Constellations of home: a feminist approach to home and displacement

Displacement leads to the experience of loss of home, but simultaneously to a redefinition of home. Focusing on home and protracted displacement from a feminist perspective demonstrates that home-keeping for refugees and displaced persons — far from being static and propelled only by the need for survival in the present moment — is a masterful dialogue that spans place and time, incorporating ideal concepts of home and the homeland, aspirations to return ‘home’ and hopes to achieve a more stable exile by strategizing to go somewhere else. We suggest that these multiple concepts exist simultaneously, while the people who hold them move among various locations to form a very complex idea of home that we have called ‘constellations of home’.This metaphor is useful to demonstrate how human beings turn points of reference into meaningful patterns, but that the same points may be imagined differently from each site of observation.

We have derived a simplified triadic constellation that helps us to think about the interconnected and multidimensional implications of homemaking in protracted circumstances of displacement.To distinguish between the various strands that make up this constellation, we visually code them as ‘home’,‘Home’ and ‘HOME’.

Beginning with ‘home’, we take this to mean the day-to-day practices that help to create the place of displacement as a particularly significant kind of place. Such practices involve both material and imaginative notions of home and may be improvements or even investments in temporary dwellings; they include the daily routines that people undertake in these dwellings; and they incorporate the social connections that people make in a neighbourhood, a section of a camp or other institutions formed to ‘take care of’ refugees and IDPs.

‘Home’, the second modality in our constellations of home, represents values, traditions, memories and subjective feelings of home. Discussions of home and displacement tend to concern an ideal Home; the Home that many displaced people dream of and long for. These ideas are created by the experiences that displaced people have of lost homes, past homes, and their dreams and hopes for future homes. Home articulated during protracted displacement refers to a more generalized ideal in a particular socio-cultural context and influences domestic practices in temporary dwellings. Emerging from the ideal Home are the material standards that a dwelling must have for it to be inhabitable; while some minimum standards may be commonly shared across socio-cultural contexts, certain aspects such as what constitutes privacy may vary widely. The ideal Home for forced migrants in protracted situations is then reflected in the dwelling, but is also expressed at different scales. For example, numerous studies on home and diaspora analyse the ways in which nostalgia and longing for the homeland nurture an ideal, idealized or even invented Home.

Finally, grappling with homemaking in protracted displacement requires engaging with the dominant meaning and institutionalization of home for the current global order. While we recognize that the notion of homeland is highly politicized for forced migrants idealizing their Home, our focus on the modality coded here as ‘HOME’ refers to the broader social, political, economic and historical context in which it is understood and experienced by displaced people, and also by the perpetrators of nationalist exclusion and violence and the policymakers addressing protracted displacement through the optic of'durable solutions’. HOME refers to the geopolitics of nation and homeland that contribute to situations of protracted displacement, the ways in which politics of home are necessarily implicated in the causes of displacement and how displaced populations negotiate these conditions in their day-to-day lives. Including HOME in our constellation makes the rift more visible between assumptions about displaced people in a (largely) fixed global order and the fluid conditions of precariousness and unsettledness.

The constellations of home framework enable an open and dynamic understanding of home, one that incorporates the interaction between the intimate and the global and that captures power relations and gendered dynamics of home-keeping. Our own work suggests that this framework captures what refugees and displaced populations actually do and how they go about their lives in a far more nuanced and realistic way than current policies for protracted displacement can account for. In the final pages of this chapter, we will show examples from our own research how the framework can help to adjust policies to be more attentive to what people do.


In long-term displacement, daily home-keeping practices are a window into people’s fundamental need to control, organize and share their domestic space. For displaced ethnic Georgians in Tbilisi, these routine practices, established under duress and uncertainty, have helped to delineate their communal identity, and they illustrate the key dimension of home that is established through daily living.The war between Georgia and Abkhazia forced nearly 250,000 ethnic Georgians to leave their homes and move to Georgian-controlled areas as internally displaced persons (IDPs).They found places to live in so-called ‘collective centres’, established in old hotels, hospitals and dormitories for students and factory workers — buildings not meant for permanent dwelling. Since the 1990s, these collective centres were temporary homes for displaced Georgians, symbolizing the experience of permanent impermanence. Everyday life was distinguished by waiting and queueing for water, bathrooms or other facilities in these crowded spaces, where two and sometimes three generations shared one room, with shared toilet facilities and cooking in the corridor. But everyday routines were still established. Home-keeping took hold through the labour of daily life: the cooking in the corridor, getting children to school, cleaning and tidying up and organizing a liveable space in these unlovable conditions.

