Finding Home in the Unknown

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Making home, for a refugee, is an expression of determination and grit—one including vast amounts of paperwork, language lessons, job applications, and much beyond.

By Jenn Hall, NSC Volunteer

For many of us, a move is a matter of choice. We find a town or neighborhood we like, and then seek a home therein. We choose a property and sign a lease or purchase agreement. We claim the keys and make a space our own.

There may be bumps or surprises along the way, but the boundaries of the experience are well defined: plan, pack, move, and settle in.

As my husband I set up a home for two August arrivals from the Middle East, the continuum of known and unknown in the refugee experience becomes apparent. One’s new home is revealed only as the front door is unlocked—often late at night, after days of travel. Much is unfamiliar, from the layout of one’s apartment to the cultural context of a new city.

There will be a great deal to do and to learn. Making home, for a refugee, is an expression of determination and grit—one including vast amounts of paperwork, language lessons, job applications, and much beyond. There will be helpers along the way, seen and unseen, but the resettled do much of the heavy lifting.

These thoughts bring what we are doing into focus. From a sparsely furnished apartment in West Philly, a new chapter is to begin. We do our best to make it a welcoming start.

It becomes clear that small comforts will go a long way. We load in necessities and place them where they can be easily seen. They are basic, central: a new toothbrush and fresh box of soap in the bathroom; clean sheets and blankets on the bed; groceries purchased on a very small budget, mostly staples. Tellingly, there are notebooks and pens to document the barrage of information that will be taken in over the coming weeks.

Making beds, sweeping floors, we contemplate the experience of the travelers. What would it be like to begin anew in a place half a world away, to navigate a series of agencies and resettlement requirements? What is needed to make a home, really? What defines a promising start?

Each item donated by those who wish to make this experience a little easier—a little more likely to end in success—goes a very long way. The space is spare, and it remains so when we leave. But through a collective effort it becomes a place to start. Closing the door, we send a silent greeting. Hopefully, it will be heard.

To learn how you can help with Philadelphia’s resettlement effort, visit our Volunteer page. Donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday between 9am and 5pm at NSC's headquarters (1216 Arch Street 4th Floor, Philadelphia PA 19107). See a list of urgently needed items here. Tax receipts are available for donations of goods.