Home. Having a place called home. Coming home. Feeling at home. Many of the people we met had to leave their home due to war and deprivation, embarking on a journey to establish a new home in a new country, in a new city. The journey does not stop on arrival; making a new home is a long, winding and often challenging process which involves many practical, social and emotional components. From finding shelter to finding your own path, from getting to know people to making friends, from learning about the neighbourhood to actively being part of it. To make yourself at home — to feel like you belong — involves all of these crucial steps which demand a lot of energy and resilience of the newcomers. These multifaceted accounts of home and home-making show just how complex experiences of (forced) migration really are.
HOME IN THE EVERYDAY
Many newcomers we encountered told us about the immense importance of seemingly everyday things and mundane places which have helped them significantly in developing a feeling of belonging: a specific food, a park, a bar, an apartment or a football field. Most importantly, however, people emphasised the need of human connection and friendship.
There are two places in Berlin that feel like heimat... homeland. Mariendorf, where I spend time at my friend’s flat when I need to catch a break. And then Neukölln. It has a lot of people who, like me, are just arriving here. It’s like a small world. We really support one another, show each other around, hang out. I also met a really nice guy who works for youth services, Paulo, a German originally from Brazil. He helps us a lot and even gave me a bike after my first one got stolen. I’m looking forward to this trip he’s organising for us to Trier next month.
* The concept of ‘heimat’ in German has no exact English translation but has a strong connection to identity and recognition.
My friends in Leicester went to so much trouble to make us feel welcome when we visited. You should have seen the dishes she cooked for us. But on the second day there, the children started nagging, wanting to come back home. Lamar was really worried about leaving her sunflower behind without water for too long. When we got back to Wood Green Station they were so happy! We really feel at home in our flat.
This Syrian restaurant opened 3 or 4 years ago. Now there are lots of them, but it was a big deal at the time. It has pictures on the wall of places we know. And Syrian Shawarma is just a little bit different!
In Berlin you don’t have much of a choice where to live, flats are hard to come by. If a flat comes up in East Berlin then you are very unlucky. I never encountered an outright racist incident living there but you can feel it. In the west, there is a big difference on the street. And Neukölln has a flavour of ‘us,’ there's a history of Arabic and Turkish people settling here so it is diverse. I like it but mostly because the Germans who live here are much more open and welcoming of strangers than in other places. There are some Germans that will not accept us even if we were to erase our identity fully. But there are things from home that I carry with me and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. They are from my family, things my parents taught me, things I treasure.
(Anas & Muhamad, Berlin)
To feel at home here, I think the most important thing is to be protected from loneliness. To have people around you who are close to you. I am lucky my brother is here with me but also I live together with the people at Refugio. They are not like friends I see every couple of weeks or connect with on WhatsApp, they are family. I think the experience is very different if you feel alone.
CHALLENGES TO MAKING HOME
Social challenges, political obstacles and administrative barriers also hinder and delayed efforts to settle into a new home. In London, (post-)austerity has put severe pressure on newcomers to swiftly become economically independent. However, the state fails to provide the necessary support, such as language classes or education, making it difficult to make sustained connections and build friendships. While Berlin offers more infrastructures of support and knowledge-sharing, newcomers are also pressured to quickly integrate into German society and the labour market. The neighbourhood of Neukölln, with its long history as a home for migrants, serves as a refuge where newcomers can find safety in diversity and small reminders of home – in the multilinguality of the area and its culinary offers. In Athens, the idea of building a new home in Europe, on the other hand, has been countered by daily experiences of temporariness, with the necessary paperwork that would allow newcomers to move on to a desired permanent home in northern Europe taking months and often years. While Athens, grapples with a crisis within a crisis, it often fails to provide newcomers with the most essential necessities – a shelter, a job, health service. The formal denial to a home is somehow compensated through acts of solidarity in the city’s underbelly – generated by activists, volunteers and neighbours.
I never wanted to come here. I wanted to cross Greece and go somewhere else, but the borders were all closed. But now Athens is my place. There is no other city like Athens, everything starts here. When I'm abroad I miss it. Athens, everything starts here.. We have lived together as part of the Ottoman Empire so we have many things in common… culture, food. It can be psychological but I don’t feel like a foreigner. Greeks are friendlier than other Europeans. Especially as a single woman, I feel Greece is a safe country. I have slept on the street and no one has ever bothered me. It’s also easier to live in Athens with little money.
The majority of kids in the school now come from Eleonas camp* through the IOM [International Organisation for Migration]. They bring the kids in four busses and about 70 to 80 come steadily. Many more students are enrolled but some of them have already left Greece or they had to leave the camp. This year we were so happy because there were so many kids that came. The government keeps talking about closing Eleonas, which is practically the only urban camp in Athens, so we have to see what’s going to happen. Do the kids stay here, do they go? There is so much instability of movement, of status issues, of what’s happening with the camp itself. And the aftermath of all this, in many ways, is on us too, right? So, it's super stretchy.
* Government-run refugee camp in Athens
HOME AS TRANSNATIONAL EXPRESSION
The effort towards building a new home takes place in the context of hope, trauma and loss. The idea and practice of Home is thus inevitably contradictory and an attempt to balance between hope for security in a new place and the desire to hold on memory and prospect of return to an old home now lost. In this context, many newcomers testified to the indispensable value of digital communication in balancing this difficult relationship between past and present, between here and there. Digital communication becomes indispensable for connecting with family and friends abroad or on the move, while also helping newcomers connect with likeminded people in their new environment. Home, in this way, becomes more than just a spatial reference; it becomes an emotional, mobile and often transnational expression of connection and belonging.
There is no place like home. No place. I am not a visitor here, not a tourist. I can only experience this place as a newcomer. This makes it very different, and very difficult. No person can come to a place as a result of forced migration and like it, even if it were heaven itself. I am working here, achieving and accomplishing things. Standing on my own two feet. But if the problems back home are resolved would I go back? In an instant. I would go back without any hesitation. There can be no dignity outside your own country. That’s how I see it.
First, our village was bombed by America. Then it was occupied by ISIS. Then came the Shia militias, backed by Iran — they burned everything down, our homes, our farmland and orchards. We have nothing left. The moment we get our papers, I will take my family to the airport and we'll go somewhere other than Athens. I have relatives in Germany, but every day you hear more stories about racism and discrimination against refugees there. We dream of going to the Netherlands. I’ve heard good things about Dutch people, and that they have good farmland and healthcare. Both of us grew up raising cows, eating and drinking from what we grew and cared for. It’s what we know how to do. And at the end of the day, we’re not looking for a place for more handouts. We want a place that will welcome us, where people are kind. Where I will be able to live among its people, work, and support myself and my family.
(Tareq family, Athens)
There is a sense of being at home here, for sure, but I am not settled. I can’t be, not with everything still happening in Syria. If I had come here as an international student, if Syria wasn’t a war zone, things would have been completely different. What is happening in Syria is ongoing… the war, the destruction, and these realities prevent me from being settled. This ‘Free Syria’ flag is the most important thing I have at home and it’s next to the plant on purpose. The revolution will continue to grow, like the plant.
(Anas & Muhamad, Berlin)
Do you know the poet Nizar Qabbani? He was Syrian, from Damascus, and was exiled in London. He has this poem — ‘Writings on the Wall of Exile’ — which reminds me that we were always living in exile in our own country, and that at least this, the UK, is an exile we choose.
(Hadi, Hanadi & Abu Abdo, London)