Hong Kong (CNN)In the middle of a beautiful sunset in May, Emily’s boyfriend knelt before her on a beach in Japan and proposed. Overjoyed, she said yes.
They envisioned starting a family together in their home of Hong Kong. But within a month, their plans — their whole vision of a future together — had been thrown into chaos. Four months into the largest protests in the city’s history, Emily is looking for a way out of the embattled city.
Now, along with her fiancé, Emily — who declined to give her full name due to political sensitivities — is actively looking to emigrate to another country within the next two years, including the UK and the US. “I will have children one day,” the 25-year-old office worker told CNN. “I don’t want them to live in a police state where they cannot freely express their opinions.”
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Taxi driver attacked after slamming into crowd of protesters 00:34Read MoreTime to leaveThe semi-autonomous Chinese city is in its 18th consecutive week of anti-government protests. The unrest has grown increasingly violent on both sides, with protesters using petrol bombs and setting fires, and police firing tear gas and water cannons. During citywide protests on October 1, police used lethal force for the first time, after protesters attacked several officers. Hong Kong has a history of politically driven waves of emigration. The first occurred in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed after years of secret negotiations, setting the stage for the city’s handover from British to Chinese control in 1997. The second started in mid-1989, after the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing led many to doubt China’s commitments to preserving Hong Kong’s freedoms. While many Hong Kongers who emigrated before 1997 returned to the city when Chinese rule was established and the “one country, two systems” formula — by which Hong Kong retained its own economic and legal systems and a degree of autonomy — seemed to be working, a substantial number retained foreign passports, giving them the option to leave in future. Originally sparked by a now-shelved extradition bill with China, the protests have demonstrated just how the trust and hope regained after the Tiananmen Square massacre has been eroded in recent years, with many — especially younger Hong Kongers — looking forward with great trepidation to 2047, when current constitutional arrangements run out and Hong Kong could become fully a part of China, governed just like any other city. Some Hong Kongers have expressed this distrust — and their frustration with Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the city’s freedoms — by taking to the streets, but others are looking for a way out. According to a survey by the University of Hong Kong in June, nearly half of the city’s population was willing to consider emigration if the extradition bill — which critics feared could leave any Hong Konger open to prosecution in China — passed. While the bill was suspended following mass protests (and the government has since announced its full withdrawal), the unrest has continued to shake people’s willingness to stay. Research by YouGov in July found similar numbers wanting to leave. Of those surveyed, two out of three who were eager to leave were between the ages of 18 and 34. Half of those wanting to leave held university degrees. The city’s young professionals don’t just want to move, they want to move soon. YouGov’s survey found that a quarter of those who want to migrate are likely to do so within the next three years. Government data provided to CNN shows that the number of applications for a certificate that is necessary for Hong Kongers applying for visas overseas surged over 50% from May to August this year. Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy lawmakers protest as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivers a speech at the chamber of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong Wednesday, October 16. Hide Caption 1 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestHong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam arrives to deliver her policies at the chamber of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, on Wednesday. Hide Caption 2 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protestor shoots a basketball at a poster of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong during a rally in support of NBA basketball Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and against comments made by Lakers superstar LeBron James on Tuesday, October 15. Hide Caption 3 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters set fire to a Bank of China branch in Hong Kong on Sunday, October 13. It was the 19th consecutive weekend of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.Hide Caption 4 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters use the lights on their phones during a rally in central Hong Kong’s business district.Hide Caption 5 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester attempts to break a tourist bus window on October 13.Hide Caption 6 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters wearing masks in defiance of a recently imposed ban gather at a shopping mall on October 13.Hide Caption 7 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAnti-government protesters set up “The Lady Liberty of Hong Kong” statue, which symbolizes the city’s recent democratic movement. The figure stands a