Minnesota diary: Refugees speak about their dreams, struggles and marginalization

I was sitting in the shade under a tree in Loring Park and watching the Twin Cities World Refugee Day performances. Stories, poetry, songs, dances, more stories… Many thoughts were going through my head. First of all, I felt bad for the young Hmong dance group who performed four beautiful dances but were visibly exhausted. All that make-up, changing of costumes, waiting for the next turn. All that during a very hot and humid afternoon (many people would have no idea how hot it gets in Minnesota during the summer).

Secondly, I wished the audience and the attendance was bigger. Maybe the heat, maybe lack of promotion, maybe lack of interest – there could be so many reasons. But many people who knew and who cared, came and supported the immigrant and refugee community of Minneapolis and St Paul metropolis.

There were some refugee groups highly represented – Southeast Asians from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) and Africans from Somalia and Liberia. Just now I looked up the statistics and read that in the last three decades (1979-2016), more than 100,000 refugees have come to Minnesota. This state has welcomed some of the largest communities of Somali (23,400), Hmong (22,000), Karen (14,000), Vietnamese (15,000) and many others, including Ethiopian, Bosnian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Bhutanese.

I remember when I lived in Thailand – Burma border teaching English in refugee schools and talked with many of my Karen friends whose families were hoping to relocate to the United States. Minnesota had one of the most welcoming programs but I was wondering how would someone from Burma, a tropical Asian country, resettle in a new life in northern Midwest. It seemed like the craziest idea and the most unlikely place. But when you are a refugee, you are not picky. You are grateful for the chance to start a new life in peace and security.

And worry about the freezing temperatures later. One winter I saw elderly Karen women walking down the street wearing winter coats but only sandals on their feet. At the event on Sunday my husband mentioned it to one of the Karen volunteers. “We had no idea what to wear in the winter”, she laughed. “We put many layers on our upper bodies but did not know what to wear on our legs. It was a long time before someone local introduced me to the leggings.”

Who were the locals these refugees met when they started living here? How many of the refugees feel ‘local’ even after being here for many years? What makes you a local? What makes you belong? Where are your roots? So many of the refugees feel like nomads and wanderers the rest of their lives and this feeling passes from generation to generation.

Many of the artists on the stage were super talented communicators and the spoken word was exceptional. Many were highly educated second generation immigrants and still they had this incredible deep need to tell their parents heartbreaking story and their own struggles growing up in America as children of refugees.

The richness and beauty of all these cultures meeting, mingling and bonding in this one big country is something to behold. And the annual Twin Cities Refugee Day is truly a day of gratitude and acceptance but also a reminder that this beautiful social fabric is very fragile and vulnerable. And needs to be cherished and nourished as a special gift. And someone always needs to be the good neighbor who says “Welcome to your new home! Welcome to Minnesota! Let me show you what to wear in the winter 🙂 ”

 

My Minnesota diary: Indians and cowboys

Every writer needs a break. After a busy year of university studies, I was deflated. Emotionally and mentally. Who wants to write a blog after staring at the computer screen for days and weeks and months? After a one month hiatus ‘peaceroads’ is back… the world keeps spinning and there is too much happening to keep thoughts to myself (or for my poor husband to be the sounding board 🙂 ).

And let me start with ‘Minnesota diary’ since I am spending summer in the US, mostly in the beautiful Midwest. The name ‘Minnesota’ is based on the Dakota Sioux word “Mini sota“, the native name for the Minnesota River which means “cloudy water” or “sky-tinted water.” Many locations in Minnesota are derived from native American languages including Cree, Sioux and Dakota.

I must admit that on first visits I took it for granted. Well, just some strange American names! Minneapolis sounds cool and that’s it! Minnehaha… haha… But then I started to wonder about these names of streets, neighborhoods, counties while driving through cities. What a unique and interesting name is Minnetonka or Chippewa or Shakopee… where it comes from and what it means.

