A few thoughts on World Refugee Day

Simply overwhelming statistics. It is year 2017 and there are estimated 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, including 21 million refugees worldwide. According to UNHCR, the top three nations where refugees come from are Syria (5,5 million), Afghanistan (2,5 million) and South Sudan (1,4 million). People are driven out of their homes by conflict, persecution, environmental disasters, famine and extreme poverty. More than half of them are children.

How do you look at these statistics? The numbers are too large for my brain to compute. My first thought is that Latvia has a population of 2 million and it is so small in comparison. These numbers are also people I have met, stories I have heard and lives of my friends that have been changed and disrupted in profound ways.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. Not only a reality in far away places, it is here and now. Even in Latvia. On one hand it has been much discussed topic but still there is so much ignorance, indifference and misunderstanding. For example, you would think that all of the world’s refugees have come to Europe where in fact the top hosting countries are Turkey (almost 3 million), Pakistan (1, 4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran, Uganda and Ethiopia.

For many years I was working with and helping refugees in Thailand and often getting frustrated, even angry at local people for being so prejudiced and selfish. Now back in Latvia, I feel the table has been turned and now my own nation is facing the test of compassion, sympathy, generosity and kindness. The test is so small compared to what others are facing. Latvia is neither in the direct path of this refugee movement nor is it the common destination. Where is Latvia, right?

If not for my other commitments, I would go and volunteer at one of the refugee centers in Greece or Italy where the situation is much more critical. When I meet people who have sacrificed their time, resources and even health to serve on the Greek islands, I thank them because they are doing what many cannot and others will not.

There are things that make me proud to be a Latvian and others that make me ashamed. And on the generosity and hospitality side we still have a long way to go. We still feel like we don’t have enough and we still feel threatened. More obviously – we are not a trusting society. For good reasons which are too many to explain here but it is the one trait which really infects my beloved country and which needs to be healed and overcome. What can help us to become more compassionate and trusting? What and who can open our eyes to see how much we have?

As a Christian, I could give a long sermon about the basics of my faith and what it should do for practical life in community. Of course, I could go on and on about Jesus as the greatest revelation of God’s good and loving will. And I can give lots of wonderful examples of church communities that have embraced refugees and are doing all they can to be the good neighbors. But I can also give examples and point to the fact that there is as much ignorance and prejudice in the church as there is in the whole society.

Today I want to give thanks to a grass-roots civil society initiative in Latvia which started with some passionate people and then became a Facebook group and still works as a small (maybe not so small?) but very active and hands-on movement of people who care. The group is called “I Want to Help Refugees” (Gribu Palīdzēt Bēgļiem) and it has helped the refugees arriving in Latvia in so many ways – from basic needs like food and clothing and doctor visits to special events celebrating cultural diversity and taking children to movies.  (Yes, there is government assistance and programs but it does not go nearly far enough to help these families start a new life in a foreign country).

Final thought on practical steps? Let’s start by saying these simple words “Welcome to my country” and then show that we mean it! Do to other’s what you would like them do to you!

Syrian refugees watch as Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond visits Al Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan

Photos from internet

Latvian:

Tā ir drausmīga statistika. 2017. gada vidus, un šobrīd pasaulē ir apmēram 65 miljoni cilvēku, kuri spiesti atstāt savas mājas un arī dzimtenes. To skaitā ir 21 miljons bēgļu. Saskaņā ar ANO datiem, Sīrijas karš vien ir licis vismaz 5,5 miljoniem cilvēku doties bēgļu gaitās. Visā pasaulē cilvēki bēg no kara, vajāšanām, apspiestības, vides katastrofām, bada un galējas nabadzības.  Vairāk kā puse no bēgļiem ir bērni.

Pirmais jautājums – kā man reaģēt? Normālām smadzenēm tie skaitļi ir vienkārši par lielu; mēs nespējam to ‘sagremot’. Man prātā ienāk doma, ka Latvijā ir 2 miljoni cilvēku, un pašreizējo pasaules nelaimju kontekstā mēs visi būtu bēgļu gaitās. Visi bez izņēmuma. Vēl es domāju par saviem draugiem dažādās pasaules malās. Tās ir viņu dzīves, kas ir pilnībā izmainītas un izjauktas. Draugi Taizemē, kuri bēga no etniskām tīrīšanām un militārā režīma Birmā. Draugi Ēģiptē, kuri bēga no reliģiskiem un etniskiem konfliktiem Sudānā. Mani draugi no Sīrijas, kuri atstāja savu dzīvokli iztukšotu un aizslēgtu, atvadījās no vecākiem, atstāja savu biznesu un ziedoja visus iekrājumus, lai bērniem būtu drošāka un labāka nākotne.  Viņi jau vairākus gadus dzīvo Rīgā.

