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!”

IMG_3779

 

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!

Miscounting the bullets and choices that count the most

I have a new morning routine. I am not one of those people who can jump out of the bed once awake. I take my time and try to convince myself to look forward to getting up from the warm and cozy covers. The pillow has such a magnetic pull… So, I tell myself to make something useful of this ‘wrestling match’ and check the news headlines on my phone.

This morning I read the best news which made me so happy to get out of bed and live another day with hope and determination. I have been following the story of shooting of two Indian engineering students in a bar in Olathe, Kansas. One of them was killed and the other survived. One more sad hate crime committed by a distraught and unhappy man who had yelled out racial slurs and apparently thought that the victims were from the Middle East.  For those who have not heard what happened, here is a link to the news from February 22

The backstory brought me to happy tears and it deserves much more publicity.

First of all, the obvious hero in this incident is a local 25 year old guy, Ian Grillot. Someone who would be just another friendly face in a small town. Someone having a glass of beer and talking about going fishing the next day. But while he was hiding under the table and listening to the attacker firing shots, Ian was counting the bullets. Obviously he knows something about guns (as many Americans do) and he had made a fast decision to do something about this unfolding violence.

Ian went after the attacker, thinking that the weapon is out of bullets, only to be shot himself. The bullet pierced his hand and chest, hit his vertebrae and neck and barely missed the main artery. It is a miracle that Ian is recovering quickly and did not lose his life or ability to walk. When interviewed from the hospital bed, he said: “I was just doing what anyone should’ve done for another human being… It’s not about where he’s from or his ethnicity. We’re all humans. I just felt like I did what was naturally right to do.”

Now I found out more amazing details about the other patrons who were in the bar. The survivor, Alok Madasani, was helped a man named who ripped off his shirt and tied it around his leg to stop the bleeding. This act probably saved his life. “And earlier that evening, when the Indian engineers were at the receiving end of racial abuse, a businessman told them he’d taken care of their bill. He wanted to show that the language used by the suspected attacker was un-American.”

I try to imagine the scene and I can almost imagine how this tragic experience has united everyone who went through it. Sadly a life was lost but also the true meaning of life was found. When Ian said that he only did the naturally right thing, I think  about the power of these words and actions. When people use the slogan “Make America Great Again”, I hope they are thinking about Ian and those other brave people in the bar.

Something that was meant to divide and alienate people, has had the opposite effect. The community in this little town now is connected to people in India with a much stronger bond. There are already meetings with diplomats and Indian media and all kind of connections because of this. Also, the feature photo in my blog is from a Peace March and Vigil.

Thank you, Ian, for counting the bullets while not counting  your own life!

Bar Shooting Kansas

Ian Grillot (photos from internet)

 

 

Genie out of the bottle…

The summer in Latvia is beautiful but it is difficult to take my mind off the UK news. On June 23 Latvians celebrated the most popular holiday called Ligo when people enjoy the shortest nights of the year. Being in the nature with lots of good food, singing, dancing but mostly good time with friends and family.

Then comes the morning after. This year it meant another sunny day and time to enjoy nice breakfast. (For many who had too much to drink, not so enjoyable though.) And then people checked the news and found out that while Latvians were partying and dancing and eating, the British people voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union. The breakfast conversations turned serious as people were trying to digest – What Just Happened?

One of the most controversial politicians in the UK, Nigel Farage from UKIP (UK Independence Party) was celebrating and pronounced that “Let June 23 go down in history as our Independence Day…. ” He also said that “The Euroskeptic genie is out of the bottle”.

I have no need to write about the reactions of people in the UK, other nations, governments, media and so on. There are so many well written articles online for those who are interested. What I want to talk about are these “genies out of the bottle”. First of all racism, bigotry and xenophobia!

One British friend of mine who is a peace builder in Luton, a very diverse English town, wrote on his FB page a few days before the vote: ” We’re in a referendum campaign which can only leave a legacy of anger and hatred, whichever way it goes. It goes way further than a choice to remain or leave, but has the potential to redefine what it means to be British. … A monster has been unleashed among us, and many are still not recognising it.”

