“Home is wherever I am,” my mom likes to say. She means to reassure me, telling me I can always return to her, though I’m now a young adult and eager to prove my independence. Besides, I want to tell her, home is not just made up of people, though the author Robin Hobb may disagree. In her book Fool’s Fate, she writes, “Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.” And if not people, James Baldwin muses that “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” We utter platitudes like “home is where the heart is,” and maybe it’s true that we can sprinkle parts of our hearts through the world as we go, but I’m not convinced that’s all there is to it.
Abstractions about home cannot account for what happens when the ground beneath our feet starts shifting, when no amount of burrowing into the safety of each other or our minds can negate the fact that we have bodies that will always put us in contact with the material world. “The Trinity is known as the Godhead,” writes Terry Tempest Williams, “But where is the Motherbody?” In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, her memoir recounting the simultaneous deterioration of her mother’s health and the landscape of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, Williams dwells in the earth and the body. She lovingly applies attention to the specificity of hundreds of birds and the land with which she shares an intimate connection. And through each moment of loss, she does not recede into the sanctuary of the mind but turns outward to the Great Salt Lake, calling it “My refuge.”
In 2018, while working for the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah College and helping with preparations for a symposium centered on this theme, I called home “the ambiguous and emotional concept [that] doesn’t exist merely as the immediate walls that provide shelter but as the land that sprawls beneath us, the people that surround us, the language that runs through us.” Home is holistic, indivisible. It ceases to be itself when split into fragments. Presumably, we can make home wherever we are and with whatever people we’re surrounded by, but there comes a point when not even the most creative resourcefulness can make a home from the patchwork given, nor salvage the home that’s left behind. If home is the full embodiment of people, place, and self, it becomes fractured with the subtraction of even one of those components.
There are many ways to lose a home. Transition. Foreclosure. War. Hope - that what lies ahead will be better than what chases from behind. And because home is not just a physical entity, we can lose home even within ourselves. In her oft-quoted poem, “Home,” Warsan Shire writes:
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark”
How can one make home from the cement floor and the impossible choice to use your one blanket either for warmth or as a cushion?
How can one make home in the sea of faces as young as your own, left to care for each other though none of you are old enough to care for yourselves?
At the Southern border of the United States, families have become fragments as “hundreds of immigrant children who have been separated from their parents or family members are being held in dirty, neglectful, and dangerous condition.” In isolation and detention, these people cannot find refuge. They cannot find home.
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” Luke 9:58
I wonder if Jesus noticed the pattern. I wonder if he recalled stories of his birth, perhaps told by his mother, about how they could find no refuge among people when the time came for him to enter the world. I wonder if he remembered his father speaking of the dream that warned him to take his family to Egypt to escape a ruler who was threatened by the idea that a toddler could grow up to overthrow him. I wonder if Jesus foresaw the moment when he’d be torn from his mother’s side and hoisted upon a tree, able to see her but unable to rest his head against her shoulder. Or, I wonder if he looked ahead even further, to the many times he’d relive this story of a child with no home.
Before They Knew My Name
Before I huddled with my brother
on the endless gray cement, trying
to ignore the itch - little bugs, he said,
crawling through our strands of hair, trying
to find a home like we were - before
I wondered if these creatures missed
their parents too or just wanted to use
my hair for warmth - I would let them cause
I was cold too - before the guards yelled at us
for losing the yellow comb, I could almost
remember Mamá’s face and her hand push back
my hair before leaning in to kiss my forehead like
a thousand times before and the thousand times
we thought still lay before us.
Before I slept in piss and darkness,
rocking about with no clear sight of up -
wanting to see the stars that I used to
think I could touch if I just reached up
high enough - before the heavy gray chains
brought my hand back to my side -
pinned in by the sides of my brothers
and sisters who I could not see - before
we entered the light that could not shine
on any good thing but could only show
my mama far from me - and I couldn’t
reach far enough - I could almost
remember her arms around me
and the promise that freedom would
never be a question.
Before they turned me away to the shadows
of forgotten places, chasing me with death
by decree, into new country - before they caught
up to me, put me on a tree, I could almost
remember my mama’s hand holding mine.
Before I died every death of the forgotten child,
they took me from my mother and my father,
trampled me then turned back up to Heaven
with a plea for mercy on this, what they deemed
their god-given land that they soaked with the blood
of their God before they knew my name.
We are, each of us, trying to find a home in this world, forgetting to extend hospitality with the space we already have. Instead, we worry that we’ll find someone else in the spot we meant to fill. Scarcity warps reality, convincing us that there’s not enough room in the inn, not enough food to eat, not enough resources to go around, though family detention is more expensive than alternatives “that adhere to child welfare principles and maintain family unity.” In a report about family detention, the Detention Watch Network lays out several reasons for dismantling this systemic approach to immigration:
“Detention runs contrary to our values of basic dignity, due process, and human rights. Detained families are seeking protection from sexual assault, trafficking, and violence; our default should not be to put children in prison.
Children and families require specialized medical, educational, and legal support, all of which are severely impeded by detention.
[Department of Homeland Security] DHS is legally mandated to place families with children in the least restrictive setting possible by the 1997 settlement in Flores v. Reno. Family detention violates this settlement and other legal precedents which demand that the government actively and continuously seek the release of each child in custody.
Family detention is a wasteful use of resources at $343 per family member per day. During a fiscal crisis, it is unacceptable to be spending billions of taxpayer dollars to needlessly detain refugee families.”
But the cost is not just summed up by numbers. The United States has long claimed to be a land of dreams, and though the American Dream often relies on the idea that individuals can carve their own way in the world, in the words of John Lennon, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Dreams cannot thrive in a place designed to stifle. For children, especially, as the outer world becomes the mouth of a shark, inner peace will also recede to the recesses of a mind still growing. For people who have already “undertaken a dangerous and traumatic journey seeking safety,” detention then “poses a serious threat to individuals’ psychological health and further aggravates isolation, depression, and mental health problems associated with past trauma.”
There comes a point when not even the most creative resourcefulness can make a home from the patchwork given, nor salvage the home that’s left behind. Perhaps put most simply, these migrant families at the border deserve more than the patchwork they’ve been given. They deserve the safety to find home within themselves, in each other, and in the places - the real and tangible places - where dignity and freedom are not questions.
In The Winner’s Curse , Marie Rutkoski tackles the dynamic between an oppressive empire and a conquered nation through the prism of two individuals who love each other, but ultimately find that their love cannot let them forget their context. In the third installment, The Winner’s Kiss, they argue about war, about death, and about the choices they’ve made, and they say this:
“I want better choices.”
“Then we must make a world that has them.”
Resources for Further Reading
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service:
Elisabeth Ivey writes literary non-fiction and young adult fiction. She has contributed to The Odyssey and Messiah College’s The Swinging Bridge, and she has presented research on representation in youth literature at the PA NAME and IMAGINE Social Good conferences.