Born abroad, a child of an American diplomat, I spent my childhood in foreign lands, then returned to a similar life as an adult. After two years in the Peace Corps, my husband and I began a career teaching in American schools overseas. For most of my life, I have passed through airport after airport, traveling “home” and then traveling “home” again. The twice-yearly flights can double and triple in times of civil unrest, until the homes blur together, or disappear entirely.
When we left Liberia in 1990, opposing forces had reached the outskirts of the city; the expat population was in a panic. I sat at home, flipping through file folders, snatching out papers that seemed critical and dropping everything else on the floor. I thought about the friends I’d never see again, the ones who might die there after I boarded a plane and hurried away to the safety of my own country. I shuffled through the paper-strewn floor, rushing to make sure we had the necessary clothes, the most beloved toys. I reminded myself that the bicycles, the car, the furniture didn’t matter, that we only needed ourselves, our family. My three children watched wide-eyed, but took our hands as we left the house, ultimately trusting us to keep them safe. We traveled to the airport with hundreds of others in a convoy with a military escort, and shook hands with the American Ambassador and his wife as we prepared to board the plane. It was 2:00 am, and the airport was dim and hot. It would be closed and finally burned down within weeks. I would never see that home again.
After that, we said we wouldn’t run off again, we’d stay put, we’d ride it out. We moved to Pakistan in 1997, and in the ensuing years faced a series of evacuations. Each time we declined the offers to leave. We settled in and hung family pictures on the walls, avoided going out in dangerous times, determined to keep our home together when others were rushing to the airports.
After 9/11, we gave in. We joined ten other American families to begin the long trek home by alternate routes. We flew out of Islamabad, but were stranded in Lahore, where my youngest son amused us by juggling and telling jokes. We were energized by the holiday atmosphere, as if it were a snow day and we had had an unexpected vacation. Journalists interviewed us as we milled around our mountains of luggage. Our white tennis shoes, loud voices and baseball caps gave us away as Americans on the run. In Karachi, the ongoing flight was cancelled and we couldn’t leave the airport without giving up our passports, so we slept on the frigid marble floors, with our backpacks for pillows and newspapers for blankets. We reached Dubai after twenty-four hours, dirty and exhausted, with several more airports ahead of us before we would arrive home. But it wasn’t home. Pakistan was home now, and we wanted it back.
A month later, we returned to Islamabad, making the thirty-six hour journey one more time. We had convinced ourselves that it was safe; our school would never be a target. Children would never be intentionally hurt. Even when we lost a student and her mother in a church bombing, when a teacher had to throw her body over her child and absorb shrapnel to save his life, even through the grief and horror of those days, we held fast. We believed the children had been accidentally caught in the line of fire, that they were unintended casualties of the political upheaval around them.
But when men with AK47’s attacked an American school near us, killing everyone they saw, we knew it was time to go. Once again, we boarded a plane in fear to watch our home slip away below us, getting smaller and smaller until it was gone forever. We were on the run again.