My friends from Syria help me to be a better Latvian

Aleppo, gold, Riga, silver, amber – what do these have in common?

My husband and I have dear friends who came to Latvia under most difficult circumstances. They are a wonderful family of four and their home used to be in Aleppo, Syria. It used to be a beautiful city before the war. Rich cultural and historical heritage, ancient buildings, vibrant communities and long list of other attractions.

Now all we see in the photos or the news is destruction, ruins, devastation… Truly an apocalyptic sight. I wish it was just a horror movie or a bad dream. Tragically it is reality and I cannot imagine what it is like for my friends to see their beloved home like this.

Few years ago like ‘welcoming’ Latvians, we decided to introduce our friends to Latvian food. We went to the big LIDO restaurant, but first we had a tour of Central market. I don’t know how it compares to the markets in Aleppo, but in Riga we are quite proud of our big market pavilions.

So, we bought some smoked fish Latvian style. Our friends liked it and then told us a funny story. Some guys at the asylum center in Mucenieki (the official Accommodation Centre for Asylum Seekers near Riga where people stay while their status is being processed) wanted to cook a fish soup but did not realize that they bought a smoked fish. The smell and the taste had been horrific and nobody wanted to eat it. Someone ate it after all because they were hungry.

I think how many times I have been “saved” by my local friends when living and working in another country. Many times friends in Thailand or Burma or Cambodia have told me: “You may not want to eat that… Stay away from that soup… This may be too spicy for you…” I am so thankful for their guidance and advice because I feel bad about leaving food on the plate.

My Syrian friend is an amazing cook. If she was not so busy with the family business making jewelry (check out Habibi Jewelry if you want some nice gifts for yourself or others), I wish she could open a Syrian restaurant. I know many Latvians who would be regular customers. The food from Middle East is so delicious. The salads, the rice, the meat, the vegetables, the sweets…

There is something that we, Latvians, need to learn from other cultures, especially the Middle East. It is hospitality and generosity. Yes, we are welcoming and generally friendly but our understanding of “sharing” is very different. My friends had very little when they first started living in Latvia and, yes, they received lots of help and generosity from local people, but they were giving back so much right away. I felt blessed just to be around them and to see how positive and grateful they are. Also, their strong Christian faith shines through everything! (In Aleppo, they belonged to the Syrian orthodox church community)

I am very sad they had to leave their home and families and friends and livelihood as goldsmith in Aleppo but I am glad that they chose Riga as their new home. I am glad to know that they like it here. We in Latvia are blessed to have them. And may their generous and hospitable spirit become contagious among us, northern individualistic Europeans!

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Aleppo, Syria right now (photo from the internet)

Latvian:

Alepo, Sīrija, zelts, Rīga, Latvija, sudrabs, dzintars – kas tam visam ir kopīgs?

Mums ar vīru ir draugi, kuri nonākuši Latvijā smagu dzīves apstākļu spiesti. Šī jaukā ģimene ar diviem bērniem ir no Sīrijas pilsētas Alepo. Pirms kara tā bija ļoti skaista pilsēta ar bagātu vēstures un kultūras mantojumu, senām celtnēm, dažādām cilvēku, tautību, reliģiju kopienām un daudzām citām pievilcīgām lietām.

Tagad aculiecinieku stāstos un attēlos redzu tikai iznīcību, drupas, graustus… gluži kā filmās par pasaules galu. Tikai diemžēl tā nav šausmene vai naktsmurgs. Tā ir traģiska realitāte. Nevaru iedomāties, ko maniem draugiem nozīmē skatīties uz savu mīļoto, bet sagrauto pilsētu.

Pirms pāris gadiem, kā jau ‘viesmīlīgi’ latvieši, mēs nolēmām aizvest šo ģimeni uz latvisku restorānu. Tādām reizēm der LIDO Krasta ielā. Bet vispirms bija neliela ekskursija pa Centrāltirgu. Zinu, ka Sīrijā un līdzīgās vietās ir brīnišķīgi tirgi, bet tomēr ar mūsu lielajiem pavijoniem lepojamies.

