Season of Advent reminds us why universal declaration of human rights still matters

Universal declaration of human rights? United nations? International cooperation? International order? Preventing wars? Striving for peace? Respecting human dignity? It is almost 70 years since this declaration was proclaimed and yet it is hard to shake the impression that many people/nations/leaders could care less…

I look up at the calendar on my kitchen wall and there it is – December 10 as Human Rights Day. I go to Facebook and there it is again – you can click ‘Like’ or share it on your wall. (I did not share it since I did not like the design. Or maybe I am just tired of online activism where we post slogans, memes, famous quotes, provocative statements and anything else to “make this world a better place”. But here I am writing this blog. I guess at the end of the day it is still better to add my voice to issues I deeply care about.)

This Sunday is also a religious celebration of Second Advent. In the Christian tradition and calendar it is a time of waiting and preparation. Waiting for the Hope and Light of the world to be born in a seemingly hopeless and dark place and welcoming this coming with open heart and mind. We sing “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel” and we do it every year. Why keep saying it if we believe He has come already?  There are many theological reasons but one simple reason I can give is we need to remind ourselves what this life and this world is like without Him.

It is amazing how quickly we get used to the good news, things and good times and take it for granted. It is also amazing how quickly we can descend into hopelessness and darkness again.

For very long time now, we take Jesus of Nazareth and the way he transforms our human existence for granted. Nowadays we also take the Universal declaration of human rights for granted. We cannot imagine a world without these commonly accepted principles because most of us did not live before 1948 and during Second World War. We, at least the Westerners, are so used to speaking about our human rights that we think nothing of it.

But here I read the lines from the declaration’s preamble: “The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

(…) Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

Have we achieved and experienced the advent of this kind of world yet? Are all people free to speak their mind, practice their religion, free from fear and want? Are we, the peoples of United Nations, keeping our pledge? Do we even believe in this larger freedom? Do we still have common understanding and emphasize the word “common”? Or are we putting our trust in the world of “mine”? My country. My people. My rights.

The answer is obvious. Thus we are still waiting, still striving and longing…

“O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”

 

 

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

What is it to be?

99 years… old or young? There is a popular Latvian song about Latvia being too big to hug or cover with your blanket as you would for a loved one but it is too small to go alone in the big wide world. Similar metaphor can be used for these 99 years we celebrated yesterday (November 18, 1918 was the proclamation day for independent state of Latvia). It is not a very long time in history or for a country and we still have the generation that was born around the time of first independence (my grandmother is only 5 years younger than our country).

The celebrations have been many, the speeches were long, the anthem has been sung countless times, the flags were everywhere and the fireworks great as ususal. And for the first time I put a tiny flag on my coat. I have often had reservations about this little gesture because I am against the arrogant kind of nationalism and I don’t support the idea that patriotism or the love for your country and your people is best expressed through symbols like flag, anthem, costumes, etc. I don’t want to look at people and think, “Look, he or she is wearing it. So, we are on the same team.”

I want to see how people think, talk, act and live every day and then hopefully we are on the same team. For the same reason, as a Christian,  I have chosen not wear a cross around my neck even though I don’t mind when other people wear it. I hope to be identified as a follower of Jesus not for the symbols and crosses and doctrines, but for trying to walk the talk which is always counter intuitive and deeply challenging to my ways.

The idea of Latvia and the real Latvia does not always match and sometimes it contradicts itself. And while our country is preparing to celebrate the big 100 next year, we are at some kind of crossroads again. There are many things happening locally and globally and some trends are simply dangerous. Again and again the big nations want to settle their differences and satisfy their interests at the expense of small ones. Again and again the powerful and wealthy are getting more power and wealth. Again and again the ordinary people fall for empty populist promises and go in circles.  Again we ‘fortify’ our ethnic or national or religious identities to exclude those whom we don’t understand, like or are afraid of and so easily move away from universal human values and actually our religious ones (which is the greatest tragedy).

Latvia is watching and Latvia is learning (I hope we are!!!). More than ever we need to reflect deeply but act fast. On one hand we are still deciding on the future story since we had a long and painful interruption that lasted 50 years and changed us profoundly. And we cannot turn back in time and find the perfect moment or the magic key because it simply does not exist. On the other hand we can be very grateful and proud of what we have achieved and how blessed we are with what we have. It is not because we are better or deserve more than people in Yemen or Somalia or Myanmar or Venezuela or North Korea. There are many reasons why we have what we have and some of them we had no control over but we should not take anything for granted.

