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Displaced on the brink of winter: helping those with no safe home

cold bird on fence in winter

I will never forget the time it got cold and we didn’t have a house. 

It was the fall of 2019. My husband had one month left on his Army contract at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. We were excited for the life of relative freedom that awaited us, switching from active-duty to reserve and returning to our home state of North Carolina. 

Except for one thing. We didn’t have a home.

This was a recent development. We’d been in a rental home for almost two whole years (a record!) when we got the news from the management company: The owner of the house wanted to sell it. Now. 

The news had come in August with a move-out deadline of 30 days. We’d decided (as we often do) to use it as an opportunity for adventure. My husband had some vacation days saved up, so after renting a storage unit for our belongings and packing our van to the gills, we hit the road. 

We spent the month of September going back and forth between tent camping and visiting family. We traveled from Kentucky, to Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and back. We visited mountains, lakes, and beaches. My husband even had the opportunity to interview and be hired for his post-Army job in the midst of our trip.

For the most part, it was awesome.

Even more awesome was having friends who offered to loan us their RV for the month of October. That enabled us to stay together as a family when my husband needed to be back at Ft. Campbell for three weeks of outprocessing. 

It did turn slightly less awesome…when the autumn flood of stinkbugs decided an RV was the perfect place for them to spend the night.

And still slightly less awesome…when the kids and I all got sick and spent the better part of a week camped out on the RV sofa watching VeggieTales. 

Still still slightly less awesome…when the heat stopped working and the temperatures dropped below freezing three nights in a row.

We all laugh about it now, of course. How we huddled up together in the big bed on those cold nights, covered in blankets and sleeping bags. And before that, how we patrolled the RV every afternoon with the vacuum cleaner, counting stinkbugs by the hundreds as we sucked them from every corner and crevice.

We can laugh about it…because we knew we were never in real danger.

Anytime, we could have called it quits and booked a hotel. I could have packed up the kids and driven a few hours to spend the remainder of the month with family while my husband finished his work. The truth is, we were pretty proud of ourselves for “roughing it” in the RV, and we knew we could make it work, if only temporarily. 

I tell this story to show how very little I (and probably most Americans) know about true displacement.

We’ve been “between homes” several times, but always with the means to find the next home. And a way to keep a roof over our heads in the meantime.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for millions of families around our world this winter.

No way home

According to the UN refugee organization UNHCR, over 100 million, or 1 in 77 people, remain forcibly displaced, with children making up a third of that number. 

Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an unprecedented number of Ukrainians both at home and in neighboring countries are facing a cold European winter without heat. And they aren’t the only ones. Refugees in Afghanistan and Syria face similar conditions, many of them living in tents ill-equipped for an already cold winter. 

Most people in the United States (myself included) don’t have the faintest idea of what it means to go into the winter with no means of warmth.

Few of us had ever had to choose between staying warm or staying fed.

As we approach the holidays and the new year, I want to remember that the struggles I hope to ease through this blog—the struggles of relocation from one warm home to another—are only a fraction of the struggles faced by those who are truly displaced.

Such as those displaced by war…who may have had to choose between the risk of missile strikes and the risk of homelessness.

Or those displaced by poverty…who would rather leave their whole world behind than continue living in a situation that shows no hope of getting better.

Or those with homes destroyed by natural disasters…and often left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Those who don’t know if they’ll ever have a home to return to.

Or those at war…who, while not technically displaced, face a long, cold winter in order to ensure their countrymen DO have a homeland to return to.

I believe many of our struggles are of the same kind. I can picture countless refugee mothers working to help their children adjust to a new environment, a new school, and new routines. Trying to track down the ingredients to make their favorite foods. Trying to figure out ways to celebrate the holidays that don’t depend on being near family and friends.

They may be of the same kind, but of vastly different degrees. And I try to remember that. Even as I attempt to create content that will be helpful to anyone who finds themselves in a brand new, unfamiliar place.

If you or your family are displaced— between homes, houseless, in flight, or without your own space for any other reason—I hope you can feel at home here.

Even though I can’t come close to adequately addressing the degree of your struggles.

And if you’re like me…moving for the military, for work, for a nicer location, or just because…I hope we can all remember to keep the challenges of relocation in perspective. Especially when we are worried about the effect of moving on our kids, our marriages, and our careers.

Those challenges are real. Those worries are real.

But for most of us, they are accompanied by countless blessings that are easy to forget.

Like friends who let you spend a month camped out in their RV.

Or a new job that starts right after the old one ends (or any job, for that matter).

Or a home with a working furnace.

How to help

December 18th is International Migrants Day. And as many of us rush to complete last-minute Christmas shopping, I’d like to encourage you to set aside a bit of your holiday spending to help someone without a warm place to stay this winter.

El Paso, TX: Donate to any of the several humanitarian organizations working overtime to help the hundreds of migrants crossing the Rio Grande this week. With no place to stay as they await passage to their final destinations, people are spending nights on the streets in the windy and freezing desert weather.

Ukraine: Donate to the UNHCR campaign to provide emergency shelter for Ukrainian refugees, among others.

Syria: Support Syria Relief as it works to improve conditions for families living in tent camps in Syria. 

Afghanistan: Donate to the UNHCR campaign to support families in Afghanistan facing critical conditions in their home country, as well as Afghan refugees abroad.

These are just a few examples. Let’s all do what we can to add some warmth to this holiday season.

No matter how far away “home” is.

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