A big ‘thank you’ to all volunteers around the world!

There is a commercial on CNN which shows all their international reporters documenting important events around the world and the slogan says “Go There”. So simple and cliché but profound. Sometimes you simply have to get out of your chair/sofa and “go” because you are needed. Sometimes “there” is around the corner and other times it is on a different continent.

It gets me every time because there is this powerful invisible string that ties my heart to many places. This week as I watch the super Typhoon Mangkhut roaring across Philippines, Hurricane Florence on the coast of the United States and the scenes of flooding and destruction, I think of all the volunteers who will be needed to clean up and rebuild the communities. I know what it’s like to pick up the remains after such devastating natural catastrophes when the local resources – human and material – are completely overwhelmed. My husband and I have volunteered at many such sites.

Khao Lak, Southern Thailand in 2004 after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; Bay St.Luis, Mississippi in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand after terrible monsoon floods… and also refugee camps and poor communities living in the slums. Yes, many times I have been one of those strangely dressed foreigners who stand out as a sore thumb while trying their best to blend in, manage without a translator by using creative sign language, politely refuse a meal if it is too ‘challenging’ to stomach (like soup with blood curds) and often behave in culturally insensitive ways despite my best intentions. Welcome to the life of a volunteer!

Another cliché is that everyone takes photos with adorable local kids but it’s true. And I am not ashamed of it! Because the children are always the ones who quickly break the ice and at difficult moments remind you why you are there and teach you many important things about resilience and hope. In the small Thai fishing village of Baan Nak Khem which was completely destroyed by the tsunami, the children worked almost as hard as the adults to rebuild their homes. Even the little ones were carrying sand and water to the builders.

I count it such a privilege to meet so many ordinary but incredible people who will never write a book or make a documentary about their selfless acts or get an award for their sacrifice of time, money, skills, careers, fame and comfort. But these thousands and millions of volunteers – locally and globally – know what their true award is.

As my husband likes to challenge me or anyone else who will listen, it is easy and natural to ask, “What will THEY do about it? What will the government do about it? What will my  work/school/church do about it?” But the question that actually matters is “What am I going to do about it?”

And one heartfelt handshake by someone who does not speak your language, one lavish meal cooked by someone who does not have much, one hug by someone who usually does not show emotion or one happy face of a child who thinks that you came half-way across the city, state, country or across the world just for him or her is like the whole world saying “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

Oregon diary: The art of sanctuary

I will admit the sign in the shop window first surprised me. I was entering a store for used books, looking at the posters and local advertisements and there it was. You could not miss it! “WE WELCOME… ALL RACES… ALL RELIGIONS… ALL COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN… ALL SEXUAL ORIENTATIONS… ALL GENDERS… WE STAND WITH YOU… YOU ARE SAFE HERE”

Safe? In the store? In the city of Salem? In Oregon? Safe from what?

Then I remembered that there are U.S. cities and counties which declared themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. What I did not realize that there are also five sanctuary states with laws that limit how local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents! Oregon is one of them and actually the first state to pass such a law. The others are California, New Mexico, Colorado and Illinois.

According to Salem Weekly News, “This state law, passed in 1987, did not begin life as a specific sanctuary law for undocumented immigrants. Some say it was in response to racial profiling of U.S. citizens born in other countries, while others believe it was a way for local police to get out of footing the bill for enforcing Federal Immigration laws. Whatever the original intent, this law is a tug-of-war issue in the controversies over the rapidly shifting U.S. Immigration and Customs policies.”

Immigration is such a hot and divisive issue. Even while writing, I know that it is very complicated and certainly not “either/or”. We see how many government elections and referendums around the world are wrapped around this question. Who belongs and who does not. Who is welcome and who is not. Who is local and who is immigrant (no matter how many generations later). Who is “us” and who is “them”. Who is “good” immigrant and who is “bad” immigrant. Which religion is “acceptable” and which one is “threatening”. Which country’s citizens we want and which ones we don’t want.

I love America and certainly feel very welcome and accepted here on my visits. But I do know that not everything in the story of this “country of immigrants” is as it seems or as told by the “official” version. For example, friends in Minnesota can tell me about the days when there were signs “Irish are not welcome”. And the Protestants in certain communities did not want to welcome the Catholics and vice versa.

Recently I heard a comment from an American friend who was very reflective, “Yes, we are a country of immigrants. But we, the European descendants, do not think of ourselves as the immigrants in America. The ones we call ‘immigrants’ are the non-Europeans – Asians, Africans, Hispanics… everyone who does not look like us.”

When I saw the sign in Oregon, it reminded me why I like this Pacific Northwest state so much. It is not perfect by no means but I like the strong spirit, broad mindedness and the attitude of being pro-active. Oregonians have strong opinions, choose to act and obviously this shop was making a loud and clear statement.

How fitting for a store that is selling books and stories of our interconnected and shared human existence and experience!

