What first comes to your mind when you think of home?
I think of home as a safe place where I can live freely with the ones I love. Whether that is family, friends, or even pets. I think of it as the only place in the world where I get to decide who and what enters and leaves it. A place I can come to at the end of a tough day and feel the weight of the world being lifted off my shoulders.
I did not have the chance to grow up in my home country, visit the house my mother grew up in, or go to my grandfather’s house and have him walk me through his garden. No, nothing like that could be experienced by me and more than 7 million other Palestinians in the world right now. I was, and still am, forced to live in a different country. There is nothing particularly bad about living in a foreign country when it is your own choice. But when you are forced to live in a foreign country because you are not allowed to step foot in your own home country, knowing that people from around the world get to visit it, makes your heart ache.
Home was never a physical place for me as a child; it was rather who I was surrounded with that made home. I was born and grew up in Saudi Arabia because my mother established her career there. We moved houses a lot during my childhood, so I never got the chance to get too attached to any of them. What mattered to me the most was proximity to our loved ones. None of the houses was I particularly fond of, until we finally got our own house when I was around the age of 11.
It was really difficult for a single Palestinian mother to rent, let alone buy, a house in Saudi Arabia at that time. But Mom and her sister did everything they could to get it. It was an amazing house and had everything we ever wanted. Most importantly, it was big enough for when my aunts (living in Saudi Arabia, too) would come to stay with us. It was the best time of my young life. Never could I have thought that we would be losing it soon after.
Unfortunately, the year after we got the house, the financial crisis hit, and my mother’s workplace had to start letting people go. Who is better suited to be let go of than a Palestinian woman? We couldn’t live in Saudi Arabia unless my mother was working there, so my mother, brother, and I, had to pack up our whole lives into a few boxes, leave everything we ever knew, our friends, and the rest of our family living in Saudi Arabia behind, and move to a whole different country.
Fast forward through all the drama, and I find myself living in a new country, Jordan. That is where I am supposed to be from, according to my passport. But I don’t recognize the streets, my accent is different, and I miss home. Saudi Arabia was never home, nor did I know the streets that well, but it was still the place I was born in and used to. Is that what makes a place home? Or is it the country whose passport you are holding? This question is a very difficult one that I do not think I will ever be able to answer.
In Jordan, I found myself changing to fit in quite a lot, and somehow lost my identity along the way. I changed my accent, the way I dressed, and the way I styled my hair, to mention a few things. My thoughts on many topics changed as well. It was a very different environment from what I was used to, and I was not coping well. I hated being here for the longest time. I always missed Saudi Arabia, and my family and friends there, so badly. We would visit my aunt that lived there every chance we got, and she would visit us here, too. As tempting as it is to say that it got better with time, it did not. The feeling of not belonging never faded. It might have felt less or more overwhelming at times, but it is still always there.
I felt out of place my whole life, and still do, but we as Palestinians have the skill of getting accustomed to a place quickly. Now, wherever I go, I make home of it, and I am usually never sad to leave a place behind, only scared that I will forget all the memories I have made in it. I taught myself not to love a place too dearly again, because you never know where life will take you as a Palestinian in diaspora. Not Palestine for sure.
With all the different contexts Palestinians were forced to live in, they do not really have a unified meaning of home. The last time they felt like they had one was before Palestine was occupied in 1948. After that, Palestinians either grew up in other countries around the world where none of them ever felt like they belonged, or grew up in Palestine, facing the imminent threat of losing their lives, their freedom, their homes, their jobs, or their loved ones.
Living as a Palestinian in diaspora versus living in Palestine? Some would argue that one is worse than the other, but, in my opinion, both experiences are traumatizing, and a person who has lived on the outside cannot come close to imagining what living on the inside feels like. For example, even though I have lived in foreign countries my whole life, my own home has never felt foreign. It was the only place where I felt completely safe. It was the only place where I could embrace who I was and where I came from. Whereas on the other side, Palestinians still living in Palestine never feel safe in their own home. There is no guarantee they will wake up to find their house intact. No guarantee that they will not wake up to someone from their house getting killed or arrested for no reason.
Now, imagine you were born Palestinian. Does that justify the fact that you can never have a stable, safe home? One of the most basic human needs, yet a whole population is robbed of it. Maybe that is why Palestinians dare to feel a slight sense of relief among all the feelings of utter sorrow and despair when a family member or a loved one sacrifices themselves by becoming a martyr while defending their land in hopes of making it a better place for future generations: heaven is the only place that they could ever feel home. The only place where they have the right to permanent residency.