After a series of racist incidents, I asked another friend of mine who lives and works in the UK whether this is just the media picking and choosing or does this really mean an increase. He believes that there is an increase because some people got the feeling that their feelings and views were “given a green light.”

After the recent racist graffiti incident at the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith, London, Joanna Ciechanowska, director of POSK’s gallery said: “All of a sudden a small group of extremists feel empowered… they think they have the support of half of the nation. It’s sad because living here for so many years and being married to an Englishman, I have never actually encountered any racism in this country, and this is the first time it happened straight in my face. Whoever did this was an ugly person who saw a window of opportunity.”

Have we created a window of opportunity for this ‘genie’ of racism and bigotry? Was it let out of the bottle or was it always out of the bottle? And only feels more empowered now.

This is exactly the kind of thing that worries and upsets me. We, the people, who know the terrible consequences of these kind of spiritual powers on the loose… we can still be so apathetic. It is obvious that one of the big jobs on the “morning after” is to put this genie back in the bottle. It will not go back there willingly and politely. It will kick and scream.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” will not do. We will have to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Resist the evil”. (Read the rest of the story from the Polish Cultural Centre.)

I have more thoughts on this subject but will save them for the next blog.

Dear Poles

One of the many cards sent to the Polish Centre after the incident in Hammersmith (photo from the Internet)

Latvian:

Vienkārši gribas baudīt jauko vasaru Latvijā, bet prāts aizņemts ar ziņām no Britu salām. Jo izrādījās, kamēr mēs līgojām, dziedājām, dejojām un ēdām, briti nobalsoja par izstāšanos no Eiropas Savienības. Brokastis Jāņu rītā daudziem pārvērtās par nopietnām politiskām sarunām, kurās cilvēki centās sagremot jaunumus – Kas Tur Tikko Notika?

Viens no vispretrunīgākajiem britu politiķiem Naidžels Faražs, kurš pārstāv Apvienotās Karalistes Neatkarības partiju, priecīgi paziņoja, ka “23. jūnijs ieies vēsturē kā neatkarības diena”. Un, ka “no pudeles ir izlaists džins vārdā Eiroskepse”.

Es nevēlos rakstīt par cilvēku reakciju Apvienotajā Karalistē vai pie mums vai citur, un ko saka politiķi un mediji. Tie, kuri interesējas, var internetā atrast neskaitāmi daudzus labus rakstus. Es gribu parunāt par citiem “džiniem”, kas arī izlaisti no pudeles. Pirmkārt jau rasisms, aizspriedumi un ksenofobija jeb bailes no svešiniekiem!

Viens no maniem angļu draugiem strādā miera celšanas jomā Lutonā – pilsētā, kura ir piedzīvojusi dažādus konfliktus. Dažas dienas pirms referenduma viņš rakstīja savā Facebook lapā: “Mēs redzam referenduma kampaņu, kas atstās mantojumā dusmas un naidu jebkura balsojuma rezultātā. Runa iet par kaut ko vairāk nekā tikai izvēle starp palikšanu vai aiziešanu. Runa iet par mums kā britiem… Mūsu vidū ir palaists vaļā kaut kas briesmīgs, un daudzi joprojām to neaptver.”

Pēc nesenajām rasisma izpausmēm Apvienotajā Karalistē pajautāju draugam latvietim, kurš dzīvo un strādā Anglijā, vai tiešām šī naidīgā attieksme ir pieaugusi, vai arī tā ir kārtējā ziņu dienestu izvēle kaut ko ‘izmakšķerēt’. Pēc viņa domām incidentu skaits tiešām ir pieaudzis, jo dažiem “lika sajusties, ka nu tik būs zaļā gaisma.”

