Blogbox | COVID-19

Home, not so sweet, home

By - 24.04.2020

Trapped within walls of violence and oppression.

I came across a saying somewhere that tried to soften the harsh reality of being in isolation during this pandemic: “You’re not stuck at home, you’re safe at home.” Obviously for some people it’s true, and that’s great. But until that saying holds true for everyone, the idea of home as a safe haven should be challenged.     

By taking for granted the concept of home as a safe space — especially when this is enshrined in law and decision-making — we ignore huge swathes of society. We ignore those living in poverty; we ignore women, those who identify as LGBTQI+, the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities and individuals in many other groups who, even if they were not marginalized before, are certainly marginalized now.

Perhaps our greatest concern should not be the appeal to stay at home but the homes where this appeal finds us. When someone says, “Stay at home, save lives,” it should be taken as a moral responsibility, not a moral burden.  

But when your household feels like a warzone, and you feel more “at home” outside of it, where do you go now that the warzone is both within and without? Where, or what, is home now? The appeal to “Stay at home” suddenly becomes a heavy burden indeed. 

Particularly for the marginalized groups I mentioned, often the only thing that brings relief and some sense of safety is getting out of the house.

Home is what we make it

I thought about home a lot as a concept when I was far away from it. Finding myself in a house, I tried to force it to fit into my ideal of what a home should be, filling it with the things I grew used to in my first house, the one that truly felt like home.

Naturally, the overuse of the word “home” as something to aim for, as something abstract that goes beyond a building and is a feeling, an experience, a purpose, has made me think about where my home is and whether I want to make new homes.

I don’t know whether any phrases are used more than “Home, sweet home,” or “There’s no place like home.” With sayings like these ingrained in our language and our mentality, it’s inevitable that the concept of home becomes something sacred; so sacred that maybe as we strive for a home we completely ignore the way that a household actually functions.  

Is it actually irresponsible of us to attach such meaning to the word “home” itself? For those of us who take great comfort in our homes, should we go so far beyond experiencing a home as just a building or a property — as simply somewhere we can wear what we want and do what we want — that we begin to see it as an absolute certainty that everyone should “feel at home” when physically at home?

And it is terrifying when violence is someone’s home and when this violence is invisible to others.

When a home that “feels like home” becomes the norm, this stops us seeing the reality— or complete absence — of other’s homes. As long as the comfort of our own home cloaks us in privacy, maybe it distances us from what is happening on our doorstep, in the neighborhood and beyond.   

Dostoevsky exemplifies this in “The House of the Dead,” where a prisoner is terrified by the fact that he might eventually begin to miss his prison. It’s hard to imagine that a prison can become a home, but it’s not in vain that Dostoevsky writes, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything” and that this adaptability is humanity’s best and worst trait. 

It is terrifying that you can adapt to a prison. It is terrifying that you have to adapt to violence. And it is terrifying when violence is someone’s home and when this violence is invisible to others.  

Do we all deserve a home?

Above all, are we all entitled to demand and strive for a home?

When Allison Weir speaks of solidarity for women across the world, she says, “We can combine a recognition of the conflicts and struggles that connect us, a utopian vision for a future, and a home that all of us can share.”

Here the search for a home relates to a utopia and consequently becomes an eternal quest rather than a comfort or a norm. It’s to do with the recognition of the conflicts and struggles that can happen within the home and the drive to use this recognition to seek common ground. And perhaps most of all, it has to do with the knowledge that there are people without homes in the figurative sense (home as an experience) and in the literal meaning of the word (home as a physical place).   

I have felt the concept of home, in both senses, most keenly twice in my life: Once during the war in Kosovo in 1999 and now in 2020. Maybe it’s because on both occasions the search for a home became much more significant — much more fierce, if that makes sense. 

Circumstances were totally different in 1999, and I was at an age where home could be anywhere. For a 4-year-old, home can be in a forest, a tractor, a refugee camp — even while  escaping. But we can’t take refuge in escape when we’re forced to “stay at home.” Let’s return to that appeal.

Where is home for a woman who is suffering abuse?

Women are stuck at home, but not necessarily safe there. Staying inside might save you from COVID-19, so that’s something. But we should not forget that this crisis has not put an end to an existing one: The continual violence against women. In fact, it’s worth remembering that not a single one of the world’s problems is on hold while we grapple with this virus and face our new realities.   

Imagine if we had taken systemic violence against women more seriously, responding to it with the same proactive call to arms that we are responding to this virus.Perhaps we would be able to cope with the virus in a more comprehensive way. Now that we’re all forced to stay at home, maybe the world should think a little harder about the murder and abuse of women — and wonder why has it never been seen as an acute issue before.

For those of us who are living not only with the pain of the loss of a loved one to femicide, but also with the dread of who might be the next victim, the virus is just an added fear.

The problems of women have become amplified and will continue even when we are “freed from home.” At the moment, with a pandemic on our doorstep, women are working twice as hard as they worked before isolation.

Let us also not forget that the isolation of women is nothing new. Many women who were locked inside before have never had any escape.The only thing that has changed is the length of time that men have had to stay at home, and children too, what with the closure of schools and other social spaces. 

Now, women at home have more mouths to feed, constantly. Every minute, in fact. Before all this, maybe a woman had at least a moment to herself — to watch TV, read a book, or just do something insignificant that didn’t put her at the center of attention. I say insignificant, but it might not feel like that to someone who has gone to such lengths to finally get the opportunity to do something for themselves.

