Making a Home for Humanity

A hallway in my apartment in Poland. I only lived there for two years, but I painted the entire 2000sf space in an attempt to make it feel more like my own.
A hallway in my apartment in Poland. I only lived there for two years, but I painted the entire 2000sf space in an attempt to make it feel more like my own.

I came back from vacation two weeks ago to discover that my house had flooded. The floors were badly damaged, swollen in many places, and needed to be fixed right away. I had to move out quickly so they could be replaced. I was displaced for all of four days – to a shiny new apartment elsewhere in the city that rents for double what my place does, no less – and I was downright miserable.

There’s very little that means more to me than having a home to come home to at night, with a kitchen where I can make myself a nutritious meal, temperature I can control, all my clothes in a closet I can easily reach, books and music and inspiration around every corner, mementos from every place I’ve been hung somewhere on a wall. I’ve moved around a lot, and I’m over the moon to have a tiny little corner of Seattle to call my own (even if it’s only a rental).

In fact, the only things more important to me than my home are my relationships with other people. I wouldn’t be able to feel at home in a place if I didn’t know my neighbors. The language they speak. The history of the landscape. It means a lot to me that, for now at least, I am welcome here.

I think about the idea of home a lot. I work in an area where homelessness and its associated miseries are on display right outside our doors. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t pass the same woman, in the same baggy pants held up with one hand, saggy breasts visible through an old t-shirt, holding her hand out and crying. She is Black, like a shockingly high percentage of our city’s homeless population. Her pain is palpable. I would bet that she fell off the edge of affordability a long time ago.

And I live in a neighborhood that is rapidly becoming unaffordable for the very people who made it a vibrant center of arts & culture in the first place. My home is in a house that was built in 1896 – old stock, as they say – and owned by local landlords. It is a rarity: a place that was built with love and solid construction and is well taken care of by its owners and grateful residents. All around me, hideous new condos are going up, with lobbies that smell like the Yankee Candle Company aisle at Hallmark, empty roof decks, and video advertisements showing the shiny happy people who are supposed to live there – or who the advertisers are telling you you could become for just $2000 a month. Many of us can’t afford that. So, increasingly, those left out of the city’s tech-driven growth are packing up and moving further and further away, to places where they may or may not be welcome.

That’s a very long introduction to a comment on the Syrian refugee crisis, but I can’t detach these issues in my mind. We are a language, a culture, a history, and half a planet apart, but I know that I am no different from the 9 million people who have been displaced from their homes as a result of the war. More than 3 million flooded into Turkey and other neighboring countries, including nations with fragile infrastructures and economies. This has been going on for years, but only recently made the news as desperate refugees in search of a permanent home started showing up by the tens of thousands on Europe’s most fragile shores. This is the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.

It takes an incredible combination of courage and desperation to leave one’s entire world behind and go out into the world hoping that someone will help you – someone, furthermore, who may not speak your language, who may understanding nothing about you, who may think of your life-altering crisis as an unnecessary nuisance in their daily life. You must enter a new and uncertain reality with bold determination to make it work, whatever it turns out to be. You do not have the option to settle passively into creature comforts. For most immigrants, you will never again be able to move through the world in your native language, and for nearly all refugees, you will never again return to the only place that truly feels like home. You will do the best you can in a new country, for the sake of your children. Period.

In the face of this courage, many nations and people are shrinking back in fear. How can we possibly absorb all these people? political leaders ask, rhetorically, pointing to the lack of infrastructure (a real concern) and the challenges of integrating people with other cultures and languages (also a real concern). There are some ugly stories of people, including police, beating and abusing refugees in the Balkans. Many humans are rejecting their shared humanity with Syrians and choosing fear over courage.

But not all. 

All around the world, human beings are rising up to prove that the answer to the political leaders’ question is simple: We can help, because we choose to. 

Over the last several weeks, a friend of mine who works for the NATO in Brussels has been posting links to articles about those who have responded. This collection deserves a broader audience, which is why I’m posting them here.

  • There’s the Berlin-based group who created Refugees Welcome, an “AirBnB for refugees.” (The Guardian)
  • There are the residents of Oer Erkenshwick, a tiny German town that welcomed a coach full of refugees with flowers. (Middle East Eye)
  • There is the Mayor of Barcelona, who proposed that the city set up a district for refugees to live in, “as we did for Bosnians during the Balkan wars.” (La Vanguardia)
  • There are the German armed forces, building refugee camps in public parks. (Al Jazeera)
  • There are the residents of Belgrade, their own conflict-driven crisis not so far back in their memory, welcome refugees to Serbia. (AFP)
  • [NEW] Germans welcome refugees to Munich. (The Guardian)
  • And, of course, there is the love heard around the world today: When Iceland’s government announced that they would accept just 50 refugees, more than 11,000 Icelanders volunteered to open their own homes. (Time)

Some of these efforts could be dismissed as well-meaning but naive, like many attempts to change the world through social enterprise or non-profit work. Even 11,000 feels like a drop in the bucket against a crisis that is 9 million people strong.

But these actions of ordinary people are a worthy investment in empathy and a necessary reminder that we do, in fact, have enough resources to take care of one another. If we can trust in one another’s humanity – that deep, profound desire to find a safe place on this planet and make it into a home – we can, in fact, make space for everyone. (In fact, the entire population of the world could fit comfortably in New Zealand.)

Which, in some long and abstract arc, brings me back to my own little world. That woman on 1st & Washington? The forces that displaced her from her home may be different from the forces that displaced Syrian refugees, and in neither case do I bear the responsibility. But here, there, and everywhere, we have the power to help. If we choose to. If we simply get up, let ourselves be grateful for all that we have, and reach out a hand to another. There is enough room on this planet for every human to have a home, if we choose to accept them as our own.

For another human connection, you might head to Twitter and follow my friend Jen Butte-Dahl @jbdseattle. She’s in Lesvos with ShelterBox, setting up temporary homes for refugees. The crisis has never felt more real to me than seeing it through her eyes.  

Or if you just want to help someone in crisis right here in Seattle, there are some incredible organizations around, including the Union Gospel Mission and Facing Homelessness.

Every drop in the bucket counts.