Pēc incidenta Poļu Biedrības un Kultūras Asociācijas namā Londonā, kur uz sienas bija parādījies naidīgs graffiti, biedrības pārstāve Joanna Cehanovska teica, ka “pēkšņi daļa ekstrēmistu sajutās varenāki… Viņi domā, ka viņus atbalsta puse tautas. Skumji, jo dzīvoju šeit jau daudzus gadus, turklāt mans vīrs ir anglis, un nekad neesmu saskārusies ar rasismu šajā valstī. Tā ir pirmā reize, kad to piedzīvoju. Tas, kurš to izdarīja, ir nejauks cilvēks, kurš gaidīja iespēju izpausties.”

Vai mēs esam radījuši iespēju izpausties šim rasisma un aizspriedumu ‘džinam’ jeb garam? Vai tas tika izlaists laukā no pudeles, vai arī tas vienmēr ir bijis brīvībā? Un tagad vienkārši jūtas varenāks.

Tieši tas mani arī visvairāk sadusmo un uztrauc. Mēs, cilvēki, kuri labi zinām, kādas briesmīgas sekas var atstāt šādi gari palaisti brīvībā… mēs joprojām varam būt tik apātiski. Viens ir skaidrs, ka tagad tas ‘džins’ ir jādabū atpakaļ pudelē. Tas neies tur atpakaļ labprātīgi un mierīgi. Tas pretosies, spārdīsies un kliegs.

Ar slaveno britu lozungu “Paliekat mierā un uz priekšu!” te nepietiks. Te būs vajadzīgs “Mīliet savu tuvāko kā sevi pašu” un “Stājieties pretī ļaunumam”. Ko arī darīja Poļu Biedrības kaimiņi.

Man vēl ir ko teikt par šo tēmu, bet tas lai paliek nākamajam blogam.

 

Minnesota is a long way from Burma or Latvia

This is a photo from St Paul, Minnesota. Did you know that June 20 is a World Refugee Day? St Paul has become home to thousands of refugees. One of the ethnic groups settled in MN are Karen people from Burma (Myanmar). There are estimated 10,000 Karen in Minnesota and St. Paul currently has the largest and fastest-growing Karen populations in the U.S. Other communities in Minnesota with a large Karen population include Worthington, Willmar, Austin, Albert Lea and Faribault.

I never imagined that my life would be connected to this story that links places so distant and different from each other. When I see women or men with a traditional Karen shoulder bag walking down the street in Roseville or West St Paul, I think to myself “This is a long way from the villages and farms and jungle trails in mountains of Karen State in Burma.” It is also a long way from the refugee camps on Thailand – Burma border.

I have one of those bags and I love to see the smile on people’s faces when they ask me, “Where did you get this? What?! You have been to Mae La refugee camp? When? Why?” I explain about our former work in the migrant schools, about teaching English and our many many friendships. I love to talk about the beautiful Karen dances and songs and crafts. And the food but not the fish paste! Anything but the fish paste.

We went to this year’s World Refugee Day celebration in St Paul. It was a treat to see traditional Karen dances and hear the songs and also listen to the stories. These young people were very grateful for the opportunities and freedom they have in their new home country and also were proud to introduce others to their beautiful, rich culture and history.

It have mixed feelings as there is always a sense of homesickness. It makes me think of all the Latvians and other Europeans who came to Minnesota as refugees after World War II. I have heard stories from people who had Latvian neighbors or friends and husbands. Stories about all the good Latvia food, all the Latvian dances and songs and, of course, all the partying. (Unfortunately Latvians were known for the large amounts of alcohol they could consume)

One of the guys I know is named John. He is very much an Irish American but his best friend while growing up in North Minneapolis was a Latvian guy. And John got the special treatment from Latvian community because of his name. “Jānis” is the Latvian version of John and it used to be one of the most popular names in Latvia. (You walk in a room and say “Jānis” and see how many guys will turn their head!)

