i need to be here right now to get my daughters through their education…

Sometimes, I get my hair touched up at Ruby’s salon on Harwin Drive, around the corner from Hillcroft. I go to the same place for threading and waxing, and on Eid, friends and I take our daughters there for mehndi/henna designs on their hands. Though the salon is owned by a Pakistani (as are many along that strip), the women employed are from India, Pakistan and Nepal; often, I strike up conversations with them in Urdu/Hindi.

On this particular day, I’m being cared for by Sunita from Katmandu, Nepal. (The conversation below is a translation from Hindi/Urdu).

I tell her: I work with students from Nepal! Most of them were refugees from Bhutan.

She nods and responds: They live in terrible conditions just outside Katmandu. They had difficult lives, but now they are starting to get refugee status in the US. Most of them have left Bhutan – almost 90 percent. We accept the refugees in Nepal, but India has more difficult visa standards.

And she talks about her own situation: My husband won a lottery from Nepal and we came to Houston four years ago. Most of our family is here. My brother is starting a business in Colorado. My daughter goes to Memorial High School and my older daughter is at Texas A&M. My husband stayed in Houston for a year to settle us in, and then he went back to Katmandu.

He’s a government employee and he took a year’s leave to get us settled. Now he comes every six months. In a few years, he’ll have citizenship and then he won’t need to go back and forth.

I had a business in Katmandu. I was doing video editing and also documentary work. I also did filming for TV serials, but then we came here…

I still have someone working in the office over there, and I check on him when I go back. But here, I wanted to do something different, so I enrolled in cosmetology. It took me a year and half but now I cut hair. I’m the only one in the salon that cuts men’s hair. My husband doesn’t believe I do that! I’ve cut his hair a few times…

I like my work. It’s a change, but it’s fun. And I need to be here right now to get my daughters through their education. They both like it here, but let’s see what they do in the future….

I do miss my husband. We talk on Skype every day and we’re always texting. I’ll go home in the summer. And once both our daughters go to college, we can decide where we want to be…although we know we don’t want to be in the US as we grow older. It’s a much more difficult life…

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project through which I exchange and post conversations with friends, community members, artists and family members.

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freedom on the streets...

As we drive up the freeway ramp, I notice that the freeway shack that Minal and I documented a few months ago has been “torn down”. The only vestige of the temporary home aka juggi is cardboard strewn on grass.

Minal documents the change today, as she did back in November.

As we drive to our house, I tell Minal that I once glimpsed the man who lived in the shack that is no more: He was tall and had a bicycle, I say.

Later that afternoon, as I drive to Hillcroft to prepare for my workshops, a man jumps out from under the cement underpass and starts cleaning my windshield.

I lower my window and call out: I don’t have any cash today. Sorry – please stop!

The man laughs. Don’t worry! I don’t got worries. You’re the one who has to drive and pay bills! Me? I got nothin’ so I got nothin’ to worry about.

I rummage in my glove compartment and find a few quarters. Thank you, I tell him. This is all I have today…

He jingles my change and smiles: That’s all it takes for me to be happy!

Minal’s eyes widen when I tell her about the conversation. But how can he be happy if he lives under a freeway? she asks. He doesn’t have a house or a car….or anything.

I say: His home is under the freeway. He believes he has freedom.

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essay about my short trip to delhi...

My essay, No Borders: Delhi Twenty-Five Years Later about my travels to Delhi appeared in Aman Ki Asha, a print and online newspaper that’s a peace initiative between the Jang Group and Times of India.

In the dim light before dawn, as the taxi meanders between neighborhoods to find Singh Sons Hotel, I catch sight of an elephant with its owner plodding along the street. Rubbing my eyes, I peer out of the window but the bulky sight is left far behind in the winter darkness. Later when I tell my Delhi-based friend Fawzia, she nods: People rent elephants for weddings, she tells me. They walk to different parts of town, and sometimes they have to start that early to cover thirty miles.

To read the full article, click here. To read blog posts, click here, here and here (or scroll down).

