toy donkey and toys in play area of women's refuge

Home is more than just a property that we  own or rent. It is more than just a place for our family to leave and come back to, where we sleep and live. Above all things, it has to feel safe.

The story featuring the Women’s Aid refuge is compelling. For most of us it is an eye-opener.

People invest much of their money, time, life and  energy into creating a home for their families. We expect the family home to be the centre of family life. But when the danger lies inside rather than outside the home, none of that matters. 

Abuse, trumps all the trappings and comforts of home. Décor, prized possessions, home improvements and personal space become meaningless if/when there is tension, abuse or aggression in the family.

Removing children  from the environment they know is not a decision made lightly.  It means taking them away from their friends, school and pets; as well as their bedrooms, toys, garden and clothes.

The attachment children have to their possessions and the importance of their routine may well be the only thing that has sustained the family through the most difficult times. But when the home is no longer a place of safety and comfort women recognise that their own personal safety may be all they have left.

In the film Sleeping With the Enemy(1991) Julia Roberts  plays the part of an abused wife living in a beautiful beach-side home with an all-controlling, abusive husband. The house, all glass and white and perfect, is a star in its own right. Who wouldn’t want to live there? But, …who would want to live there with a husband like that? No-one.

Superficial appearances and the image of an ‘ideal’ home and ideal family does not necessarily reflect the real story. Abuse happens in every walk of life.

It is hard to imagine just walking away from everything you  worked for, built up and were  proud to call home. Leaving with only a few bits of clothing, not knowing what is going to happen next…. like a refugee from a war zone.

What do you take? What do you leave behind?

Could you imagine living in this unhappy home ever again?

We talk of ‘making memories’ in our home. There is the assumption that it reflects positive experiences, to be cherished. But if those memories are of violence, anger and fear that can lead to trauma.

‘Home’, and what it represents, may be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Women’s Aid provides a place of safety and independence, comfort and support. It is more than just a place to escape to, and a place to sleep. It supports women, who are currently living in danger. It provides a haven, a lifeline and a way out.

For these women it must be such a relief to have somewhere else to go.

To leave a home, and become essentially homeless, is a life that is turned upside down. But here, the staff have seen it all before. They know what women need in this situation and they can give them immediate help with both practical and emotional support.

From their focus groups, Women’s Aid recognise that women value communal living.  Each woman has the privacy of her own room (with en suite bathroom) which she shares with her children, but the kitchens are open and shared. That way they get to meet other people and hear their stories. These may be intimate shared insights that their own wider family may not be able to relate to in quite the same way. Living in a shared environment they know they are not isolated and alone – which they may have been, or made to feel, before.

Cooking brings people together. It helps to break down social barriers and prompt communication with others – if they so wish. They are not forced to eat together. It is not a commune. Cooking for their own families means they maintain the continuity of family life: same food, different home.

No-one pretends this is a replacement for the family home.

It is emergency housing for people in crisis. But it becomes their ‘new’ home on a short term basis,  for up to two years. Complex legalities related to the home can stall and hinder people’s ability to move on and start again. Finding a solution to the problem (in all its many forms) and the necessary strength to move on, can take time.

How do you design a ‘home’ for 20 different families to live together?

Women’s Aid’s aim is to make it to feel ‘homely’,  yet those choices may not necessarily appeal to everyone’s taste or style. You can’t please everyone.

Women who have a strong ‘nesting instinct’  are allowed to add their own décor touches to their rooms – soft furnishings etc. and are encouraged to get involved in decision-making for the social areas.

The turnover of residents is steady but this is not a B&B, or a hotel, or serviced apartment. It should not feel like an institution, or boarding school but it has to be maintained to look good, kept clean and present a comfortable, inviting, welcoming image.

Involving the women in household duties means they take responsibility for the general upkeep and take pride in how it looks. This is their home. They have to learn to live together and housekeeping is an essential part of that experience. They all have their part to play.

From the people who know –  who have long-standing experience in this area –  safety, security and vigilance are key.  Women in danger may have to be spirited away to a different city (or country) and there has to be secrecy about the exact locations of these refuges. For obvious reasons these addresses are not in the public domain.

And yet, the centre that I visited was not a fortress or a prison. It was a lively environment full of comings and goings. There were children playing. There was laughter. These are women just getting on with their lives.

Given the right support, people are amazingly resilient. Refuges such as this are more than just a physical place to stay: they remove people’s fears and put  normality back into their lives.

Every day there are countless women facing  domestic abuse and sexual violence.  Women’s Aid evolved because there was a need for a place for people to turn to.

In this day and age it is shocking that such a place has to exist. But, with 30,000 calls to their Northern Ireland helpline last year, it is so important that it does.

painting of woman with flowing hair
Painting by the residents of a Women’s Aid refuge

Nuala Rooney

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

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