Home Again

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.

The contribution of home to the well-being of individuals and their communities cannot be overestimated. Our new publication ‘Happiness and Domestic Life’ examines the vital connections between the home and human flourishing. To order an advance copy please click here.

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Far from Home

Images of families fleeing their homes are sadly not that rare on our screens – from  Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan to name only a few from recent years. The events of the last week in Ukraine have brought the reality and the horror of such images much closer to home for many of us who live in the West.

It is hard to watch crying, frightened children and their desperate parents gathering all can they transport as they leave their beloved homes. Homes where it is now too dangerous to stay. It is hard to watch as older people mourn while the young seize weapons to defend their homeland. The fear and urgency felt by far away refugees now feels close at hand.

Being forced to flee one’s home is not only a crisis of this current moment but the crisis of our century. The causes vary – war, oppression, economic deprivation, natural disasters – but all result in people on the move. People often in great fear and without anywhere to go, and always displaced from the places they called home.

It was reflecting on this world crisis that prompted HRF to plan our next Expert Meeting, supported by the Social Trends Institute. The Home and Displaced People takes place in Washington DC this coming September. HRF Director and academic leader of the meeting, Professor Sophia Aguirre, has put together a prestigious international panel of contributors to address how people generate a home in the midst of unstable circumstances caused by displacement. Experts will share material relevant to understanding the role of home for displaced people, and be able to respond to this input in study and policy development in this area.

Meeting rooms and expert discussions can also feel very far away from the suffering we see on our screens. The aim of the meeting, and the continuing vision of HRF, is for the home to be at the heart of the global policies which affect each individual and wider society. Meeting, thinking and talking now can make the actions that follow of genuine benefit to the most disadvantaged – and displaced – in our world.

As we posted earlier this week: Home Renaissance Foundation wants to send a message of solidarity to all those driven from their homes and who are living in fear in their homes as a result of this war in Ukraine. We believe that the right to a secure home is a human right and cherishing the home is a sign of our humanity.

Where are you setting up your home?

Let’s do a very basic exercise. Think about the people who live around you, relatives, neighbours, colleagues and list how many of them live and have set up their current home in the city where they were born. How many of the people around you come from and live in the birthplace of their grandparents?

In my case, I find very few examples… I live outside my home country, and in an apartment building where there are people of many different nationalities. In Spain, I know people who come from countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Romania, Pakistan…

We use the word ‘migrate’ now, without any prefixes, so as not to offend anyone. We are no longer emigrants or immigrants, we are now migrants in the strict sense of the word. There are a variety of reasons why this change in the way we live has come about.  As we all know from media reports, it is one thing to flee your country, probably for good, and quite another to leave knowing that you will be able to return because your family is still there, waiting for you with open arms, trusting that this journey to another part of the world will allow you to grow personally and professionally.

Undoubtedly, although it is not comparable, there is a common link. You leave your home, the place where you felt comfortable, to start a new life. Difficulties arise, you have to set up a new home in a different environment, probably in a different culture, and on many occasions, unfortunately, integration is not easy due to a feeling of rejection from the country of your destination.

Uprooting, leaving one’s comfort zone or fleeing from a country at war, the instability experienced, are aspects that worry us. How all these details affect the person, their well-being, their mental and physical health, their development… Are these people ready to take on this suffering? Success stories are often shown in the media – people who crossed the ocean and today are elite sportsmen and women or were taken in by a family and are now pursuing a successful career, or left their country and managed to become leading politicians abroad. But many lives are cut short, and in most cases, the dream of achieving a better life is not fulfilled.

All these topics will be discussed at the next Experts Meeting, with more details available soon. If only something good could always be drawn from these life experiences: leaving your country to open up to a new one, leaving your family to find friends who will be like brothers and sisters, leaving your culture to get to know a new one that can open up new horizons. In a word, if only the desire or necessity to uproot ourselves and move elsewhere could be a life-enriching experience.