FEATURE — My family and I were homeless for two weeks the summer I turned 13. That first afternoon, before we really even knew we were homeless, we drove aimlessly down once familiar streets, now mysterious under a cloak of angry clouds and the hew of a burgundy sun, trying to make sense of the scene unfolding beyond the windows of our blue-striped conversion van.
Before too long, the roads were de facto parking lots, filled with cars that refused the forward command on streets slick with ash and drivers who seemed to have forgotten their way home.
Sometime later, after we could no longer make out any of our surroundings, my mom navigated our van into the parking lot of a large church. A handful of other cars already sat vacant in the lot, blanketed to sleep in a thick, dark ash.
With children yawning and parents worried, each family carved out its acreage on the carpeted floor. We had no blankets. We had no mattresses. And, for my family, we had no real clothes, just the bathing suits on our backs and the flip-flops on our feet.
The next morning my brother, sisters and I awoke from a fitful night’s sleep to the knowledge that our house had burned to the ground. All that remained, according to our parents, were two large chimney stacks and three distinct hunks of melted metal that used to be the family washer, dryer and dishwasher.
The fire that displaced us that night and for several nights and weeks to come was set by a man in a dispute with his neighbor and was carried quickly down the hills of my seaside hometown by hot, fierce, sundowner winds. It burned nearly 500 homes, 5,000 acres and took one life.
It was two or three days before my mom finally found the Red Cross camped out under a canvas pop up on the baseball field my little brother once played tee ball on. They gave her vouchers for goods and food. Our first purchase consisted of toothbrushes, toothpaste and clean underwear.
The stress of being homeless for those two weeks, then being guests of friends for the rest of the summer, and finally living in a small, three-bedroom apartment with our family of seven while trying to literally rebuild our lives put a great deal of stress on my parents.
Sometime in those early months I remember seeing softball-size clumps of my mom’s hair in a bathroom sink and realizing that my parents weren’t invincible. And if they weren’t, then neither was I.
After the fire, my family still had two working cars, the bathing suits on our backs and each other. And we had a community rallying around us. We were pretty lucky.
I look at the refugees flooding out of Syria and I know that my story of homelessness is nothing compared to theirs. They have lost their homes, their country and, in many cases, the lives of ones they love. I don’t know that kind of loss. Most of us probably don’t.
But what I do know is that the loss my family suffered that hot June day in 1990 was made more bearable by our community. Back then, our community meant the people of our city, our church and volunteers at the Red Cross.
Today, our community feels bigger to me, and the world feels a little smaller. It’s not just because I’ve traveled some of it with my family, although that probably helps, but it’s also because I have thousands of resources at my fingertips that connect me to other places – connect me to the plight of refugees thousands of miles away, connect me to families who have to run from soldiers into the woods, and connect me to a little island off the coast of Greece where many of the refugees first land.
I’ve started thinking of that Grecian island of Lesbos as a church – like the big church my family found our first night of homelessness. We didn’t know where the fire would burn. We didn’t know what destruction it would leave behind. But that church represented a place we could land, if only for the night, and it offered us a reminder that we had a community ready to support us.
And maybe that’s what the Syrian refugees need most of all to get them through: a world community to lessen the blow of their losses.
Kat Dayton is a developing columnist with St. George News.
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