Making a new home in a far away land is not easy, but it is a part of our human story through the ages. Wars happen. Lives get destroyed. We get up-rooted and then we go and put our roots in a new place. It makes a big difference if the new place is welcoming and open. I am very grateful to know so many people in Minnesota who have opened their hearts and lives to give shelter and refugee to people who have had to flee their beloved countries and homes and farms and families. Thank you, Minnesota!

155

Karen traditional dances in Mae Sot, Thailand (photo from personal archive)

 

 

Tale as old as time: My tribe against yours

So, I was thinking about our tribalism in Europe and elsewhere and suddenly remembered one of my favorite children’s stories, “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” by Astrid Lindgren. It is truly one of my favorite books and I have read it many times. I can still experience the same emotions I had when I read it as a child.

Sorry to spoil the plot for those who have not read it, but it is a beautiful metaphor or parable about something we can all relate to – my tribe is not your tribe, my family is not yours and sometimes there is a big schism between them.

Ronia is a girl growing up among a clan of robbers living in a castle in the woodlands. As the only child of Matt, the chief, she is expected to become the leader of the clan someday. Their castle, Matt’s Fort, is split in two parts by a lightning bolt. Ronia grows up with her clan of robbers as the only company, until a rival robber group led by Borka moves into the other half of the castle, worsening the longstanding rivalry between the two bands.

Don’t many of us feel like we live in a castle that is split in two? Or three? Or four? There have been events and global trends that have the same effect as the lightning bolt. The wars that have re-drawn the borders of nations, colonial and imperial powers deciding who will live where, people being exiled and moved from one land to another, people without a home, new neighbors (of different language and culture and faith) arriving and moving in… Truly a split castle where often one side does not interact much with the other. And the less we relate to each other and the less we interact, the schism gets wider and wider.

I am reminded of a comment by  Vladislav Nastavsev, a talented Latvian/Russian stage director, who dares to talk about the schism that still exists in our Latvian ‘castle’. His family is ethnically Russian and he just directed a play called “Lake Of Hope” to address some of these deeply personal and dividing issues. I read a quote by V. Nastavsev, comparing what happened in Latvia during the occupation by USSR to a nuclear explosion. It happened, it changed our life in profound ways, we cannot go back but how do we live forward?

And no, I am not saying that all our ethnic and national families are like feuding clans of robbers, but I do know what ‘my people are not your people’ means.

Something happens that changes Ronia’s life completely. She meets a little boy and it turns out that he is Birk, the only son of Borka, the rival chief. He is the only other child she has ever met, and so she is sorry that he is a Borka. They start a game of jumping across the schism and later on become friends.

Ronia jumping

Have you ever been in her shoes? Where you think that he or she is not ‘one of us’? Where you look at each other wondering what the other is thinking about you? What have they been told in their family or tribe about my tribe? They look like me, but are we really the same? I have been there… standing with some trepidation… wondering how to bridge the gap.

Ronia and Borka keep their friendship secret. (It means they do not post it on Facebook) The climax of the story happens when Ronia’s father captures Birk and thinks that now their clan has won. Then unthinkable happens –  Ronia jumps across and gives herself to the Borkas so she must be exchanged.  Her father disowns her and refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter.

I remember feeling so sorry and sad for Ronia and her dad. His heart is broken because his daughter is ‘a traitor’. Or is she?  And what about her mom who is torn between her husband and her daughter? There is a point in most peace building and reconciliation  efforts when peacemakers get labeled ‘traitors’. They dare to reach out to the ‘others’. They dare to listen, they dare to become friends, they dare not to follow their father’s and chief’s ways and make a new way.

I will not spoil the ending with details in case you want to read it now, but it does end well.

Are you ready for some big and daring jumps? Start practicing…

Ronia and Birk

Illustrations by Ilon Wikland

Latviski:

Bieži domāju par mūsdienu ‘ciltīm’ Eiropā un pasaulē. Pēkšņi atcerējos vienu no saviem mīļākajiem bērnības stāstiem “Ronja – laupītāja meita”, ko sarakstījusi Astrīda Lindgrēne. Tā tiešām man ir ļoti mīļa grāmata, pārlasīta vairākas reizes. Vēl joprojām atceros tās bērnības emocijas, pārdzīvojot par varoņiem.