little over 13 feet tall and was carried in pieces to the top of Lion Rock, one of Hong Kong’s iconic peaks.Hide Caption 8 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters vandalize a shopping mall restaurant on October 13.Hide Caption 9 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestSupporters surround a police bus carrying political activist Edward Leung as it leaves the High Court in Hong Kong on Wednesday, October 9. Several hundred masked protesters gathered at Hong Kong’s High Court for the appeal hearing of Leung, who was sentenced to six years in prison for his part in a violent clash with police.Hide Caption 10 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice shine lights at protesters outside the Ma On Shan police station on October 9.Hide Caption 11 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters smash up a Bank of China branch on Monday, October 7.Hide Caption 12 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA woman is treated after police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on October 7.Hide Caption 13 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice clear a street as protesters and pedestrians gathered near the Mong Kok police station on October 7.Hide Caption 14 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy protesters gather in a shopping mall on October 7.Hide Caption 15 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA masked protester stops for a portrait in Hong Kong on Sunday, October 6.Hide Caption 16 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters vandalize the Cheung Sha Wan local government offices on October 6.Hide Caption 17 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestRescue personnel check the bottom of a taxi after the driver allegedly drove onto the pavement, hitting protesters in Hong Kong on October 6.Hide Caption 18 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA China Construction Bank is seen vandalized in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong on October 6.Hide Caption 19 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy protesters set fires in the street in the Causeway Bay area.Hide Caption 20 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPeople protest the ban against masks on Saturday, October 5.Hide Caption 21 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice detain a protester on October 5.Hide Caption 22 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn anti-government protester stands near a fire on Friday, October 4.Hide Caption 23 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters move a statue depicting a protester armed with gas mask, helmet and umbrella on the streets of Hong Kong on October 4.Hide Caption 24 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters set a fire at a China Construction Bank.Hide Caption 25 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice deploy tear gas outside a restaurant during a protest in the Causeway Bay district.Hide Caption 26 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters spray paint slogans at the entrance to a tunnel on October 4.Hide Caption 27 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA fire is seen in front of a store vandalized by protesters.Hide Caption 28 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA store after being vandalized by protesters.Hide Caption 29 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy demonstrators hold up their hands to symbolize their five demands during a rally on October 4.Hide Caption 30 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters throw petrol bombs at the gate to the Tsuen Wan police station on Wednesday, October 2.Hide Caption 31 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestSchoolmates of a student who was shot in the chest by police place their hands on their chests during a protest on October 2.Hide Caption 32 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA young protester was shot Tuesday, October 1, as violent protests erupted across Hong Kong on the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The incident marked a major escalation in violence that could galvanize the protest movement in Hong Kong.Hide Caption 33 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice detain an anti-government protester on October 1. Thousands of black-clad protesters marched in central Hong Kong as part of multiple pro-democracy rallies.Hide Caption 34 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters stand surrounded by smoke from tear gas shells on October 1.Hide Caption 35 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMarching anti-government protesters are seen through a window with peeled-off posters on October 1.Hide Caption 36 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice tackle and arrest pro-democracy protesters during clashes on October 1. Hide Caption 37 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester is seen carrying rocks on a street on October 1. While events in Beijing were being held to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, demonstrators rallied throughout Hong Kong.Hide Caption 38 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters react after police fired tear gas near the central government offices in Hong Kong’s Admiralty area on October 1.Hide Caption 39 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy protesters form a “Pepe the Frog” themed human chain on Monday, September 30.Hide Caption 40 