Ejot cauri zivju paviljonam, bija jānogaršo kūpinātas zivis. Draugiem garšoja, bet viņi sāka smieties. Tad tā tās garšojot! Izrādās, ka kādi džeki patvēruma meklētāju centrā Muceniekos bija vārījuši zivju zupu, bet nezinādami nopirkuši kūpinātās zivis. Smaka un arī garša bijusi briesmīga, katls izvārīts pilns, bet visi atteikušies. Vienīgi daži visizsalkušākie esot ēduši.

Iedomājos, cik daudzas reizes es esmu tikusi “glābta” no neērtām situācijām, kurās vietējie draugi mani “izručī”. Gan Taizemē, gan Birmā, gan citur. “To varbūt labāk nepērc… to zupu labāk need… tas varētu būt tev pārāk piparots” Man kauns atstāt ēdienu šķīvī, tāpēc esmu pateicīga par šādiem brīdinājumiem.

Mana draudzene no Sīrijas brīnišķīgi gatavo ēdienu. Ja viņa nebūtu tik aizņemta ar ģimenes biznesu palīdzot vīram izgatavot rotaslietas (ja gribi jaukas dāvanas sev vai draugiem, paskaties  Habibi Jewelry ), tad varētu domāt par kādu sīriešu restorānu. Domāju, ka Latvijā būtu liela priekrišana, jo Tuvo Austrumu ēdieni ir tik garšīgi. Salāti, gaļa, aromātiski rīsi, piedevas, saldumi…

Ir kāda vērtība, ko mums, latviešiem, vajadzētu aizgūt no citām, it sevišķi austrumu un dienvidu  kultūrām. Tā ir viesmīlība un dāsnums. Jā, mēs protam uzņemt ielūgtus ciemiņus un kopumā esam laipni un draudzīgi, bet mūsu izpratnē “dalīšanās ar savām lietām, māju, utt” ir savādāka. Sākot dzīvi Latvijā, maniem draugiem nebija gandrīz nekā, un viņiem tika daudz palīdzēts un arī iedots. Taču viņi uzreiz deva “atpakaļ” visdažādākajos veidos. Viņu klātbūtnē es jutos vairāk “saņēmusi” nekā palīdzējusi.

Arī viņu pozitīvā un pateicīgā attieksme pret visu ir acīs krītoša. Liela nozīme ir viņu kristīgajai ticībai un pārliecībai (Alepo viņi piederēja Sīrijas ortodokso kristiešu kopienai).

Man ļoti žēl, ka šai ģimenei bija jāatstāj savas mājas, radi, draugi un juveliera darbs Sīrijā, bet es priecājos, ka par savām jaunajām mājām viņi izvēlējās Latviju. Man prieks, ka viņiem šeit patīk. Kaut viņu īpašā viesmīlība un dāsnums pieliptu mums, ‘noslēgtajiem’ individuālistiem ziemeļeiropiešiem!

European and grateful? Let’s see…

We are getting better and better at the blame-game, anxiety, complaints and arguments. Those pointing fingers are growing longer and longer. “It is Germany’s fault… it is Brussels’s fault… it is those Eastern Europeans who want the benefits of EU, but not sharing its burdens…”

As a European, who spends a lot of time outside of Europe, I have noticed that outsider’s  perception of Europe is changing. Our reputation as the region of stability, peace, hospitality,  solidarity, compassion, rule of law, social justice, humanitarian values is suffering. Here I am addressing the failures of Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and now the spotlight is on my own nation and region.

Not that I am worried about our “moral high ground”. All of us have fallen short in so many ways. Still, I am privileged and blessed to be a European and I do not take for granted the good life we can enjoy. I have been to too many places around the world where people just cannot understand how Europeans can be so ungrateful for what they have.

We, Europeans, are very very privileged and one of our big problems is trying to deny, ignore or downplay it. We are the ‘rich club’ of the world. I remember some of the conversations in my own family. My mom who was definitely in the category of ‘lower social status’, would say, “I am ‘poor’ compared to rich Latvians, but I am very rich compared to people you visit and help.” And she was not talking about money and things only. She was talking about safety, security, healthcare, roof over her head, beautiful country, loving family around her… ‘Man does not live on bread alone’, right?