Piedodiet, ka pastāstīšu priekšā tiem, kas nav lasījuši, bet šis stāsts ir brīnišķīga metafora mūsdienu pasaulei, un mums visiem pazīstamajai pieredzei – mana cilts nav tavējā, mana ģimene nav tavējā, un reizēm starp mums ir liela un dziļa plaisa.

Ronja ir meitene, kura uzaug laupītāju dzimtā, un dzīvo pilī mežā vidū.Viņa ir Matisa, dzimtas vadoņa vienīgais bērns, tātad kādu dienu viņai būs jākļūst par dzimtas jeb cilts vadoni. Naktī, kad Ronja piedzimst, zibens sašķeļ pili jeb Matisa cietoksni divās daļās. Ronja aug bez citu bērnu klātbūtnes, līdz kādu dienu pils otrā daļā ievācas cita laupītāju dzimta, kuru vada Borka. Abas dzimtas jau tā ir naidīgas, bet šī ‘kaimiņu būšana’ vēl vairāk saasina šo konfliktu.

Vai daudziem no mums neliekas, ka mēs dzīvojam tādās sašķeltās pilīs? Ne tikai divās, bet pat trīs vai vairākās daļās? Pagātnē un tagadnē ir notikumi un pagriezieni, kuri ir gluži kā negaidīts zibens spēriens. Kari un konflikti, kas pārzīmē valstu robežas; impērijas, kuras izlemj, kur cilvēkiem būs dzīvot vai nedzīvot; bēgļu gaitas un izsūtījums; cilvēki bez mājām; jauni kaimiņi ar ‘svešu valodu, kultūru un ticību’, kuri iekārtojas blakus… Tiešām kā sašķeltā pilī, kur bieži vien abas puses dzīvo atsevišķi, katra par sevi. Un, jo mazāk mēs satiekamies un tusējamies un draudzējamies, jo dziļāka un lielāka top plaisa.

Tas man atgādina salīdzinājumu, kuru izteica Vladislavs Nastavševs, talantīgais Latvijas režisors. Viņš nebaidās runāt par šo plaisu, kas eksistē Latvijas ‘pilī’. Kaut vai nesenā JRT izrāde “Cerību ezers” (kuru vēl neesmu redzējusi, bet ļoti gribu), kurā viņš runā par šiem pretrunīgajiem jautājumiem ļoti dziļā un intīmā veidā. Kādā rakstā es lasīju, ka Nastavševs salīdzina to, kas notika Latvijā padomju okupācijas laikā, ar atomsprādzienu. Tas notika; tas atstāja smagas un sāpīgas un paliekošas sekas; tas izmainīja mūsu dzīves pašos pamatos. Mēs nevaram atgriezties pagātnē un to mainīt, bet kā lai dzīvojam uz priekšu?

Lūdzu, nepārprotiet… Es nesalīdzinu mūsu etniskās un tautiskās ģimenes ar naidīgām laupītāju dzimtām, bet es zinu, ko nozīmē ‘manējie nav tavējie’.

Atpakaļ pie stāsta. Kaut kas pamatīgi izmaina Ronjas dzīvi. Viņa satiek zēnu, un izrādās, ka tas ir Birks, pretinieka laupītāju vadoņa Borkas vienīgais dēls. Viņa nekad nav satikusi citus bērnus, un tāpēc viņai žēl, ka viņš ir no Borkas dzimtas. Viņi sāk sacensties un mēģināt pārlekt pāri plaisai, kas arī izdodas, un pamazām abi kļūst par draugiem.

