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 🙂 ”

 

Filmmakers as the spies of our present and future

“I refuse your version of humanity and I will continue to struggle against it”, is one of the lines from “The Forgiven”, a British movie directed by Roland Joffé which came out last year . The story focuses on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa which was established as one of the restorative justice and national healing mechanisms after the end of apartheid. The role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is played by Forest Whitaker (who does a great acting job as always) and the other main character is Piet Blomfeld, a fictional former security operative played by Eric Bana (also job well done).

Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of TRC and the movie portrays his personal struggles with faith, forgiveness and mercy when facing the ‘in-your-face’ evil committed and now publicly admitted. There are some very intense and emotional scenes in high-security prison where Tutu visits Blomfeld and the two worldviews collide. Blomfeld tries to shock and win with violence, hatred and his version of life. Tutu responds with words: “Brutality is the aberration, not love. Think on that!”

I have a special interest in movies about reconciliation, especially ethnic or racial but usually these stories are not the big box office successes and often you have to be very intentional to find them. When asked about “The Forgiven”, the Australian actor Eric Bana said in an interview: “If you find films like [The Forgiven], it’s a no-brainer. That’s what most actors want to be doing. But they’re getting harder to find, they’re getting harder to fund, and they’re getting harder to get some air to promote.”  True and sad , isn’t it?

There are two more recent films  – “The Journey” and “The Insult” – which I can recommend on this topic. The first I have seen and the other not yet. “The Journey” focuses on Northern Ireland conflict and St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006. Directed by Nick Hamm, it is a political drama based on true events with a fictional version how two sworn political enemies meet and start working together. Ian Paisley, a loyalist and Protestant minister, and Martin McGuinness, a republican and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader share a car ride and are forced to simply start talking to each other.

As in any reconciliation and peace process, the first and hardest step are the questions of truth. Whose truth is correct? Which version of historical events is the right one? Which perspective is the most just? There is an immediate clash when ‘enemies’ start talking about ‘facts’. “The Journey” creates a fictional situation but it is not difficult to imagine the ‘real’ meeting between people who could not be more opposite in their views.

In real life Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness did talk for the first time in 2006 and few months later they were working together in the new Northern Ireland government where the power is shared between the unionists/loyalists and the republicans. McGuinness said to the international press, “Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything—not even about the weather—and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us…. This shows we are set for a new course.”

And “The Insult” (L’insulte) is the story about a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee which turns into an explosive trial that ends up dividing the two communities. It is on my list to see. If you have seen it, tell me what you think!

Someone said that “any human crisis is a creative situation” and it seems it gives creative energy to the artists, including the filmmakers. They see and feel the social processes and often lead the way in starting difficult conversations which others do not dare. Latvian sociologist Dagmāra Beitnere Le Galla said that “artists are the spies of future while historians look at the past”.

What is the version of humanity we choose? These films make us think…

Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
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The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)

 

 

Most difficult peace with ourselves

My claim to fame – meeting and talking with Brian “Head” Welch from Korn. I was never a huge fan. I could not relate to their darkness and anger and even less to the destructive lifestyle, but few years ago I heard Head perform his solo album “Save me from myself“.

Talk about a story of redemption! Now two books later, re-joined with Korn and traveling the world with a very different kind of message – one of brokenness, hope and more humility – Head caused some controversy when he reacted emotionally to the death of his good friend, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. On Facebook page he wrote “Honestly, Chester’s an old friend who we’ve hung with many times, and I have friends who are extremely close to him, but this is truly pissing me off! How can these guys send this message to their kids and fans?! I’m sick of this suicide shit! I’ve battled depression/mental illness, and I’m trying to be sympathetic, but it’s hard when you’re pissed! Enough is enough! Giving up on your kids, fans, and life is the cowardly way out!!!

I’m sorry, I know meds and/or alcohol may have been involved, I’m just processing like all of us and I know we are all having some of the same thoughts/feelings. Lord, take Chester in your arms and please re-unite him with his family and all of us one day. Be with his wife and kids with your grace during this difficult time.” Later he added, “I didn’t mean to sound insensitive about Chester. Just dealing with a range of emotions today. Love you Chester. I’m pissed that you did this, but I know this could have been me back in the day after getting wasted one night.”

