The Stories and Art of the Displaced Help Reveal the Meaning of Home

The author explores the myriad ways in which survivors reflect on losing the places where they once belonged

The Stories and Art of the Displaced Help Reveal the Meaning of Home
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

“I hold home with me wherever I go; the news, the thoughts and the memories are a part of my daily life,” Hanan, a Syrian-Palestinian architect based in Berlin, wrote to me. But her home — the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, Syria — is no longer the same, though she didn’t believe it until she received a series of photos and videos of the destruction from an old friend. “I had to see the pictures once, twice and repeat to understand that this is the place I used to live, that under the rubble is what I still, up until this moment, call home,” she continued.

In my exile, I have seen how millions of Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including some of my friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances. I left my city, Homs, on Nov. 17, 2011, and have not been able to return. At this point, more than 13 million people have been forcibly displaced by the war, and while news outlets often turn these refugees into faceless numbers and politicians weaponize their struggles to fit their own agendas, I find nothing more powerful than these individual stories, and the way each of us tries to make sense of the burning question: What is home, when you can no longer return?

“It was all gone in the photos I saw later, the bright, well-lit rooms were eaten by the fire,” Hanan continued, adding that it was obvious that her house had been robbed before it had been set on fire. “The only things that I recognized were the remains of the fridge and the bench of the dining table.”

I tried to make sense of the effect of this loss in my book, “Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria.” I researched the impact of war on communities, interviewing people like Hanan to piece together a different history of our wars, one narrated by survivors who lost their homes, discovering aspects of who they are or used to be. It raises questions of belonging: Who are we when our homes have been both physically and metaphorically destroyed? Drawing on the idea of domicide — meaning the destruction of the home — I looked to survivors, but also artists, fashion designers and novelists who have played with these ideas in their own work to make sense of the burning question: What is home?

In her debut memoir “I Don’t Want to Talk About Home,” Suad Aldarra narrates her story of migration and displacement. Born to Syrian parents in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Aldarra moved to Syria in 2003 to complete her studies in software engineering. After she fled Syria in 2012, she lived in Egypt and the United States before finally settling in Ireland. While reading her memoir, there was only one word I could think of throughout the pages, and it was the very thing that she didn’t wish to speak of: home.

Aldarra’s memoir is filled with aching memories of places and faces in Damascus. Reading it made me feel as if I were back in Syria, walking in cities filled with colors, movement, sound and drama. Between the lines, you can read unwritten stories of grief and yearning for a lost past.

“When I’m asked what I miss the most about home, my mind bustles with a thousand memories from the vibrant streets of Damascus,” she writes. “I picture what I left behind: my sweet grandmother, my fluffy black-and-white cat, my pile of books. But more than all of this, the thing I miss the most is myself.”

The memoir is powerful for several reasons, but it was the silence that was breathtaking, seen in the collapse of words, as it is impossible to narrate what has been lost, what has been destroyed both in cities that we leave behind and in ourselves. This silence is unpacked in different layers of pain. Once, in a group therapy session, Aldarra says, “Hi, my name is Suad. I am eight months pregnant. I am Syrian, and I don’t think Syrians should have babies.” Each of these sentences is filled with grief and sorrow. And many Syrians today do not want to bring more life into the world after the war and loss they have lived through. Painful words like these leave readers with questions to be answered even though they are unwritten on the page.

The memoir unfolds across geographies, and as these geographies change, Aldarra herself changes too. She poignantly describes missing her former self that she left behind in Syria, even imagining that a version of herself still lives there. “I wondered if maybe there is a version of me living back in Syria, who still loves the rain; who wears a hijab, speaks Arabic, volunteers with paramedics and spends her time learning to play the piano while her cat purrs on her lap,” she writes. “Perhaps for every Syrian who left the country, there is an alternative version of them resuming the life they had before the war. And as long as those versions of us are still alive, we’ll never find peace.”

