Between Homes, Homesickness, and “Homelessness”
When I was eight years old, nothing could prepare me for the short journey from Delhi to Qatar as we moved to the Gulf state in 2007. I cried, I protested, but what else could I possibly do? The silver lining, despite all we’d be leaving behind, was that our family would be united, as my father was based in Doha.
13 years later, this February, I came to D.C. for an internship with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, as part of the Journalism Residency (JR) program at Northwestern University in Qatar, where I am majoring in journalism with a minor in media and politics. Usually, these internships are a 10-week long commitment over the course of the junior year spring semester.
While I am, by some miracle, back in Doha now, I can’t go home just yet — the country has a policy that all travelers must be quarantined in one of the designated hotels for two weeks. It’s at least four days till I can get home.
In a parallel universe, I might have been back home sooner, or perhaps, later. After just three weeks into my time in D.C. in March, I was set to fly back, but Qatar grounded incoming flights just as I was heading to the airport on March 16. In between then and late June, I moved house between Virginia and D.C., first staying with my parents’ family friends for seven weeks and then in an Airbnb in Northwest D.C. Over the course of three months, I went from living in an apartment in Brightwood, to spending nearly two months in Falls Church, Virginia to returning to DC via the Sixteenth Street Heights neighborhood. On the flip side, as the Qatar government announced in its reopening plan, most residents can only return starting August 1 — something I might have been subject to if I wasn’t already here, but also something several of my friends in the US, UK, India and elsewhere are going through.
The current pandemic has my thoughts scattered like the memories we hastily abandoned in Delhi: I miss going to university. I miss my friends and I miss going out. When can people reunite and reconnect?
From a personal position, I’ve had to navigate the earlier possibility of doing my internship from Qatar to (remotely) finishing it during my time in DC while taking summer courses, and navigating moving houses and managing food, groceries and more 7000+ miles away from home — some of those being things I hadn’t done much of for the last 21 years.
In what has been an increasingly complex and dynamic situation, a recurring question I’ve asked myself is “Ab kya?” (“what now?”) Throughout this ordeal, I have been reflecting on how eight-year-old me felt moving to Qatar, or how my ancestors felt when they migrated from the Larkana district in Sindh, Pakistan to Kota in the western state of Rajasthan in India during the 1947 partition.
Our family was just one among the 12 million or so displaced by the partition. Arriving in Bikaner, Rajasthan, our family found refuge there. For a while, we were living in tents and relying on government support. Eventually, we put down roots in Kota’s Sindhi Colony. While this all happened 51 years before I was even born, it’s still not too-distant history, and as a third culture kid, I can relate.
As I was stranded in the States between March and just about a week ago, I felt a familiar ache— of being out of place, of being an outsider. As an expat living in Qatar over the last decade, that’s something I’ve experienced before too. But being stuck away from “home” exacerbated that feeling. I remember a friend who was also interning in DC as part of our residency cohort choosing to return to Qatar in March so she wouldn’t be stranded and her family divided. And yet, that became my reality, as my parents were back in Qatar, my brother in India, and I was across the ocean on the other side.
As someone who’s grown up outside India for much of their life, I have had awkward contentions with my identity and culture. For one, I haven’t yet picked up Sindhi, our native tongue, something that aches me every time I talk to my extended family back in India, or have a conversation with my grandpa. Second, being outside India has meant that, for the most part, I communicate in English, something that’s eroded my comprehension, conversation and fluency with Hindi, the language I grew up speaking at home and to a lesser degree, through school, where the language was just a subject and often sidelined outside the classroom.
With cultural conflicts such as this, a resulting outcome has been erosion of identity. Every time I go back “home,” I am neither NRI enough to speak comfortably in English in public, nor Indian enough to converse in Hindi without embarrassing myself. I constantly feel out of place, and I search for home in people, places and familiarity. Delhi was home, but some of that’s been lost, Doha has been home for the last decade, and D.C. was home for the four months I was there.
By that logic, when it appeared I was about to leave D.C. in March, and would lose my Brightwood apartment, it felt like losing a piece of home. And yet, I’d often find myself being homesick for the home I briefly left behind — Qatar, and in it, my parents, my friends and my car. While I am currently back in Qatar, a hotel room doesn’t feel like home —it feels more like a transitional place, like the tents in Bikaner I’d heard about, or the Dallas airport where I spent nine hours before my flight back.
My journey between homes, homesickness, and “homelessness,” has been far from a typical refugee tale, and certainly, smoother due to fortune, support, and privilege. That said, this roller coaster experience has left an indelible mark on my identity and worldview. As I write this, I am thinking of my ancestors, and my family and friends, and refugees, stuck away from home, finding ways to survive.
This personal essay is a part of my ongoing project Banjaara (“Wanderer,”) which documents personal experiences and journeys amid the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more, please read the announcement post.