Is there still no place like home?
By Luis Alberto Fierro (*)
In this essay, I will discuss what home is; what do most people consider home; why some people leave their homelands for another country; how they do or do not integrate into their new societies; how they are linked back to their homelands; and if they can ever go back home.
1. What is home?
What is “home”? Is it where you were born? Where you currently live? Where your family lives? Is it defined by a physical building structure? By a family clan, a community, a village or a nation?
Many of us have grown up in different countries, in different states, different cities. Do we call home the place of our earliest childhood memories? Or where we were married? Where we have had children? Where we were happiest? Many times, there may be different answers to these questions.
This is fairly subjective; perhaps the first generation of immigrants continue to consider their original homeland “home”, while the second and third generations feel more at home in their new countries.
Which place goes deepest inside you? Where do you feel you belong? Where do you dream of being? If you could be anywhere in the world, where would that be?
Is “home” whatever you carry inside with you? Is it a physical construction or a sense of belonging? What do nomads consider home? Their tents (or, nowadays, perhaps their mobile homes)? Some retired people also have adopted a nomadic lifestyle and move about in their mobile homes. Is their home what they bring with them?
If you lose your house and all your personal belongings in a natural disaster, does your “home” disappear? Now that we have digital copies of documents, photographs, videos, and other mementos in the “cloud”, can anywhere with an Internet connection be considered home?
2. Where did human beings originate?
Humanity (homo sapiens) originated in Africa; modern humans moved to other continents starting from about 300,000 years ago.
Since then, humans have been constantly on the move; they reached the Western Hemisphere approximately 35,000=40,000 years ago.
Civilizations started to emerge in fertile river valleys, in present day Iraq and Syria, in Egypt, in India, in China. These were the Tigris & Euphrates Valleys, the Nile River Valley, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley. Civilizations developed around rivers because their waters provided fresh water, as well as places to hunt and fish. As the rivers flooded, the lands around them became more fertile, enabling the rise of agriculture.
The cycle of flooding (monthly, annual, multi-annual) generated the need for advances in astronomy, mathematics, languages.
The development of agriculture and livestock enabled the creation of the State, of public functions, of a greater division of labor and specialization. This led to forming communities, tribes, and eventually nations.
However, up until the 19th century, the vast majority of the people did not travel more than 50 km from the place they were born. Still today, most people do not travel far from where they were born and tend to marry spouses from the same community. This is truer for rural communities, peasants, indigenous peoples, who are more “tied” to the land.
3. Why do people migrate?
There is increasing migration, both within nations, and at an international level. There are now an estimated 220 million people living in a different country than that in which they were born.
In a few cases, the borders have crossed them as the people have stayed still. The city of Szczecin (Stettin), for example, has belonged to Poland, the Duchy of Saxony, the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, the Swedish Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, and, following World War II, it became part of Poland again.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also led many people to have been born in a city within the Soviet Union, and now live in a city with a different name within a different country, without having ever moved.
Some young people identify more with their cities or regions than with their national states; or, conversely, with the European Union, a multinational institution.
One test of your identity is who you root for in the World Cup of soccer. Many Mexican-Americans continue to root for Mexico, even when the national team plays against the United States.
International migration has increased in recent centuries. This was fed by improved means of transportation; demand for labor in newly “discovered” or colonized areas; excessive population in other areas.
In addition to voluntary immigration, there was also the forced capture and transportation of slaves, mostly from Africa to the Western Hemisphere.
Many migrants were fleeing persecution in their homelands, due to political, religious, ethnic or other motives; and many others were also compelled to move due to economic conditions in their countries of origin. In the past, many individuals were exiled from their home cities or countries.
According to the UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide reached 65,600,000 at the end of 2016; the highest level since World War II, with a 40 % increase taking place since 2011.
The current high levels of migration are fueled by:
o Climate change
o Political and military conflicts
o Political persecution
o Persecution due to religion, ethnicity, race.
o Drug trade, citizen insecurity, high homicide rates
o Demographic changes
While the total population is starting to fall in countries like Japan, Russia, South Korea, the Baltics, northern Europe; it is still growing in Africa, southern Asia, Central America. The median age is growing in Japan, Italy, Germany
A large senior citizen population will put pressure on social security systems and will also generate demand for care-givers. This will also likely lead to opening countries to immigration, especially for doctors, nurses, other caregivers.
In most cases (almost all), the socio-economic conditions of the immigrants will improve by moving to “developed” countries. In fact, according to some studies, the global GDP would receive a large boost if there was open emigration.