Another personal example – I received a last-minute invitation to attend a conference in Germany next week. I had to make a decision very fast and within one hour I had an airline ticket, registration for the conference, information about train times to get me from Lubeck to Hannover… As I was falling asleep last night, I was thinking to myself, “This is incredible. I don’t need a visa for Germany; I just had the money for this trip; I speak English and even some German and will not feel lost traveling by trains. This will be a good trip.” How many people around the world would love to be in my shoes!

But there are problems with this good life and too often it comes at the expense of others. “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wise words by Gandhi. I could say a lot but another time.

I want to encourage those of us who feel like we don’t have enough or feel threatened that those ‘immigrants’ or someone else from outside will take this good life away. That we will have share our goods and privileges with someone. We have more than enough, but we act like we don’t. Many of my friends around the world feel ‘poor’ compared to Latvians. Latvians feel ‘poor’ compared to British. British may feel ‘poor’ compared to Norwegians. Hmm, who can Norwegians compare themselves with?

I guess, Norwegians are the most grateful and therefore the most generous and welcoming people in the world! Are they? Are we?

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Latvians and our blind sides

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. The more I reflect and the more I try to practice it, my experience tells me that these words are very true. I cannot change situations and attitudes around me if I am not willing to do some deep soul-searching first. How can I help someone or even confront someone if I have ‘a log in my own eye’.

This comes out in our conversations – opinions, arguments, discussions… Every ‘hot topic’ reveals our prejudices and preconceived ideas (an opinion formed beforehand without adequate evidence) that have not been challenged. For example, the current discussions about receiving asylum seekers or even economic migrants in Latvia. One objection I hear is that ‘those people just want to come here to get our government’s support. They do not want to work and have no work ethic. They are lazy or just seeking an easy life.”

Few thoughts on this. First of all, it is totally untrue. Yes, there are always some people who take advantage of anything they can get for ‘free’. The vast majority of the people I meet around the world want to work because work gives dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23) says “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Work is not a privilege; work is a right!

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Secondly, such statements imply that we, Latvians, are always hard working; that we never take advantage of our government and social welfare system; for sure we don’t take advantage of benefits in other wealthier EU countries like Ireland and UK and Sweden; we never seek ‘easy life’ and we would never take anything for ‘free’.

When someone mentions our own tragic history when after WWII thousands of Latvians were forced to live in exile, we are quick to think or say, “Yes, Latvians needed international help but we were always so good to our host countries. We were very good immigrants – never causing any trouble, hard working, integrating into out host cultures, speaking the language, etc. Plus, we were white, church going and cultured.”

Sorry for the sarcasm but doesn’t this smell of self-righteousness? I am not speaking on behalf of the generation that suffered during the war. I have no right to do that and I cannot be in their shoes. Still, I had two uncles who lived in exile in Ireland and Sweden. And I know that there were tensions and prejudices between the asylum seekers/immigrants and the local people.

What about stories of Latvians currently living and working in UK and Ireland, etc? If I was to base my opinions on some of the media stories, I would think that British people are hosting lots of ‘drunks, murderers, trouble makers, drain on social benefits’ and so on.

And then there is the talk about the drug smugglers and criminals who will try to disguise as ‘refugees’. Nice to know that I am from a small country that has no drug dealers, no crime, no illegal trade, no smuggling, no human trafficking, no corruption, no alcoholism…

I will let Martin Luther King Jr. say the final words on this topic. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Protest against immigration in Latvia

