Home. It is a word that I have always felt close to. The first part of my name “beth” comes from the Hebrew word bayit which means house. My parents chose my name (Bethany) very intentionally and repeated its meaning (“house of God”) to me often as a young child. And even as an adult, I was delighted when one of the first words I learned to read in Arabic was el beyt.
My favorite stories do not usually end with riding off into the sunset but with going out, finding and living an adventure, and then returning home again. I exhaled with relief when Bilbo was safe back home in his hobbit hole at the end of The Hobbit. I cried reading the last book of The Odyssey when after many years and many adventures, Odysseus finally returns to his family and his home ending his journey in his father’s arms. And the part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that has always intrigued me the most is not his scandalous life choices but the fact that after all of his wild living, he still just wanted to go home.
Home. It is also a word that I have always been at odds with. My family first moved when I was six months old and since that time I have lived in at least 20 different houses (not even counting dorm rooms). When someone asks me to describe “home”, the word has very few physical connotations for me. I do not picture a red door or a wide porch or a yard. Instead, the word “home” conjures up mostly a feeling and a sense of belonging.
Like most people who spent their formative years in countries different that their passport country, I do not know the correct answer to the question, “Where are you from?” I usually answer with, “I live in _____.” And hope that people do not pry much further unless they really want to hear the whole story. Even so, each place that I have lived has felt “homey” and almost every home I have lived in holds warm, special memories. I have been sad to leave each one knowing that I will most likely never live in or even visit any of those houses again.
Most people hold much stronger connections to their homes than I do. Historically, people have had to defend their homes by force from invaders. When trespassers approach, very few people choose to just pack everything up and move so as not to deal with the hassle. People stay in their homes against better advice in the face of fires, hurricanes, and floods. Since this summer was the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I listened to many journalistic accounts of why people chose to stay in New Orleans even when the evacuation was announced. I was moved and challenged by the personal responses.
A few years ago I traveled with a film about a community that had to leave their homes due to an incoming natural disaster. We asked all of the audiences who saw the film how they would feel and what they would do if they were in a similar situation — would they choose to stay or go? The vast majority of the people in each audience said they would choose to stay in their homes even if it meant potentially facing great personal harm. Each time we polled, I was surprised at the response. But then when I asked why they would stay, the answers were so emotional and profound that I found myself nodding my head along with them. Quite simply, it was their home — where else would they go?
There has been an a lot of debate about whether the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been streaming into Europe this year really have no other option. There has been speculation about individuals exploiting compassionate countries’ resources and possible terrorist threats. Every time I hear these questions raised, I wonder, “Why would someone leave their home unless they have to? Why would they carry their infants and grandmothers across multiple countries unless they really have no other choice? Would you leave your home and your job and all your belongings and become a refugee unless there were really no other option?” I am sure there are probably some enterprising individuals taking advantage of the situation but I am also sure that the vast majority would much rather stay in the city or village or town they call home than sleep on the floor of a ferry or train station or in a tent in a refugee camp.
When I look into the faces of the refugees on the TV screen or scrolling across my Facebook feed, all I see are people looking for a place they can be safe while their former homes are looted and bombed; invaded and destroyed. I have never been in that place. Even though I have moved often (and sometimes under traumatic circumstances), I have never had to flee my home for personal safety. I see families who do not know if they will ever be able to return to where they came from. I see fathers, mothers, children, grandparents, brothers, and sisters all forced to leave their homes, relatives, and communities. Sometimes families get to travel together but most do not. They do not know if their family will ever be whole again.
I see people looking for home. And my heart breaks. Because even though our situations are so drastically different, I see myself in their faces. I do not know their desperation, but I know the ache for home. Don’t we all long for home?