That’s just it. It could have been Brian Welch, it could have been me, it could be many people I know. We come from very different worlds and backgrounds but there is something we all experience and struggle  with. The ability to forgive yourself or even harder – to love yourself. Self-hate and self-rejection, in whatever form it comes, is one of the most common human experiences. I have never had to battle a serious depression, mental issues and have been fortunate to avoid lots of self-destruction but I do know what I have felt or thought many times looking in the mirror or reflecting on my innermost thoughts and motives and past actions.

There is something else Head and I have in common – we are pursuing peace with ourselves, others and God. Started following the way of Jesus in very different circumstances but with the same desperate need – to be saved from ourselves. To be saved from my pride, selfishness and self-loathing among other things. We want peace in the world but this personal inner peace is the most elusive. To love your neighbor is often easier than loving yourself. To love yourself just as you are because you are loved by Someone who knows you even better yourself. To forgive yourself as you forgive others and are forgiven.

I was heartbroken when I heard of Chris Cornell‘s (of Audioslave and Soundgarden) death in May. Why did I cry and listen to his songs again? Besides coming from the grunge scene, why did it feel so personal? Yes, I liked all the bands he was in and I absolutely loved his vocal talent. More than that – I was touched by the lyrics Chris wrote. He had a special gift for raw poetry. I think of all “Audioslave” fans who have sung along these lines “You gave me life, now show me how to live… And in your waiting hands, I will land, and roll out of my skin”

Yesterday I was driving across the state of Minnesota and all radio stations were playing Linkin Park. The one I did not hear and my favorite is “What I’ve Done“. I really like the official video and the lyrics,

“So let mercy come
And wash away
What I’ve done

I’ll face myself
To cross out what I’ve become
Erase myself
And let go of what I’ve done

Put to rest
What you thought of me
While I clean this slate
With the hands of uncertainty

I start again
And whatever pain may come
Today this ends
I’m forgiving what I’ve done”

I pray for comfort to those who mourn the death of their idols, friends, family, parents, sons, daughters! And I understand the overwhelming emotions Head expressed when you want to say to dear friends… I don’t wish you to “rest in peace”. I wish you to “live in peace”.

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Brian “Head” Welch from Korn and Sunny from P.O.D. sharing about their fears, hopes and faith

 

An inspiring day at the cemetery

Some may consider it morbid but Latvians like their cemeteries. Of course, not all Latvians and there is an ongoing debate why we pay so much attention to our grave sites and what does it say about our psyche and values and so forth. Even though things are changing, most people still choose to be buried in the ground (or their families choose it for them).

My mom passed away a few years ago and she is buried in one of the largest cemeteries in Riga. You can get lost there easily. It is so huge. When I was a child, I used to be scared of this place. In Latvia,  cemeteries are usually in the woods. It makes sense since we love our woods and find them the most peaceful and refreshing places. But to a child it felt like a dark and sad forest full of graves and dead people. I thought to myself, “This is where old people end up. Therefore I don’t want to become old.” Now somehow my mom being there makes it more hospitable 🙂 and she was no even that old.

Yesterday we had a big clean-up day in Latvia or call it our annual national “spring cleaning”. It usually takes place in April and people spend one Saturday raking leaves, collecting rubbish, cutting trees, cleaning parks and riversides and other places. I just read on the news that we had a record number of the sites and a record number of participants, in spite of wind and rain.

I joined a crew in the Great Cemetery of Riga which is actually a Memorial park. During the Soviet days the grave sites and chapels and the monuments were left to decay. There was too much of the old “capitalist” and “nationalist” past to remind us of how things used to be. I remember as a child walking by and looking at the chapels. I thought to myself that they must have been very rich people. But we were not supposed to think about rich people, right?

Yesterday I was reminded of things that are too important to forget. For example, the fact that Latvia has always been a multi-cultural place and our culture has been enriched by so many ethnic, religious, linguistic and other social groups. I read inscriptions in German, Russian, English and Latvian. There were pastors and statesmen, architects and actors, writers and educators, soldiers and city mayors…

There were burial sites of many famous and important people in our history who dreamed of Latvia as an independent nation when it was still a part of Russian Empire and who devoted their lives to see this dream come true. People who helped to develop the modern day Latvian language, who collected our folk songs and poems, who helped to build our beautiful country. I think of how their lives continue to impact us even today.

There is something profound about the tradition to write inscriptions on the tombstone which somehow describes the person or something this person would have said to us. Have you ever been asked what you would like to be written on your tombstone?