Quite obvious that these were not typical European/Scandinavian/Anglo names so common in the area. I figured it must be Native American heritage. Ever present even if the people whose language was used are marginalized.

I love maps. I have scoured the map of Minnesota, the land of thousand lakes, and find it so fascinating. And my eyes are always drawn to the Native American tribes and their territories. To me, a foreigner and visitor, this is like a movie. Reservations! The name always raises so many questions in my head. Reserved for what? Reserved from what?

Nowadays most Native Americans (78 %) live in urban centers, not on the reservations. But even in the cities I rarely meet someone from First Nations. My one ‘token’ friend is from the Lakota tribe with relatives in South Dakota and she has invited me to “powwow”, a traditional community gathering with food, dance and song. Sad to admit I still have not taken up this offer because the time is always too short.

Here is the thing… most of my American friends would be totally surprised to find out that I grew up with movies about the cowboys and the Indians. In USSR? In communist Latvia? Did they show American movies? No, these were made in East Germany and undoubtedly used as anti-American propaganda. Guess what?! In our movies Indians were always the good guys and the cowboys were the bad ones. The cowboys were greedy and powerful and wanted to rip off the Indians who were brave and honorable and oppressed.

And we wanted to be Indians! I wanted to be an Indian girl, my brother wanted to be an Indian boy and so did the other kids in our neighborhood. The justice was on the side of the Indians who were treated unjustly and we, the children, wanted justice. We would find bird feathers and put in our hair. Sometimes the shops would sell ‘Indian’ head covers with paper feathers and my brother was lucky to get one of those. I was so jealous…

Recently I had a conversation in Duluth, MN. I was describing some of the tensions and historic ethnic fault lines in Latvia and one young woman commented, “This sounds so strange and foreign to me to have these kind of historical grievances and prejudices between groups of people. Here in northern Minnesota we do not have anything like it.”  Not wanting to be the know-it-all but I had to point out the reservations, legacy of boarding schools and the general Native American experience. What if I asked them about grievances and prejudices? I have a feeling their answer would be quite different.

Do not mean to judge. Just to point out that we get so blindsided because of our cultural bubbles. The ‘other’ story and experience is out of sight and out of mind and simply ceases to be important. Or becomes a page in history book and makes for a good movie. Of course, today and yesterday is not black and white like American or East German movies where we were told two opposing versions who the bad and the good guys were. It is much more complicated but still relevant.

I read a thought provoking and challenging book “Rescuing The Gospel From The Cowboys: A Native American Expression Of The Jesus Way” by Richard Twiss (1954-2013), a minister and theologian from Lakota tribe. Sadly he passed away few years ago but left tremendous legacy for his people and for the whole church in America. One of his observations: “After hundreds of years of missionary efforts, an extremely low number of native people are actively engaged in a life of faith in Jesus and participation in some Christian tradition. This is largely reflective of Euro-American colonial cultural forms, expressions and worldview values.”

As a Lakota man who worshiped Creator and followed Jesus, he knew his stuff…

 

Facebook and the conundrum of hate speech

“As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

“I can’t live with or without you”, I considered such title but decided it would be too much. Facebook is a thing, not a person. Simply a social media platform and, most of the time, a useful one for certain interaction with friends, colleagues and work.

As we know, it easily connects people and just as easily breaks them apart. I usually ‘flee’ from the latest controversy, debate, back-and-forth comments because I 1) don’t think as fast as other respondents 2) think too much what words to choose and to use because words are important 3) would rather join face to face conversation 4) want to engage with friends and people I know because only they will value my opinion 5) don’t think I can actually change someone’s mind with few short comments 6) don’t want to get in ‘cross fire’ if the conversation is aggressive 7) and don’t want to spend time creating more and more ‘hot air’. If there is anything this world has more than enough, it is “hot air”.