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equating muslims to dogs…

view from the 16th floor of a Harris County courthouse

The first round of questions is by the lawyer representing the father: Please raise your number if you believe that a mother always has first rights to the child.

I, along with five other potential jurors, raise my number. Our responses are recorded.

I’m in a courtroom in downtown Houston, along with 47 others; thirteen of us will be picked to serve on a jury for a family law case that involves marriage annulment and custody of a two-year old girl. We, the potential jury members, sit in rows of eight, our eyes in direct contact with those of the mother and father seated on the other side of the wooden partition. The mother wears a dark blue shirt and jacket and the father is in a suit.

Before the mother’s lawyer asks questions, he shares information about her: She was born and was raised in Dubai and came to the US to work. She achieved citizenship through WAVA, an international law that allows spouses to seek citizenship because of domestic abuse. Though she was raised Muslim, she doesn’t currently practice the faith.

Then he asks: How many of you can say you’d have trouble serving on the jury panel now that you know this information?

A woman at the very back row wearing a pink button-down shirt raises her number and speaks: I would have a bias. I wouldn’t feel comfortable endorsing a child going to a Muslim family. It would be like me endorsing a child to go to a family of dogs.

I hold back my gasp.

Another woman raises her card and speaks: I would feel the same. As a minister, I believe that Jesus Christ is our lord and Christianity is the only way to raise children.

The lawyer scribbles notes, and then asks: Is there anyone else who wants to share your response now that you know the mother was raised in a Muslim family?

A younger man with a beard and moustache adds: When I hear of Muslims, I always think of terrorism. But I would put that aside if I were selected.

From behind me, a man speaks up: This is awful. Allah is the same as the Christian god. There’s no difference!

I hold up my number and speak: I’m shocked by what I’m hearing! I want to register the opposite feelings. I was raised in a Muslim family in Pakistan and…this must be so difficult for the mother…

The lawyer nods and glances at the young woman, whose eyes are filmed with tears. It is a very difficult situation, he says. But we have to ask these questions. Her religion will come up during the hearings. We need to know everything each of you said in order to pick a fair jury.

After two hours of questions, the lawyers huddle by the podium with the judge. One by one, they begin calling prospective jurors for further questions.

In the end, to my relief, I’m not selected to serve on the jury, even though the mother’s lawyer has called me back for second questions; my bias in support of the mother rules me out.

I’m relieved to see that the woman in the pink shirt is not selected either, and that the man who declared that gods of all religions are the same is picked, as is the woman who sat beside me; she had told me the mother needed me to be on the jury. The educator who treated me to lunch is also one of the thirteen who is selected.

When I walk away from the room, down the elevator, into the sunshine toward my car, my eyes are prickly with tears. Though I’ve forgotten the judge’s name and the lawyers’ names, I have contacts for some who will serve as jurors for this case. In ten days, I can phone them and ask them if the mother was granted custody for her two-year old daughter.

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home is a space where you don’t have to watch out for proper behavior or ways to be…

As I work on my What Is Home? project I’ve recorded many conversations with my mother Zakia Sarwar about her multiple migrations – from North India to Lahore, Pakistan at age 14, to Karachi a few years later, and now from Pakistan to USA. On the morning before she catches a flight from Houston to Karachi where she’s organizing SPELT’s I Am Karachi: Teach for Peace conference, she talks to me about how she’s dealing with her multiple “homes”:

Overall, home means a comfort zone, so to say. It’s a space where you don’t have to watch out for proper behavior or ways to be. When you say you’re “at home” in so-and-so house where you’re not visiting—you’re in a relationship with a space. I feel at home in such places.

And if you’re talking about your own house, being at home means being comfortable in your environment without having to worry. You know where things are. I’m not the kind of person who needs to put my feet up or sleep in my own bed. But knowing where things are and knowing that since you’re home you can invite anyone over – you don’t have to worry about convenience to anyone but yourself.

Home is also a sense of belonging, knowing it’s a place where you can come back to. Jokingly, I was saying to someone that I have three homes – I’ve been thinking about this idea of “home” since you’ve been doing this project.