As I read Aldarra’s words, I found myself wondering how people find peace after experiencing different forms of trauma. Is peace possible after experiencing something like a mass genocide? Anyone who has fled a war zone knows that reaching the shores of new lands is not the end of the struggle for refugees. How does one rebuild a life in exile when one’s own distant country is being destroyed? In her chapters, Aldarra expertly swings between the desire to remember Syria and do something to respond to its crises on the one hand, and the yearning to create a new home away from the misery of war on the other. At one point, she makes a choice. “I unfollowed pages that carried news about disasters in each region of my country, and replaced them with more Irish pages that offered life instead of death,” she writes, describing the familiar way that many of us experience war from afar through our social media pages. She describes going for hikes with her husband Housam, finally feeling at peace, immersed in the Irish scenery.

But when her grandmother dies, she is forced to make a decision about whether or not she is going to return. “With her death dies the last reason for me to go back,” she writes. “I don’t think the Syria I once knew and loved is there any more. It has become a memory, a place in a parallel universe that I could only reach with a time machine.”

In their book “Home,” Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling note that home is a significant geographical and social concept: It is not only a shelter but also a matrix of social relations with a wide range of symbolic and ideological meanings. It exists within the body, the house, the city or the nation.

For many, this concept of home feels familiar. “Growing up in a close-knit Mediterranean city like Latakia was in the 1970s and 80s, home for me was the entire city, not only the house we lived in,” author Rana Haddad told me, infusing Blunt and Dowling’s analysis with her own experiences. “It was also the entire country which in my mind as a child and then an adolescent was anthropomorphised,” she continued. “It was a woman or more precisely, a mother.”

Losing Syria — and specifically Latakia — felt like losing a mother. “You can only have one mother, and if and when you suffer the misfortune of losing her you may always be a sort of orphan, uprooted from your source like a plant in the wrong ecosystem; such as an olive tree trying to survive in arctic conditions, or an apricot tree hoping to bear fruit in icy weather,” she said, painting a picture of what it feels like to no longer be able to return to the place one calls home.

Haddad explores this yearning — and the grief that surrounds it — in her debut novel, “The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor,” which is set in Syria from the 1970s to the 1990s. In it, Latakia is not so much a city as it is a vibrant character filled with beauty, charm and grace. When the protagonist, Dunya, visits after being away in London, a wave of memories flood the pages as she remembers what she missed about her own city, from the streets and the people to the language, the everyday life, the architecture and different states of being and seeing. “Dunya had also forgotten about the air. Latakia’s air. And as she breathed it in, tears fell upon her cheeks,” she writes. “Latakia with all its imperfections and flaws was not an ordinary city to her, it was more like a mother or a father, or a beloved grandmother, it was her tree and she was its branch.”

Even though the fictional character Dunya returned to Latakia, Haddad has not done so for over a decade. When I met her in Athens this year, she told me she has not been back to Syria since 2010.

For many, returning to the cities, even to the ruins of these cities, even to the burnt villages and abandoned streets, is still impossible. This is perhaps one of the greatest pains that forcibly displaced people endure: the inability to come home, the inability to visit their former selves and former lives, the people they left behind, the familiar streets and neighborhoods. Many people describe material destruction, but some go further and say that the city they used to know no longer exists, not only because of the damage, but also because the people they used to know, the familiar faces, have been displaced. No matter how hard people try to build a new home in exile, there is the memory of the place they left behind. Some keep a key to their homes, others have safely guarded soil taken from their cities.

This right to go home, or the lack of it, has been described eloquently by Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, when she was asked about her sense of belonging upon seeing her friends forcibly leave their countries. “I have come to believe that the word home is one of the most evocative, the most powerful, the most beautiful words in the English language, and I felt it when I came back from months in Afghanistan and I went home in a way that so many of my Afghan friends I knew, knew that possibly they would never go home,” she said on “Desert Island Discs” on BBC Radio 4. “And I went to my home, my little town on the Bay de Chaleur … on the eastern corner of Canada, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape but also just washed in gratitude: I can come home. It didn’t matter that there’d been a federal election in Canada. It didn’t matter who was in power or not: I had the right to go home.”

Unable to go home, many displaced people live a life in exile waiting for their return. History shows us that this waiting can mean years, decades, or perhaps a lifetime without return, often making this grief generational. Sometimes people who have already been displaced are displaced yet again — such as the displaced Iraqis, Palestinians and Armenians who built a new home in Syria, only to be uprooted all over again.