But unfortunately and tragically this virtual ‘hot air’ can become real, violent and simply evil fire. Last week again there were two instances where Facebook as a community platform had to acknowledge it has been used effectively in stirring hate and prejudice. Facebook removed the pages of the anti-Islamic group ‘Britain First’ and its leaders because of repeated violations of FB community standards. I would say not just FB but most of the British society’s standards. I know friends in the UK who are working very hard to foster relationships and bring healing to hurting communities and they have criticized ‘Britain First’ for long time.

The other story was even more painful and more personal since it involved Myanmar/Burma. When I started ‘peaceroads’ blog three years ago, it was inspired by many years of working with refugees from Myanmar and living on Thailand – Myanmar border. And now U.N. human rights experts investigating abuses and violence against the Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar say that Facebook has played a major role in spreading the hate messages and inciting the violence. I cannot read Burmese but I do know one racial slur which Facebook had already banned in 2017.

Fortunately I have not had to ‘censor’ any of my FB friends for hateful comments but many of us have expressed loads of stereotypes, fear of different groups and called for certain ‘exclusion’. There have been a few situations where I wrote my friends (in a personal message) and tried to explain why I thought their comments were not helpful, but harmful. And I have ‘unfollowed’ few people because their posts were too frequent and too zealous in their desire to prove their point. But I have never ‘unfriended’ anyone just because they have different opinion and views from mine. I don’t want to insulate myself with people who all think alike because that is exactly one of the big problems of our day. These group ‘bubbles’ we live in.

The people with ‘bad’ intentions do not hesitate to take advantage of social media while people ‘good’ intentions often wonder if it is worth it. It can also be very difficult and scary to express your opinion when you already know what possibly aggressive and angry reaction your posts will get. For example, if the Christians who are a religious minority in Myanmar were to stand up for the Muslims who are even smaller religious minority, they would be in a very difficult position. If the Karen or any other people who are an ethnic minority were to stand up for the Rohingya who are ethnic minority, they would be in a very difficult position.

In Myanmar, UK, Latvia, Russia, Nigeria, USA, (you name the country)… social media has been and will be used used to enforce prejudice, stereotypes and to incite discrimination against certain groups. Based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, social status, ideology and any other way we like to define the ‘other’.  As long as people (with growing robot enforcement) communicate, this issue of hate speech stays with us and we have to discern what contributes to it and what does not. And what to do about it.

My hope and desire is to use this blog as one of many tools to suck out some of this ‘hot air’ from our online interactions. What are your tools? Suggestions?

Enough of reliving Columbine again. And again. And again.

Where does it stop? How much more trauma, tragedy and loss of life from shooters with powerful guns can American teenagers, children, parents, grandparents, families, teachers, pastors, churches, the whole society take? I hope and pray and wish and plead that it stops at Parkland, Florida.

I will never forget April 20 of 1999 when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. I had just spent three months in the States visiting friends and family and one person very dear to me was a high school student at the time. Minnesota is far from Colorado but schools all over the country were holding vigils and grieving. It broke my heart and it is still one of the most harrowing images I can think of. Those two guys slowly walking through their school as if they were on a hunt. And here we are 18 years later and similar horror gets repeated again and again. And again.

I grew up with drills in the school. We learned how to hide under the tables, how to run to the basement, how to find shelter and how to put on a gas-mask in the fastest way possible. In the USSR this was not a practice for ‘active shooter’. This was a practice for ‘active nuclear weapon’ coming in. (Like you could really hide from a nuclear explosion!) I know that this may be a very bad analogy but it is the closest thing I have experienced that helps me to relate to the fear it brings in children. And when this fear gets cultivated year after year, it becomes the new normal. In those days the answer to nuclear threat was more nuclear weapons. We were on this race who will have the biggest stockpile and it was never big enough. The whole world could blow itself up and everyone felt less safe.

I would have never ever believed that American children and teenagers will have to grow up with school drills for ‘active shooters’. Again, there are two little boys in Minnesota whom I dearly love and I think of the time when they start going to school. What will be their ‘normal’?! This is the post-Columbine reality. Just like post 9/11 reality for me is the airport routine of security checks. No sharp things, no liquids, take your shoes off, take your electronics out. It was enough with one incident of someone trying to use a liquid to build explosives and I cannot carry water or any drink on board.

