Discovering empathy, hospitality and embrace

When I was 18 years old and left home for the first time, I stayed in Oslo, Norway. I went to help some relatives of mine with childcare and they gave me an opportunity to experience the beautiful Norway and its culture. During the week I went to study Norwegian in a class for immigrants.

This was my first real cross-cultural experience and I still remember many of the life lessons learned. There were many nationalities in our class but two ladies puzzled me. They always seemed sad and looking at them, I could not understand the look in their eyes. I thought to myself, “Why are they so sad? Aren’t they grateful? Aren’t they happy to live in Norway? This is a wonderful country.”

One of the ladies was from Croatia and the other was from Lebanon. We had times during our class to share about our nations and cultures. And for the first time I started to grasp the word ‘refugee’… These women were refugees. One left her home because of the civil war in Lebanon and the other fled because of the Balkan wars. Of course, I had seen it on the news but I had never met anyone from those places. As they talked about the beauty of their home countries on the Mediterranean Sea, the food, the celebrations, I thought about the life they had left behind – home, career, family, and friends… and I started to understand their sorrow and sadness.

There were also three young guys I could not understand. They were Kurdish from either Iran or Iraq. We were about the same age but they struggled in the language class. Even with the alphabet. I started to wonder why they were so slow in learning and even thought that maybe Europeans learn ‘faster’. Until one day I realized that they were illiterate. They told me, “We know a lot about guns and fighting but we did not spend much time in school.” I was shocked and ashamed of my thoughts.

Some years later I met refugees again. This time in Cairo, Egypt and they had come from Sudan. I was with a team involved in literacy training for a teacher’s course. The leader of the teachers was a pastor. His name was Abraham and he was a very tall Sudanese man. What amazed me about the group was the mix of Christians and Muslims. I had never worked with a multi-faith group. They were trying to provide basic education to their children and united in their desires to build better lives. Even while living in exile.

We studied Jesus of Nazareth as one of the greatest examples of teaching through relationship. We prayed together, worked together. Sometimes they would sit in a circle and talk about the “difficult issues”. About the violence and poverty in their country (this was before South Sudan became independent); about the ethnic and religious conflict; about Christianity and Islam; about the challenges to relationships. I would sit and listen and observe their faith. They wrestled with the difficult questions with such grace.

Everyone has a story and every life’s journey is special. Some of the journeys are simply unbelievable. Yes, there are things that are very difficult to hear and to comprehend; there are things that break your heart as you listen, but we must listen. We must give the time and space.

Some people hesitate because they are not sure if you really care. Some people find it too difficult to recall or they want to just forget it. Still, learn about the life they left behind; the people, the culture, the landscape, the food, the smells, the music … and learn to celebrate it with them!

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The old man who is still looking for peace

You never know who you may meet while traveling. Last week I spent some long hours on the plane from Riga – Moscow – Bangkok. Sometimes you have an encounter and think, “Interesting timing! Why am I meeting this person here and now?”

When boarding the plane in Moscow, I noticed that I would sit next to an old man. I thought to myself, “He will probably sleep most of the way, so not much talking here.” I don’t mind to talk to strangers; I like to meet new people but sometimes it is nice to put the headphones on and just watch movies. The old man had an English newspaper and I asked if I could borrow it after he finished reading.

He answered in English with an American accent and asked where I was from. “Latvia”, I answered and heard the common reply, “I have never met anyone from Latvia.” As I had guessed, he was an American but living in Thailand. And we started to talk… and continued for many hours.

Read on and you will understand why he is still on my mind. He was traveling back from Russia where he had attended the Victory Parade on May 9 in Moscow. Then he had traveled to Crimea, the peninsula of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia last year. Why so interested in Russia? All four of his grandparents had lived in parts of Russian Empire before the communist revolution of 1917 and had emigrated to the USA because of pogroms and persecution. So, I discovered he was Jewish…

Why live in Thailand? Well, he was trying to be a Buddhist and wanted to spend more of his life in meditation. As we talked though I discovered that he was still very far from finding that inner peace. He was a very angry and frustrated man. Mad at so many things – mad at his own country which he considered the most evil nation messing up the world, mad at his family which he blamed for being pro-Zionist and conservative, mad at his friends in Thailand who wanted live a relaxing life without worries… basically he was mad at the whole world.

Except Russia. He respected Russia and felt like this nation is totally misunderstood. He went to the Victory Parade out of gratefulness that Russian people had sacrificed so much to defeat the Nazis. Then he went to Crimea to see it for himself and to hear the stories. He came away convinced that Russia today again was protecting people against the great evil of ‘Fascism”.

My mind was racing… If you read my reflections from two weeks ago, you will understand why. What to say? We had to travel together for many hours and I could tell that he would get very angry if I disagreed with him. I told him that he was obviously a seeker. Seeking peace and truth… Well, I am a seeker of peace and truth also. I told him that actually I teach about peace building and reconciliation. He was very attentive now. I said that I cannot speak for Russia or Ukraine but I can speak for Latvia. I shared my family’s story and he admitted that he had never heard this side of the story. Story of the small nations that were caught in the middle of power struggle between two totalitarian regimes and two totalitarian leaders – Stalin and Hitler and how people in Latvia suffered under both.

