Stay at home. Is it really that simple?

Kabarto camp in Dahuk, 2020. Image credit: Shahab Al Samir

‘Stay at home’ – a phrase that has almost become a mantra for many over the past year. However, over 79 million people worldwide are currently displaced, with many forced to leave their homes because of war, civil unrest, or in the aftermath of natural disasters. An unfamiliar and transient lifestyle is thrust upon them and the question arises; when you no longer reside in the place you had called home, what meaning does ‘home’ take on?

There are 7 billion opinions of what ‘home’ means. Uniting many of these interpretations is the sense of belonging; ‘I feel at home’ holds a power that some find in a place, a story, a person. It is intrinsically entwined with memory and heritage, our sense of self and identity, or our detachment therefrom.

With many discussions of migration and displacement, there is the inevitable question of return. Why don’t people go back to their home and homelands? It is a geopolitical question loaded with challenges of varying degrees of spatial justice.

For the Yazidis of northern Iraq, their villages have been destroyed and lie empty with their people cramped in camps outside these villages. They fall between a distinct lack of government support and limited humanitarian and international aid. They don’t have capital to rebuild and their government is resistant to provide it. They are subject to a deep social, racial and ethnic lack of understanding regarding their heritage, an ignorance that is systemic and embedded for generations. Yazidis attempted to return but found ghost villages with lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity, running water, schools and hospitals in addition to ruins of homes. So, what remains to return to? Their feeling of safety is, ironically, stronger in the camps.

The camps are not built with the intention of long-term living and building a future. But while many of their community, including women and children, are still held captive by ISIS, and their situation is encapsulated by the horrors of genocide, sexual slavery and ethnic erosion, the camps offer Yazidis a feeling of protection, a temporary sense of home.

It becomes evident that home is much more than a geographical location of where we were born or reside.

Our research at Plymouth with displaced communities explores memory, imagination and storytelling to reconstruct what displacees value about their home-making practices and heritage. Through a participatory mapmaking approach, participants shared with us the physical and emotional meanings of home. For some, home is a place for becoming and growing, for critiquing one’s place in society (specifically for female participants) – somewhere between individual identity and belonging to a nationhood or collective. For others, home is transgressive, forging the freedom to drift between this physical land and alternative lives in books, novels and poems. Home is at times political, preserving and affirming a culture and nation’s right to exist against targeted erasure through warfare.

We see that home and home-making spatial practices involve iterative processes of negotiations with social, political, environmental and global challenges throughout our life.

Ultimately, home shouldn’t be tied with a geographical location alone. It is the way of being in the world, the feeling of safety and the environment in which to build a future. So, how do you stay or go back home when it isn’t home anymore?