But here are people with powerful weapons built to inflict the biggest amount of damage who are thought to pose much less threat. My water bottle is obviously more dangerous than AR15 semi-automatic rifle. (I don’t mean to be sarcastic. I am actually dumbfounded.)

I am not joining the gun debate as such. I am not a gun owner, I am not an American citizen  (I do pay taxes in the US, though) and I have no right to vote on those issues (some may say that I have no right to voice my opinion then) but I do believe in common sense. And right now the truth speaks from the mouths of children. Like everyone else who has watched any interview with the survivors of Parkland shooting, I have been overwhelmed and more than impressed by the maturity, intelligence, focus, determination and eloquence of these students. They are right to ask though: “Why is it us who have to fight for this issue to have gun reform? Why is it us who have to march and protest?”

Jack Haimowitz, 18, a survivor of last week’s shooting said: “Before you put your pen to paper, stop and feel something.” He blames the people “who don’t want to come together. The people who don’t want to unify and to love each other.” Listen to what Jack has to say in this short video! It will only take 1 min of your life but this teenager says more in few words than many who have spoken and written on the issue of gun violence and reform.

“We sat in the these classes ready to learn and now we are standing in front of the world ready to teach.” (J.Haimowitz, Parkland, Fl)

May we learn! May America learn!

 

 

 

Davos aims at our shared future but what about shared good

If you noticed I have been silent for a short while, I stopped posting on ‘peaceroads’ in January because of various other commitments, mainly my university studies. And after all the deadlines and sleepless nights, I enjoyed one week in a quiet, pretty and posh English town – Harpenden. Everything there is so green compared to the winter scenery in Latvia and the life seems ‘greener’ on that side, too.

While I enjoyed walks in the English countryside, looked for good deals in charity shops and wondered where to get the best fish and chips, the news on my computer screen showed another idyllic picture  from Davos, a small sleepy town in the Swiss Alps, and the headlines talked about the rich and powerful gathering for the annual World Economic Forum.

For many people the name “Davos” is probably like the word “Disneyland” is for most children. To be rewarded and privileged to go there and to mingle with the powerful, rich and famous, to stay in expensive hotels, eat gourmet food, make deals, build networks, meet the right person at the right time for your idea, business or even country and feel like you are in the center of the ‘things to be’. No doubt a thrilling experience if you believe in it.

Don’t misunderstand. I have no doubt that many good and socially responsible initiatives have their beginning  in such meetings, many important decisions are made and the original vision of this gathering is still being fulfilled to some extent. Many of the people whom I turn to for their expertise and opinion attend this forum of leaders and they don’t see it as a waste of time. Still, I struggle to take this year’s theme “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World” without a dose of heavy skepticism.

It is not the words I disagree with . “Creating” is what we all do. Even if we are just sitting on our couch and doing ‘nothing’, we are affecting our lives, others and our world in some way or another. “Shared” is a fact which nobody in his right mind denies. The world is so interconnected. Just ask Europeans how the war in Syria affected them. Or the people who suffer through extreme weather patterns because of climate change.

“Future” is already here. “Fractured” is the feeling and view that many have and are generally afraid of. “World” is every human being and in fact everything else that exists. There is no escaping this framework, unless you can ‘pretend’. And there are those realists who, I believe, pretend the ‘sharing’ because these ‘fractures’ affect them the least.

The statistics of growing inequality are getting worse and worse. The American facts show that the richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s wealth in 2016, according to a Federal Reserve, and this gap keeps growing. The UK experts state that rising inequality has seen a dramatic increase in the share of income going to the top, a decline in the share of those at the bottom and, more recently, a stagnation of incomes among those in the middle. You can go country by country on every continent. (Yes, Norway and few others are the exception!)

This is a global trend and poses one of the greatest threats to our future if we want it to be peaceful and stable and good life for everyone. I don’t have to be an expert in history or politics or economics to see that this is very dangerous in many ways. Not least if we care about democracy because the concentration of wealth and power is happening faster than we can blink.

