x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Far from our families' homes, we still yearn for one of our own

All over the Arab world, too many people have trouble finding a way to be truly at home where they live.

'Home is where the heart is." The saying may be universal, but a whole generation in the Middle East, if not two, is struggling to make this a reality.

Regardless of gender, background and history, everyone eventually wants to settle down in their own home. And unlike past generations, a home may not necessarily be where you were born or where you have spent a majority of your life.

It has actually become difficult to define a home for many expatriates, particularly for Arabs who live and work across the region.

The other day I was tagging along with friends of mine, a Syrian-Lebanese family with young children that has just moved here as their home countries sink further towards conflict and instability. Syria's conflict is obvious and bloody, while in Lebanon a subtle uncertainty has persisted for decades. It was no surprise to hear of the building collapse in Beirut earlier this week, which killed at least 24 people and was blamed on corruption and poor maintenance.

These parents were house hunting, and struggling with the question of whether to buy or rent. Either way will be expensive. They are lucky since their families are well off, they both work and have savings, and so they can afford the expense.

For single people like myself, it is close to impossible to be able to afford to buy a home, and so we waste more money paying rent. Trust me, it is an awful feeling. While many of us have old family homes in countries in the Levant, for example, these houses are scarred by war and we can't see ourselves going back anytime soon. The Arab Spring actually made this problem worse.

My friends' parents grew up in the Gulf, and they both felt like they were repeating the story of their parents with the decision to move back here with their own children.

But expatriates always face a different experience. "I don't want them to feel homeless like we did," a friend of mine, and mother of three, recently said. "Even if we love a particular city in the Gulf with all our hearts, we can't call it home as it ends with our visas."

Arabs of the Levant and North Africa have struggled with stability throughout different periods of history, and migrated across the world for different reasons. An estimated 20 million people of Arab origin live in Latin America, seven million in Brazil alone. The majority are Arab Christians whose families migrated in the early 1900s to escape Ottoman rule.

Of those who moved to the Gulf in the 1960s and 1970s during the oil and construction boom, some are still trying to find their place. Speaking from experience, my own parents love Saudi Arabia and can't imagine leaving after so many decades spent there. I could write a book about the number of times they have tried to buy a home, but each time it fell through on a legal technicality, or they were duped, or for any number of reasons. Many others have incurred the same great financial costs and emotional pain.

My parents are too old to start anew, and where could they go? As far back as I go in our family tree, I see a history of loss and dislocation as family members have tried to find a home. I am sure it is the case in many old Arab families.

During our recent house hunting, we visited an old traditional Emirati home that was available for rent. The house needed a lot of maintenance, but the grounds were large and green, almost like a big oasis farm. Beautiful. We were standing in awe as the Emirati owner told us that he and his family were moving to a newer house.

As we stood on this beautiful property, each of us looked around, and for our different reasons, all three of us 30-something adults had tears in our eyes.

We didn't need to say anything. The owner just looked at us and understood, saying: "Sorry, sometimes we need to be reminded of how lucky we are."

My friends are relatively well-off, and in the end they will be able to buy or rent a home, if not necessarily the one of their dreams. But for many Arabs, a home of our own remains just a heartfelt desire.