The Homes We Left Behind
“Once a year, in Shaouen, my Andalusian grandfather used to take out the key of the house in Granada and weep. We left Andalusia a hundred years after 1492.”
—Moroccan oud player Saïd Chraibi (1951-2016), in the notes to his 2001 album, La clef de Grenade
Hundreds of years after their expulsion from al-Andalus, Saïd Chraibi’s family had not relinquished the keys to their ancestral home. Sephardic Jews, also, kept keys to the homes they’d been forced to flee, passing them down the generations. Today, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria sometimes display the deeds and keys to their old lands in Golan and Palestine: The last tangible reminders of homes left behind.
Whether we leave in distress or with hope, the homes we forsake continue to exert their pull. The shape of the rooms and the lives lived in them are never forgotten. And with time, those abandoned spaces come to house our happiest memories as well as the anxieties of remaking a life in new rooms, different streets.
In this new series, we are inviting immigrants to share memories of the homes—the actual physical place: be it house, apartment or camp—they were forced to abandon.
If you would like to tell your story, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your daytime phone number and the best time to reach you.
— Ana Menéndez
Amanda González, 19: Student Majoring in English and Philosophy
It was a second floor apartment in la Habana del Este, past the tunnel, and I lived there with my parents and my maternal grandmother, whom I adored. Our place was on the left side of the building. Come to think of it I’ve only ever lived on the left side…
As soon as you walked in, there was the living room with its bright red furniture: a sofa and two love seats. And behind them, a wall full of art. Every room in that apartment had some slash of bright color and was filled with art. The dining room wall was painted orange, and my little room was all deep pink, fuscia really: curtains, bedspread, everything.
My father was something of a frustrated artist. He had been studying printing in the Soviet Union, but then ties broke off just before he graduated. He returned to Cuba without a degree and just went straight to work…But he always loved art, books. My love of reading comes from him. I study and write in English now, but Spanish is my sweet language, the language of Garcia Marquez, of Borges.
There was a small balcony off the living room and it was covered with plants. My happiest memories are of going out there with my grandmother to water the plants with my little watering can, so many plants whose names I never learned. I never thought to ask… And birds everywhere, singing. We had them in cages, in pairs, when one would die, we would buy a new pair. I was too afraid to have dogs or cats, so the caged birds were my pets.
I was very sensitive as a girl. I remember every Saturday my mother would clean and when I was older, my job was to take my grandmother’s china from the dining room shelves to the kitchen. I would take them one by one. I was so afraid I would drop one of them and it would shatter. You can’t replace something like that; it’s gone forever.
My grandmother died when I was eight years old, and it was devastating for me… We were very close. She wanted me to be a strong woman. She was the one who comforted me when I cried. After she died, I couldn’t even go into her room. So my parents moved into her room and gave me their bedroom.
When we left Cuba three years later, I went back into my little room and signed my name on a corner of the wall. My mother wanted to know why I did it, and I said, “Because I want to leave a trace of myself here.”
Jean Souffrant, 39: Consultant and Community Liaison
The last place I call home was a little rented one-bedroom house in Port-de-Paix, Haiti. I was born and raised there, and left when I was 13. My mom was the matriarch of the family and she raised us along with the children of her sister and brother, so there were lots of children in that house, lots of cousins! Five to seven people at a time, all family. But we always had something to eat. And we all went to school – that was my mom’s priority – and because of that all of us came out okay…
It was a modest house in a village where the homes all shared a big yard where the children played during the day. The elders were always looking after us, protecting us.
When you walked in, there was the living room. Well, that’s what it could be considered. At night, it was used for sleeping. Beyond that was the bedroom I shared with my mother. Until my brother arrived, I was the only child in that bedroom. It was a very small bedroom with one big bed. There was a table where we kept our toothbrushes and toothpaste and a single lamp. We didn’t always have electricity, and when it went out, we’d light the lamp so we could continue reading. On the wall there were some artificial owers that my mother had mounted. And a picture of Jesus. The kitchen was outside; it was a common kitchen, as was the bathroom.
One year, I remember, it rained very heavily. The rain had been coming down for days. There was a river not far from where we lived and when it filled to capacity, there was no place for the water to go–there was no drainage system. The water just started filling up all around the neighborhood until it finally entered and filled the entire house. And of course no one could sleep. I must have been around six years old and it seemed the water was up to my waist inside the house.
But the thing I remember is how we all held on to one another and waited for morning. And when morning came, everyone jumped in to help and get rid of the water. We were kids… I have to say it was somewhat fun for us! Mom took it hard… but for us kids, it was only “Hey we get to roll in the water!” Of course, we didn’t fully understand. Everything got warped, the little we owned…Now in retrospect, I could see what my mother went through…
You see, all my memories of that time are fun memories, even this one. Memories of my cousins and playing in that big yard. Of returning home from school and sitting with my mom on the little cement front porch, going over the lessons for the day. You could look over the yard, and all of us were together then. It was a very special time.
Ana Menéndez has published four books of fiction and is an editor at large for The Miami rail.