The main drivers of this growing ‘fracture’ in our societies are identified as technology, political systems and institutions, family, childhood, globalisation. This is also where most of the solutions lie but somehow I get the feeling that these urgent and difficult changes will not come from ‘top down’. Our long human experience shows us that people will rarely share power and access to wealth and goods if they don’t have to. But we also have more than enough bad experiences with ‘bottom up’  pushing back in the form of violent revolutions.

Since this is an election year in Latvia, I will end with small but crucial practical step. Voting matters and informed choices matter! We have the same fractures in Latvia and we have to guard and continue improving our political system and institutions. Practice of democracy for sure decreases inequality.

We should not aim at simply “shared future”. We should aim at sharing good future.

My cheesy Christmas reflections on this beautiful mess

‘Cheesy’ in the urban dictionary means trying too hard. That which is unsubtle or inauthentic in its way of trying to elicit a certain response from a viewer, listener, reader, audience. Cliches are often cheesy because they are an obvious way of making a point.

What obvious point I want to make? That this world is a mess but it is a beautiful mess. We can despair over our stupidity, ignorance, gullibility, evil intentions, lies, violence, greed and even Christmas  festivities are not cheerful or glitzy enough to silence these thoughts or to put a nice shiny wrapping over it. The magnitude of struggles and suffering around the world is simply too big to be covered by “Happy Holiday’s” or “Season’s Greetings” or even “Our thoughts and prayers”.

Yes, we are a mess but we are also very special. This world is beautiful inside and out and Christmas is a  festival when we try to make it even more beautiful inside and out. And we get out the shiny wrapping for the visual effect. In the northern part of the world it is the darkest time of the year but we all know that it makes for the most exquisite light displays. We need darkness to appreciate the light; we need dark background to enjoy the illumination. Just like we need black skies to see the stars. Just like women wear a black dress to show off the whitest pearls or sparkly jewelry. Cliche but so true and we don’t mind. We are created for beauty.

What would be a Christmas tree in the summer?! It would look so fake and ‘inauthentic’ when all the other trees are adorned with their natural beauty – leaves, flowers. When everything is green, the evergreens do not look so green anymore. But at Christmas even a shabby tree can look festive and proud when decorated.

This Christmas Eve I took my grandmother to a traditional service at a nearby Lutheran church. I grew up near this church and was even baptized there but in my childhood memories it stood as big, old, cold and dark. I was sitting in the wooden pew this Sunday and new memories were created. The church was still big and old but it was not cold and it was not dark. It was filled with people (as expected on Christmas Eve) and our bodies helped to heat the place. It was filled with candles and lights and it made the atmosphere simply enchanting. Not to mention the focus of the evening – the Light of the world.

When we were walking toward the church before the evening service, my grandmother commented on the illuminated church tower which looked so majestic and inviting against the night skies. Her eyesight is starting to fail but it amazes me what details she catches. Anything that speaks of beauty and creativity. She always asks about the lights in the distance, she notices decorations in the shop windows and we stopped by a shop which had a disco ball. The ball was turning and it illuminated the sidewalk with what looked like snowflakes falling and twirling. My grandmother was simply mesmerized and I tried to remember the last time I enjoyed a disco ball so much.

Then we were both mesmerized in the church. I was probably making many of the older folks mad by taking sneak selfies with grandmother and looking around so much. Looking at the chandeliers, at the artful wood carvings, at the stained glass windows, at the altar painting and at the ceiling beams so high. I felt like a child again who is getting the scornful looks: “Has nobody taught you how to behave in a church?”

Well, this is exactly what I have learned about proper behavior in the church. Be like children who come with all their questions, their worries, fears, anxieties, hopes, expectations, dreams and longing for love and attention from God and people. Usually children call things for what they are. And Christmas celebrations are much more fun with children because children are never cheesy.

Obviously.

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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”