This is my fifth time returning home from a year abroad. The first was after being an exchange student to Brazil with Rotary. The next several times I was in my twenties. And yes, I experienced reverse culture-shock and felt directionless and went through many other emotions as I reintegrated home. And I’m feeling those things again. And so is my husband. And my kids. And Heather. And I could write about all of that, but Michael Huxley nailed it in his article last December: It Really is a Lonely Planet.
This year’s re-entry is different. I’m older. I own property and must feed, clothe and care for two teens and a dog. Figuring out what to do next is not just about me. Register for school? Check. Buy insurance? Check. Pay taxes? Polish resume? Unpack storage? Check, check and check. And yet, while I’m unpacking the umpteenth box, gratitude overwhelms me. I am thankful for the opportunity to travel of our own free will, under our own auspices, with carefully laid-out plans and 1st world safety nets.
Because what strikes me as I hear the news from Hungary, Turkey, Greece, and Syria is that for every traveling family seeking education or adventure, there are thousands more migrating because they have no choice. Their months, even years, on the road probably aren’t filled with funny anecdotes about that time they forgot to get a visa; many can’t get visas. They probably aren’t wishing they’d bought a roomier REI backpack; many have left all their possessions behind. They probably aren’t worried about whether their next Airbnb has air-conditioning; they’re relying on NGOs, foreign governments, and the kindness of strangers for basic shelter.
People have told Rodrigo and me that they admire us for what we’ve done. I’m happy to be an inspiration to others, but I’m humbled by the refugee and migrant families who are traveling without choice. I was stunned by the BBC’s story of Hamza, a Syrian woman who has been on the road for four years, trying to get her children to freedom. I listened to her tearfully insist that she’d push her kids through a border without her, because their safety is more important than the family staying together. She is fiercely determined to overcome the most terrible circumstances.
Overwhelmed with sympathy, I clicked off the radio, knowing that my family’s travels are nothing compared to hers. We chose this. We saved for three years. We planned for 18 months. We made decisions every day that prioritized our travel goals over almost all others. We chose to leave things behind, and we chose to come home.
My family finds joy in sharing our stories and advice with others. But we also carry the burden of privilege. We recognize that most long-term travelers were lucky to be born in countries free from the hardship and strife that forces others out of their homes. The traveling community should be grateful for that. We should have empathy for those who wish they’d never had to leave at all.
And so, a call to action to travelers-by-choice, fans, followers, friends and colleagues: Consider how you can help these reluctant travelers, the migrants, refugees and displaced persons. Will you strive for deeper knowledge about the circumstances and situations they’re leaving? Will you make a donation, or volunteer in a shelter? Will you hand out water and blankets at a train station? Or will you contact your political representative, urging resources, action, and asylum? Big or small, do something. As world travelers who know that we can always return home, we owe it to those who cannot.