An article in “The Economist” (July 13, 2017) estimated that the global GDP would nearly double (by $78 billion) if migrants were free to move from developing to developed countries. “Workers become far more productive when they move from a poor country to a rich one. Suddenly, they can join a labour market with ample capital, efficient firms and a predictable legal system.”
Leaving one’s homeland requires courage and resilience. In many cases, migrants will not initially find other people that share their language, religion, customs; although later family members or people from the same communities of origin may follow them to their new land. They will also face a different weather, usually colder and darker (if they move from developing countries to Northern Europe or Canada, for example).
4. Can immigrants integrate?
How will these immigrants integrate? Many will not be of the same race or ethnicity as the majority in the receiving country; many won’t speak the language of their host countries; many won’t be of the same religion as the majority in the receiving country. This may generate increasing tensions, xenophobia, and even racism.
However, even the recent influx of millions of Venezuelan refugees in neighboring Latin American countries (where they share the language, religion, customs, and for the most part ethnicity and race) has caused stress and tensions. This despite the fact that in past decades hundreds of thousands of citizens of other countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Portugal, Spain, Italy) emigrated to Venezuela.
The large waves of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in conflict has also created stresses in Europe.
There are differences in the “integration” process of immigrants in different countries and cultures. The integration policies are more effective in the United States, Spain, France; and less effective in northern Europe, East Asia.
Some second-generation immigrants feel alienation, exclusion, and in a few cases even resort to terrorism or religious fundamentalism.
The United States has traditionally been very open to immigrants, despite some occasional countervailing forces (some ethnic groups were banned over the years, including Chinese, Jews and Romani). However, in the past few years the Trump Administration has made xenophobia and racism part of the official discourse.
In late 2018-early 2019, Trump even shut down the government because Congress would not fund a (physical) wall on the border with Mexico (after he had campaigned on building the wall and forcing the Mexican government to pay for it).
A majority of the US population, however, was opposed to the shutdown, opposed to the wall, and were opposed to scapegoating immigrants. Trump has campaigned on casting immigrants as criminals, rapists, and even terrorists. However, in the US, the foreign-born are only a fifth as likely to be incarcerated as the native-born.
Younger generations tend to be more open, less racist, less xenophobic. Many are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.
However, de facto segregation by races is still common in the United States, based on school districts, communities, States.
In the US, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority soon (they are already a minority in some States such as California, and among school-age children).
In 2011, non-Hispanic whites accounted for under half of the births in the country, with 49.6% of total births. Between 2042 and 2045, the United States is projected to be a majority minority nation (that is, no single racial/ethnic group will be a majority).
Trumpism / white nationalism (and the so-called right-wing populism in Europe) is a backlash to this trend. White supremacists consider that (non-Hispanic) whites are under siege, that their place in society is being threatened, that there are powerful forces (usually linked to anti-Semitic, “globalist” conspiracy theories) that seek to replace them as the pillars of society.
At the same time, there is increasing numbers of inter-racial marriages and children. Eventually, people will ignore “races”, and will consider themselves part of the human race.
Will this also lead to considering that our “home” is the planet Earth as a whole?
5. Children without roots?
The Quechua word “wayrapamuschca” means “child of the wind”. It was used to refer to illegitimate children, or more generally to people without roots. However, do people lose their roots if they move to another country? Can they maintain their own culture? For how many generations?
Will “home” for the second or third generation still be the town/city/country of origin, or will it become the new city or country where they live?
How can different cultures and languages be maintained? Does it matter if a language is lost? Many indigenous languages and dialects have already been lost.
It is likely there will be increasing “fusion” of cultures and languages. This can already be seen, for example, in cuisines. Even before recent trend towards “fusion cuisines”, Peruvian cuisine, for example, integrated European, indigenous, African and Asian elements.
Some cities, such as Toronto, New York and London already are quite a mix of races, ethnicities, cultures, languages, etc. New York, for example, has neighborhoods in which there is a predominance of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Caribbean, among others. There are 800 languages spoken in New York City, and 36 % of the population are first generation immigrants. Other European groups have mostly integrated by now (Germans, Irish, Russians, etc.).
In the case of adopted, fostered or orphaned children, they may grow up in a family that is very different from their birth parents. Is home for them the house of their adopted/foster parents?
6. The Jewish diaspora and new homeland
One particular ethnic group that has suffered persecution and displacement throughout history are the Jewish people.
By the 18th century, most Jews lived in Europe (especially in Poland, Russia and Ukraine). Very few lived in Palestine, and there were communities in several Muslim-majority countries.
With increasing persecution, a significant proportion left Europe for the Western Hemisphere, concentrating in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and some other Latin American countries.
Nearly 6 million Jews were murdered during the holocaust.