Vai tu esi kādreiz bijis vai bijusi Ronjas ādā? Tu satiec kādu, un izrādās, ka viņš vai viņa nav ‘savējais’. Abi skataties viens uz otru, un mēģinat uzminēt otra domas. Vai arī iedomāties, kas ir stāstīts un mācīts otra ģimenē vai dzimtā vai tautā vai ticībā vai TV? Izskatamies līdzīgi, bet vai tiešām tādi esam? Es esmu bijusi šādās situācijās… stāvu uztraukusies… domāju, kā lai tiek pāri tai plaisai…

Ronja un Birka slēpj savu draudzību no savām dzimtām (viņi neraksta par to Feisbukā). Stāsta kulminācija pienāk tad, kad Ronjas tētis noķer Birku un domā, ka tagad ir uzvarējis. Taču notiek neiedomājamais – Ronja pārlec pāri uz otru pusi un nodod sevi Borkas rokās, lai notiktu gūstekņu apmaiņa. Un tētis atsakās no savas meitas.

Es atceros, ka raudāju, lasot šo epizodi. Man bija tik ļoti žēl gan Ronjas, gan viņas tēta. Viņam ir salauzta sirds, jo meita ir ‘nodevēja’. Vai tiešām viņa ir nodevēja? Un ko darīt mammai, kurai sirds plēšas uz abām pusēm? To var piedzīvot, strādājot pie miera celšanas un cenšoties panākt izlīgumu. Kāds tiks nodēvēts par ‘nodevēju’, jo uzdrīkstas iet pie tiem ‘citiem’. Uzdrīkstas klausīties, uzdrīkstas iedraudzēties, uzdrīkstas nesekot savam tēvam vai vadonim. Uzdrīkstas piedāvāt jaunu ceļu.

Es nesabojāšu stāsta beigas tiem, kas tagad vēlas izlasīt šo brīnišķīgo bērnu grāmatu, bet viss ies uz labu.

Vai esi gatavs vai gatava lieliem un drosmīgiem lēcieniem? Jāsāk trenēties…

Enough of Supersize Fear

If there is universal word and emotion in 2015, it is Fear. Phobia. Anxiety. Paranoia. This is nothing new for humankind even if we somehow think that the challenges are unique to our times and situation. Just study history, autobiographies,  ancient literature like the Bible and see that people and nations have always struggled with fears and have chosen many different ways of dealing with it. Some wise, some foolish and even dangerous.

Still, it seems that for our generation the events of 2014-15 and reactions to these events have taken a whole new level. This year I have been on three continents – Asia, Europe and North America – and fear is ‘in the air’. In people’s conversations and minds, publications, newspapers, internet, TV, radio, politician’s statements… and on and on.

I am not immune to fear. You know, the common childhood fear of the dark, of ghosts, of snakes under my bed, of strange people, of unknown, of deep waters and hidden creatures.  I also grew up in an atmosphere of fear during the Cold War which is a long story in itself. Then I started to travel the world because of my job and I have been in many ‘scary’ situations, but that is also another story.

What I want to talk about is our current obsession with all kinds of ‘threats’. Inside and outside enemies. We are afraid and anxious but we keep feeding these fears until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. For example, many of my friends in Thailand are afraid of ghosts and evil spirits, but they love going to horror movies. (As I often tell people in the US, the horror movies in Thailand make Hollywood-ones look like PG rated.) OK, I am not an expert but let me tell you – they are very disturbing. So, my Thai friends get even more afraid of evil spirits. Our neighbor across the street always left the room lights on during the night.

Fear (2)

True, many people can distance themselves from fiction but what about so called ‘non-fiction’? Like the news? We get into arguments how much of the news is actual facts and how much is ‘fiction’. My point is though that I don’t understand how people can feed themselves with this steady diet of fear. It is like the documentary “Supersize Me” but this time we are not talking about food but our phobias.

Don’t misunderstand me. I follow the news. I watch the international news channels; I read stories online; I do my own research. I want to be informed but I don’t want to be formed by it. I want to be formed by those things that are Christ-like.

Recently in Latvia I attended some very interesting lectures about our most common phobias. For Latvians, here is the link to Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum and the recordings of these lectures.

