For these ‘war children’ in London, grit and resilience come naturally

Louis Matthews/Courtesy of Sara Shamsavari
Sara Shamsavari, a British Iranian photographer and artist, stands in a garden in London, where she moved as a young girl. She credits her early years in revolutionary Iran for giving her the resilience to cope with uncertainty and hardship.

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Farzad Amai Shamsavari has lived a life punctuated by events beyond her control, from revolution and war in Iran to a diagnosis of childhood cancer for her daughter Sara. At 79 years old, she’s now living through another period of unexpected disruption in the form of a global pandemic that has exacted a heavy toll on the United Kingdom where she and her daughter live. 

The Shamsavaris have been applying their life lessons – what to prioritize, how to weigh risks – to COVID-19 and to the deprivations needed to contain the virus. On Tuesday, a monthlong lockdown in England ended, allowing many shops to reopen in the run-up to Christmas. But like much of the country, London remains subject to restrictions on households mixing and on social gatherings. 

Why We Wrote This

Disruptive childhood experiences can instill a sense of resilience as adults. During tough times, like the current pandemic, this resilience can prove valuable.

Two neighborhood friends, both Britons who were born during World War II, have their own stories of resilience during tough times.  They have also brought their experiences to bear during the pandemic. “I don’t give in easily,” says Eileen Horner, who lives alone and struck up a friendship with Sara Shamsavari, an artist, after they met at a local cafe. 

“We’re all war children, albeit very different wars. If you live through these sorts of things, it makes you a lot more resilient,” says Sara. 

British Iranian artist Sara Shamsavari remembers the blackened windows at her first childhood home in Tehran, Iran. Born in the middle of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and just 2 years old at the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, Ms. Shamsavari says her first memories are rooted in uncertainty and dislocation. 

Her mother, Farzad Amai Shamsavari, a psychologist, also remembers many sleepless nights in Ahvaz, near the Iraq border, where she taught at the university. She kept her young children, Sara and Sina, inside a closet for safety while her husband hid under a table as warplanes dropped bombs outside. 

“I was going between the two [children] trying to reassure them all,” says Farzad. 

Why We Wrote This

Disruptive childhood experiences can instill a sense of resilience as adults. During tough times, like the current pandemic, this resilience can prove valuable.

She has lived a life of flux, change, and unpredictability steered by global events well beyond her control. After studying in the United States, she returned to Iran in 1975. The birth of her daughter amid a revolution wasn’t the only complication; Sara was diagnosed with cancer, and the family sought treatment, and asylum, in Britain in 1981. 

“My main focus ... was all about adapting,” says Farzad. “You either complain about whatever is happening that you don’t like or you think, ‘How can I adjust and make the best of this situation?’” 

That resilience has helped Farzad and her daughter to cope this year during a global coronavirus pandemic that has hit the United Kingdom particularly hard. On Tuesday, the latest monthlong lockdown ended in England, replaced by a tiered system of restrictions on households and businesses. While London is subject to moderate curbs, much of northern England is on higher alert. 

Sara Shamsavari
Farzad Amai Shamsavari, an Iranian-born psychologist, poses in front of artwork made by her daughter Sara Shamsavari. The family moved to the U.K. during the Iran-Iraq War to get medical treatment for Sara.

That same resilience that the Shamsavari family has drawn on during COVID-19 is shared by two of their neighbors whose views are shaped by their own experience of war and social upheaval. Both are older Britons who grew up during World War II and the hardships that followed. What they all have in common is a belief that grit and courage matter, and that adapting to uncertainty and isolation is a skill that can be learned, especially under hardship.

“We’re all war children, albeit very different wars. If you live through these sorts of things, it makes you a lot more resilient,” says Sara, as she pours hot Persian tea on a cold day. 

“Some people have lived through chaos, and they already have a value system in place which is so contrasting to the confusion and lack of foundation many young people have.” 

Chaos certainly describes the events in Tehran in 1979 when the U.S.-backed Shah was ousted. Farzad’s misfortune doubled as Iran’s new religious clerics then persecuted and imprisoned members of her minority Baha’i faith community. Her experiences of revolutionary turmoil have proved fruitful lessons in coping during lockdowns that have exacted a toll on England’s mental and social equilibrium.