Image by © VALDA KALNINA/epa/Corbis

Latviski:
Latvieši un mūsu paškritikas trūkums
Gandijs teica slavenos vārdus: “Tev pašam jābūt tām izmaiņām, ko vēlies redzēt pasaulē.” Jo vairāk es to pārdomāju un jo vairāk cenšos tā dzīvot, es piedzīvoju šo vārdu patiesumu. Es nevaru izmainīt situācijas un apkārtējo attieksmi, ja neesmu gatava pārbaudīt pati savu sirdi. Nevaru palīdzēt citiem, kur nu vēl kaut ko aizrādīt, ja man pašai ir ‘baļķis acīs”.
Tas atklājas mūsu sarunās – uzskatos, argumentos, diskusijās… Katra ‘karstā tēma’ izgaismo mūsu aizspriedumus un nepamatotus uzskatus, kas nav tikuši izaicināti vai apšaubīti. Piemēram, patreizējās diskusijas par patvēruma meklētājiem Latvijā, vai arī runājot par ekonomiskajiem imigrantiem. Viena no pretenzijām, ko dzirdu, ir šāda: “Tie cilvēki grib vienkārši dzīvot uz mūsu valsts rēķina. Viņi negrib strādāt; viņiem nav darba ētikas. Viņi ir slinki un laimes meklētāji.”

Dažas domas šajā sakarā. Pirmkārt, šis apgalvojums ir galīgi nepatiess. Jā, protams, vienmēr būs kādi cilvēki, kas izmantos visas iespējas dabūt kaut ko par ‘velti’. Taču lielākā daļa cilvēku, kurus satieku pasaulē, grib strādāt, jo darbs piešķir cilvēkam cieņu. Vispārējās cilvēktiesību deklarācijas 23. pantā ir teikts: “Katram cilvēkam ir tiesības uz darbu, uz brīvu darba izvēli, uz taisnīgiem un labvēlīgiem darba apstākļiem un uz aizsardzību pret bezdarbu.” Darbs nav privilēģija; darbs ir mūsu tiesības!

Otrkārt, no malas tas izklausās apmēram tā: “Mēs, Latvijas iedzīvotāji, visi esam ļoti strādīgi. Mums ir vislabākā darba ētika. Mēs nekad neizmantojam savu valsti vai kādus sociālus pabalstus ļaunprātīgi. Mēs nekādā veidā neizmantojam ES bagātākās valstis, piemēram, Lielbritāniju, Zviedriju, Īriju, jo mēs neesam nekādi laimes meklētāji, un mēs nekad negribam neko par ‘velti’.”

Diskusijā tiek pieminēti arī Latvijas cilvēki, kuri devas bēgļu gaitās pēc Otrā Pasaules kara. Tad mēs ātri iebilstam gan domās, gan vārdos: “Jā, latviešiem bija nepieciešama starptautiska palīdzība, bet mēs vienmēr un visur bijām par svētību. Mēs bijām ļoti labi imigranti – nekad neradījām problēmas, smagi strādājām, uzreiz integrējāmies mītnes zemēs, iemācījāmies valodu, utt. Turklāt mēs bijām baltie, kulturālie un kristīgie.”

Atvainojos par sarkasmu, bet vai tas neož pēc paštaisnības? Es nerunāju trimdas latviešu vārdā. Šī paaudze gāja cauri lielām ciešanām. Man nav tiesību viņus vērtēt. Bet manai vecmammai arī bija divi brāļi, kuri nonāca Īrijā un Zviedrijā. Un es zinu no viņu stāstiem, ka bija sava veida spriedze un pat aizspriedumi starp patvēruma meklētājiem un vietējiem iedzīvotājiem.

Un kā ar mūsu tautiešiem, kuri dzīvo un strādā Lielbritānijā un Īrijā un citur? Ja es vadītos tikai no ziņām masu mēdijos, es domātu, ka britiem jāpacieš “dzērāji, kaušļi, slepkavas, laimes meklētāji, pabalstu izmantotāji” un tā tālāk.

Vēl tiek argumentēts, ka starp patvēruma meklētājiem ielavīsies narkotiku un ieroču pārvadātāji. Cik jauki, ka es esmu no mazas valsts, kur šobrīd nav ne narkotiku dīleru, ne noziedznieku, ne kontrabandas, ne cilvēku tirdzniecibas, ne alkoholisma…

Beigšu ar Martina Lutera Kinga, Jr. citātu: “Nekas pasaulē nav tik bīstams, kā patiesa nezināšana vai apzināta muļķība”.