The emotional and physical labour of crafting a home through daily activities constituted homemaking in what was initially not people’s home but gradually became more homely. People made their dwelling spaces beautiful. In particular, one interview stands out, in which two artist brothers described their struggle to generate resources to beautify their surroundings. These daily practices made home — the first dimension of our constellation of home — a particularly significant place, established through housework and maintaining social relations among the displaced in the collective centres. Through these housekeeping practices, people connected the past and the future through the few objects, photos and other items that they may have brought or sourced from Abkhazia.This measure of home-keeping can also engage the production of Home or HOME in a place.


The homemaking practices of the large, displaced population of Arabic-speaking Muslim Sudanese nationals living in Cairo in the 1990s illustrates Home, our second dimension of ‘constellations of home’. While daily practices to set up and maintain homely spaces in large, scattered apartment blocks in this mega-city were taking place, individuals and families spent a great deal of time and resources travelling to visit other Sudanese in their temporary rented accommodations or in places of employment. Since Sudanese did not cluster in a specific quarter of Cairo, conducting visits involved a variety of modes of transport (underground, micro-buses, taxis and on foot), and usually included more than one household in an afternoon of visiting, with some visits as short as 15 minutes before the visitors moved on to the next stop. Notably, visits were made not only to nearby relatives, friends and colleagues, as had been a normal part of Sudanese social life back in Sudan, but rather to a variety of far-flung households in a shifting network of Sudanese nationals with various residence statuses in Egypt. Hosts — whether resident for a number of years or newly arrived — would offer tea, juices and biscuits, along with comforting traditions from Home, such as burning incense and playing Sudanese music cassettes.

Social relations for displaced Sudanese people in Cairo thus centred around a new form of visiting that helped them to articulate their cultural identity and national origin by knitting together individual dwellings across space to produce a Home in exile. Furthermore, while narrating these practices helped displaced Sudanese to remember their ideal Home in Sudan and process their loss and yearning, their visiting practices also comprised acts of re-imagining a future nation that was more inclusive, more equitable and represented the best of Sudanese culture and aspirations.


In the constellations of home negotiated by long-term displaced people, the HOME dimension comprises the current international framework itself, with accompanying rights to citizenship and temporary protections for people out of place. It should be clear from our two ethnographic examples — the Georgian internally displaced people in Tbilisi and the Sudanese refugees in Cairo — that their temporary status did not prevent the home-keeping practices that helped to sustain families, support their day-to-day lives and provide a sense of home and identity. Nevertheless, the current policy environment of exclusionary legal membership, with its distinct social, political and economic constraints, prevents displaced people from becoming full members of the society to which they have moved. The Georgians and Sudanese created their networked and practical meanings of‘home’ and ‘Home’ in order to move on, to develop their own sense of security and to deal with the unlikelihood of return and the accompanying permanent temporariness inherent in their status as forced migrants. The HOME dimension, a central condition of all constellations of home, illuminates the tension between the dominant policies governing displacement and people’s struggle for recognition within the current system. While we do not dismiss or romanticize the experiences of marginalization, abuse or violence in displaced people’s home-keeping practices in making‘home’ and ‘Home’, the cases that we present here demonstrate that home-keeping has created new opportunities, new homes and new practices that have gradually changed families and communities. Grappling with HOME, however, caused heightened vulnerability', a sense of uncertainty and a lack of recognition due to displaced people’s limited rights in societies.The HOME dimension underscores the reality that, for refugees and other displaced populations, unmarked belonging often lies in the past, when they were full members of a society. Nevertheless, displaced populations negotiate the limitations of HOME on a daily basis, creating new and expanded meanings that constantly erode policy assumptions of people in limbo. In fact, protracted displacement frequently leads displaced people to practise a translocal form of HOME from whence people mobilize resources both within and across particular social groups to challenge the temporality that their physical location (and in consequence their legal and political status) represents.

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