20. jūnijā tika atzīmēta Pasaules Bēgļu diena. Agrāk tā asociējās ar problēmām kaut kur tālu pasaulē. Tagad tas ir aktuāli šeit un tagad, arī Latvijā. Kaut gan temats ir ‘karsts’, apspriests un debatēts, joprojām ir daudz aizspriedumu un arī vienaldzības. Piemēram, attieksme, ka Eiropa nes vislielāko slogu, palīdzot bēgļiem, vai ka visi bēgļi grib braukt šurp. Lielākā daļa bēgļu, kā visos laikos, grib braukt mājās, bet diemžēl tas nav iespējams. Turcijā uzturas apmēram 3 miljoni bēgļu, Pakistānā vairāk kā miljons, Libānā miljons, tālāk seko Irāna, Uganda un Etiopija.

Otrais jautājums – ko darīt? Vairākus gadus dzīvojot un strādājot brīvprātīgo darbu uz Taizemes un Birmas robežas, kur palīdzēju bēgļiem no Birmas, es bieži saskāros ar vienaldzību, arī korupciju un pat nežēlību pret bēgļiem no vietējo iedzīvotāju puses. Esmu gan dusmojusies, gan bēdājusies. Atpakaļ Latvijā, es atrodu sevi otrā pusē starp “vietējiem”. Mana valsts un mani tautieši piedzīvo līdzīgu līdzcietības un solidaritātes pārbaudījumu. Salīdzinot kaut vai Itāliju un Grieķiju, mums šis pārbaudījums un izaicinājums ir ļoti mazs. Latvija nav īsti pa ceļam, un arī nav nekāds ‘sapņu galamērķis”. Kas ir Latvija, un kur tāda atrodas, vai ne? Turklāt ziņa jau drošvien aizgājusi pa neoficiālajiem kanāliem, ka bēgļi te netiek gaidīti, un ka izredzes uzsākt Latvijā jaunu un stabilu dzīvi ir diezgan niecīgas. Mani sīriešu draugi ir ļoti pateicīgi, jo saņēmuši ļoti lielu atbalstu un palīdzību no draudzes, bez kuras viņi te vienkārši nevarētu izdzīvot. Kaut vai atrast dzīvokli, ko īrēt, kad lielākā daļa noliek klausuli vai aizbildinās, kad uzzin, ka ģimene ir no Sīrijas.

Es lepojos ar savu latvietību un reizēm par to kaunos. Viesmīlība un dāsnums nav mūsu stiprā puse. Mums ir tik spēcīgs ‘nabadzības’un ‘upuru’ sindroms. Mums liekas, ka pašiem nepietiek, ka mums pašiem vēl tik daudz kā trūkst (jo nedzīvojam kā norvēģi!). Mēs esam ļoti bailīgi un vēl vairāk – esam sabiedrība, kas neuzticas un uz visu skatās ar aizdomām. Lai gan zinām vēsturiskos iemeslus šīm aizdomām, skepsei un neuzticībai, mēs turpinām ar to būt ‘saindēti’, un tas mūs pamatīgi bremzē.

Es varētu rakstīt garus sprediķus par šo tēmu – ticības pamatuzstādījumiem un to praktisko pielietojumu ikdienas dzīvē. Mans galvenais piemērs tam, kāda izskatās Dieva mīlošā un taisnīgā griba sabiedrībā, ir pats Jēzus. Un es varu minēt daudzus piemērus, kā individuāli kristieši un draudzes visā pasaulē, arī Latvijā, palīdz un dara to, kas labiem līdzcilvēkiem un kaimiņiem pienākas. Bet varu minēt arī daudz piemērus, kā mūsu dzīvēs un draudzēs ir tikpat daudz aizspriedumu kā pārējā sabiedrībā. Runājot par bēgļiem, “kristīgo vērtību” karogs Latvijā ticis vicināts maz.

Tomēr Latvijā ir daudz “labo samariešu”, un parasti šie cilvēki nenonāk ziņu slejās. Jo mēs jau zinām, ka pie mums uzmanības centrā ir negatīvais. Šoreiz gribu teikt milzīgu ‘paldies’ konkrētai cilvēku grupai – biedrībai “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem”, kuru var atrast arī feisbukā. Šie domubiedri ir paveikuši ārkārtīgi daudz, un viņi ir pilsoniskās sabiedrības daļa, kas nesēž un negaida, ko darīs valdība vai kāds cits, bet prasa – ko darīšu es pats?

