• projectneighbours

Home ransacked and bombed

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

I learnt about Zoë Duncan from an interview with her in Mslexia magazine, where she talked about her life in war-torn countries, while mainstream news was reporting on Europe's refugee crisis. Here we talk about violence and coming home.

zoë duncan

Where I’m from

It’s a very difficult one to answer. I’m technically British, but I was born in Germany as a daughter of a military family. I spent the majority of my childhood outside of England, in places I can never return to or be a part of.

My early memories are in Sudan

I have joyful memories of weekends spent camping in the desert. I remember a very free life. I suppose the reality for my parents was much harder.


We had to queue for fuel every few weeks; there was rationing of many things, but we were happy.

We then moved to Nigeria and, around that time, I was sent to a boarding school in England. I'd live at school in term time and fly home for the holidays. Sometimes my parents would move and I'd fly home to a place different to the one I’d left.

Home was wherever my parents were

Back then, it felt normal. As an adult, it’s strangely unsatisfying.

Oman was very special

We moved there after Nigeria. When I went back, I did feel some of the childhood pangs just from having familiar sights, noises, smells.

A call to prayer early in the morning was especially powerful. It’s the one thing that was consistent across most of the places we’d lived; something that doesn’t happen in England.

To me, Oman was a bubble of wonderfulness. It was a very special time right before anything awful happened.

prayer in a mosque

Then my father was promoted and we moved to Kuwait, which was much richer and a lot more urban than where we’d previously lived; it took some getting used to but it was home.

When the invasion happened

Our home was ransacked and bombed; it ceased to exist. The violence of it, it shattered a sense of home for a long time.

My mother and my sister and I came back to the UK when women and children were allowed to leave. We had to leave my brothers and my father behind, in hiding. In England, we were still very much in Kuwait; half our family were there; we didn’t know what was happening to them. We didn’t live; we existed.

We heard the news

My eldest brother had been killed in Kuwait.

When my father and surviving brother managed to get out, we started to try and rebuild our lives.

The first Christmas, my mum made a beautiful effort to give everyone a lovely memory. No one wanted Christmas. She tried so hard. We went through the motions and trying to bring back some elements of what we had stripped from us.

To this day, hearing the coverage of what’s happening in the Middle East, it turns my stomach.

I feel viscerally akin to the people running for their life. I was forced to leave; it was unbearable. But to be forced to leave and to then come somewhere hostile – it’s heartbreaking.

My home was ripped apart, but I came to what was supposed to be my country: safe and welcoming.

Now when people arrive, from the parts of the world I did, no one wants them.

Sometimes, I feel ashamed: of the life I’m living and of the people around me.

Data on Europe's Refugee Crisis (Source: European Commission 2018)

Who d'you think you are

It's a title of a tv show that I've recently watched. A British woman’s family was traced back to Poland, Austria and France.

Large parts of her family were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. Some parts of her family managed to escape over the border to Switzerland, which they entered illegally.

The way the program framed the story - quite rightly! - was about how terrifying it must have been; how brave to run away from the Nazis and risk this kind of journey. How lucky that they got out!

And yet, what’s happening around us now, we don’t see it this way.

We’re saying, it’s okay to flee from the Nazis but it’s not okay to flee from Assad.

In Kuwait, what really left an imprint, was a sense of being forced out of a home. I never wanted to be forced out of a house again.

A grounded place

I find it so beautiful when people have spent their childhoods in one place. That’s a really special thing, which I desperately wanted for my children.

Where I live now, my children have gone to the little infant school down the lane; everyone knows them since birth; they run around with their friends.

It’s no big deal to them. To me, it’s almost an indulgence.

zoë duncan project neighbours

Zoë Duncan with her mom

Where we live, not many people have been here their whole lives, but there is a very strong sense of community. It’s lovely when the village gets together and there is a bonfire and jazz on the green. I enjoy feeling settled somewhere where other people are also settled around me.

But parts of me don't fit

Cornwall feeds the side of me that’s displaced, windswept and raw.

The landscape reminds me of the landscapes of my childhood. The Sahara and the cliffs of Cornwall have a starkness to them that’s familiar.

The communities in Cornwall are settled; they’ve been incredibly welcoming. When I go to Cornwall, I sit in a pub, with the local people, plugging myself into the local things.

If I moved there, it’d be like slipping into a pair of shoes made just for me.

But sense of home is something that's now portable. I’ve been able to find home in abstract ways more than I’ve been able to find it in concrete ways.

Completely separate

Each of us has a personal story that can make us feel very separate from the world. We can all feel lost or lonely or damaged. These feelings are common even if the experiences behind them are different.

This universality is what allows us to see ourselves in stories and what helps us heal. Understanding that helped me make sense of my life.

I have always loved art and academia. I didn’t know how to marry them up when I was younger. I went into academia first, but I knew art would come back somehow.

Writing feeds the different sides of me - the thinking and the feeling and making. Drawing on these different disciplines, it’s the one area in my life where I don’t feel a sense of displacement.

Standing in the middle, I’m touching at the core of life.

Right now, more than anything, my children are my home. I’m in a really privileged position. I can raise people who care about others. I try to show them how to interact with the world, how to treat people with compassion, kindness and respect.

It’s a very privileged position to be a role model. Something we can all do for each other.

Zoë Duncan spent her childhood in various parts of the Middle East and Africa. She has a PhD in Middle Eastern Geopolitics, and a background in teaching, policy advice and writing. Her latest novel, The Shifting Pools, was released in summer 2017 and explores the issues of uprootedness and the trauma of war.

#refugees #war