What does migration feel like? It’s a reality of life that you move from one place to another or that has to be. And if that has to be, then I have things in your house, in Beena’s house and in Salman’s house. And of course, in my Karachi house. I have three homes in the US and one home in Karachi. The last one is my base. I haven’t really emotionally or intellectually moved from there. Other than commitments to my children, I have no professional pulls or demands in the US. I’d like to, but I don’t at this point…

Leaving Karachi is not a complete exile. As long as I live, I’m entitled to a pension income. I also own a house that I built with a lot of love for my family. It’s peaceful and comforting to look out of my French window to see the greenery around me and the birds chirping and the koel cooing away in summers. If I spend more time here (in the US), I might not go there (Karachi) for two years, but I’ll always go because it is my real home. It has warm memories of times spent with my loved one – both family and friends. I do recognize that as I’m getting older, I might find it harder to go back and forth. My sister is in Australia, and I’m inspired by her, by the way she’s moving about from continent to continent. I don’t feel depressed about growing older….I still feel young at heart!

Karachi is my real home, my base. I try not to think about the fact that I’m leaving. That makes me cry. If Sarwar was there, I would still be in Karachi. I’d visit all of you but this choice of moving is because I’m now alone. And I don’t have an overall issue with being alone, but the evenings are very very difficult. If living was only day and day, there would be no issue. It’s the long evenings – the long winter evenings that I find so difficult… – Prof. Zakia Sarwar

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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home is a space that I create for myself and not one that’s defined for me …

Filmmaker Yunuen Perez Vertti drops by my Houston house to eat a meal prepared by my mother. A native of Mexico City, Yunuen lived for a decade in Houston before relocating a few years ago to Vancouver, Canada. She talks about what “home” means to her:

Nowadays feeling at home means feeling at peace with myself. Home is not a physical space any more. Home means to be comfortable in my own skin, and comfortable being myself. It’s a space that I create for myself and not one that’s defined for me.

Identifying cities or spaces as “home” is difficult for me right now. I just moved to a fourth or fifth city in the last 20 years. And I tell myself that every city I go to – and while I’m there – that this is where I need to come back to. But then I say I wouldn’t live here any more.

Physically, I’m not grounded to one space. Always, I’m from Mexico, but I can’t live there any more. It’s so nice and cool, but I want to leave. Mexico is always the place where I’m from. Right now, Vancouver is what we say is “home” – but when I go there it doesn’t feel like it’s home. We’ve just been there for two years and we don’t own a home…

Aswinee (husband) and I are gypsies. And we don’t have a place we can say we want to call home – we are from different places. And we shift our children because they need to be in a neutral zone! We’ve cut out India and Mexico – perhaps we’re suppressing our desires. It’s very complex.

We have both been thinking: do we see ourselves growing older here, being Canadians, being in Vancouver? And right now we can’t come up with a clear answer. But we don’t want to come back here (to Houston) either.

Perhaps we’ll explore a few more places before we decide where we want to call it home. And it’s hard to accept that we want to move around. Perhaps, we as a society, impose it upon ourselves to ground ourselves in just one space. Perhaps Aswinee and I want to move around and do it for the rest of our lives! – Yunuen Perez Vertti

I draw her 12-year old son Kalyan into the conversation. His responses are succinct:

I will always consider Houston my home. No matter where I live, I’ll be proud to be from here. I was born here and it became my home.

I feel good I’m in a new place, but I still miss my friends. Vancouver would become my home if I lived there for a long time – for 10 years like I lived in Houston. But not India or Mexico. I have a lot of family there, but both are dirty places, and I don’t want to call them “home”. – Kalyan

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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I land in Houston and clear customs without any problems. René is waiting for me, and as we walk to the car, he shares the news about Peshawar. We are silent on the entire drive back to our house.

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no city feels like home...