“I am a third-generation Palestinian refugee. My grandparents endured the loss of home and have lived the tragedy of exodus and refuge,” Hanan told me, describing a familiar story of how she ended up being born as a refugee, in Syria’s Yarmouk Camp. “They and my parents have worked for years to build a home away from home, and always had Palestine and the return in their minds and hearts. … We now are mourning Palestine, Yarmouk and Syria. … It is all gone. The place I call home is no longer the same, and even if it was restored to its original status, who could restore the lost lives and the ones who escaped the country for their lives?”

Among these stories of trauma and loss is the recurring question of how to deal with a difficult and painful past. How much should we remember and how much do we wish to forget?

Some choose not to be defined by their experience of violence and destruction, and refuse to be called survivors — either out of pride or a desire to move on.

“I have never chosen to share my memories or thoughts of that day,” Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake wrote in a rare account of his experience of surviving the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima. “I have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to put them behind me, preferring to think of things that can be created, not destroyed, and that bring beauty and joy,” he continued. “I gravitated toward the field of clothing design, partly because it is a creative format that is modern and optimistic.”

Others who attempt to build a new life in exile remain occupied by the memory of war, even if they now live in relative comfort, as is shown in a video clip of Syrian artist Assala Mostafa Hatem Nasri titled “Bread, Sugar, Homeland.” Nasri pretends not to hear her husband when he asks if she has seen what is happening in Syria, responding by changing the topic and asking him to bring home bread and sugar. He repeats the question, and again she changes the topic. But when he insists, she walks to her living room which turns into a site of trauma, as images of ruins and displacement are projected on the walls. It is clear that even if she is choosing not to talk about the war, it still occupies her mind, and she sings:

My beloved I pretend I can’t hear you, because I’m afraid one day I’ll be destroyed
I’m, because of all my pain, afraid to describe my feelings to anyone

Another artist who has dealt powerfully with themes of home and exile is Hussein Chalayan, born in Cyprus in 1970. In his 2000 fashion show “After Words,” models walked onto a stage that had four chairs and a table. Each model started unzipping the cover of a chair, then wearing it. A model removed the center of the table and then wore the table as a skirt. The chairs themselves were transformed into suitcases. Thus, the theater was emptied, and the models stood with the suitcases next to them as if they were ready to leave, reminiscent of the war in Bosnia in 1999, which, according to Chalayan, reminded him of the division of Cyprus in 1974. For me, the show created the feeling of holding home tightly and taking it with you as you leave.

I always wondered if someone can take home with them when they are displaced — watching the models transform an ordinary living room scene into suitcases was a powerful and profound moment of what can be taken, and what must be left behind.

After living in the U.K. for 12 years without being able to return to Syria, I feel that home is everywhere and nowhere. It is liberating. Still, some cities feel closer to home than others. Earlier this year, I was in Athens, where I ran into Haddad in the underground station, days before we were supposed to actually meet. I didn’t believe it was her out of the millions of people in Athens, and, given that we had only met once before in Cambridge, I wasn’t even sure it was her. “Rana, Rana!” I shouted. Sure enough, she turned around and saw me, and we both laughed and hugged each other. “How do you find Athens?” she asked me, when we met later. “It feels like home, there’s something in the air, the warmth, the food, the sea, the different layers of history, the kindness of the people and their hospitality.” I replied to her, trying to make sense of why an objectively foreign city felt so familiar.

A few days later, she wrote to me: “A strange feeling of homesickness pursued me most of my adult life away from Syria, but I finally found the cure when I discovered first of all the island of Crete and then the city of Athens. Being two thirds of the way between England and the Eastern Mediterranean, I feel there that I have finally landed on a planet where everything makes sense at last and where my naive eastern Mediterranean heart feels it can belong.”

There are times when life seems to be giving us everything we want: the art we love, kind people around us, the sense of belonging we have been searching for. I feel that in Oxford, where I currently reside. But there are times when memory comes like a knife and opens a deep wound of a lost time or a lost city, like the city I left in 2011. I choose to live as fully as I can, while at the same time, like many exiles, I keep Homs in my mind and heart, with the hope that one day, I can go home.

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