The psychologist Natalia Demagistre: «In quarantine, we’re all in the same boat, then we’ll go back to being strangers»

In the face of the growth of virus anxiety, the Italian-Argentine professional has opened a virtual humanitarian corridor to provide support to foreigners in Italy through the free digital helpdesk of AMSI, the Association of Foreign Doctors in Italy. And when the isolation ends...

Forget the outraged reactions to discrimination. These existed when the world wasn’t quarantined, it was still moving and the human inclination to prevaricate found a scapegoat, a preferred target: the foreigner.

Now that the world is in suspended animation, the questions that immigrants are asking are the same ones we are all asking ourselves. Or rather, just one. What do I do now?

At least, this is what emerges after an initial assessment made by the Italian-Argentine psychologist Natalia Demagistre, who has opened a kind of virtual humanitarian corridor to provide support to foreigners in Italy through the free digital helpdesk of AMSI, the Association of Foreign Doctors in Italy. It is mainly first-generation women who call for support or information about Covid-19. On the other side of the screen, so to speak, even if the communication takes place mainly on WhatsApp, there is Natalia Inés Cleo Demagistre, 44, coordinator of the Committee of Psychologists of AMSI. She arrived in Rome ten years ago for love, after meeting her husband, the director of a private health facility, during a holiday in Italy. An Italian citizen, she had her professional qualifications recognised and enrolled in the register of psychologists of Lazio.

Before the virus forced everyone to reprogramme their work (if they have been able to keep their jobs), she dealt with, among other things, the behavioural disorders of children and adolescents and also the effects of another type of quarantine, but this time a voluntary one, the social media addiction that led some of her young patients to stay locked in a room for two years.

Migrant trauma

She also dealt with migrants, both Argentines who emigrated all over the world with their baggage of solitude and refugees who arrived from Libya with heavy hearts and bruised, battered bodies. In a reception centre, Dr. Demagistre tried to help them restart their lives after their traumatic journeys. In our quarantined world, where you either fight or wait with bated breath for the pandemic to pass, she has opened a direct line to listen to the needs of foreigners terrified by Coronavirus. “At the moment, they write to me on WhatsApp and ask if the service is free then I call them, although I should add that it is mainly women who contact me”, Natalia Demagistre tells NRW.

They’re in shock, bombarded by casualty reports of the infected and dead, they need someone to help them make sense of the new reality. I’m listening for now because they need to talk more than anything else. They are stunned, lost – lost in their own homes that they suddenly no longer recognize.

Information and confessions

“They say they have anxiety or panic attacks. But what the people who look for my help are missing the most is not so much their freedom but their routine. Habits, such as going to the bar for coffee or going to work. And then of course renouncing the other, those who are close to us, their physicality. Suspended life creates a deep trauma that we’re going to have to deal with later when we get out of quarantine. But for now, the most unacceptable thing is the abstinence of contact, although this isn’t any different for foreigners or Italians. People who are resilient and know how to adapt will come out different but strengthened.” The helpdesk, which was also started to run a prevention campaign and give the right information to avoid contagion, right now serves as a confessional. A kind of friendly helpline for foreigners who have already faced an uphill struggle to adapt to the country that welcomed them. And in quarantine, they feel doubly foreign because their families are back home.

Those who contact me belong to the first generation of immigrants and their main difficulty is to have to continually reassure their families who call constantly to know what is going on. And they don’t know what to say because who knows what’s really going on?

Even some men have called her to vent about work problems or because they are simply unable to work from home. Many, shut in the house with their families, are inundated with requests: wives asking for help with the housework or children craving attention. And they too are lost, shut between four walls waiting for the great fear to pass.

Discomfort without discrimination

Natalia Demagistre, like many Argentines from Buenos Aires, has Italian origins, scattered throughout Tuscany and the North. She has adapted well in Italy, where she only struggled to establish herself at work. She explains: “I have an eight-year-old son. At home, we have been able to reinvent spaces, we have new ways of playing, studying, working and living. However, those who call me now, don’t talk about their frustrations at work, as was the case before the emergency, they don’t complain about menial jobs that don’t match their qualifications gained here or in their countries of origin or about the difficulties in getting established. And no one complains about discrimination, the question they ask is this: “What do I do now?” In addition to the uncertainty of not knowing how long it will last, they feel powerless.” And waiting for the moment when everyone will be able to rediscover what it feels like to embrace each other again, she listens, encouraging people to verbalise their discomfort and suffering.

Because those who are not directly affected by the virus don’t just feel suspended, they feel imprisoned. And not because they are forced to stay at home, but because they no longer feel at home in the country they had dreamed of, that they had strived to reach and where they had fought strenuously to be recognised.

And then, what will happen at the end of the quarantine? “After that we will stop listening and we will have to intervene to help the depressed and all those affected by psychosis,” the psychologist explains to NRW. We’re going to change, that’s for sure, but how? Dr. Demagistre’s answer is straight to the point. “Now we are all different, but in the same boat. Then foreigners will just be different again, but I hope I’m wrong”.

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Psychological support poster

Translated by Adam Clark