No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. Warsan Shire .Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)Copyright 2011
This winter quarter, I enrolled in a UW class: Migrant Writers and Their Journeys, taught by Associate Professor Piotr Florczyk of the Slavic Languages Department. I regularly enroll in Access classes, an opportunity for senior citizens to take a university class with the teacher’s permission, for a nominal fee. Surely, my world widens as I have taken classes featuring Russian and Scandinavian authors, art history classes spanning Parisian architecture and the life and works of Michelangelo, in Gender Studies, the politics of feminism. It is not intellectual enrichment alone that sends me back to my alma mater – to walk across rain-glistened brick walkways, then sit beside familiar windows inside Smith Hall overlooking a Quad of cherry blossoms in the spring. Returning to the U feels like returning “Home.” Smith Hall exudes the same scent of old books and waxed floors as it did in 1963. I meet my young self striding past Frosh Pond, then under the U.S. Flag on the knoll above Red Square. My young ghost walks among hundreds of students. I feel their intensity of purpose. Sitting among them in class, I benefit from their voices, not to mention their kindness, for they invariably hold the door open for me as I come and go from the building.
How comfortable I am, feeling so “At Home.” Yet, there are stark differences between 1963 and 2024. Between classes, many students walk head-down scanning their cell phones. But the most apparent difference is diversity. Nineteen-sixty-three was a predominately Anglo-American, mostly male, student body. Today, I can walk half a block before I hear American English spoken. Students from all over the world fall in step with each other chatting in their native language, discussing daily life and work like students always do. Looking up the statistics, I found: “The UW is home to over 8,000 international students, representing more than 100 countries.”
I pause at the UW’s choice of words: Not “8,000 enrolled,” but “is Home to…”. When I heard Professor Florczyk announce the Migrant Literature class he would be teaching, I signed up. Florczyk is a naturalized U.S. citizen, having migrated from Poland as a young Olympic swimmer, training in California. He is an energetic, inclusive teacher, asking all students on the first day where they came from, how many are migrants or are the children of migrants. Several are children of immigrants. The class readings span Departure – Arrival – Generations – Return, reminding us of the multitude of reasons for leaving one’s home for a new home. The obstacles of migration seem insurmountable, and the literature confirms that with graphically disturbing stories of violence and deprivation. Yes, some migrants left home for economic opportunity, even recruitment from the likes of Microsoft. But by and large, leaving from outweighs the motivation for going to, even when immigrants hang their hopes on fairy tales of San Franciscans sweeping money from the streets.
In recent news, a woman and her child drowned trying to swim across the Rio Grande, but rescuers were barred by wires strung across the Texas border. What dreams beckoned this woman? What deprivation pushed her away from what had been her home?
I write this today at the annual UCUCC Women’s Retreat. I feel “at home” here at Pilgrim Firs with its familiar pond and tall firs outside the cozy lodge. When I look up from my journal, I feel the companionship of women, many I have known for decades. Is “Home” a place, or is it a feeling of protection and welcome one would not readily abandon? At the conclusion of my grandchild’s baptism, Father Ryan said, “No matter where you travel in the world, with the blessing of baptism you may walk into any Christian church and you will be at home.” How comforting that felt, for I would not have my grandchild forever in my home.
What is the humanitarian approach to migration? How and whom am I welcoming to my state, my city, my church, my “Home?” I will remember Warson Shire’s quotation as I imagine a world of migrants braving shark-infested waters with hopes of making a new home.