It’s a time of change and transition for all of us at Everyday Critique. Personally, I’m about to move back to Australia after spending the last year in Berlin doing fieldwork, so I wanted to write something on change, or on transition. I’d been considering the merits of writing about my self-perceived dis-identification with my country of birth, and mulling over the idea of exploring the word ‘transition’ itself. Sadly, anything I could think of related to these topics seemed to pale in comparison to the experiences of those from Syria currently seeking refuge in Berlin, a mass migration happening before my very eyes. A few of those Syrians I’m lucky enough to now call my friends, and I remember the first day I met one of them, Marwan (not his real name).
It was back when it was still warm enough in northern Europe in 2015 to sit outside at a café. A friend of mine, Stacey (not her real name), already knew Marwan and wanted to help him get to know more people living in the city. We all sat together drinking hot chocolates and chatting. I started off by excitedly informing the others of the week long holiday I was about go on to the Dalmatian Coast with a friend. Then we got to talking about Berlin, including the fact that I ‘had’ to leave and go back to Australia at the beginning of 2016, and how sad I was because I love Berlin so much. I realised my mistake even as I was making it.
Through no fault of his own Marwan has been forced out of his home country and he’s come to Berlin, a place he’s not even allowed to leave until his claims for asylum have been processed. I complain about ‘having’ to ‘leave’ Berlin, where I feel most at home, to ‘go back’ to Australia. The truth is, I’m privileged to be able to ‘go back’ anywhere. I’m privileged to be able to ‘leave’ Berlin. With the state of how asylum claims are being processed in Germany at the moment, who knows how long Marwan will be stuck in this city, unable to go back, not allowed to go on.
I always believed the notion of ‘home’ held little significance for me because I never really felt that I had a particular home. Today, thinking about writing this post, I realised that my sense of comfort and ease in Berlin – my sense that it is now my home – is actually constituted through the fact that I indeed have two homes. They are Australia and Germany, even if I feel that I prefer living in one. Let me explain. You could think of this in terms of negatives, like I usually do: “I like Berlin because I don’t feel I can really be myself in Australia”. However, the other side of the equation is that I can only feel comfortable in Berlin because I know I can go back to Australia for sunshine and good coffee more or less whenever I really want. I have some of the closest, most wonderful friends in Australia and my family are more or less all there, and the only reason I can be content living life in Berlin without them is because I know that they are there in Australia, and again, that I can more or less go and see them there whenever I want. Australia, as a home, is always there for me, a bit like a baby security blanket that you kept until adulthood, that you maybe don’t want to put on your bed anymore, but feel comforted just knowing it’s there in the cupboard.
What about Marwan and countless other refugees like him? He can’t write about the home that is still there for him to go back to. He can’t know that his friends and family – still trapped in Syria a conflict that it’s estimated will take decades to resolve – will always be there for him. How difficult must it be for people mired in unending cycles of paperwork, insecurity, boredom and constraint to transition to new lives and new homes? What do these experiences do to a refugee’s sense of self, sense of home, and sense of community? Yet as Ari points out, people like Marwan can and do make new homes and exercise political agency despite the horrendous situations they find themselves in (McNevin 2011). These were some of the thoughts that made me realise any post focussing on my experience of my impending return to Australia would simply be a critique of the privileged, ‘western’, middle-class Everyday. Despite sadness at leaving Berlin, knowing Marwan made me recognise the privilege of leaving and return, and that having a home, let alone two, isn’t to be taken for granted.
McNevin, Anne (2011), Contesting citizenship: irregular migrants and new frontiers of the political, New York: Columbia University Press.