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man is detained by Hong Kong police during a protest in the Causeway Bay shopping district on Sunday, September 29.Hide Caption 41 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestRiot police try to disperse protesters on September 29.Hide Caption 42 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestBus passengers look at a burning barricade lit by pro-democracy protesters in front of the Mong Kok police station on Sunday, September 22.Hide Caption 43 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy protesters sing songs and chant slogans during a rally inside a shopping mall on September 22.Hide Caption 44 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail during a demonstration near the Central Government Complex on Sunday, September 15.Hide Caption 45 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA pro-China supporter, center, is escorted by police after confronting journalists in Hong Kong on September 15.Hide Caption 46 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-government and anti-government supporters chant against one another at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Friday, September 13. The sign translates to “Stop violence and curb chaos; safeguard Hong Kong.”Hide Caption 47 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestDemonstrators hold up their cell phone lights as they form a human chain at the Peak, a tourist spot in Hong Kong, on September 13.Hide Caption 48 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice escort an injured man after he attacked protesters outside Prince Edward station in Hong Kong on Friday, September 6.Hide Caption 49 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters burn paper money to pay their respects to injured protesters.Hide Caption 50 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters prepare to clash with police outside the Mong Kok police station on September 6.Hide Caption 51 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester is detained by police at the Po Lam Mass Transit Railway station on Thursday, September 5.Hide Caption 52 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man watches televisions at a store in Hong Kong as Chief Executive Carrie Lam announces the withdrawal of the extradition bill on Wednesday, September 4.Hide Caption 53 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA woman gets emotional on September 4 while paying her respects to protesters who were injured a few days earlier.Hide Caption 54 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestDemonstrators travel through a railway station during a rally on Tuesday, September 3.Hide Caption 55 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestStudents wearing gas masks and helmets hold a banner that reads “five major demands are indispensable” at St. Francis’ Canossian College in Hong Kong.Hide Caption 56 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters gather in the bus terminal at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday, September 1. Hundreds of pro-democracy activists attempted to block transport routes to the city’s airport.Hide Caption 57 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA passenger walks to the airport on September 1 as pro-democracy protesters blocked a road outside the airport.Hide Caption 58 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester uses a slingshot outside the Central Government Complex during clashes with police on Saturday, August 31. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters held an anti-government rally one day after several leading activists and lawmakers were arrested in a sweeping crackdown.Hide Caption 59 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters light a Molotov cocktail on August 31.Hide Caption 60 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice officers move forward during clashes with protesters on August 31.Hide Caption 61 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters take cover as policemen fire blue-colored water on them. Blue dye can be used to stain and identify masked protesters.Hide Caption 62 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA surveillance camera is covered with white paint during protests.Hide Caption 63 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn overhead view shows protesters reacting after police fired tear gas on August 31.Hide Caption 64 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy activists Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong speak to the media after they were released on bail at the Eastern Magistrates Courts on Friday, August 30. They were arrested earlier the same day in a dragnet across Hong Kong.Hide Caption 65 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters clash with police after a rally in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan district on Sunday, August 25. It was one of the most violent nights seen in Hong Kong since mass protests began in June.Hide Caption 66 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA police officer aims a gun in front of a protester on August 25.Hide Caption 67 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestSome protesters shine laser pointers at police lines on August 25.Hide Caption 68 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters and police clash on Saturday, August 24.Hide Caption 69 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters pick up bricks to be used as projectiles on August 24.