Yesterday I was watching on TV the ecumenical church service which takes place every Independence Day.  There was obviously an older crowd and at first I thought, “why are there so many old people? is it because we, the younger ones, did not want to get up early on Saturday morning? or we find these kind of services too formal and boring?” But then I saw the tears when one old man was singing the song “Bless this land, Father” and this prayer suddenly hit me. The older generation knows the difference. They know what it is like to “live on your knees” and to be able “stand up” again and help others to stand up. They know what it is like to hide your national flag or other symbols in the attic or hide the Bible and other books which are simply too dangerous for totalitarian systems.

Yes, Latvia is a very small place in the big wide world and many things we cannot control ourselves but we do have control of what kind of story we would like.  What is it to be? I want it to be a story that will never make me ashamed to put the tiny flag on my coat.

Latvian:

99 gadi… veca vai jauna? Gluži kā U. Stabulnieka/M. Zālītes dziesmā, kas mums tik tuva, mīļa un saprotama. Latvija ir par lielu, lai paņemtu klēpī un apmīļotu, bet par mazu, lai laistu vienu pasaules plašajos ceļos. Tāpat Latvija ir par vecu, lai teiktu, ka tā vēl neko nezin, nav piedzīvojusi, sasniegusi, sapratusi un vēl jāpadzīvo, lai kļūtu gudrāka un labāka. Bet par jaunu, lai teiktu, kā tā ir savu ideju piepildījusi. 99 gadi nav nekas cilvēces vēsturē, arī valsts pastāvēšanā. Mēs esam salīdzinoši ‘jauna’ valsts (ja atskaita tos 50 padomju gadus, tad vispār), un mūsu vidū vēl ir ap Latvijas valsts izveidošanas laiku dzimušie. Arī mana vecmamma ir tikai 5 gadus jaunāka par Latvijas valsti.

Svinības jau iet uz beigām, runas norunātas (gan vērtīgās, gan tukšās), himna nodziedāta pie katras izdevības, karogi visapkārt, un ugunis izšautas gaisā. Un šogad es pirmoreiz piespraudu mazo lentīti pie mēteļa. Mani vienmēr kaut kas bremzēja, jo tik ļoti nepatīk augstprātīgs nacionālisms (tāds, kurš cenšas sevi pacelt augstāk par citiem), un man nav pieņemama ideja, ka savu patriotismu, tātad mīlestību uz dzimteni un tās cilvēkiem, vislabāk izrādīt ar simboliem, karogiem, himnām, tautas tērpiem, utt. Es negribu piederēt kaut kādam “mēs – latvieši” klubam, kur viens otru atpazīst pēc ārējām piederības zīmēm… re, savējais no mūsu komandas!

Svarīgi, kā cilvēki domā, runā, rīkojas un dzīvo katru dienu, un tad es spriedīšu, vai esam vienā komandā. Gluži tāpat man kā kristietei nav gribējies kārt krustiņu kaklā, kaut gan nav pretenziju, ka citi to valkā. Dažiem tie krustiņi izskatās tik stilīgi, ka man arī uzreiz sagribas. Bet vissvarīgāk, vai mana dzīve vismaz mazliet atbilst tam, kā iedomājos Jēzus sekotājus. Mūs neatšķirs pēc krustiņiem, Bībelēm, zivtiņām uz auto, ticības mācības skolās, bet ievēros, ja cilvēks ņem nopietni iešanu pret ‘straumi’ un varas, vardarbības un mantkārības sistēmām.