My first afternoon in Delhi is at the IIC – the Indian International Center – at a lunch hosted by Professor Alok Bhalla and organized by writer Noor Zaheer; writer Sukrita Paul Kumar also joins us for a visit. A few days later, I return to IIC to sip wine with publisher Urvashi Bhutalia, a friend of my sister Beena Sarwar, and the very next day, I’m back at IIC for a symposium on Sindh – organized by Professor Chatterji at Delhi University – to meet with writer Rakshanda Jalil. There, I run into Mumbai-based academic Nandita Bhavnani, who’s in Delhi to give a talk about Sindh at the seminar. Although Nandita and I have not met before, we’ve been introduced to each other online by mutual friend Karachi-based researcher Aslam Khwaja; Nandita’s essay, Revisiting Sindh, is being published in VBB’s Borderlines Volume 1 catalogue. After the symposium ends, I sip tea in the downstairs patio with Rakshanda, Nandita and others.

As we get ready to leave, Rakshanda raises her arm and says: Look who’s there!

My eyes fall on family friend and poet Kishwar Naheed, who’s visiting Delhi from Islamabad to give a poetry reading and talk at IIC.

It’s only fitting that I spend my last afternoon in Delhi at the IIC, this time to have lunch with artist Veer Munshi. He, too, has many ideas about the subject of home:

My art practice has become political-turned personal. My art practice has become displacement and I have migration within me. I’m always walking and am never settled. I never untie my shoes to sit down and relax. Life is different from my childhood where you had evenings and you rest. Now, home, you make anything and everything, and you are detached from your physical space. Anywhere and everywhere becomes home. Transit becomes your way of life.

In this travel you do so many things. Your mind travels and you never settle. And you do so many things for permanency, but you are not contented with anything. Process is more important. As you work on installations and art. you’re always looking for home, but never reaching it. Hope makes you work on the idea of return, and you never return. And home becomes multiple: where you come from and you’re always going somewhere.

No city feels like home.

I lost a sense of home. I like to have activity around. I like Delhi, Mumbai, places that are cosmopolitan. I may also like Kashmir, but it doesn’t stimulate. Home is places made by people and I like cosmopolitan energy.

Every place has its possibilities. Home is these creative people that you have grown with – not gardens. It is not the house that is home, it’s my studio which is where I like to create things. That becomes my home. – Veer Munshi

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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spaces in the city…

My childhood friend Fawzia, who’s now based in Delhi and who started the Big Chill restaurants with her husband Aseem, takes me to Khirki Village to visit
Khoj, an art gallery where we view “The Other Woman” exhibition. The gallery curators are out of town, as are many representatives of Delhi’s art scene, who are in Kerala to attend the Kochi Biennale.

While in Khirki, I capture a few shots: the broken building across the street from the gallery and a mural close to one of the village entrances.

A few days before I leave, Fawzia and Aseem take me to The Social a hip bar in Delhi’s Haus Khaas, in response to my request to experience at least one bar in Delhi, given that we don’t have such spaces in Karachi. There, I sip a signature drink, the Deconstructed Moscow Mule, and eat snacks handed out on cardboard trays. We are clearly on the older side of the crowd jamming to music that grates on our ears. After a while, we step into the cold and walk through the old village. Fawzia tells me how, before the village became fashionable, the village was a hub for artists.

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home is where it’s not always a comfortable path…

I am introduced to artist Masooma Syed by family friend and artist Salima Hashmi, who knows Masooma through Lahore, where Masooma grew up. Currently based in Delhi and married to an artist from Kerala, Masooma has offered to help me with VBB’s Borderlines project.

Inevitably, the conversation shifts to the subject of home, a subject about which Masooma has a lot to offer:

Home is being myself – where it’s not always a comfortable path and where one can be uneasy also. The experience of “home” doesn’t have to be static. Home travels with you and gets transformed. Home is a living entity.

Both Lahore and Delhi are home for me. I can’t say one is more than the other. Recently I would have only called Lahore home, but Delhi is becoming my skin. Home is more like an experience, and not a sudden realization. Home is a gradual seeping in, a realization of it and an acceptance. I have a lot happening in my life and I’m adjusting.

After a month of coming back from Lahore to Delhi, I do feel lost at times. What I feel is something more like a wish – that I could stop longing for the “other”. Because I do have the longing, and more than anything it’s about people.

