In late January, the Jamaican Association in China began to receive their first COVID-related requests from concerned Jamaican nationals scattered across the country.
“Many people wanted to know if they should make arrangements to leave the country…some were in financial need due to the unexpected circumstances…others just wanted reassurance”, explains Dr. Nicoleen Johnson, the association’s President and a China veteran with some 20 plus years in China under her belt.
The lockdown experience wouldn’t be too much of a shock for Nicoleen, whose spell in China had already seen her live under similar lockdown conditions. “I was in China during the 2003 SARS outbreak and I could say there are so many similarities. With SARS though, within three -four months we were back to school. So this was a lot, lot worse. It was a lot scarier because of the many countries impacted too.”
For the wider Jamaican community, many of whom had only fairly recently arrived in China, the early days of COVID-19 presented a major dilemma. Should they try to return to Jamaica, travel elsewhere or wait it out in China instead? What would happen if their employers could no longer pay their salaries? If they struggled to pay their rent due to Covid-19, would they be thrown out? The list of concerns went on. While for some the uncertainty on the ground was enough to leave China, many in the Jamaican community instead sought support on how to adapt to this new normal and the challenges it brought with it.
Their first ports of call in answering their questions and alleviating their concerns was the Jamaican Embassy, located in Beijing’s Chaoyang district and the Jamaican Association in China, officially convened on the 30th of November 2019 with a mission “to utilize their knowledge, skills and experiences to promote brand Jamaica in the East Asian country’ and to ‘provide critical support and assistance to Jamaicans living in China particularly in the areas of social integration and stability.”
Working independently from, but with the support of their embassies and consulates, diaspora associations in China typically serve to assist their communities in times of need as well as with more general, everyday requests or services.
Nicoleen explains that COVID-19 proved to be one such occasion, and so the association soon sprung into action.
“We had a vested interest in seeing our nationals safe – people were scared, that was the big issue and others had questions, so many questions – so it was our job to help them.”
The exec’s first task was to establish a database of Jamaican nationals across the country.
“One of the first things we did was put together an online form to identify who was who – how many nationals did we have across the country.”
Within less than a week, they were able to identify 650 Jamaican nationals living in China and compile a database to be shared with Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
With few hands on deck, efficiency would be crucial to maximising their efforts. “We formed a special group for the Jamaicans caught in the epicentre, Wuhan city, then a large main group on WeChat to help in disseminating key information to nationals across the country. This further broke off into small, provincial groups with assigned leaders so as to have accountability. These assigned leaders, alongside our exec, work tirelessly to support and better serve the Jamaican community in China.”
Doing this work has not always been easy, Nicoleen admits, “It’s been a challenge – we’ve been affected too – our committee members are scattered across China, the United States and Jamaica, unable to return due to COVID-19. We’ve been operating in three different time zones…Those in China would stay up till the wee hours of the morning and the ones over on the western side would stay up til 3-4 am trying to arrange meetings and stuff with our counterparts in China… We were on call at all times.”
Yet, being able to guide hundreds of Jamaicans through difficult times, all while providing a comforting home away from home has made their efforts worth it. Serving as a bridge between the wider Jamaican community and the embassy has also produced some of their proudest moments, as Nicoleen explains, “One of our committee’s proudest success has been helping to coordinate with the Government of Jamaica to provide fee waiver assistance with Student Loan Bureau and some banks for some Jamaicans that are having ‘corona impacted’ difficulties in honouring their commitment. In addition, assisting them in coordinating and disseminating care packages to needy Jamaicans desperate for protective supplies (masks, sanitizers, etc), especially the Jamaicans in the epicentre of Wuhan city.”
In another instance they were able to secure a partnership with the Jamaica Psychological Society to provide counseling and psychological support for individuals who were in need during these stressful times. For those in need of emotional and spiritual support, exec members made themselves personally available for calls, both day and night.
The efforts of the exec haven’t gone unnoticed either. In March, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ tweet of a video of Wuhan-based Jamaican family, the Shirleys sharing their message of hope with the rest of the world went viral.
Appreciation and praise were poured over both the family and those they’d recognised for supporting them at the height of their lockdown in Wuhan, including both the Jamaican Embassy and the Jamaican Association.
This wasn’t the first time Mr.Holness had come across the association either. During his October 2019 China visit, the PM made it his mission to meet with nationals in the eastern city of Shanghai – Nicoleen organised the event and several of those who would go on to form part of the JAC committee were amongst those in attendance.
“The prime minister walked in and he was so blown away to find so many Jamaicans. A lot of us didn’t know each other too – we’d spoken online but never in person. It was just one of those absolutely amazing experiences.”
Within a month of Prime Minister Holness’ visit, JAC was officially convened.
As things quieten down and lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted, Nicoleen and her exec are hoping that more events of this kind can take place. ‘We have so many people here with years of experience who can help those who are new to China’.
Nicoleen believes that having accurate knowledge of the number of Jamaicans in China and an idea of where they are situated and being able to communicate with them has been the single most important factor in their ability to serve the diaspora. “We’d encourage Jamaicans coming to sign up so we know where they are…this experience has shown it’s very important to get connected – both in cases of emergency but also in general to have that sense of community.”
It’s been a hectic first year in action for the association’s exec but Nicoleen is confident they’re ready and motivated to continue the momentum.
“Its all about tapping into the talents to help Jamaica, land we love, and its people”
You can find out more about the Jamaican Association by visiting their website: jamaicanassociationchina.com
Runako Celina is the co-founder of Black Livity China. She holds an MA in International Politics and African Studies from Peking University. She spent two years working for China's largest Digital TV platform broadcasting in African countries and currently lives and works in Beijing. During her time at Peking University, she sat on the committee for the Peking University Africa Think Tank.