Home, huis, habitation, haus, hem, hjem, heima - in many languages, home starts with an H. If you squint, the letter H even looks like a dwelling. It has two vertical walls, one horizontal roof, a house! But a house is not necessarily a home. Nowadays, it often isn’t. A home to be considered such requires a feeling of safety, of protection.
There are too many people without that. I’ve been too quiet during the latest developments. The drowned boy did not go by me unnoticed, neither have the comments on refugees, the restraining politics and the harrowing statistics. It has hurt me incredibly. I have found it difficult to find the right words. It hits home deeper than I want it to.
For years, I’ve felt guilty, every single day because of my privileges. Not because I fly business class (I don’t) or because I earn a lot (I work for a charity and don’t), not because of my wealthy or comfortable family, no - I feel this intense guilt because I get to go to a home every single day. A place I feel safe. A home, where I can find comfort, but because of my insight and guilt a home that often fills me with discomfort.
The first time I felt this was after I visited the refugee church “de Vluchtkerk” in Amsterdam; a place where a group of over 150 refugees find shelter. Refugees who don’t get asylum in the Netherlands - barely get shelter from the government; actually the most they tend to get from my home country government is a bus ticket. That doesn’t get them far. The European policy makes it difficult for them to go anywhere else. So the refugees end up on the streets. The church was just a temporary solution, squatted by activists and supporters. It is set up and supported by volunteers, but ran mostly by the refugees themselves. They are capable humans who can take care of themselves, if only they had a place to take care of...
The church was falling apart, and desperately needed rebuilding. Nothing worked, and it was absolutely freezing in the winter. It wasn’t warm or cozy or nice; it wasn’t a ‘house’, but it was home, and for many people. It is where they felt safe. In that year at that church, it was a home to me too. After my studies, after my work, just any spare time I had - I went there. I sat there for hours, talking to my refugee brothers and sisters. It was where I felt safe.
But afterwards I always went ‘home’.
That’s when it hit me. Guilt.
I was speaking to Yannick, a refugee from Congo. Just before I was about to leave. We were talking about his dreams. He dreamt about moving to Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. While he told me about this magical place with its bewitching inhabitants, he started to unfold something out of paper. It was a flyer for a demonstration to raise awareness on refugee issues in the Netherlands. He continues talking about Punta Cana, whilst folding the flyer into a boat, and then he worked another into an airplane. He shows them to me and says, “Here, so you can come look me up in Punta Cana - we’ll dance the Bachata together.” How I’m to get there - by boat or plane - is up to me, but I should definitely go. Everybody there is kind, and everybody gets welcomed with a warm heart.
I walk outside. I’m filled with shame. In the Netherlands, we didn’t really give them a warm welcome. They get a bus ticket. They get a “NO” stamp on their asylum application. It is a short hello; goodbye. Sometimes, they get put in jail for months - with no more reason than they can’t legally identify themselves. Go directly to jail, do not pass ‘go’.
I’m aware that all this is a complex issue. But the latest developments have proved one thing: we can’t avert our eyes and do nothing. You can’t leave a boat at sea, you can’t leave a refugee on train tracks, behind barbed fences. I don’t want to talk politically. I don’t want to talk about man-made concepts, laws, regulations, bureaucracy, those things that at the end of the day aren’t the core discussion. Stop seeing the situation politically, whilst moving your eyes away from humanity. Humanity is all that really matters. Providing a warm welcome to someone with no safety starts the creation of safety. It is there that home develops.
1st of June 2013 was the day the refugees had to leave their shelter. The temporary contract they had with the owners of the church ended, and the owners claimed it back to start a rebuilding process. There was no alternative place to go.
It was a sunny day. We started cleaning up. Getting all the mattresses and blankets out. Getting all the kitchen wear out. All outside on the street. Half of the people sat outside and just watched, whilst the rest tried their best to move everything outside. Some of the women and sick people found shelter, but for the rest, the street. That day, I felt extremely guilty to have a roof.
I was scared. I’d been going there for a while and had attached myself to it. One of the refugees, Shine from Somalia, was very dear to me and I asked him if he was scared. He told me no. “I am sure good things will come.” He kept smiling and laughing, but I felt scared. We were sat in a group and Cyriaque, a refugee from Ivory Coast, who had formed a band with other members, was playing his guitar and singing a song. The rest of the group were jamming along. Happy, seemingly unworried, seemingly with hope.
“I am so sorry you have to go through this. I wish I could do something.” I told Shine. The whole time, all I wanted to do was give my home away. Let them stay there. But I couldn’t. And I knew this wouldn’t change a thing. It wouldn’t help so I felt helpless. “Thank you”, Shine said. “I don’t need anything. It’s enough to have you here. You and all the others who always come. I don’t want your money or anything. Your smile is enough.”
Cyriaque, from Ivory Coast at protest in Amsterdam, 2013
Another building was squatted for the refugees in the days following, an empty office where they stayed for a few months before being moved around once again. I moved abroad myself but I never really distanced myself. Things may have changed in the Netherlands; things may have changed in the world; things do keep changing; but mostly, things need changing, and in a much bigger way. People need to feel safe; people need a home.
It has taken me over two years to write this. I have sat down so many times to do so, typing four words, only to close my laptop again. I don’t think I realized just how profound an influence this experience has had on me.
My skin itches sometimes, embarrassed of the (Dutch) politics, and of the world’s attitude towards refugees, it itches with illogical embarrassment about my ‘privilege’. I’m not saying anyone should feel guilty - lots of people have worked hard to earn privileges and I am not intending to undermine that. We can’t swap situations or privileges, but we can work much harder to make each other happy. We can also change each other’s future; we can fight for change. All I want is for people to see people as people. All it takes is compassion. Create comfort for those in discomfort.
What makes a home is not what makes a house. A home is safety; the feeling of appreciation, love. A house is physical. You don’t flee your country without reason. If your house does not feel like a home, if you are not safe, if you are in the mouth of a disaster, you flee. The least we can do is accommodate them in safety. It is the only humane thing to do, right?
Wherever I move, I take that boat and airplane that Yannick made for me. It always gets a prominent place in my house. No one’s noticed it so far. But it reminds me of the importance of a warm welcome, the importance of hope, of compassion, of safety. It reminds me of home.