Hide Caption 70 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice retreat after clashing with protesters on August 24.Hide Caption 71 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPeople link hands as they gather at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront on Friday, August 23. Protesters formed a human chain across Hong Kong in a show of solidarity.Hide Caption 72 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestCell phones shine from the top of Lion Rock on August 23.Hide Caption 73 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters march under umbrellas on Sunday, August 18.Hide Caption 74 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestTens of thousands of protesters showed up in the streets on August 18.Hide Caption 75 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester participates in a march on Saturday, August 17. His eye is covered with red gauze, referencing a woman who was allegedly shot in the eye with a beanbag round during clashes between protesters and police.Hide Caption 76 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters react after police fired tear gas to disperse a demonstration at the Sham Shui Po police station in Hong Kong on Wednesday, August 14.Hide Caption 77 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters point lasers at the Sham Shui Po police station on August 14.Hide Caption 78 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA police officer falls over an airport luggage trolley during a scuffle with pro-democracy protesters on Tuesday, August 13. For two days, protesters flooded the airport. Check-ins were suspended and dozens of outgoing flights were canceled.Hide Caption 79 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice use pepper spray to disperse protesters at the airport on August 13.Hide Caption 80 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice and protesters clash at the airport on August 13. The violence came after Hong Kong’s Airport Authority announced that all check-in services would be suspended for another night because of terminal operations being “seriously disrupted.”Hide Caption 81 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA traveler passes her luggage to security guards as she tries to enter the departures gate.Hide Caption 82 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA display board shows canceled flights on August 13.Hide Caption 83 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAnti-government protesters stand at a barricade made of luggage trolleys during a demonstration at the airport on August 13.Hide Caption 84 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMedics look after a woman who received a facial injury during clashes on Sunday, August 11.Hide Caption 85 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA pro-democracy protester is held by police outside the Tsim Sha Tsui police station on August 11.Hide Caption 86 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice fire tear gas at protesters during a demonstration in the Wong Tai Sin District on Monday, August 5.Hide Caption 87 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA train passenger gestures toward a protester, right, who was preventing the doors of a train from closing on August 5. The protester was trying to disrupt Hong Kong’s morning rush-hour commute.Hide Caption 88 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man lies down on an underground train during a protest on August 5.Hide Caption 89 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man comforts his pregnant wife near a train platform after protesters blocked the train doors on August 5.Hide Caption 90 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester stands in tear gas during a confrontation with police in the early hours of Sunday, August 4.Hide Caption 91 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA Chinese flag floats in water after it was thrown by protesters during a demonstration on Saturday, August 3.Hide Caption 92 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester sprays paint on a wall on August 3.Hide Caption 93 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMembers of Hong Kong’s medical sector attend a protest in Edinburgh Place on Friday, August 2.Hide Caption 94 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestThe emblem on the China Liaison Office is protected by plexiglass during a demonstration on Sunday, July 28.Hide Caption 95 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester flees from baton-wielding police in the Yuen Long district of Hong Kong on Saturday, July 27.Hide Caption 96 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester looks through umbrellas during the clashes with police on July 27.Hide Caption 97 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestTravelers watch as protesters rally at Hong Kong’s international airport on Friday, July 26.Hide Caption 98 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters clash with police on Sunday, July 21.Hide Caption 99 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMasked men in white T-shirts are seen after attacking anti-extradition bill demonstrators at a train station in Yuen Long.Hide Caption 100 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMedical workers help a protester affected by tear gas on July 21.Hide Caption 101 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestThe office of pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was trashed by protesters in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan district.Hide Caption 102 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice officers use pepper spray to disperse protesters after a rally in the Sheung Shui district on Saturday, July 13. Hide Caption 103 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA demonstrator sprays paint inside a chamber at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, where protesters forced their way in on Monday, July 1.Hide Caption 104 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestThe meeting hall of the Legislative Council is taken over by demonstrators on July 1.Hide Caption 105 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester smashes a window of the Legislative Council building.Hide Caption 106 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestColumns of sunlight are cast on a crowd during the march