Mana ideja par Latviju bieži neatbilst reālajai Latvijai (protams, ka ideālas valsts vispār nav), un šķiet, ne man vienīgajai ir sajūta, ka, gatavojoties simtgadei, mēs gan svinam svētkus, gan stāvam krustcelēs. Ko tālāk?  Šobrīd pasaulē tik daudz lokālu un globālu pārmaiņu. Turklāt tas notiek strauji, un tāda maza valsts kā Latvija maz spēj ietekmēt tendences vai risināt globālās krīzes, piemēram, vides piesārņotību un alkatīgo dzīšanos pēc dabas resursiem. Atkal un atkal lielās un spēcīgās valstis risina savas domstarpības un rūpējas par savām interesēm uz mazo valstu rēķina. Atkal un atkal varenie un bagātie sagrābj vēl vairāk varas un bagātības. Atkal un atkal ‘vienkāršie’ ļaudis balso par balamutēm populistiem un tukšiem solījumiem. Atkal mēs veidojam savus etniskos, nacionālos un reliģiskos cietokšņus, lai izslēgtu tos, kuri mums nepatīk vai no kuriem mums bail, un pārsteidzoši viegli atsakāmies no vispārpieņemtajām cilvēciskajām vērtībām un arī savām reliģiskajām vērtībām (kas ir pats traģiskākais).

Latvija vēro, un Latvija mācās (es ceru!!!). Cik ļoti mums nepieciešams pārdomāt dziļi, bet rīkoties ātri! Mēs nevaram atgriezties kaut kādā brīnīšķīgā pagātnē un atrast to īsto  laimes atslēdziņu, jo tāda neeksistē. Mēs varam būt pateicīgi un lepni par saviem sasniegumiem un svētībām, ko esam saņēmuši. Taču nedomāt, ka paši sevī esam labāki par tautām Jemenā, Somālijā, Mjanmā, Irākā, Venecuēlā vai Ziemeļkorejā, un ka mums tas viss vienkārši pienākas. Paši zinām garo stāstu, kāpēc mums tagad ir laba, mierīga, pārtikusi un droša dzīve, kaut daudzas lietas bijušas ārpus mūsu kontroles. Tas nav nekas pašsaprotams.

Svētku dienā es ieslēdzu TV, un redzēju pašas beigas ekumēniskajam dievkalpojumam Doma baznīcā. Pirmais, kas iekrita acīs, bija sirmās galvas, un vēl visi bija tik uzkrītoši nopietni. Mēs, latvieši, tiešām no malas izskatāmies drūmi, un nezinātājs varētu padomāt, ka tur bija sēru dievkalpojums. Bet ne par to šoreiz. Es sev jautāju, kāpēc uz tādiem oficiāliem pasākumiem iet veci cilvēki un tik maz jaunieši. Man pašai negribas celties brīvdienās tik agri, un varbūt tas viss liekas tik formāli un garlaicīgi. Bet tad ievēroju sirmo ļaužu sejas un asaras acīs, dziedot dziesmu “Svētī, Kungs, šo mūsu zemi”, un man bija kārtējais belziens pa pieri.

Viņi taču zin, kas mūsu Latvija nav pašsaprotama! Viņi zin, ko nozīmē dzīvot “nospiestam uz ceļiem” un atkal piecelties un palīdzēt piecelties citiem. Viņi zin, ko nozīmē slēpt šo karogu un totalitārai sistēmai bīstamās grāmatas kā Bībeli, u.c.,  mājas bēniņos vai zem grīdas.

Jā, Latvija ir maza, un globālā līmenī mums maza teikšana, bet savu stāstu gan veidojam paši. Kāds tas būs turpmāk? Es vēlos, lai tas ir tāds, kas man nekad neliks kaunēties par mazo karodziņu pie mēteļa.

 

While waiting for hope and history to sync

Did you know today is a special day? I forgot! I have a calendar to remind me but life is busy. Plus, how do you single out any day when it comes to peace, freedom, justice, right relationships? A day like any other which started by me getting up, enjoying that first cup of coffee, looking through the window at new season, changing clothes few times because I can’t make up my mind, crowding in public transport, running late for class, trying to stay focused in lectures but getting distracted too easily, promising myself to keep my mouth shut but always breaking the promise, coming home hungry, cooking dinner, checking the news… just another ordinary day.

And now I see it is International Day of Peace. How many people actually know it? How many care? What does it even mean? How is this one day making a difference in the world? When the difference is needed desperately. As U2 sings, “Heaven on Earth/We need it now/I’m sick of all of this/Hanging around/Sick of sorrow/Sick of pain/Sick of hearing again and again/That there’s gonna be/Peace on Earth”

I try to be disciplined with my blog and post weekly. Usually on Thursdays. Thanks to the calendar, it is Peace Day and it is Thursday. Let me write down just a few things which came to mind immediately.