At age 79, she still works from her house, and she worries about young people she sees who may have become too risk-averse during the pandemic. 

“If we follow our emotions all the time, it may lead us to avoid any sort of danger. And that’s failure,” she says. “But if we have the courage to say, ‘OK that I am feeling bad, but maybe tomorrow I’ll feel better.’ What I think undermines people is complete avoidance of any tiny bit of risk. But you have to keep yourself safe.” 

A British experience of war 

Just a couple of streets away from Farzad and Sara live two Britons in their 70s with early memories of World War II and its social deprivations. Now they are learning to live with deprivations of a different nature. 

“This year has been the worst in my life because I couldn’t travel anywhere,” says Eileen Horner, a retiree who lives alone in a house filled with sparkling Christmas decorations and framed photos of her extended family members. 

Just like Sara, she too remembers a sense of chaos raging outside when she was age 2, toward the end of World War II.

“I was in a highchair and I can remember sensing an atmosphere, even though I was a tiny child, that something dramatic happened.” 

Despite the war, she describes her early years as “total happiness,” with her mother feeding a family of five on the equivalent of $1 a week. In the 1960s, Mrs. Horner worked in London’s fashion and modeling scene, before going into real estate. 

Then, she lost both her husband and her trusted boss – “all of my emotional and financial stability” – in a single year when she was in her late 40s. Personal grief and adapting to loss, as much as her early war memories, have steeled her for this year’s lockdowns. 

“I’ve always had determination. ... I don’t give in easily,” she says. “Having been on my own for such a long time, you have to talk to the wall to make a decision.” 

Mrs. Horner loves life; small “positive” tasks every day keep her resilient. Living alone has the “occasional” lonely moment, she says, but she never feels alone. The key is to make plans, such as seeing her fellow war-child Sara for a coffee. They met five years ago outside a local cafe where Sara started chatting to her. Generations apart, they are now firm friends. 

A “triumph for science”

Rounding out the group is Alan Speight, another child of World War II. He describes a simple “stoic” working-class upbringing in northern England, which he credits for his resilience, including the five months of COVID-19 symptoms he suffered earlier this year, when testing was still limited. 

Sara Shamsavari
Alan Speight, a retired food scientist, sits in his garden at his London home. During World War II, his mother grew vegetables on a patch of land behind their house in northern England.

“Looking back, if you had some warm clothes and you had your health, you were happy. I wasn’t wanting things,” he says, noticing how discussion of such values has surfaced during this year’s lockdowns. 

And like many of today’s children, his early education was interrupted by a virus: He had a year off school when he was 7, for fear that he had contracted polio. Consuming books “out of boredom” seeded artistic talents in food, painting, and horticulture in later life, though his professional career would be in food and science. 

Mr. Speight helped introduce the commercial sandwich to Britain’s supermarkets. He also worked on vaccines against past pandemics, including co-creating a salmonella vaccine that was used to immunize all 26 million U.K. chickens in 1998. 

Vaccines, he says, “are a fundamental right” for mankind. 2020, he adds, “is a triumph for science.”

Food is his form of escapism. He recalls the plot of land his mother kept, behind a multigenerational household of 13 people, to grow vegetables and rear chickens in wartime. Sourcing local foods and families moving back in together – not always enthusiastically – has been another “reset” this year, he says. 

How has he stayed upbeat in lockdown? “I hate to paraphrase Churchill’s words, but find something you love to do and you’ll never work again.”

All four individuals say that their resilience in coping with life in COVID-19 lockdowns is both a practice and instinctive. 

“Prioritizing is the essence of wisdom,” says Farzad. “When we prioritize, there are certain things that are essential, and certain things that are less essential. Part of wisdom is not completely forgetting the nonessential things in life. Take some calculated risks when it’s safe.”

For example: Taking part in social activities that are enjoyable as opposed to necessary, like grocery shopping. 

Mrs. Horner agrees. “You’ve got to have guts. Have courage.”

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