Saul Ebema lost his parents and family home to unimaginable violence when he was just a boy. He then lived in a refugee camp, on the streets, in a deportation camp, and at a church; he now lives with his wife and children in Chicago. His journey ‘home” has taken him from Sudan to Uganda to South Africa and finally to the United States.
You can learn a bit about his story here https://vimeo.com/223037968
What might all that upheaval and transition do to someone’s sense of home?
We asked Saul about that; here are his generous and insightful answers:
What is your idea of "home”?
My idea of home has evolved so much over the years. When I was a child, my dad always used to say that “home is where your roots are established.” That was true for my dad and the people of his generation in our village in South Sudan because people were born, lived and died in the same home. A permanent physical location was vital to their concept of home. The concept of moving homes from place to place was nonexistent. But even then, for me home was a place of family and education. We didn’t have the formal educational systems like we have here in the United States. So all education happened at home and kids evolved through rites of passages to manhood or womanhood. So how you lived out your life in the community, your values, faith and morals was considered as a reflection of your home.
When you were very young, you lost both parents and were then on your own with your brother. In what ways did you then associate "home" with your parents?
Home with my parents and older family members was associated with a place of familial love, education and formation. The other young boys in the family and I would be taught by the dads, uncles and older male relatives on becoming a man and would be taken through rites of passage. The same way, girls would be taught by the mothers, aunties and older female relatives on becoming a woman and taken through rites of passage. We lived in a traditional African life system where roles are already set before you are born, and you are taught to follow them. So, all the formation, including spiritual and cultural, happened at home.
You have had a multitude of homes -- in several different countries -- throughout your life. Do you feel more at home in particular lands than others?
You are right, I was uprooted at 12 years old from my home due to the war in South Sudan. That has deeply affected my concept of home. I have totally lost my sense of attachment to a place. For me, home has evolved from a physical place to a feeling. Whenever my heart is at peace with myself and my surroundings, that is home for me. So, I can feel at home at the house, I can feel at home at my work as a hospice chaplain, I can feel at home while playing soccer, or at church etc. Whenever my heart is at peace with myself and my surroundings, that is home.
What is the relationship between "home" and "family" in your mind?
In my mind, my understanding of home in this context becomes a sweet blend between my understanding of home as a child and my understanding of home now. This is the reason why in this context my understanding of home is blended:
1) When I am with my family anywhere in the world or even at the house, I feel safe, I feel the solidarity, I feel protected and at peace with myself and with them regardless of the circumstances between us and around us.
2) I have a responsibility to my family regardless of how I feel. The embedded African cultural and theological responsibility for family taught to me as a child overrides how I feel. Look, whether I feel peaceful with my kids or not, I have the responsibility to protect them, provide for them, nature them and educate them about our tradition, values, faith and how-to live-in community. That’s nonnegotiable.
When you and your wife moved to the US, what was important to you both in establishing a new home for your family?
For me nothing. When home is a feeling of peace with self and surrounding, you don’t spend too much time worrying about the material. We don’t put value in the material. We had each other and we were at peace with each other. We were also at peace with the reality of living in a new country. We knew it would be hard, but we were mentally ready to take time to adjust to the unknown. That was enough. The other things needed for our apartment, we didn’t worry about because we knew that all things in the right time will fall into place and that’s what happened. Because of my life experiences, I have learned to live in surrender instead of living in control.
When, where, and with whom do you feel "at home"?
Mainly with myself, family and God
Is there a spiritual dimension of "home" for you?
Always. Since I look at home as a feeling of peace with self and surroundings. To be fully home, I have to be at peace with God too. Therefore my sense of personhood in relation to home is rooted in the understanding of being at peace- first with self- second with community and third with God.