Friends… are people who inspire me. I have been blessed to meet many people around the world and fortunate to call many of them my friends. Something I treasure above material possessions, diplomas, accomplishments, etc. It is hard to pick one photo since there are lots of wonderful people in my life. These three friends from Rwanda and Nigeria I will see next week in England and I am already smiling just thinking about it.

Faith… is a strong anchor. We all need deep inner resources and my well is faith in loving and just God who is not distant or impersonal. I have never lived through war, exile or violence unlike many of my friends. Some of them are refugees, some experienced genocide, some have been in prison and persecuted, some are serving in the military and facing difficult situations, some are sick or lonely. Everyone believes in something or Someone, though. Even not believing is believing that there is nothing worth believing in.

History… is complicated but our story is not over. The great paradox is that I am encouraged. I enjoy reading history (the best possible interpretations of it) and it gets depressing. Many thick books on my bookshelf not started yet and I keep waiting for that right mood. The view in world’s rear mirror is not pretty but there are so many bright shining stars like William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen just to name a few of my heroes.

U2 also sings that “Hope and history won’t rhyme/So what’s it worth?/This Peace on Earth”

Yes, hope and history do not rhyme often but it is amazing how often they do. Call me an idealist but I believe that one day they will sync for real.

IMG_6118

Photos from Luton Peace Walk 2014

“This Little Light Of Mine” in Charlottesville and elsewhere

I pondered this post for days. I was in the USA when the tragedy in Charlottesville took place. While many are discussing the statements and views of the current president, Donald Trump, and other political leaders, I have tried to find the ‘ordinary’ voices. The local people from this university town; the voices of faith communities; the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed.

People are shocked about the extent of incivility and division. Many have experienced real fear. I know the emotion of fear. While never facing a large crowd of young men shouting Nazi slogans, I have experienced groups who try to intimidate and bully. The tactics are always the same. Physical intimidation, verbal abuse and determination to make you go home and never bother.

More recent experiences were in Latvia when couple of years ago I participated in a very small rally to show support and solidarity with those who help refugees. The gathered group was young, quite reserved and calm until these buff men showed up and attempted to intimidate the small crowd. I would certainly label them as ‘white supremacists’ who clearly expressed racist views. All dressed in black, they tried to provoke a physical reaction like shouting, pushing, shoving or punching. They did not get the reaction they desired.

Another time in Riga I went to a lecture addressing Islamophobia. Again the audience was mostly young, curious minds who wanted to learn, to ask questions, to discuss and to express their opinions in a civilized way. Right away I spotted a group who scattered among the audience – some sitting in a front row, talking loudly, interrupting the lecture and some sitting in the back to shout over the crowd. One of the guys in the back  shouting things about Muslims and terrorists and immigrants had a very thundering voice and I was almost scared to turn around to see his face. I felt like he would punch me if I dared to stare at him. He did not punch anyone but did throw around some chairs before leaving the room and called the lecturer “damned idiot who will go to hell”.

After the lecture I turned around to greet my friends – two young girls – who looked absolutely horrified. They were shocked to experience this kind of behavior. It is one thing to see it on You Tube, right? Quite another to experience in a real life. This may seem trivial and naive when there is so much actual violence and wars around the world. Still we, Westerners, have grown so accustomed to peace and civility that we are shocked when we see such an erosion or absence of it. I know my American friends feel the same way – they are shocked at the current level of public incivility and disrespect.

What if Charlottesville was my home? (or Berlin where a small neo-Nazi rally took place today?) Knowing that these out-of-town people will come and turn my city in a spectacle of bigotry and division. Stay away? Stay in my church and pray? Or go to the Emancipation Park and lock arms with the clergy, people of faith and all those singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I recommend to watch the memorial service for Heather Heyer. Her father said with deep emotion: ” We need to stop all this stuff. We need to forgive each other. I think this is what the Lord would want us.”

Around the world we need to do many things and surely forgiveness is one of them. We are in a desperate need of humility, love in action, listening to each other, kindness and moral courage – in real life in real time. At the same time we need to have moral clarity about dangerous ideas. One friend posted on Facebook: “You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American (added – or proud Latvian or proud German or proud Russian) We literally had a war about this.”

Rec Walk

Photos from personal archive

Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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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…

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Photos from internet