All of us could give lists of names and things and global trends that we are afraid of. What are Latvians afraid of? At the top of the list would be Russia and the migrant crisis in Europe. What are Russians afraid of? I would have to ask my Russian friends but from previous conversations I know that there has been a steady diet of fear of the West, NATO and special mistrust of the US. I am sure that terrorism is on people’s minds, too, and fear of getting on airplanes now.

Of course, Islamophobia is wide-spread. As evidenced by the shocking fact that Donald Trump can make bizarre statements and not feel like he has completely disqualified himself from leading a nation. We all have some very embarrassing (mildly speaking) politicians but he must be going for the prize.

All of us – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists… Latvians, Thais, Russians and Americans  – are afraid of the exact same things: conflict, war, terrorists, unemployment, poverty, instability, fast change, the unknown, many of the aspects of globalization like migration, climate change.

So, my question is – how much more afraid do we all want to get? How much more do we want to Supersize These Fears? Personally, I have had more than enough. Some fears and anxiety are reasonable and need to be addressed and discussed and wrestled with but the excess I want to vomit out. It is not nutritious for my soul. It poisons my whole being.

Fear affects our mind, emotions, physical well-being, but worst of all, it erodes our relationships. It causes us to isolate ourselves or to start acting like mean dogs who attack and bite out of fear. Fear is a horrible and dangerous adviser and motivator.

Who is your adviser in these challenging times? What is forming your reactions and actions? Next week I will tell you what brings me peace of mind and heart and helps me sleep at night…

Klaipeda 22

 

Latviski:

Šajā, 2015. gadā ir viens vārds un emocija, ko piedzīvo visā pasaulē. Bailes. Fobija. Trauksme. Tas nav nekas jauns, pat ja mums liekas, ka patreizējās problēmas un izaicinājumi ir kaut kas īpašs. Pietiek pastudēt vēsturi, autobiogrāfijas, senos rakstus kā, piemēram, Bībeli, lai saprastu, ka cilvēki un tautas ir vienmēr saskārušies ar bailēm. Un cīnījušies ar tām daudzos un dažādos veidos. Gan gudri, gan negudri un pat bīstami.

Un tomēr 2014.-2015. gads ir nesis lielu izaicinājumu mūsu paaudzei, un cilvēku reakcija uz notikumiem ir pacēlusi šīs bailes jaunā līmenī. Esmu bijusi trīs kontinentos – Āzijā, Eiropā un Ziemeļamerikā, un bailes virmo gaisā. Gan cilvēku sarunās un prātos, gan plašsaziņas līdzekļos un sociālajos medijos, gan politiķu runās un darbos… un tā tālāk.

Man nav imunitāte pret bailēm. Bērnībā piedzīvots viss – bailes no tumsas, no spokiem, no čūskām zem gultas, no svešiniekiem, no dziļa ūdens un visa, kas tur dziļumā čum un mudž. Arī bērnība Aukstā kara atmosfērā bija pilna baiļu un trauksmes, bet tas ir atsevišķs stāsts. Vēlāk darba braucienos esmu bijusi daudzās ‘bailīgās’ situācijās. Arī par to kādā citā reizē.

Kam es gribu pievērsties šodien, tā ir mūsu pašreizējā apsēstība ar visāda veida ‘draudiem’. Gan iekšējiem, gan ārējiem ienaidniekiem. Mēs baidāmies un esam uztraukušies, bet turpinam barot šīs bailes, līdz pravietojums pats sāk piepildīties. Piemēram, daudziem maniem draugiem Taizemē ir ļoti bail no spokiem un ļauniem gariem, bet viņiem ļoti patīk šausmu filmas. Neesmu eksperts, bet Taizemē tās tiešām ir baismīgas. (Bieži esmu teikusi amerikāņiem, ka Holivudas šausmenes ir salīdzinoši vieglas.) Un lūk, mani draugi taizemieši vēl vairāk sāk baidīties no ļauniem gariem. Mūsu kaimiņiene pa nakti vienmēr atstāja istabu gaismas ieslēgtas.