on July 1.Hide Caption 107 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestHelicopters carrying the flags of China and Hong Kong fly over demonstrators on July 1.Hide Caption 108 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy lawmaker Roy Kwong rallies demonstrators with a megaphone on July 1.Hide Caption 109 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA police officer uses pepper spray during a clash with protesters on July 1.Hide Caption 110 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester wearing a T-shirt with the word “revolution” walks past an inscription on a road that reads “Long Live HK.”Hide Caption 111 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice detain protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on July 1.Hide Caption 112 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn overhead view shows thousands of protesters marching through a Hong Kong street on Sunday, June 16.Hide Caption 113 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters run after police fired tear gas on Wednesday, June 12.Hide Caption 114 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters face off with police during the rally on June 12.Hide Caption 115 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestBy the morning of June 12, tens of thousands of mainly young people had arrived in the area, blocking streets and bringing central Hong Kong to a standstill.Hide Caption 116 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA demonstrator holds a sign during the June 12 rally.Hide Caption 117 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice officers charge toward protesters during clashes on Monday, June 10. It was a continuation of protests that started the day before.Hide Caption 118 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters hold pictures of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sunday, June 9.Hide Caption 119 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters on June 9 waved placards and wore white — the designated color of the rally. “Hong Kong, never give up!” some chanted.Hide Caption 120 of 121 Photos: Hong Kong unrestStudents wear chains during a demonstration on Saturday, June 8.Hide Caption 121 of 121Looking for a way outAccording to Athena Law, head of immigration at L&K Holdings migration agency, the number of inquiries has increased 200% since June, with many made by people in their 20s. “(This) increase is related to what’s happening in society,” Law told CNN. “Many of our clients expressed concern over the social unrest.” Another migration agent, John Hu, said inquiries had snowballed 300% since June — and it was not only young people who wanted to leave. People in their 30s and young families were also interested in a fresh start overseas, Hu added. Last month, the city’s leader Carrie Lam began a series of dialogues with Hong Kongers, promising to listen to their concerns and work towards a solution to the monthslong unrest. “Hong Kong has faced — and overcome — momentous challenges every decade since the end of World War II,” Lam wrote recently. “This should tell us something about the people of Hong Kong: They are resilient and resourceful. It should also tell us something about the values that the Hong Kong people share and our common aspiration for a bright future.”Timon, who also declined to give his full name, is just the type of Hong Konger Lam is seeking to reassure. The 32-year-old accountant never thought about leaving the city before the unrest started in June. He attended several large-scale demonstrations, but is increasingly dubious that any longterm change can happen in Hong Kong. “Before the protests, I was focused on pursuing my career and my wife was ready to work as a nurse,” he said. “(But now) we want to move to Australia, as we see that the totalitarian government is unlikely to change.” Now, Timon said he is willing to scrap nearly a decade of accounting experience to get retrained as an electrical engineer — a career with more prospect for migration. He said his main concern was his 18-month-old son’s education. “I want my child to have critical thinking, but the education here is going to worsen in this political atmosphere, with the white terror created by the police and the government,” Timon said. “I don’t want my child to grow up here.” Island sanctuaryGovernment data shows that between 1997 and 2018, Australia, Canada and the US were the three most popular destinations for emigrating Hong Kongers. In recent months, however, Taiwan has surged to become the top choice, according to YouGov. The self-ruled island has long been popular with Hong Kong tourists, but its open support for the city’s pro-democracy movement and apparent commitment to liberal values has made it an increasingly attractive destination to move to. In September, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said that “when necessary and based on humanitarian concerns, we will provide necessary assistance to Hong Kong residents in Taiwan, and will not just stand on the sidelines and watch.” According to Taiwanese immigration data, the number of approved applications for residence from Hong Kongers rose almost 50% between May and August. An immigration department spokeswoman confirmed this was in line with a surge in applications in general, but was not able to provide a detailed breakdown. Ken Lui and his wife understand the island’s appeal — Taiwan is close to Hong Kong geographically, culturally and linguistically, and he said he hopes to open a boutique or restaurant on the island after moving. The 36-year-old fashion shop owner said his business was affected by the city’s protests, and he didn’t see a way out except by leaving. “They (the government) keep suppressing our freedom of speech,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any big changes in Hong Kong. I hope that Hong Kong will be fine, but does the government listen to its people?”
Lui said he was concerned about leaving his family behind, a fear Emily shared. But both said they felt they were making the right decision. Emily even hopes to bring her family and friends with her to a new country. “There’s a Chinese saying that we have to first take care of ourselves, then we take care of the family. And at the end, we take care of our society, our country,” Emily said. “I can live with my family (anywhere) in the world. If there’s family, there’s home.”