Stuck with their abuser, many women are now at gunpoint all the time. In a relationship where violence is the norm, a way of life — “home” even — often the only relief comes with physical distance from the abusive partner. And now, with the measures Kosovo has put into place, this distance is only possible for 90 minutes a day. 

It is not a case of domestic abuse going back to being a private matter now that we are locked away, because it was never a public matter in the first place.

During this time of self-isolation, victims of violence are allowed to leave home at any time, but when many of them had nowhere to go before the virus, what makes us think that they have somewhere to go now that everything is even murkier? When security organizations have not protected them before, how can we direct them to the same organizations now? 

Once again: The virus has not put yesterday’s issues on hold; at best, it has just changed their flavor.

In this way, the issue of domestic abuse is at risk of being reinforced as a “private matter” and the channels where such violence is voiced and challenged are more vital now than ever before. When abuse is kept within the living rooms and kitchens of our homes, home itself becomes a haven for violence, not for victims.     

When violence remains in the private domain because the channels through which it can be made public are restricted, abusers simply have more freedom to behave violently. It is not a case of domestic abuse going back to being a private matter now that we are locked away, because it was never a public matter in the first place. 

Where is home for LGBTQI+ people?

LGBTQI+ people, especially those who haven’t come out to their families, are forced to take on another identity at home.There is the fear that even the slightest slip might, in the worst case, cost them their lives, and in the best case, earn them contempt.     

Imagine having to start each day with a “good morning” to people who do not accept who you are.

The virus did not bring about homophobia and transphobia, it just gave them a platform — the home. Although LGBTQI+ people are outsiders pretty much everywhere, they might previously have found escape in at least some safe spaces.That’s not to say that the situation was good before, but it was something. Small pockets of society where these people are free to be themselves — which were not abundant even before COVID-19 — are now very much restricted.    

I’m not talking about the nature of homes themselves changing, because discrimination has not suddenly begun during this period. It’s just that the time spent exposed to violence at home has been extended.  

So, if at one time LGBTQI+ people could “isolate themselves” in spaces where they were accepted, now they must isolate themselves in spaces where they are not welcome. And that is for 24 hours a day, minus the 90 minutes of respite (and not even that for those who suffer from disabilities). At home — especially in the way that families traditionally function in Kosovo — privacy is still a little understood concept and the motivation to understand it is limited.  

Besides, I don’t know how much we should discuss privacy here. We are talking about the fundamental right of a person to simply be and when home doesn’t allow you that, we build our homes somewhere else where we are accepted by others.

So, our home should accept us for who we are, and we shouldn’t be forced to have a home other than one that welcomes us. In this way, leaving home is freedom, but remaining in it forces LGBTQI+ people to hide their very identity, the thing that makes them who they are. Again, this isn’t anything new — it has not come with COVID-19, and won’t go away with it either.

Where is home for the poor?

Not long ago, a family was kicked out of their home and onto the street, furniture in tow, and had to look for a new home. When someone is banished from their home in the middle of a pandemic, we can imagine that it is likely that person’s poverty pre-dated this crisis and is unlikely to be any different after it has ended.

As long as the act of expulsion is possible — as long as there are the banished and the banishers — the former cannot be at home, in the figurative sense of home as a sanctuary.

I can’t imagine that there is anything harder than being in a home where stomachs rumble, disease rages and you have nowhere to go.

A person that has never had a work contract all their lives will not suddenly become poor now. A person who doesn’t have the money to pay rent and lives in fear of their landlord’s knock on the door will have always been poor and oppressed.

Why did the virus find us like this? As the poor get poorer, this pressure does not stop.Their fridge will stay empty, even as the hope that they can leave home to search for work drains away.   

So, maybe this is the only change to the situation brought about by the virus.Their relatives remain sick, but now the sickness remains within four walls. I can’t imagine that there is anything harder than being in a home where stomachs rumble, disease rages and you have nowhere to go. 

Life for the poor today is encompassed in these lines written by Migjeni almost a century ago:

“Poverty labors and toils by day and night,

Chest and forehead drenched in sweat,

Up to the knees in mud and slime,

And still the empty guts writhe in hunger.”  

A ray of hope survives outside and inside there is suffering. But hope is still just hope unless it is realized.  

Where is home for the elderly?

Let’s be clear, we’re talking about the elderly in Kosovo. It’s not the same thing being elderly in Norway, say, where it must be easier to be told to stay at home because staying at home does not mean being forgotten. In Kosovo, the elderly risk being “out of sight, out of mind.”

Older people, especially those without carers, have three extra burdens at best during this time of isolation: The inability to go out because of the high risk of infection, the need to stock up on basic products and to look after themselves — this is without taking into account that many of them live with illnesses that were challenging even before COVID-19.

The questions continue — where are the homes of those who have never had a home? It is hard to find an answer. Especially when, as long as we bask in the comfort of our own homes, we barely manage even to voice these questions.

Home is sometimes just a building. Sometimes it is a quest, an unachievable goal. Sometimes it is a sanctuary. And sometimes, unfortunately, it is a haven for violence and oppression.

If home is a safe space for you, respect the rules and don’t go out, so that those who are stuck at home can leave all the sooner, and so that domestic abuse does not remain a private matter. Don’t forget, a safe home is a privilege.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.