Doing research on forced migration is one thing, hosting refugees in your private home is another thing. In all cases, Placemaking is a central issue. How do forced migrants create a new home in the host country they are staying? How do we, as their hosts, make our country and our own private home, an inviting, and safe home for refugees? If one digs into the details of these processes of ‘homemaking’, or in more general terms ‘placemaking’, it immediately becomes rather complicated. What is ‘our’ home and what is ‘their’ home? What can we share, and what is more private? Can there be some kind of ‘new home’ if one is forced away from ‘home’? As mentioned, the more general term would be ‘place’ but the term ‘home’ already coins the fact, that this is a special place, a place with which we have an emotional tie, or where we can get the ‘feeling’ of safety or comfort, of acceptance and support. Opening your home as a place to take shelter for forced migrants also implies compromising on some of those feelings for our own home. Sharing that intimate space is complicated because it is not just a kind of passive sharing, but an engagement with each other in daily life, by giving support, taking care of each other and also taking each other into account by mutually adjusting one’s expectations and activities. ‘Forced migrants’ is also a very general label and a bit of a technical analytical term, but we are of course talking of a very diverse group of people, as diverse as we ourselves as potential hosts are. Therefore no situation is comparable with the other and like in normal life there are no general solutions for how to do this home- or placemaking together. Hosting forced migrants is in that respect not very different from daily life, except, that it is a social microcosm in a kind of pressure cooker and it teaches us all important lessons for life.
My grandmother with her two sons and her mother, during the second world war and the German occupation of the Netherlands, hosted nine Jewish refugees until they were betrayed and they were thrown out of their home by the German occupiers. Happily, the Jewish refugees, just in time, made it to another safe place and survived. In hindsight, I still do not understand, why we as grandchildren never asked about how during these days this joint ‘home-making’ and ‘home-sharing’ was practised. Maybe, because we naively thought that this was self-evident. Anyhow, this somehow, alerted us, that maybe also we have the possibility and responsibility in the current situation, now the war in Ukraine gets so close to us, host refugees. The situation now, for us hosts, is of course not comparable with the immensely more difficult and dangerous situation of my grandmother. Today, we have a fantastic network of engaged neighbours, which are all willing to help if needed, even if they do not host Ukrainian refugees, or better, let us call them ‘guests’. In addition, the municipality and the RefugeeHome.NL organisation with the support of the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Dutch Council for Refugees as well as the Ministry of Justice and Security all are ready to support us and our guests. In addition, the OPORA Foundation, a support network of Ukrainian people for Ukrainian people, as well as a network of researchers focussing on forced migration is very helpful.
So since August, we have Ukrainian guests, first we had a woman and her four-year-old son, but they have left us again for another place, and now we host another Ukrainian woman. Like in real life, living together is challenging, but also very enriching and rewarding. Sometimes it is also confronting, when e.g. the houses of the households, where Ukrainian guests are hosted were smeared with a large ‘Z’. That felt almost like a swastika and brought the memories of the Second World War close again. Yes, our world is complicated and full of oppositional forces, the more important it is to attempt to understand each other and find ways to live together in peace and respect each other. Nowadays, it also seems that these kinds of oppositions are often overly enlarged and sometimes even seen as natural, while all attempts to encounter, respect, and understand each other, and to seek some kind of consensual living together are smothered as social kitsch of the past times. Oppositional ways of life seem rather fashionable. Certainly, we should stand for and defend our position, sometimes even by force, but we should also be able to relativise our position and seek a peaceful living together.
Thinking about these ‘positionalities’ brings me back to many of my ‘hobbyhorses’ in this blog on placemaking. Positionality or one might also say our ‘placedness’ or spatiality or even better ‘placiality’ and the continuous need to find one’s place and to engage in placemaking is the recurrent and core theme in the field of geography as well as on this blog-site. On February 10, 2023, I had the privilege of being part of a panel on Qualitative Research Methods for the Research on Forced Migration in a workshop organised by the OPORA foundation in the Hague, where on the one hand alternative ways for collecting qualitative data as well as the issue of positionality in doing interviews was discussed. In many of these situations, already the use of the term ‘positionality’ tends to put the interviewer and interviewees in distinct positions while in reality, the more equal exchange and the shifting positionalities in the interactions allowing also joint experiencing, and not just one-way information flows, are much more productive for getting a grasp of these very invasive experiences of being a forced migrant or being a host to forced migrants and how we thus are all continuously on the move through our never-ending process of placemaking, both in practice and in research.