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What Does it Mean to Love a Place?

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

I took one sip of the tea and couldn’t help but smile; it tasted exactly like home.

“Cardamom, right?” I asked. The man's face broke into a smile; he nodded fervently, rubbing nervous circles on his knees.

When we first walked into the living room, I was struck by the contrast between the vibrant purple pattern of the carpet and the empty white walls; it was the astronomical difference between belonging and beginning anew. I felt a glowing admiration in my chest: they had brought a piece of home with them. Even the steaming cup I cradled in my hands was made of heavy glass. I felt a restatement of dignity in its weight, anchored in these symbols of grounded familiarity in the otherwise all but bare apartment.

It was my first day of work at the resettlement agency and my first visit to an Afghan family’s home. Over the rim of my tea cup, I caught the child stealing furtive, wide-eyed glances at me from her father's lap and I noticed her evident physical disability. How did they manage with the three flights of stairs we had climbed on our way up? I couldn’t help but think of my sister. What had this child seen that she had not? Despite the opposite trajectory of their short lives—one marked by forced displacement and the other by relative stability—maybe they still saw the world more similar than I realized. They were unaffected by the mutual mistrust that had diffused across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan for decades.

From behind her husband, who translated her Dari to English, the mother of the children asked where I was from. I hesitated. That very morning I had comforted a grown man at the office through his racking sobs. He played me harrowing footage of failed civilian evacuations at Kabul airport, blaming neighboring countries for the fate of his country.

Sure enough, I watched as a thin sheet of realization glazed over their faces once I answered the question. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by desperation to communicate how acutely I understood them. It's a sinking, inexplicable feeling to learn that the only place you've ever called home is synonymous with concerning headlines, crude numbers, and preconceived notions in another part of the world. On this carpet, I wanted to be their bridge between home and unchartered territory. So I leaned forward and asked them their story.

Nothing could have prepared me for their generosity in sharing. They recounted how they were given a day to drop everything and be loaded onto a departing military plane. Here they were, the expendable factors in a cataclysmic event triggered by decisions made between governments. There is a critical intersection between global politics and the individual stories that preserve its impact—that is the part that matters to me.

As they described their life in Kabul, I felt admiration growing inside me a second time—they didn’t disavow their home, even when they were forced to leave it. You can’t—you shouldn’t—teach yourself to fall out of love with a home. I am frustrated, for example, by the imperfect, violence-prone democracy in Pakistan; the patriarchal norms that govern society and justify the exclusion of women. But I viscerally understand that to disavow your home is to fail to appreciate a very fruitful tension between love and freedom.

We talked about everything from Pakistani television, Eid, and halal restaurants to my mother’s Pashto heritage, their children's schooling, and my college plans. With each sip of my tea, I felt the tension in the room easing away.

When we exited the apartment, the pavement was glistening wet. Our love for rain and dark skies in South Asia, like our cardamom-flavored hospitality, is our own. It’s finding new life in something that sends others rushing for cover. It settles the dust and recharges the soul—it makes me come alive.

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