It’s a slippery path to home where ever it is. I cannot intellectualize “home” in fine words, but it is an immense source of emotions. I do miss home whether here or there. The moment I get connected with people, hope comes near, be it for a little time.

And I like to clean my house! – Masooma Syed

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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"home" is where you go when...

On a quiet Thursday morning after a tea at Doshi House, I drive eL Seed and Asad Ali Jafri – who are visiting Houston as part of the Mitchell Center’s Intersections project – to Almeda Mosque, a square one-storied building that lacks a minaret. The building is marked by a sign that can be interpreted by those in search of a Muslim prayer space, and its entrance is closed off by a iron-barred fence.

As we meander back to the University of Houston, I tell them about my What Is Home? project. Both have responses to the question of home.

Home is where you go to when you’ve lost everything, comments eL Seed.

Home is this new open digital space that has no concrete objects, adds Asad.

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the space for “home” is moveable...

My friend Kairn Klieman responds to questions about home:

Home is feeling relaxed and free and at ease–hidden from all of life’s demands. It feels cuddly. Home is not my childhood home. There was tension there. It was not cuddly, not easy. My home is what I created here; what I made for myself.

The space for “home” is moveable, and it depends on the situation. The only thing about my childhood home [in California] that feels cuddly is nature, the forest and the beaches. I miss that because we don’t have that here [in Houston]. The shift happened when I was young and I came back from Africa and didn’t fit anymore. And I’ve moved a lot—and I can create home for myself. I can set up home in a hotel.

In Houston, my home is my kid, my husband, my PJs, my cats and my own cooking – when I’m peaceful. Cooking is only peaceful about one third of the time, otherwise it’s hard! – Kairn Klieman

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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"home" is my family...

In a conversation over coffee at Café Brasil, Maha Khan talks about home:

For me, “home” is my family – a sense of belonging that has warmth because of the people around me. You could be in this gorgeous place, but that doesn’t make the space “home”. It’s just a pretty place if there aren’t the people you love around you.

When I think of spaces that are home for me, I think of Weslaco, Texas. And Lahore. When I go to Lahore, I feel completely at home. And Sugar Land, Texas, of course, where I live. What’s funny is that whenever I get asked, “Where are you from?” my standard answer is Texas. I am in love with this place. There is absolutely no place like it, from the land, and most of all people, and this is the friendliest place on earth!

My mother, who was born and raised in Lahore, was a budding artist but did not complete her studies at the National College of Arts because she married my father, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Heidelberg. He studied under the Nobel Laureate, Professor Georg Wittig (inventor of the “wittig reaction” for chemistry buffs). After Daddy retired, he was invited to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) by his friend who owns the University to help set up the Sciences and Engineering building, where he built a state of the art chemistry lab and you can see all the Co2 (carbon dioxide) pipes running through!

I try going to Lahore every summer with my children. Most of my family is still there and as well as my in-laws. My mother took us there very often, and we made beautiful bonds with my cousins and the country. Lahore kind of reminds me of Cheers, where you walk in and you know most of the familiar faces and where everybody knows your name… my mother’s family is very large and as soon as I land I tend to meet someone wherever I might be. It’s a small place, and I would tend to say most people have not gone far. The thing I do not like is not being referred to by my first name, either I’m his granddaughter, his niece, his daughter in law,etc… I think a lot of women like me who go back feel the same as I do. It still makes me ponder, and it seems very old school, very cultural and feudal class thinking and of course primogeniture (which was very prevalent on my father’s side while in India and the ancestral family he came from).

Thinking of home, though, my heart first goes to Weslaco and to my memories of growing up there. I have come to know that I like small communities and spaces, where I’m enmeshed with people I know. I feel that way in each of the spaces: Weslaco and Lahore. And of course, Sugar Land, where our life is and where I’ve been for 30 years.

