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My Hell on a Cargo Ship I Could Never Leave Because of COVID

Six months trapped off the American coast was only the beginning.

A cargo ship at sea.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jackhal/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Fadi El Seddik, a career seafaring engineer. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited by Rachael Allen.

In October 2019, I joined a cargo ship. The ship traveled from Africa to Brazil. At the time, nobody had heard of COVID-19. In January 2020, we came to Charleston, South Carolina. The U.S. Marshals detained the ship because the owner had a U.S. court judgment against him for damaged goods. The ship was anchored, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not allow anyone to go ashore because we did not have visas—I live in Lebanon—and because of coronavirus.

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We had a crew of 21 people. The ship was stuck until June.

January to June was hell. Is this jail or a ship? Every day when we woke up, there was bad news. The company that owned the ship abandoned it. Our previous owner said our detainers must pay wages for the crew. At this time, we had no work and no money. Because of the coronavirus, the court was delayed in auctioning off the ship to pay for the owner’s debt. Someone arranged for food and water for everyone on ship, but not money.

For six months, I did not send one dollar home to my children. For six months, my family suffered. I have four children in school. One is at a university. I must pay $10,000 per year for a loan, but I can’t pay for him anymore. Sometimes, when I was on the ship, I closed my door in my cabin and cried. This is the first time I have said this. Nobody knows this. Only you know. When I called my wife, she told me, “Maybe your children will have to leave school because we can’t pay.” I started to cry. What I can do? I am 48 years old, and I cried in my cabin. This never happened before. Every time I called my children they asked, “When are you coming home?” I told my 5-year-old child, “Wait, wait. Very soon.” But I was a liar because I knew it would be a long time. My child always said, “Father, please bring a gift to me.” I told him, “Yes, of course I’ll bring something for you.” But what can I give him if I have no money in my pocket?

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When I was still on the ship, I would go on the internet, and when I saw too many people dying of COVID-19, I felt that I would never see my wife, my family again.

Nobody cared about us, because everybody went home and was focused on his family. Charleston has a Filipino community, and because there were 19 Filipino crew members on board, every week a Filipino person from the outside would come and give the crew members some special Filipino food or gift. But I didn’t have a community, so I was alone.

But I was lucky because I had help from the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The ship was finally auctioned off in May, and the money earned from the sale was used to back pay wages. No one got sick on the ship in the end. Insurance for the vessel paid for everyone’s travel home.

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In June, everybody flew home and received their money. It was very difficult for me to come home, because the airport was in lockdown. I traveled by car from Charleston to North Carolina and then took a flight to Atlanta, before flying to Istanbul. I stayed in Turkey for about 20 days in a hotel. When the airport opened, I flew from Istanbul to Beirut and then from Beirut, I took a taxi home.

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Twenty days after I came home, my mother passed away from the coronavirus.

Then, at the beginning of October, I had a headache. I took Advil. Every seven hours, I felt chills and took Advil. Later, I went to the doctor. The doctor gave me some medicine and told me to enter the hospital. I told him no because my mother entered the hospital and died. He told me, “No, don’t think like that,” but I told him no. I stayed at home for about one week, but I felt very bad. I couldn’t breathe easily. I was taken to the hospital, and I stayed in intensive care for 13 days. My oxygen went from 97 or 98 percent to about 65 percent. If I walked three or four steps, I fell down. After one week, I felt a little better. I could walk about 20 meters—before that, it wasn’t possible to walk 10 meters.

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Now I am at home. I don’t know if you can hear it, but when I speak a long time or walk a long time, my breathing is very bad. But everything is OK. I can’t work on any ship now, because I think the hard job and rough sea would be very bad for me. The doctor told me to spend one month relaxing. It’s better for me to stay at home. But of course, this is not possible to do for a long time because I have a family.

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When I started working on ships, I was 18 years old. More than half my life I have been a seaman. When I was single, I would make a one-year contract and come home 20 days or one month at most before going back to another ship. Now I have a wife and children, but I can’t stay away. I must be working a ship. My future and my everything depend on working on ships. Believe me, I have tried many times to work here on land in Lebanon, but I can’t. I do not feel good when I am away for a long time from a ship. Some people say that they feel seasick on ships. If I stay at home a long time, I feel sick. This home, Lebanon, is a second home for me. The ship is my first home.

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