Daži praktiskie soļi? Būt labāk informētiem. Dzīvojot Taizemē, es visu laiku saskāros ar faktu, ka taizemieši nezināja, kas notiek viņu kaimiņvalstī, un kāpēc cilvēki no turienes bēg. Parasti komentārs bija tāds, ka “tā ir vienkārši slikta valsts.” Es galīgi neesmu eksperte cilvēktiesību, juridiskajos, ekonomikas, drošības, migrācijas, globalizācijas, politikas un citos jautājumos, bet es zinu pietiekami daudz un  saprotu, ka mums šobrīd stipri dalās viedokļi par to, kā attiekties un ko darīt, un kādas ir problēmu saknes. Protams, ka visi vēlas, lai kari un katastrofas beigtos, vai vēl labāk – vardarbīgi konflikti nesāktos.  Bet, ko darīt līdz tam “miera”laikam?

Mums jāmācās būt atvērtiem, un darīt to, kas ir mūsu spēkos. Mēs nevaram palīdzēt visiem, bet it sevišķi tiem, kuri nonāk pie mūsu mājas durvīm, mēs nevaram teikt “Ej uz nākamo māju, varbūt tur tev atvērs. Kaimiņi ir bagātāki un izpalīdzīgāki”. Un vēl – viesmīlība un atvērtība neattiecas tikai uz nelaimē nonākušiem cilvēkiem, kas devušies bēgļu gaitās. Tas attiecas uz visiem, kuri pārceļas uz dzīvi Latvijā darba, studiju, mīlestības, ģimenes, intereses un dažādu citu iemeslu dēļ. Prāta Vētra dzied angliskajā versijā “Welcome to My Country”, bet mums pašiem tie vārdi neiet tik viegli pār lūpām vai no sirds. vai  Esiet sveicināti Latvijā!

Portland and London united in grief and love

A skateboard. Something that is simply fun even though I cannot find my balance. A bakery. Somewhere to go if you have a sweet tooth like me. A bridge. Something that connects and helps you to get from one side to another. Borough Market. I get hungry just thinking about all the delicious food in that area.

I never thought these things would bring tears to my eyes. Another week, another terrorist attack. Even for those of us whose communities have not experienced this kind of trauma and grief, it has become a tragic norm to read the stories (Manchester, Cairo, Kabul, Portland…), to watch the videos and to be deeply disturbed and heartbroken. Last week during the horrific attacks on London Bridge and around the Borough Market I was in Latvia and there was and still is so much sadness here. Yes, there have been too many of these kind of evils in Europe, Middle East, Asia, USA, Africa and elsewhere but this one felt even more personal and shocking.

Not only because so many Latvians have visited London and for many of us it is one of our favorite global cities that is so beautiful and friendly and fascinating. Of course, many also have friends and family who live and work in London now, including my own brother and his family. I know the streets they walk, the trains they take, the pubs they hand out in and the shops they favor.

The other tragedy that broke my heart was the horrible attack on the city commuter train in Portland, Oregon where on May 26 two guys got stabbed to death because they intervened on behalf of two young girls who were being insulted because of their ethnicity and religion. The attacker was yelling that “Muslims should die” and the girls should get out of “his country”. Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died from their injuries when they were stabbed in the neck and the attacker was arrested while he was still yelling hateful slurs and acting proud of his actions that “that’s what liberalism gets you.”

And this happened in another one of my favorite cities (I admit I am a city girl). If I lived in the US, I would want to live in Portland. Yes, it rains there a lot (so it does in London) but it makes everything so green and beautiful. The rivers and the valley is gorgeous and Portland has been called the “City of Roses” for a long time because its climate is ideal for growing roses.

There is so much in common between these two recent tragedies and the way these cities are now united in grief. On the side of hate and exclusion, there was extreme views, violence, attacks by knife and stabbing anyone who gets in the way or tries to defend the innocent. In both places the attackers were yelling that they are defending some kind of higher cause and exposing their views who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Who is in “my country” or “us” and who is “them”. In both cases believed they were “righteous”.

On the side of love and embrace, there were people who were living one of those simple and everyday moments of life. Whether it was coming home from work on a full train or enjoying a nice summer weekend and hanging out with friends, lovers and family. And then there were the “ordinary” heroes. In Portland it was the guys who tried to de-escalate the situation and stood up to protect the girls. In London, there was the Spanish guy, Ignacio Echeverria, who tried to help a woman, used the only things he had in his hand – his skateboard – and lost his own life. Or the brave Romanian chef, Florin Morariu, who hit one of the attackers with a crate and then helped 20 people to hide in his bakery.

There were many more heroes and most will remain unknown and to them we are so grateful. To the people who experienced these horrors and will have the memories for the rest of their lives, we are so sorry. And to those who lost their loved ones, words cannot express…

borough_market-986x400

Photos from internet