I remember our Weslaco house with citrus groves all around. There, my mother was also one of the first members of the Junior League, and she’d impart some of our culture through food demonstrating – how to cook gulab jamun, or what the women called “rose-balls”! My parents were avid tennis players, (my mother can pack a mean volley at the net) and would go to Monterrey, Mexico for matches with their friends, and of course in Weslaco, all three of us girls started at the age of five on the courts, and have played since.They also enrolled us (my sisters and me) in every extra-curricular activity that there was known to man…Yes I can play the ukulele, and was in competitive piano since age seven to about 18.

What I loved about Weslaco is that back then, no one categorized us as a Pakistani family. No one even knew who was from where and no one asked about religion. I went back about 15 years ago to see my godparents. They are from India and they’re still there. Everything felt the same – the bonds and the connections. My parents are very close to them. My godmother is an ob-gyn and she delivered my youngest sister. My trip was nostalgic. I didn’t see friends since most people have moved. But the city was exactly the same. Not much has changed – the smells, the sights, the people, and you can only get the best Tex-Mex there. I loved it and am planning to take the family sometime down to the valley next year.

When we pulled into the gorgeous hacienda that was palm tree lined and very tranquil, my (Karachi-born) husband Omar, though, said, Where are we?

I said: Home.

Sugar Land has been my physical home for 30 years. It’s a multicultural space. Now being Muslim and Pakistani, I feel it’s my duty to show we’re just like everyone else, and to try to erase people’s notions of a stereotypical Pakistani, American-born Muslim As a minority you must enmesh yourself in your surroundings. I’ve developed personal connections all around me. We have great friends who are Hindu, Jewish, Baptist, Mormon, Catholic – all colors of the rainbow, all faiths. And I make sure my kids do the same. I’m very grateful to my parents for raising us with love, laughter, confidence and a pride of our ancestral heritage. I can only hope to instill this in our children. Maybe that feeling is what home mean to me. – Maha Khan

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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"home" is where you've been the happiest...

Over a snack-lunch of papri-chat, bhel-puri and Bombay roll at Sri Pavan Bhavan on Houston’s Hillcroft Avenue, Zeba Shah – after being away from Houston for several years during which time she floated between Madrid, Los Angeles and Islamabad – talks about what “home” means to her:

“Home” is a place where I feel secure, centered and loved. It’s where you’ve been happiest – that is home. It’s a place where you belong.

I’ve lived all over – my father was in the army – I’ve lived in different places with my parents. Houston is where I’ve been the longest, but for me, Quetta brings back memories of sunshine, snow and a glorious childhood- life in Quetta was always perfect. My parents were there.

Houston is where our daughters were born, and as long as they kept coming back, it was home. We felt bonded. And now I’m back in Houston after being away for four years, and it doesn’t feel the same. I feel like I could move anywhere. There was a time when I felt I was an integral part of Houston, and I don’t feel like that any more. It takes time to reconnect. So much has changed since I left.

These questions make me think about how one doesn’t always have a choice. We go where my husband’s job takes us, and I make that home. And when he retires, we’ll have to think about where we’ll be happiest.

Some of the things that I’d like to do now that I’m back in Houston are: going to school and taking Spanish classes, starting painting again, being more entrenched in whatever life has to offer. I can’t spend the next four or five years feeling in-between. I have to make the effort to make Houston home again.

Of course, I could easily live in Islamabad and Lahore – there’s so much one can contribute there, so much work to be done. Because of Development in Literacy, I’ve travelled all over Pakistan and been part of the real Pakistan. But living there is not an option because my whole family is here in the US; so is my husband’s family. My children belong here and could never live in Pakistan. So one’s heart has to choose between the different places that tug at it. I do see many retired Pakistanis moving back and forth and spending equal time here and in Pakistan. Perhaps that’s the best solution if one can manage it. My generation in the US will always have a sentimental affinity to their country of origin. That’s something you can’t change. – Zeba Shah

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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documenting the home by the freeway ramp…

photo by Minal

I hand Minal my phone-camera before we enter the freeway ramp, so she can document the temporary “home” she sighted a few weeks ago: a tent that sits in the small grassy strip by the freeway ramp with glass towers hovering above. In Pakistan, we are used to juggis, hutments, being built up along the streets, but in Houston, one sees temporary tents, there one day and gone the next, as the city government tries to control the growing community of citizens who live along the streets.