In 1947, the United Nations adopted a Partition Plan for Palestine recommending the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states and an internationalized Jerusalem. The plan was accepted by the Jewish Agency but rejected by Arab leaders. The following year, the Jewish Agency declared the independence of the State of Israel, and the subsequent 1948 Arab–Israeli War saw Israel's establishment over most of the former Mandate territory.
Currently, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and between 6 and 10 million live in the United States.
Do some Jews consider Israel to be their “home”, even if they don’t live there? There is some controversy about the settlements in the West Bank.
7. Nomads; the Romani people
There are some cultures which are nomadic. They carry their belongings with them, on never-ending caravans. The word nomad means “people without fixed habitation”. There are an estimated 40 million nomads in the world today.
Some are pastoral nomads, and they move about with their livestock, seeking forage for their animals. These types of nomads are common in infertile regions such as steppe, tundra, or ice and sand, where mobility is the most efficient strategy for exploiting scarce resources.
Most nomads travel in groups of families, bands or tribes. These groups are based on kinship and marriage ties or on formal cooperation agreements.
One particular group of nomads are the Romani, also known as gypsies or Roma. They are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group living mostly in Europe and the Americas and originating from the northern Indian subcontinent, from the Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab regions of modern-day India.
The Romani arrived in Mid-West Asia and Europe around 1,000 years ago. Both genetic and linguistic studies confirm their origin in present-day India.
There are an estimated 10 million Romani people in Europe. Significant Romani populations are found in the Balkans, in some Central European states, in Spain, France, Russia and Ukraine. Several million more live outside Europe, in particular in the Middle East and in the Americas.
The countries with the highest estimated Romani population are: Egypt, the United States, Brazil, Spain, Romania, Turkey, France, Bulgaria and Hungary.
They have also suffered persecution, being expelled from several countries in the 15th century, and even ordered to be “put to death” in Switzerland, England and Denmark. They were also hunted and killed in the Netherlands, France, and other countries. During periods of time, Romani immigration has been forbidden (for example, Argentina in 1880 and the United States in 1885).
During World War II, the Nazis embarked on a systematic genocide of the Romani, a process known in Romani as the Porajmos. Romanies were marked for extermination and sentenced to forced labor and imprisonment in concentration camps. They were often killed on sight, especially by paramilitary death squads on the Eastern Front. The total number of Romani victims has been estimated at between 220,000 and 1,500,000, consequently one of the worst mass killings in history.
In Europe, Romani people are often associated with poverty, and they are accused of high rates of crime and behaviors that are perceived by the rest of the population as being antisocial or inappropriate (including, for example, child marriage). Partly for this reason, discrimination against the Romani people has continued to the present day.
What led the original Romani to leave India? Where they persecuted or enslaved? Why have they continued to travel, including to the Western Hemisphere? Where do they consider “home” to be? In many cases, they have adopted the language, religion and customs of the countries in which they are at (for example, Catholicism in Catholic countries, Islam in Muslim countries). They have also influenced the receiving cultures (through music, clothing, other artistic expressions).
8. Leaving the home planet?
In the future, some human beings might move to live on the Moon, Mars, space stations, or even further. This will likely strengthen the notion of the planet Earth as “home”. Although it will re-open, on a broader scale, some of these questions.
Another possibility is that contact will eventually be established with extra-terrestrial intelligent life forms; this might also contribute to strengthening the notion of human beings as a single race.
9. Can we go back home?
In the end, home is where your loved ones are, regardless of whether it is the place you were born or not.
In some cases, given the greater facilities for travel and communication technologies, people can go back to visit their homelands, or stay in touch via videoconferencing or other electronic tools.
The presence of social networks and videoconference applications also facilitates keeping in touch with family and friends around the world (not only in your country of origin, but also from other places where you have lived, studied, worked, etc.).
In a few cases (e.g., low-lying small island states), the “homelands” will disappear. In a few others, security conditions can be so dire that it would not be advisable to visit in person (Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.).
Sometimes, people no longer feel “at home” when they go back to their country of origin, after several years or decade abroad. It is possible that the cities have changed (more traffic, different weather, more insecurity); but it is also possible that the individual has changed and can no longer tolerate certain behaviors that are still commonplace (racism, social exclusion, long lines to obtain certain goods or services, or at public services offices.
Where do people feel “at home”? Is it possible to create a new home in a different country?
(*) This was my entry for the Nine Dots Prize (https://ninedotsprize.org/). It was a brief summary that was to be expanded into a book.
 “A world of free movement would be $78 trillion richer”, The Economist, July 13, 2017. https://www.economist.com/the-world-if/2017/07/13/a-world-of-free-movement-would-be-78-trillion-richer