Photographs of Mariapol’ and Kharkiv in Ukraine tell the story of devastation – of buildings, and of the lives of those who once peacefully and simply lived in them. We can see the same impact looking at aerial views of Aleppo, Beirut, and the towns of Eastern Afghanistan: the first destroyed by war, the second by an explosion, and the last by the very recent earthquake in that region. Whatever the cause, the rubble and the tragic remains of what had been places of family safety and pride touch our hearts. Although we pray that it will never be our story, it is not hard for us to enter the stories of others as we see the broken fragments of these much-loved homes.
It is also not hard to feel despondent – how can these broken places be mended? How can they ever be called home again? The places referred to above are still in the early stages, if at all, of being able to even think about “what next?” There are though examples which offer whispers of hope to those whose homes seem gone forever. One such whisper or glimpse is the story of Roombeek in the Eastern Netherlands.
Roombeek is a suburb of the Dutch city of Enschede. On 13th May 2000 a fireworks warehouse exploded, killing 23 people and injuring nearly 1000 more. In total 2000 homes were either destroyed or seriously damaged. This was not a war-torn land or a place of natural disaster, but for the inhabitants, the loss of home was nonetheless as heart-breaking as it was life-changing.
What happened next was inspirational. The national and local governments saw the rebuilding of Roombeek as an opportunity for its residents to have real say in what the rebuilt community should be like. Questions were asked about what was really valued. The answers to these questions were very encouraging. The priorities were that the past should not be forgotten but that the building should look to the future. For this reason the general ground plan of the area was kept the same. People wanted to return to familiar surroundings and to feel at home, but not for each home to be rebuilt brick by brick. There was a recognition that what made Roombeek home was more than the houses themselves. It was about being neighbours as well as households.
People wanted neighbourhoods that were safe and welcoming for all. Certainly that each home should reflect the needs of the household, but more than this, that each home would have, metaphorically and often actually, its doors open to others. With the guidance and skill of sympathetic architects and with the financial commitment of the government, twenty two years on Roombeek is a thriving place of real community and with confidence in its future.
This is a vision to hold onto as we contemplate the destroyed places of today. They need the will and means and skills of many agencies to become places where people can feel at home again. They also need the will and skill of those people themselves: to make each other feel at home again too.
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