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it’s taken time for me to be okay with being in-between...

Shirin Herman, who works with Houston Independent Services’ Refugee Program, talks about her personal journey:

At this point in my life, Houston is home; being with my husband at home is home.

I’m from Kenya and Tanzania where there was perpetual strife. And then political strife followed me to Bangladesh in 1969. And then, after coming to the US, meeting my husband, marrying him at age 19. I assimilated in the US quickly. I changed my accent, adapted to the food, clothing. It took me a lot longer to get back to my own culture and roots.

I’m not from here. And I was being asked constantly: Where are you from?

And my answer: Indian born in Africa with a detour in Bangladesh and Italy.

That’s why I wanted my daughter to be born in the US, so she could have just one home. That’s the one factor that brought the point of “home” in my face – this is home, but I’m not from here. And I’m okay with that.

Now I’m in my sixties and have worked with Houston’s immigrant communities for more than ten years. They are refugees, and that could have been my story except my parents were well-to-do and believed in education.

For refugees, the transition is almost insurmountable. I’ve been to their funerals, taken them to hospitals and to schools. Working my field gives me an appreciation of how different my experience was because I came to the US as a student.

Today my daughter is family. My brother and sister live 90 miles away. We visit regularly and that does it for me.

I still yearn to look at my old school in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania – I left at age 16 without saying goodbye. The closest I can go to a place that I lived in the past is Detroit. When my husband and I visit there, we drive back down the street to our old house. I can’t go back any further than that. I can’t go to Dhaka. Too expensive, and it would be silly to go back for that reason. And there’s no one there. I guess I could go to Dar-es-Salaam, but I don’t know if the buildings exist. And again, no one is there.

It’s taken time for me to be okay, and to be comfortable with being in-between – I’m in between cultures, religion, languages. But I connect with people from all over the globe, and at the same time I have no problems connecting with mainstream Americans because my husband is from Ohio – and Catholic to boot! – Shirin Herman

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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feeling "at home" means being unself-conscious…

Writer Lacy Johnson talks about feelings about “home” (photo: selfie by Lacy):

Feeling at home means not being aware of my body or appearance to others – being unself-conscious; being present and attuned to the rhythms of others.

I don’t have one answer to that question: “what is home?”. When I go “back home” to Missouri, I feel at home in the landscape – green trees, hills, the topography. That feels like home, but I often find the culture of that place repulsive. I’m repulsed by the racism, misogyny and bigotry that still flourish there. Here in Houston I find I’m more at home culturally – though that’s not to say Houston doesn’t have its own set of cultural problems. Still, the city feels more like a place I find welcoming and fruitful, but I don’t like the landscape. Too flat, too treeless, too paved. So for me home is not a geographic location. It’s a state of mind. In the end, cliché as it may sound, home is any place I am with my husband and kids – not necessarily Houston, not necessarily Missouri.

The space where I feel most at home is on a Saturday morning, when the kids have woken up and have joined us in our king-size bed. The dog is there and the sun is coming up. That could happen in our home, or in a hotel, or at a campsite or anywhere – and it would feel like home.

We are saying we want to raise our children in Houston – for now. But the world is a pretty big place. I want to move and keep moving. It’s the nature of my personality.

I have thought a lot about these things, especially when I was working on my first book. Lately, I feel nostalgic for certain traditions that are ingrained in my biorhythms because of the place where I grew up. At this time of year, for example, the air should be colder, the light should be softer. Houston doesn’t have that kind of weather. I feel “homesick” – nostalgic for what I’ve lost – for a time that has passed and only exists in memory. I could visit my family in Missouri, where the air and weather is what I expect right now, and I would still feel homesick. That has more to do with growing older, I think, than it does with where I live. My parents are divorced and my sisters and I don’t speak that often. Things change and keep changing. There is no going back.

