Lebanese American BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas says it best:
I often get asked why my family never left – or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behind…No one’s first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while you’re away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away. Kim Ghittas, The Sad Fading Away of the Refugee Crisis, Foreign Policy 19th October 2015
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home
A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come; then we’ll come from the shadows. Leonard Cohen, The Partisan
I pity the poor immigrant whose strength is spent in vain, whose heaven is like ironsides, whose tears are like rain. Bob Dylan, I Pity the Poor Immigrant
Millions are on the move, and you are one of them.
What if you had to leave behind everything that you hold dear. Your identity, culture, language, faith. Your loved ones, perhaps, your friends, your play-mates. What would YOU do if you had but a short while to gather a few things together and run, leaving your whole life behind? What would you try and take with you? Then you wash up, literally and figuratively, on foreign shores – in border refugee camps or urban slums. And there you stay, with other thousands in like straits, until one day, you are selected for humanitarian settlement in a land at the other end of the earth.
That day may never come, so, impatient, frustrated, desperate, you use your family’s savings to pay smugglers who prowl the camps and the port cities, and you take to the seas in frail boats. You might only have enough money for one passage, so you go on ahead and hope to send for your kin once you have reached safe haven.
And you may be one of fortunate ones who make it – not one those cast ashore, lifeless flotsam and jetsam like baby Aylan on his golden beach. And one of tens of thousands in a river of desperate endeavour, you walk the long miles of the highways of Eastern Europe to a German sanctuary. Or else, you are parked in a hot and hostile makeshift camp somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn.
The border camps of Jordan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Malaysia have their own ecology of hardship and handouts, beatings and bribes, illness and neglect, cursory treatment by overworked aid workers, and shake-downs by the criminals that thrive in these places. There, you and yours attempt to rebuild a semblance of a life-before amidst the tents and the shanties, in the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. A mosque to pray in, a school for the children, games of football or backgammon for idle menfolk. Try to keep the children fed and warm and free of mortal illness. Try to keep the spirit alive in a time of anxiety, confusion, and empty hopelessness.
You are one of the lucky few selected for settlement in the fabled ‘west’. New lands, under foreign skies, so far away, it might as well be the moon. You now dwell among strangers. You neither speak their language nor comprehend their ways or their foreign gods. You have no friends or family to call on in time of need. You must rebuild the basic buildings blocks of a normal life – where even the idea of a normal life has now changed utterly. The houses, the streets, the shops, the money even – are all new. The things you took for granted are no longer there, and in their place are new ways and means. New systems and processes – social, welfare, health, education – with new rules and ways of getting things done. Going to the doctor, to the bank, to government offices. Learning English. Finding a home. Getting the kids into a school. Finding a job when your qualifications are not recognised, and work-ways are different to what you know.
The laws are new, the language is new, the way people dress and behave, talk, walk and eat is new. Many new things are fascinating, tempting. Others, confronting and insulting to your morality and values. Some are alien, even, beyond your comprehension. Codes of behaviour, dress, decorum, politeness, are new. Less formality, respect and deference; open displays of sexuality, affection, and rudeness that would not have been tolerated, permitted even, at home. You don’t understand what makes the locals tick – their mannerisms, their speech, their body language, their concept of time and space, even. And you are shocked and frightened by their hostility. Not all – just a noisy and troublesome few who talk quietly amongst themselves, or hurl abuse, or march through city streets with signs that scream “go home”. Home? There is no home. Home is far, far away. So far away, it might as well be on the moon.
This is the new. And you still bear the cross of the old. The world you left behind is still with you. You miss your family, your friends, and the comfort and support you all gave each other. You miss your old life. The streets, the sounds, the smells. The weather and seasons. Your job, your status, your school, your neighbourhood. You yearn for signs you could read, voices you understood on the radio and television, on the street, and on the buses. You hate having to try and make yourself understood to officials and doctors, desk clerks and shop assistants, and even the supportive and ever helpful case worker whose mission is to help you get through all this. You are homesick, and lonesome; you feel isolated, helpless, dependent.
And then there are the scars that won’t and perhaps can never heal. The psychological and physical effects of the events and experiences that forced you to flee your homeland. Conflict and violence, intimidation and discrimination, torture and brutality, even. You have flashbacks, bad dreams, anxiety attacks, and actual physical and mental pain and anguish.
You are a stranger in a strange land, and there’s no going home…
See also: Hejira
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. Psalm 107
Home, by Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.
your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.
it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.
no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive
and you are greeted on the other side
go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?
the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.
no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what