Academic journal article Refuge

Home as a Critical Value: From Shelter to Home in Georgia

Academic journal article Refuge

Home as a Critical Value: From Shelter to Home in Georgia

Article excerpt

Introduction: From Collective Centres to Block Houses In Kutaisi, West Georgia

A house--the material structure built for human habitation--is not automatically a home. Houses may be turned into homes by their residents, but some houses will never feel like home--never become home. An interplay of material qualities, symbolic meanings, the occupants' experiences, and their relations with the surroundings of the house may all play a role in enabling a house to become a home. For many people displaced by war, home is believed to be somewhere other than the place of refuge, the place and dwelling they fled from. Displacement from conflict instigates a feeling of loss of home, and making a home at the place of refuge may not be in everyone's interest. The material conditions, the location or social setting of the place of refuge may not be somewhere one would want to call home. Consequently, home may feel irrelevant at the place of displacement, but in this article, I argue that engaging with and including ideas and values of "home" in the humanitarian discourse and practices of providing shelter and housing for long-term displacement may lead to new ways of thinking and practising assistance to internally displaced populations. With Iris Marion Young, (2) I argue for the introduction of "home as a critical value," a set of minimum standards for fulfilling values of home that should be in place when shelter is provided for populations in situations of unending displacement.

The article has come out of a long-term engagement with displacement in Georgia in the South Caucasus. In July 2003, I visited Kutaisi in Western Georgia as part of an evaluation of shelter projects implemented by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) for internally displaced persons (IDPs) displaced from Abkhazia in the early 1990s. (3) I was expected to contribute insight into how the organization could develop sustainable housing solutions in a protracted displacement setting where the authorities and displaced alike were unwilling to accept any solution other than return. The main body of the NRC's shelter work was to make the conditions for people more bearable and more dignified by renovating temporary shelters in "collective centres"--buildings such as student and worker dormitories, hospitals, kindergartens, and hotels that were not meant for permanent living and not for family lives. As part of the evaluation, an additional task was to assess a trial project: the building of 42 small houses or cottages--termed "block houses" by the local NRC staff, referring to the simple shape of the houses. The organization had been granted permission by the authorities to build the houses and move families from dire conditions in the collective centres to these houses. The project was contested, because conditions were so much better than in the collective centres and because the houses indicated more permanency than the domestic spaces in the collective centres. The NRC therefore built houses of relatively low quality that were meant to resemble emergency shelters, materials were relatively cheap, walls and windows thin and simple. However, the houses represented more privacy, autonomy, and even livelihoods opportunities with the surrounding gardens where people could grow vegetables.

The IDP category is a highly politicized category frequently used by Georgian authorities for continued claims on Abkhaz territory. The Georgian authorities had reluctantly agreed to the NRC's housing project. IDPs were not supposed to be given permanent houses. Providing IDPs with more permanent housing solutions would give the impression of less willingness and likelihood for return and consequently less power behind continued territorial claims on Abkhazia. IDPs from Abkhazia were thus kept in makeshift buildings in temporary shelters nurturing a hope to return to their homes. The block houses and the collective centres were both considered temporary dwellings. …

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