few minutes of exploring, the child would look for a primary caregiver for security before exploring again.”
Confusion and uncertainty
Gafoor said the absence of a mother could lead to confusion and uncertainty; and that toddlers in such a situation would struggle with controlling their actions, impulses, feelings and body.
“At this stage, children still view themselves and their mothers as one, so not having mom around would be extremely confusing.”
The experience may, however, conversely develop independence and maturity in the child, Gafoor said.
No mother should be separated from her child, said Ahmed.
“She cries when I video call and stretches out her arms to come to me,” said the emotional mom, adding that the pain of separation became more unbearable with each passing day.
“Please let me go home to my baby. Please.”
Ahmed has started a petition on Change.org, which has garnered 2 000 signatures, to bring awareness to her plight and to find out if there are other South Africans in a similar situation.