Arts & Culture The Home Issue

How could I connect to a home I never belonged to?

'The words “Iraq” and “refugee” invited unwelcome questions.'

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By Khandan Rashid

When I bring up the subject of “home” with my parents, it often begins with a single photograph. Each captured memory brings me a sense of wholeness, a connection to my ancestors dating as far back as the 1940’s. But raising conversations about the past has not always been so easy to do, largely because my parents rarely talk about the “home” they left behind, the one filled with every fragment of their youth.

It was the 1980’s when my parents decided to flee their home. They sought out a brighter future for my sister and me than the uncertain stability that Iraq promised us. Their journey to the UK formed the hardest days they faced together, and in those first years away there were very few reminders of home. War can separate us in more ways than one, and decades of tensions in Iraq left my parents feeling isolated in London, with no hope of returning to their families. At the time, their only visual account of home was receiving family photographs from relatives. My parents, doing what all immigrant parents do, tried to incorporate their sense of belonging to our roots onto me and my sister. I remember when my parents handed me a card hand scribbled on by one of my cousins. It had a kind of “nice to meet you” greeting, with his passport sized photograph tucked inside. Uninterested at the time, I set it aside to gather dust in a drawer somewhere where it wouldn’t interfere with my more pressing interests, such as 90’s boy bands. The barrier of language and the borders between us prevented me from connecting wholeheartedly to him and to my roots. After all, how could I connect to a home I never belonged to physically or emotionally? 

When I think back to my childhood, I remember feeling somewhat detached from my identity. I never wanted to draw attention to any differences between myself and others around me and I learned early on that the words “Iraq” and “refugee” invited unwelcome questions. Returning home was so far away from reality for me. And so, growing up in London, my efforts were spent trying to integrate myself as best as I could into British life.

Khandan Rashid’s grandfather (right) in London. Photo courtesy of Khandan Rashid.

But in 2001, during my mid-teens, my parents decided to begin our journey home. It was from the moment that I travelled back to Iraq for the first time, the moment my feet touched the marbled tiles of my grandparents’ home, that I felt that sense of belonging. It was an evening of buzzed excitement that followed the tearful reunions, of sitting in a room full of wide-eyed strangers who shared so many of my features. To the left of me was my soft –natured grandmother. Placed above her, as though looking out on the rest of us, was my late grandfather’s portrait. His powerful gaze pierced into my memory. I became fascinated in hearing stories about my parents in their youth, and discovering for the first time the lives of my grandfathers. Separated by borders and visa restrictions and failing to travel home before they sadly passed, a sense of loss began to grow in me. My life in London had prevented me from forming any relationships with two men who could have taught me so much.

First family photo taken in London of Khandan Rashid (bottom right) with her parents and sister, taken in 1987. Photo courtesy of Khandan Rashid.

The other day, I asked my mum to share stories of my grandfather. She spoke of his adversities. She spoke of the simplicity in his character and his warmth that so many around him loved. He was a giver to those who were less fortunate than him. “His door was always open, for whoever needed food and shelter,” she said. She spoke of their family home in Baghdad which she and every one of her relatives were convinced was haunted, with the sounds of creeks coming from every corner of the house. In an attempt to lighten the tension of an otherwise spooked gathering of family members, one relative told my grandfather “it must be a good ghost because you are such a good man!”, my mother recalled. When my grandfather passed away during the unsettling years of the war, my mum told me that the noises too disappeared. I can see that there is a pain in talking about him, a special closeness she shared with him throughout their lives until the moment she left Iraq. Generations later, I understand how much of his character has lived on in my mum, how his lessons have passed down to my sister and me and how every part of his legacy reinforces my own identity.

In recent years, I think about how little time we spend with our parents talking about their memories, and I am left with the hallowing realisation that there are countless forgotten and untold stories. I spend a lot of time these days looking through old photo albums, and I imagine what my relatives’ lives must have been like. There is a beauty in these memories, from the life-changing events of weddings, to the simpler scenes of my grandfather at work. They are gifts from those who came before us and I want to celebrate their lives. In the future, I want to document the life of my family for my children and what better way to do this than to share the visual imagery of the past? With this in mind, every time I travel to Iraq my relatives bring out the photo albums, and I sit there for hours scanning each one for a new story to add to the collection.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees, and affiliates.

Khandan Rashid is an Iraqi Kurdish photographer based in London, with a passion for documenting and archiving family photographs.