By Tamanna Saidi
What is Home? Third Place Winner
Musafir. The word that intrudes on every call my mom has with any Afghan, coming out in reminiscences of home, in conversations about rude American neighbors, in times of death, and in times of birth. Sometimes, I can’t make out the other parts, the parts about Ghani and corrupt leaders and the toils of life. But Musafir rings in my ears. Traveler. Afghans do not call themselves immigrants, but travelers— travelers away from home and who hope to one day return to an Afghanistan they won’t have to flee. Musafir may mean traveler but has made a permanent stay in every phone call conversation of my Afghan mother.
I am not the traveler my family is— I didn’t leave home to go to unknown places and places I still feel I don’t know. Queens birthed me and rocked my cradle and where I resided simply was home. But a global pandemic makes staring at your ceiling an existential crisis and the perfect view for conjuring up endless reflections. The physical home surrounding me, with four occupied seats and one empty one, should have been enough to be my home.
And for the most part, it was and is. But, when I saunter up to my grandparents’ house and find my grandfather waiting in a chair in the front yard, that is home too. I hug my cousins and smell the heavy scent of Tide on their backs because they have clean freak mothers who use copious amounts of detergent. That scent is home too. I plead with my best friends on the E train if I can crack their knuckles and holding their hands for that split second as they laugh at my antics, that’s home too.
I had to drop off bagels to my grandparents by knocking on their door and walking away before they opened it. I could only text cousins and write unsent letters of times when I missed their embrace. I avoided trains like the plague, not taking one for a year after the pandemic began.
I was so sure I was not the traveler my family members were, and in many fortunate ways, I am not. But in being kept apart from the ones I love and the places I seek comfort in, I was a traveler away from the parts and pieces that made up home. Have you ever been to Western Beef at 6 am with your grandpa after a sleepover because your grandparents insisted on eating breakfast as early as possible?? If so, you would understand how a chips aisle can lay out a bed in the form of honey barbeques and cool ranch, and how your grubby fingers digging into a pack of skittles at 7 am is the holiest comfort food. Being deprived of that was suffocating and no amount of masked-up, sanitizing everything solo-grocery-runs could replace that feeling.
And such instances were suffocating but nothing squeezed the breath out of me during the pandemic quite like the Taliban taking over Afghanistan. U.S. troops dropped one last drone strike, a sort of firework and farewell, killing ten innocent Afghan civilians and the Taliban gained control over the entirety of the country.
My family understood me; we cried and called family back home and prayed. But it felt like no one else could understand. When I tried to explain, it was like expressing grief for losing my father and the person in front of me, not facing such a loss, giving me their sympathies and their “mhmm’s” and their frowns, but not getting it.
I was out of place, Queens did not feel like home and friends could not grant me the comfort they always had. But amid this heartache, I stumbled upon comfort and home within a group of volunteers for a refugee donation event.
I was surrounded by Afghans who understood. We folded clothes and arranged items in the blistering heat for hours on end. We spoke of family and careers and we cried together about a shared loss. Speaking with people who get you doesn’t heal you. Just like speaking to a friend who lost their dad doesn’t mean I am over my dad’s death. But there is peace in finding a sense of home when home seems fractured and uncertain. We were “diaspora kids” seeking a place where we felt safe and understood. In each other, we found that.
Musafir. The pandemic had a way of making me feel as though I was away from home, whilst tucked away in my cozy abode. It was never truly about the physical structure I spend my days in but the people, the places, who make me feel at home wherever I am. For me, maybe being a traveler isn’t so bad.