My sister, an engineer, kindly invited me to an event hosted by her firm to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June 2018. The event aimed to ‘humanise and individualise the stories of those who have been displaced’ and featured three speakers of different nationalities and backgrounds, crossing generational and religious divides. All had suffered from the reverberations of displacement, either directly or indirectly, and each spoke about the complexities of the notion of home, described as a ‘landscape of the heart’ by the keynote speaker, a Syrian refugee.
The first presentation was given by the daughter of a German-Jewish refugee, whose father sought a refuge in Britain after the violence of Kristallnacht and his incarceration in a concentration camp. Once in Britain, he was interned as an enemy alien, possibly on the Isle of White, where most Germans and Austrians were detained. She was raised in a ‘culture of silence’ and described her quest to piece together her family’s past. Although a second-generation refugee, her father’s exile influenced her life, which has been marked by transience. ‘I am not a tree’, she remarked. ‘I have no roots’.
The second speaker escaped the civil war in Bosnia as a child in the early 1990s. She recounted how, aged seven, she and her mother evaded snipers to reach the last UN convoy to leave besieged Sarajevo. They embarked on an uncertain future as refugees, firstly in Croatia, and finally in Italy, where she spent her childhood. Displacement was compounded by a sense of isolation and deep loneliness as mother and daughter struggled to contact relatives back home. Years later, she was eventually reunited with her father, whose experiences of war left him a deeply changed man. Today, living and working in Britain, she reflected on her understanding of home. Where is home? She asked. It is nowhere, and everywhere, laying in the cracks of the places she had fled from and to: Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and Britain.
The final speaker was a prodigious young architect from Syria, one of the few to be granted asylum under the government’s Syrian Resettlement Scheme (it is hoped that 20,000 will be resettled by 2020). He spoke of the repression wrought by the Baathist party, early hopes for the Arab Spring and Syrian uprising, and his six-week detention in a 25 square metre cell, shared with 75 other detainees, many of whom died. He reflected on his personal struggle as a diaspora-activist-architect, his feelings of loss and helplessness, but also anger at the failures of international institutions, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, to help Syria and its people. He has tried to find meaning in exile and displacement. What does it mean to be a refugee? As shown by the three speakers, exile transcends language, culture, nationality and religion. As John Berger has written: ‘Ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus – of disappearance, the century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’