One of my favorite things at this time of year is to hold an “orphan’s thanksgiving” – I bring people together, orphans by accident or by choice. It’s my favorite thing to do. I make my traditional foods, and my friends come over with their traditional foods: be it curry, posole, eggplant – whatever. And there’s no passive aggression, no guilt as we come together to celebrate this moment in time. Often these people don’t know each other, but I’m surrounding myself with people I love, showing them hospitality, and when all of these out-of-place people are all together, eating and drinking and celebrating the present: that feels like home. – Lacy Johnson

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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how to make "home" beneath a freeway...

I grip my the steering wheel and focus on the ramp that will spill us into the fast lane of Interstate-45.

Minal calls out from the back: Did you see that?

See what? I ask, still looking ahead.

There’s a shopping cart and a man was sitting there on a camping chair drinking coffee. And he had a clothesline all around him.

It’s been a while since Minal has offered me commentary about the homeless community scattered beneath the ramps.

I won’t be able to see him, I tell her. I have to keep my eyes on the road.

That’s how he made his home, she says.

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i feel at "home" when I'm relaxed and comfortable...

I converse with my friend/social worker/fellow-mother Stephanie, as we wait for our children to wrap-up soccer practice.

I feel at “home” when I’m relaxed and comfortable, and able to be completely myself with people around me.

The space that feels most like home to me is Stettler, Alberta, Canada (pop. 1,000) – a rural farm with no one around for miles. The core of “home” is the farm on the bald prairie; that’s what created me.

In one way, Houston is “home” – with family and friends and I work here. It’s a big city and I’m anonymous. But because it’s not the home of my family of origin, I never think of Houston that way.

If you’re from the farm, something about growing your own food is important. The farm is your identifier. Anything away from that life is almost like against that nationhood.” – Stephanie

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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for me, "home" means being around family wherever family is...

Part of my What Is Home? project includes raising the same question (with a few more thrown in, thanks to my friends Jaspal and Yaksha) to family members, friends and others who cross my path.

Here, my friend Sorayya Khan, author of Noor and Five Queens Road, converses with me about her ideas of home. Khan’s third novel, City of Spies, (Aleph, New Delhi) will be released in January 2015.

For me, home means being around family wherever family is– and so my idea of home is open since I have family in many different locations. There is no single place where I feel completely at home. I never thought about what home was until I was 10 and we moved from Europe to Pakistan and I left the only home I knew. As I became older, I started to wonder, “What is home?” My grandparents’ house was in Lahore, but it no longer exists, and the same is true for my parents’ house in Islamabad. I was born in Vienna, Austria, which is also, as it happens, where my mother currently lives. I live with my family, Naeem and the boys, in Ithaca, NY, also my home.

Pakistan is my artistic home and source. All my writing derives from that space and my relationship to it. This home is my constant.

I lived in Pakistan from 1972-79 and I left for college until 1983. I returned, but left in 1984 for graduate school. After graduate school, I travelled once a year to Pakistan until our first child was born in 1992. Later, we spaced out our visits with the children to perhaps once every two years. I spent six months in Pakistan on a Fulbright researching my first novel in 1999, the same year my father died. Technically, however, I’ve been away from Pakistan since I left for college at age seventeen.

I no longer feel that not having a Home is problematic or that I’m missing something by not having one. My father used to tell us when we were growing up that we are lucky because we have many worlds (he was Pakistani, my mother is Dutch); I’ve now arrived at a complete understanding of this and he was, in fact, right. There was a time in my life when not having a Home was a source of sorrow, but now that space is my inspiration and my reason to write. My concept of home was fundamentally affected when my father died. We no longer had a family home and my mother left Pakistan, traumatic events that shifted everything and gave me new perspective.

My sense of loss has been filled with my writing and work. I write my home. Obviously, in a concrete sense, I have a home – a place I live with my husband and children, the family and home we have made. Yet, there’s no way to call my current city Home. It’s my home, but then it’s not. For me to call Ithaca “Home” all the parts of who I am would have to be here. My father would be alive, Islamabad and Lahore would be here, my grandparents, too …no factors can make that happen. Right now, my home is my where my husband and children are, but making Ithaca my home with a capital H is not going to happen. – Sorayya Khan

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.

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