People had written things like “Treu bis dem Tod” (Faithful to the death)  but my favorite was “Auf wiedersehen” (See you again). Following the week of Easter, I thought it very appropriate someone inscribed this reminder that our lives matter so much more than just ‘here and now’. They matter now and for eternity…

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Spring at the Riga Great Cemetery (photo from internet)

Irish way of turning Darkness into Light

For those who noticed that I took a little break from writing… there are times when you just have to give full attention to the people you are with, seize the moment and enjoy it. So, I had put the computer away. And who wants to be on computer when you are visiting the beautifully green and ancient land of Ireland?

Now back in Riga I reflect on my favorite thing to see in Dublin – the Book of Kells. Probably the most beautiful book I have ever seen is Ireland’s most precious cultural treasure. It continues to amaze every time I visit the exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. This handwritten copy of the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ which was completed around 800 AD is so beautifully decorated and hand painted that it continues to inspire artists and scientists on how the authors actually did it. Many of the illustrations are so microscopic and intricate.

Most academics believe that this ancient Latin manuscript was written in a monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland. It became the principal house of a large monastic confederation. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland. Most likely they brought the manuscript with them or produced parts of it in Kells.

The famous paintings include symbols of the evangelists Matthew as the Man, Mark as the Lion, Luke as the Calf and John as the Eagle, the opening words of the Gospels, the Virgin and Child and a portrait of Christ. The Chi Rho page which introduces Matthew’s account of the nativity is simply stunning and widely considered the most famous page in medieval art.

Some years ago I read a book “How The Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. His main thesis was that the tradition of monasteries, including Saint Columba  and the monks on the island of Iona where ancient manuscripts were gathered, copied and cared for, helped to preserve the cultural treasures of Europe and other parts of the world. I know one thing for sure – there was much more happening in the Middle Ages than what we were told in  school. When I was growing up in Latvia, we were still taught the Soviet/communist version of the world history. Of course, no mention of monks, monasteries or any positive contribution of religion to our cultures.

I am glad that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is not used anymore… because there is Light and Darkness in all ages. People and communities make choices and respond to the times they live in. Some choose to take what is not theirs and destroy what they have not built. But other choose to give away what they have received and build for the future generations to be blessed and to enjoy.

Hopefully we don’t have to save civilizations anymore but we do know that the choice between the Light and the Darkness is always with us… Thank you, the Irish, for reminding us of these timeless truths!

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Chi Rho page (photos from internet)

Latvian:

Vispirms sveicieni tiem, kuri ievēroja, ka es pāris nedēļas ‘atpūtos’ no rakstīšanas… jā, ir reizes, kad vajag veltīt visu savu uzmanību mīļiem cilvēkiem, nepalaist garām kaut ko īpašu un to izbaudīt. Un kurš tad grib sēdēt pie datora, ciemojoties tik skaisti zaļajā un senatnīgajā Īrijā?

Tagad atpakaļ Rīgā es pārdomāju vienu no lietām, ko ir tiešām vērts redzēt Dublinā – Kellu grāmata (saukta arī Ķeltu vai Kēlu grāmata). Uzdrīkstos apgalvot, ka šis Īrijas nacionālais kultūras dārgums ir visskaistākā grāmata, ko esmu jebkad redzējusi. Tā glabājas Trinitijas koledžā pašā Dublinas centrā. Ar roku rakstītais manuskripts satur četrus Jaunās Derības evanģēlijus par Jēzus Kristus dzīvi un ir krāšņi un meistarīgi izrotāts ar miniatūrām un viduslaiku ornamentiem. Tas turpina iedvesmot māksliniekus un zinātniekus, kuri pēta, kā to vispār varēja tik smalki un mikroskopiski izveidot un uzzīmēt.

Kellu grāmatu datē ap 800. gadu, un tā ir rakstīta latīņu valodā. Lielākā daļa pētnieku uzskata, ka tā ir sarakstīta klosterī, kuru 6. gadsimtā Aijonas (Iona) salā, Skotijas rietumu piekrastē, nodibināja Sv. Kolumbs. 806.gadā salai kārtējo reizi uzbruka vikingi, un daudzi mūki tika nogalināti. Pārējie atrada aptvērumu Īrijā, jaunā klosterī Kellas ciemā. Visticamāk mūki šo manuskriptu atveda sev līdzi no Aijonas, vai arī tas tika pabeigts Kellā.