Protams, lielākā daļa cilvēku prot atšķirt izdomu no īstenības, bet ko darīt ar šo “īstenību”? Piemēram, pasaules ziņām? Mēs gan strīdamies, cik daudz šajās ziņās ir faktu un patiesības, un cik daudz ir izdomas vai pus-patiesības. (Arī tas ir labs stāsts citai reizei.) Mani nodarbina jautājums, kāpēc cilvēki sēž uz šīs baiļu diētas. Gluži kā tai dokumentālajā filmā “Palielini mani” jeb “Pārbaro mani”, kas rādīja ātrās ēdināšanas sekas. Šoreiz mēs nerunājam par ēdienu, bet gan par savām fobijām.

Tikai nepārprotiet. Es sekoju ziņām – gan vietējām, gan pasaulē. Skatos starptautiskos ziņu kanālus; lasu rakstus internetā. Veicu savus pētījumus. Es gribu būt informēta, bet negribu būt ietekmēta vai iebīdīta vai iebaidīta. Es vēlos, lai mani ietekmē tās lietas, kuras mācīja un darīja Jēzus.

Nesen Latvijā es apmeklēju dažas interesantas lekcijas par mūsu tipiskajām fobijām. Šeit būs saite uz Žaņa Lipkes Memoriālā Muzeja mājas lapu, kur ir šo lekciju ieraksti.

Mēs visi varam sastādīt sarakstu ar vārdiem, lietām un pasaules procesiem, no kā mums bail. No kā latviešiem bail? Sarakstā būtu gan patreizējā Krievijas politika, gan bēgļu krīze Eiropā. No kā cilvēkiem Krievijā bail? Man vajadzēja pajautāt saviem krievu draugiem, bet no iepriekšējām sarunām zinu, ka viņiem ir bijusi pamatīga baiļu diēta – bailes no Rietumiem un NATO, it sevišķi no ASV. Domāju, ka arī terorisms ir cilvēku prātos, un negribas kāpt lidmašīnā.

Ļoti izplatīta ir islamofobija. Kaut vai nesenie amerikāņu politiķa Donalda Trampa izteicieni un izlēcieni, un fakts, ka viņam nemaz neliekas, ka jau ir sevi diskvalificējis no iespējamā valsts vadītāja amata. Mums visiem ir politiķi, par kuriem (maigi izsakoties) kaunēties, bet Donalds Tramps cīnās par zelta medaļu.

Mums… kristiešiem, musulmaņiem, budistiem, ateistiem… latviešiem, krieviem, taizemiešiem, ameikāņiem…bail no viena un tā paša: konflikta, kara, teroristiem, bezdarba, nabadzības, nedrošības, straujām izmaiņām, nezināmas nākotnes, globālās migrācijas un klimata izmaiņām.

Tāpēc jautājums – cik vēl vairāk mēs gribam baidīties? Cik daudz vairāk gribam uzbarot un pārbarot savas bailes? Es jau esmu atēdusies. Bailes un trauksme ir normāla un saprotama reakcija, un mums par to jārunā un jāpārdomā un jālemj, kā rīkoties. Bet to, kas ir pāri veselīgai normai, es gribu vemt laukā. Tas man nedod nekādu labumu. Vienīgi visu saindē.

Bailes ietekmē mūsu prātu, emocijas, pat fizisko veselību, bet visļaunākās sekas ir izpostītas attiecības. Bailes liek mums norobežoties un pašizolēties, vai arī kļūt par nikniem suņiem, kuri savu baiļu dēļ metas kost. Bailes ir slikts un pat bīstams padomdevējs.

Kas ir tavs padomdevējs šajā laikā? Kas ietekmē tavu reakciju un rīcību? Nākamnedēļ es uzrakstīšu par to, kas man dod mieru prātam un dvēselei, un palīdz naktī mierīgi gulēt…