I talked about ‘Shalom’ – peace with God, with yourself, with others and with creation. He asked, “Are you Jewish? How do you know about Shalom?” I said that I am a Christian, that I read the Bible and that I believe in the vision of this universal, cosmic peace. Then he started talking how Jesus was a ‘communist’ since he gave food and healthcare for free, stood against the establishment and rich classes and then was killed for it.

During our conversation I realized that he was very leftist in his thinking and had a positive view of former Soviet Union. Now you know what I mean… what a mix of ideas. An American Jewish guy who thinks like a communist but tries to be Buddhist. No wonder his inner person was in such a turmoil. As we left the plane, he looked so lost and lonely… still not finding what he is looking for. I wish him to find ‘Shalom’ that is so incredibly close to us that we too often miss it.

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When fear drives out love…

Sometimes I look like this. At least mentally and emotionally. Like the little frightened and confused Gollum with voices in my head. One voice that talks about love, trust, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope and the other voice – full of fear, mistrust, hopelessness, bitterness, unforgiveness…

I talked about being a good listener but there are times when it is good to shut your ears . We are surrounded by narratives – our own or others. The other narratives come from media, family members, friends, schools, political and religious leaders and so on. When we want to build bridges, we discover that not everyone wants it. Some even try to prevent others from walking on this bridge.

Musalaha, an organization that promotes reconciliation, posted a good reflection on the so called ‘Gatekeepers’: “Gatekeepers” are described as a type of thought police. They often perceive themselves as key people who control the conversation by countering any new information or blocking it altogether. This is because any challenging information threatens their group identity and therefore questions their leadership, which is based on a certain power structure. But they are only as powerful as perceived by the group. (…) The language used is often dramatic and deals in absolutes: Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil, Outsiders vs Us, Enlightened vs Blind”

 

I remember those gatekeepers from my childhood and teenage years growing up in the former Soviet Union. It was very clear message (propaganda) of who the Good and the Evil were. We did not have just thought police; we had actual gates to keep the Evil out and keep us in.

If Gatekeepers are powerful, there is another group that enters the battle over our minds and hearts, especially on the internet and social media – the ‘Trolls’. The invisible groups of mostly anonymous writers and bloggers and commentators who want to start a fight or provoke. Does that sound like the Lord of the Rings now? Gatekeepers, trolls…

For example, when I read an article about the conflict and war in Ukraine, I see the ‘trolls’ are already in the conversation. Most of their posts look copy-pasted and a favorite opening line is “Are you really an idiot or just pretending?” And what they achieve… Well, they make lots of noise, confusion, bitterness, frustration, get some fights and basically they shut down a discussion. Anyone who truly wants to become a good listener leaves the conversation. As they say, “Do not feed the trolls!”

Wisdom of Solomon is an amazing book about speaking and listening. Here is a relevant proverb, “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked… Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.” It also says that “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.”

Have you encountered these ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘trolls’ in your community? How do you recognize them? If we truly want to become good listeners, we cannot hang out in their company. And we also cannot let them silence us!

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The threat of listening

Are you a good listener? Have you ever felt threatened by listening to someone’s story? I have a good friend from Siberia, Russia and she helps me to be a better listener. Here is how…

First a little side note: Have you ever been to Siberia? I have and I loved it! Some years ago together with a small group of friends I traveled to Krasnoyarsk region. Mind you it was in the winter! We took the train from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk… leaving on December 31 and arriving on January 1. One of the most memorable New Years – celebrating 6 times over 6 time zones. The whole train was one big party. Hopefully there was someone at its controls…

krasnoyarsk

The famed Russian hospitality was as real as described. Especially in the small Siberian villages all doors were open to us – the strangers from Latvia. The tea was set… Also, being able to speak and read Russian opens a big world of great literature and art; rich history; beautiful country and people…

My friend and I did not meet in Siberia but in Thailand of all places. We were introduced by a mutual friend who knew that I can speak Russian. How fun! We were both excited until one simple question, „Where are you from?”

„I am from Latvia”, I answered and her face fell. I was shocked and puzzled. What did I say? What did I do? It was an awkward silence and then she explained, „Oh, I am sorry. I know that in Latvia you don’t like Russians.” My immediate thought was, „Have you ever been to Latvia?” but what I said was, „Who told you that?” The answer, „We hear it on TV in Russia.”

Most people in the world don’t even know where Latvia is. Usually I am the first Latvian they met. Better make a good first impression, right? What impression could I make on my new acquaintance? What to do about this „invisible” wall that had come up before we even knew each other?

The small but strong voice in my head said – get to know each other! Find out where these feelings and perceptions come from. Above everything – listen! Listen carefully.

I believe we became friends because we took the time to listen to each other. There were many moments in our conversations when I felt myself getting emotional and wanting to interrupt. It is much easier to listen while thinking of my reply than to listen for understanding. Also, there was a lot of shocking revelations. When I asked about the mood of people she knew, my friend said that people were expecting a war. War? With whom? She said that people were afraid of Russia being attacked by NATO. This was in 2009…

What is one of the basic first steps in overcoming our fears and perceptions? Encounter the ‘other’. Listen to the opposite narrative! Even if you strongly disagree, you have to encounter the story of your ‘enemy’. We have to learn to listen carefully and without a sense of danger and threat. Many people in a conflict situation have very little opportunity to hear the others side.

Let’s take the first step…

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