Slavenās ilustrācijas attēlo četru evnģēlistu simbolus. Matejs simbolizēts kā Cilvēks, Marks kā Lauva, Lūka kā Jērs un Jānis kā Ērglis. Katra evanģēlija ievadā ir skaisti zīmējumi. Gan Kristus portrets, gan Jaunava ar Bērnu ir ievērojami mākslas darbi. Viena no slavenākajām un visskaistāk ilustrētajām lappusēm skaitās Mateja evanģēlija ievads par Jezus piedzimšanu. Patiess viduslaiku šedevrs!

Pirms dažiem gadiem es lasīju Tomasa Keihila grāmatu “Kā īri izglāba civilizāciju” (How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill). Viņa galvenā tēze bija, ka viduslaiku klosteru un mūku tradīcija, tai skaitā Sv. Kolumbs un kopiena Aijonas salā, kur tika savākti, glabāti un pārkopēti neskaitāmi senlaiku manuskripti, palīdzēja izglābt šos Eiropas un Tuvo Austrumu kultūras dārgumus. Katrā ziņā viduslaikos bija daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā Apgaismība mums apgalvo. Un daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā man tika mācīts skolā Padomju Latvijā, kur par mūkiem, klosteriem un vispār par reliģijas pozitīvo ietekmi uz Eiropas kultūras attīstību netika minēts nekas. Jo tā laika vēstures versija uzsvēra, ka reliģija ir ‘tumsonība, varaskāre, vardarbība un turklāt meli, kuros dzīvo dumjās masas’.

Tas ir labi, ka vairs nav populāri lietot apzīmējumu ‘Tumšie viduslaiki’… jo visos laikos un laikmetos ir bijusi gan Gaisma, gan Tumsa. Cilvēki, kopienas un tautas izdara izvēles. Vieni izvēlas ņemt to, kas viņiem nepieder, un iznīcināt to, ko paši nav cēluši. Otri izvēlas dot citiem to labo, ko ir mantojuši un saņēmuši, un celt tālāk, lai nākamās paaudzes var dzīvot labāku dzīvi.

Cerams, ka mūsu paaaudzei nav jācīnās par civilizāciju saglabāšanu, tacu mēs zinām, ka izvēle starp Gaismu un Tumsu ir vienmēr mūsu priekšā… Paldies viduslaiku mūkiem Īrijā, ka viņi mums atgādina par šīm nemainīgajām patiesībām!

Bubbles and simple beauty of joy

London is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I have visited many times but have never lived there. So, I am allowed to keep my “honeymoon” feeling 🙂 It is a city of stories. On every turn you feel like there is an interesting and important story. Buildings, bridges, parks, statues, paintings, museums, theaters, train stations, markets, underground.

But my favorite thing to do is people watching. Believe me if you have never visited London; it is one of the best places to do it. The world is here. Literary. And for that reason I love walking along the river Thames. The view of the city does not change but every time it feels different because of the people. The story of London has a new chapter each day.

This last time I experienced a chapter about joy. The art of bringing joy. How little it costs but how much it does.

Who does not like soap bubbles? Children and adults alike are mesmerized by them. How they form, how they start floating in the air, how they change shapes and how far they fly. Some we catch, some get in our eyes or mouth and some get away. I love the colours and the rainbow reflection and I try to catch a glimpse of our world looking through a soap bubble.

There was a guy making large amounts of soap bubbles. Hoping to make some money but also enjoying it. And so was everyone walking by. The children forgot about their tantrums and wishes for sweets or rides or toys. They just wanted to play and catch and wait for that incredible moment when out of nothing (well, some soapy water) comes something as incredible as these simple objects of beauty.

Joy is bursting out as these bubbles burst out. I realize that I experience something that is fleeting. We describe it as “having fun”. The bubbles burst or float away and disappear. The children walk away and after 10 min they can be unhappy about something. The adults take the photos and then promptly forget about it. But this is a small glimpse into something bigger, more beautiful and lasting.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, said poet John Keats.

Famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote on theology of joy. “Joy is enduring and puts its mark on one’s attitude to living. Fun is short-term and serves amusement. True joy is only possible with one’s whole heart, whole soul and all one’s energies. The feeling about life which underlies the party-making fun-society is, I suspect, more boredom with life than true joy. True joy opens the soul, is a flow of spirits, giving our existence a certain easiness. We may have fun, but we are in joy. In true joy the ecstatic nature of human existence comes to expression. We are created for joy. We are born for joy.”

For me, the simple fun with soap bubbles is like a door that opens for a short time to make us all stop and behold and then reflect why our heart so instinctively responds to it.

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Along the Thames (photos from personal archive)