When Dilshod Nurmatov left his home in Russia to pay a “brief visit” to his elderly parents in Tajikistan in March, the Tajik migrant worker had no idea it was the beginning of tragedy and turmoil for him and his family.
“My wife was due to give birth in May, so I wanted to be back home in Russia in two weeks to help her in the last months of the pregnancy,” Nurmatov told RFE/RL.
Just days after Nurmatov arrived in his native village of Faizbor, in Tajikistan's southern Khatlon Province, first Russia and then Tajikistan closed their borders and canceled international flights due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, in Moscow’s northwestern outskirts, where Nurmatov’s family is based in the town of Khimki, his wife’s health began to rapidly deteriorate.
“I didn’t know how to help my wife. I would just talk to her on the phone and see her suffering,” Nurmatov says.
The couple’s three children -- aged between 8 and 14 -- were being looked after by Nurmatov’s brother and some neighbors.
Nurmatov pleaded with Tajik authorities to help him return to Russia, but with closed borders and suspended travel, he says, “no one was able to help.”
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Nurmatov’s wife, Gulshan, gave birth prematurely to a baby boy on April 21, but she remained in the hospital due to complications from a health condition she had suffered before.
Gulshan tragically died in the hospital on May 4 and was buried in a Khimki cemetery. Nurmatov was sent a video of his wife’s funeral, which was attended by a handful of relatives.
“My wife’s death came as a complete shock because she wasn’t sick when I left,” Nurmatov says. “I wouldn’t have traveled anywhere had she been ill.”
Nurmatov explains that his wife was “diagnosed with a kidney disease last year but it wasn’t a severe, acute illness and everything seemed under control.”
Nurmatov, who has a residency permit in Russia, finally returned to Khimki on May 19 with special permission granted by Russian authorities despite the strict lockdown in the country, which has recently experienced an explosion of coronavirus infections.
The Tajik migrant was the only passenger on the Tajik Air flight that arrived in Moscow to repatriate more than 200 Tajik citizens from Russia, a host country for many hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers.
I didn’t know how to help my wife. I would just talk to her on the phone and see her suffering."
Russian officials made an exception to allow Nurmatov because of his compelling family situation, said Tajik Ambassador Imomuddin Sattori.
RFE/RL spoke with Nurmatov again on May 24, when the grieving family was marking their first Eid al-Fitr -- the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- without the children’s mother.
“Me and my daughter Sevara and sons Sherzod and Ibrohim had a meal together,” Nurmatov says.
“It was nothing like before when we gathered with other Tajik families in Khimki for a large, happy Eid feast. It will never be the same again [without my wife].”
Nurmatov also mentions bittersweet moments of “happiness.”
“My children said they were happy and relieved to see me when I picked them up from the relatives’ home,” he added. “They were happy to come back to their own home and belongings.”
Nurmatov hasn’t yet seen his youngest son, Muhammad Saloh, who is expected to remain in the hospital for several more days; visitors are not allowed. Nurmatov, meanwhile, is required to spend two weeks in self-quarantine at home with his elder children.
Once his 5-week old son is home and settled, Nurmatov says he is planning to resume his work as a driver, a job he took up after coming to Russia for the first time in 2003, at the age of 19.
Like many of other families in Tajikistan -- an impoverished Central Asian country of some 9 million people -- Nurmatov’s parents depended on remittances from Russia.
His brother’s family, who live nearby, have told Nurmatov they would take care of his children while he is at work. Relatives of Nurmatov’s wife who also live in Khimki have offered help with childcare and housework.
Nurmatov says his life was turned upside down by the pandemic. But if there was a silver lining amid his ordeals in recent months, it was the “overwhelming support” Nurmatov said he received from everyone -- from government officials and diplomats to relatives, neighbors, and complete strangers.
“I am grateful to officials, the media, and everyone who made my return possible,” Nurmatov says. “Also, I’m thankful to everyone who’s reaching out on social media offering help, emotional support. It keeps me going.”
Many Tajiks in Russia and abroad donated money to those taking care of Nurmatov’s children while he was stuck in Tajikistan.
Nurmatov is determined to focus on the “good things in life” and provide as normal and as happy a life as possible for his children as they learn to adapt to life without their mother.