What does “home” mean?

So, one of the things I do with my spare time is volunteer at a weekly immigrant resource clinic.  I do this partly because I have personal reasons for being especially sensitive to the needs of immigrants, and partly because it slightly soothes my white guilt.  It also provides the occasional opportunity to use my feeble Spanish.

So, mostly this office assists immigrants who are undocumented in the United States, who wish to apply for legal status.  The INS is not especially friendly to those who apply for registration as immigrants only after they are already here, but there are ways to get into the system without too much risk of having Immigration and Customs Enforcement bundle you up like cordwood and ship you back to your country of origin.

Usually, the clinic brings a broad mix of undocumented locals, most Latin Americans, with the occasional south-east Asian, and an eastern European or Caribbean islander once in a blue moon.  Today, all but one of the people across the desk from me were from Haiti.

Now, there is a fair-sized Haitian community here.  It’s not large or prominent, but it’s definitely there.  The reason so few come for registration assistance is mostly that their nation of origin is (relatively) close, and because they generally aren’t desperate to become documented residents of the United States.  In the very unlikely event that a local undocumented Haitian is detected and removed from the United States, it’s not so terrible to be back home for awhile, and he can be back here eventually anyway.

At least, that’s how it was until Tuesday’s earthquake in Port-au-Prince.  For an awful lot of Haitians abroad, home disappeared; suddenly, there is nothing to go back to.

“Home” is a funny concept.  It can be where you are, but also where you’re from; you can walk home to your apartment, or fly home to visit your mother.  If you’ll forgive a personal example that feels awfully trivial in comparison to the context I’ve set so far, I was fiddling with my “hometown” Facebook setting yesterday.  It originally named the city where I grew up, and then briefly the city where  I was born, and then until yesterday the city where I currently live and have spent most of my adult life.  The most recent setting didn’t seem right, and neither did any of my previous choices.  So, I tried to list “I don’t even know any more,” but that just confused Facebook and I ended up with a blank entry.

(Of course, that blank spot didn’t stop Facebook from notifying all my friends that I had changed my hometown.)

The thing is, probably more than anything else, “home” is the place that you can always go back to when you need.  I realised that at some point, I stopped having a place like that.  This isn’t a terrible thing, because I like where I am right now, and I suppose letting go of the place my rather small family still lives is something I did voluntarily, even if I didn’t really realise it was happening.

For the Haitians I talked to today, though, home didn’t just fade away — it got flattened Tuesday evening.  It’s not simply gone from their hearts; it’s gone.  Several of them literally became orphans this week.  A few people think they may have lost their entire families.  Almost all of them would have nowhere to live if they went back to Haiti.  So, now, suddenly, here is home, because there isn’t anywhere else, any more.  So, they come to the immigrant resource office, to find out what they can do to make sure that the only home they have left won’t be taken away either (In this case, Haitians are eligible for “temporary protective status”).

With luck, a few of these folks will find out in the coming weeks that things aren’t as bad as they feared, that some of their family survives, or their property remains.  But, even then, home isn’t the same any more, and what they would go back to isn’t what they left.  That happens to everyone, of course, but not usually this abruptly or unwillingly.

The only thing I can really bring from this experience (aside from a very, very deep desire to get very, very drunk) is the old idea that we should all appreciate what we’ve got, because we might not have it forever.  If you’ve got a place to call home, where you are loved and where you feel safe, then take a moment to be grateful for it.  Some day, eventually, it won’t be there, or at least won’t be the same, and you’ll miss it.  While you still have it, appreciate it.

Call your mother.

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