We Haven’t Been This Afraid Since Hurricane Katrina

Former foster youth and current social worker Aliyah Zeien writes how the pandemic is impacting her career and triggering her foster care experiences. Photo courtesy of Aliyah Zeien

My name is Aliyah Zeien and I live in Hammond, Louisiana. Louisiana has one of the highest growth rates per capita of COVID-19 in the country, although right now New York has the most total cases. When speaking with family and friends, we all agreed we have not been this afraid since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. March 5 was the first I heard of the coronavirus, and at that time we all had little-to-no information about the symptoms or how deadly it could actually be. I certainly didn’t know that life as I knew it would rapidly change over the next couple of weeks, and that I would experience self-isolation and a quarantine phase.

It’s now March 25, and as I write this essay, feelings of panic, anxiety and fear fill my heart. I’m a social worker with Louisiana Methodist Children and Family Services. I graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in 2017,my proudest moment in life. I have a caseload of 20 teens in foster care, and complete home visits with each one monthly. This month, due to COVID-19, that didn’t happen. My job rapidly changed in a matter of days. We went from minimal contact to no meetings or conference phone calls, to completing our visits via FaceTime or video call.

As a social worker, I can’t help but wonder and hope that our youth’s needs are being met in the midst of this pandemic and the fear and chaos it has caused in everyone’s lives. I fear for my job security each day. Some of the questions that frequent my thoughts are, since we can’t offer face-to-face services will they keep paying us? No one is in the office to process payroll. Will I get my check so I can pay rent in April? Will I have enough food to last through the whole time period of this quarantine? My work laptop just broke down — how will I work remotely and get paid with no laptop? How will I be able to even attempt to buy a laptop? If I was still in the office and traveling to visit youth I wouldn’t even need a laptop for work.

Before the pandemic, I always got reimbursed mileage for all home visits completed. This month I won’t get that, so that’s $500 missing from my monthly income that I usually use to pay my car note. I had to use the small amount of money I did have left in savings to buy groceries to stock up for the time we will be in isolation. I wish people would’ve left enough supplies on the shelves for those of us who can’t afford to hoard. However, each bargain store I went to was literally empty, which forced me to shop at Winn-Dixie and Albertsons where prices are much higher.

In addition to this, I am constantly seeing several former foster youth I know personally and professionally being kicked out of the dorms or worried about their job security, or childcare for their young children who are now out of school.

I am the sole and full caretaker of my sister, who has lived with me for the past two years. I hope and pray that I don’t have COVID-19 or pass it on to her as she has asthma and has needed breathing treatments since age 3.

I am a member of the Youth Advisory Board in my state and we have had to cancel all the events we were going to have to help our youth and advocate for them. So many youth will lose out on helpful resources because of this.

These circumstances remind me of the same panic, fear, anxiety, worry and isolation similar to what I felt when I was in foster care.

I’ve reached the age cap to access any resources available, but I’m grateful to still be employed and have somewhere to sleep at night, unlike many of my peers.

Since the pandemic started and numbers continued to rise, the Louisiana governor has issued a full shelter-in-place order effective March 23. We wish that the order would’ve been issued sooner to help stop the spread of the virus and just hope that people will obey it now so that no one else dies. That means no contact with loved ones or friends for the next few weeks, and for someone who is constantly moving for work that has been a huge adjustment.

Aliyah Zeien, 23, was born in New Orleans, the oldest of five siblings. An alumna of the Louisiana foster care system, she’s a social worker with Louisiana Methodist Children and Family Services delivering direct services that enhance the quality of life and promote stability for youth in foster care. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2017 from Southeastern Louisiana University. Since then, Zeien has become a powerful legislative advocate working to transform the child welfare system. She is the communications officer for the Louisiana Youth Advisory Board. Zeien enjoys cooking and baking, going to festivals, nature walks, traveling, arts and crafts, spoken word, writing, going to the beach, going to church, doing community service and hanging with friends and family. Her life mantra is that in order to take hold of your destiny, you must let go of your history. 

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