Images from war-torn Ukraine show us just how fragile our home life can be. 

In war, our homes can be lost to us in an instant.

Home is a space we create and call our own. It is a space in which we invest monetarily and emotionally; a place that enriches our family life.

We take pride in our homes. 

We think of our home as a place of stability and security and as a place to make memories – happy memories.

The things in our home that we save up for, love, look after and enjoy – they matter: individually and as a whole. Our possessions, clothes, furniture – all carefully chosen, and acquired over years, are part of who we are.

But, if your country is under attack and your home is an unsafe place to be, you will have to abandon it all.

And so, when you close the door of your home you leave that part of your life behind forever.

elderly woman's bedroom with toy tiger

Without a home, war reduces people to the basics for survival.

All we have are our bodies, what we wear and what we can carry. 

Forced to flee you may be able to take only what is absolutely essential for survival. Clothing, toiletries, nappies, baby food, identity documents, money, bank details, medication, mobile phone.

However, what you take will be determined by how much can you physically carry. And,  because you don’t know what you are going to.. where… or when… these decisions, will be made in a state of fear, panic and heightened anxiety. 

War is brutal.

schnauzer dog in hall

The very real dilemma is not what you take – but what you leave behind. Your elderly parents… your pets… friends…partner… neighbours… teenage sons? 

If you stay your life will be in danger. If you leave you may never see your family again.  

Some people will be able to leave, some will have to stay to fight – others will stay because they cannot bear to leave loved ones, and their homes behind.

Elderly parents may be too frail to travel, require specialist nursing care, be disabled or suffering from dementia. But, as more and more people are forced to leave, they may not be getting the right level of care and support – food, medication, comfort, safety.

So, do you stay to help them or attempt to take them with you? Perhaps you may be forced to prioritise other (younger) family members to give them a chance.

two donkeys in field

When you leave behind your business, your home, your family, your friends and pets you have no real idea what will happen to them.

So, how do you explain the idea of leaving your home, and all the dangers of  an exhausting, risky and uncomfortable journey  to children who are ill, or have special needs?

Adults with learning difficulties, or anyone suffering from mental health issues are also extremely vulnerable. They need routine and familiarity, calm and quiet – none of which exists in war.

What if you are close to giving birth, receiving treatment for cancer or needing regular nursing care –  would you leave? Could you leave? 

The stories of ordinary  people from Ukraine reflect a rapidly disintegrating environment.

Cities have been shaken to the core, neighbourhoods wiped out, apartment blocks destroyed. Mass evacuations and harrowing journeys are being taken by increasingly desperate people. 

Millions of people are on the move. This is a massive  humanitarian situation, spilling over into the countries surrounding Ukraine.

Images of families living in underground bunkers, huddled on trains, arriving in foreign countries with only what they can carry resonate world wide. Children: scared and exhausted. Mothers: anxious and stunned. 

And yet, determined  not to abandon their loved ones, they carry elderly parents, much-loved pets and the children of people who cannot leave. They own, only what they can carry. All the possessions of their home reduced to a few bags.

ginger cat sleeping on window cill

As refugees they are now totally dependent on the generosity of others and humanitarian aide. Only when they reach the safety of neighbouring countries will they have a change of clothes, shower, sleep, get medical help and proper food. They will live in temporary quarters in make-shift accommodation and have to rely on their families and the governments of other countries to reach out, to support and show they care. 

When you leave your home and your country where do you go?

North, south, east, west where you may know someone –  or nobody. Displaced people – especially women and children – are very vulnerable. At all times they have to be careful, cautious and wary.

In the midst of all this terrifying situation they are just people who want to be at home – their own home.

white cat posed on sofa

They want their lives to be the way they were before: safe, comfortable, normal with the sureness of routine. Going to school and work… socialising.. shopping… watching TV…gardening. Just an everyday life. 

art collection in home of elderly woman

Each of their stories is unique. In the midst of all this they are all just ordinary people dealing as best they can with a nightmarish ordeal. Their experience of war and what they left behind- and why – show resilience and fortitude. But above all, the fact that they have very little choice.

War changes everything.  

History tell us that war shifts, annihilates and scatters populations; it spreads and devastates languages, religions and cultures. 

It displaces people from their homes, their country and way of life. 

To date a staggering 4 million people have left Ukraine as refugees from war. Up to 10 million – including those who have left their homes to move to ‘safer’ parts of Ukraine.

They are not alone.

They are part of the more recent exodus fleeing wars in Afghanistan and Syria or, in the case of the Rohingya people, uprooted and exiled from their homes. 

It is not just war that causes people to flee their homes.

Fires, floods, drought, famine, landslides, volcanoes, tsunamis,  avalanches can  occur with little or no warning. There may be no time to think, or plan or discuss what to do.

In a natural disaster you have to get out quick.

Life will be lost, infrastructures will be destroyed, livelihoods wiped out, land rendered unusable. People have to start again to re-build their lives, community and country. But at least, they are still in their own country where they speak the language and can expect to be supported  by their own governments.

young person hugging a black dog

The refugees from Ukraine do not know if this is a temporary situation – or something permanent.  

Will they ever be able to go back? Is there be anything left to go back to?

Will their families ever be able to join them? 

In the midst of the chaos of war there are many heart-warming examples of ordinary people around the world welcoming refugees to share their home. They are offering the comfort of their home; a very different environment from a refugee centre, or a hotel.

In someone else’s home they can re-discover regular habits: sleeping, eating, bathing and leisure.  But, can only be a temporary solution.

At some point they will have to move on, move out and move into a home of their own. 

Grateful to be safe at last, will this strange land ever, truly feel like home?

All photos taken from Anyone At Home

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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