 

Off the beaten path or where in the world is Zumbrota

Last week there was an article in TIME magazine how Europe is overwhelmed with tourists. Particularly Italy, France, Spain and specifically some of the popular cities like Barcelona, Venice, Rome and Dubrovnik in Croatia. “Of the 1.3 billion international arrivals counted by the U.N. worldwide last year, 51% were in Europe. Americans, in particular, seem drawn to the perceived glamour and sophistication of the Old Continent. More than 15.7 million U.S. tourists crossed the Atlantic in 2017”, said TIME. “France received 87 million tourists last year.”

That is a lot of people. I read an article like this and become very self-conscious. Conscious of how convinced myself that I blend in better than most tourists. Conscious of being privileged one because of my European passport and income while I meet so many people around the world who cannot even dream  of such travel. Conscious that I want to see these famous cities and places, too, but do not want to be one of the millions.  (Certainly do not want to compete with crowds to take a photo with a view) Conscious of all the times I have searched for low-cost flights while some of my friends choose not to travel by air because of environmental concerns.

Many of us who travel for work or pleasure have these thoughts. I know how many places and countries build their whole economy on tourism but what about the ugly side of it? Local businesses and vendors compete for the money and people start harming their own land, environment and historical heritage. And what about the environmental print of all these millions on the move every year? Including my own? It is perplexing.

While living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I often heard the frustration and dilemma of my local Thai friends who wanted to have a business but were weary of visitor’s attitudes and behavior and the big changes happening in their city. One time I witnessed how Chinese visitors expected the Thai staff to speak Chinese and practically yelled at them. “We have the money and so many of us are coming and why are you too slow to learn our language”.

I stood there thinking how dare this Chinese guy be so rude. And then I remembered that I speak English and I kind of expect to go places and to be understood. (Without the yelling, though 🙂 ) Plus, Thai culture is so polite and accommodating that an average visitor will never know how many times a day he or she may be breaking the cultural taboos. I have seen what my fellow countrymen, Latvians, will do and say in places like Thailand while I hesitated to open my mouth to confront them for  promoting the “ugly European” stereotype. Since I am the polite and culturally sensitive one, right?

Anyways… this summer you can call me a European tourist in America! Besides a busy schedule with meetings, I get to explore. Some small towns and communities. Have you ever heard of Zumbrota, Minnesota? Well, I had not but now I can say “I was there”. What a hidden gem with a typical main street, art shops, beautiful small state theater, best fish and chips I have had in Minnesota and even a unique, old covered bridge!

The lady at the art gallery who sold us tickets to go and see two great local bands, was very friendly. “Latvia? You certainly have come a far way to hear them :)”, she exclaimed. I was equally impressed ’cause she knew exactly where Latvia was. After receiving another compliment how good my English was (that always makes me even more conscious to speak), the lady directed us to Coffee Mill cafe where we had the delicious battered cod.

Don’t know how many visitors a year come to Zumbrota but in 2018 I was one of them! Hopefully not as a statistic but as a Latvian charmed by rural Minnesota.

 

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 🙂 ”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we learn! May America learn!

 

 

 

Davos aims at our shared future but what about shared good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This Little Light Of Mine” in Charlottesville and elsewhere

I pondered this post for days. I was in the USA when the tragedy in Charlottesville took place. While many are discussing the statements and views of the current president, Donald Trump, and other political leaders, I have tried to find the ‘ordinary’ voices. The local people from this university town; the voices of faith communities; the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed.

People are shocked about the extent of incivility and division. Many have experienced real fear. I know the emotion of fear. While never facing a large crowd of young men shouting Nazi slogans, I have experienced groups who try to intimidate and bully. The tactics are always the same. Physical intimidation, verbal abuse and determination to make you go home and never bother.

More recent experiences were in Latvia when couple of years ago I participated in a very small rally to show support and solidarity with those who help refugees. The gathered group was young, quite reserved and calm until these buff men showed up and attempted to intimidate the small crowd. I would certainly label them as ‘white supremacists’ who clearly expressed racist views. All dressed in black, they tried to provoke a physical reaction like shouting, pushing, shoving or punching. They did not get the reaction they desired.

Another time in Riga I went to a lecture addressing Islamophobia. Again the audience was mostly young, curious minds who wanted to learn, to ask questions, to discuss and to express their opinions in a civilized way. Right away I spotted a group who scattered among the audience – some sitting in a front row, talking loudly, interrupting the lecture and some sitting in the back to shout over the crowd. One of the guys in the back  shouting things about Muslims and terrorists and immigrants had a very thundering voice and I was almost scared to turn around to see his face. I felt like he would punch me if I dared to stare at him. He did not punch anyone but did throw around some chairs before leaving the room and called the lecturer “damned idiot who will go to hell”.

After the lecture I turned around to greet my friends – two young girls – who looked absolutely horrified. They were shocked to experience this kind of behavior. It is one thing to see it on You Tube, right? Quite another to experience in a real life. This may seem trivial and naive when there is so much actual violence and wars around the world. Still we, Westerners, have grown so accustomed to peace and civility that we are shocked when we see such an erosion or absence of it. I know my American friends feel the same way – they are shocked at the current level of public incivility and disrespect.

What if Charlottesville was my home? (or Berlin where a small neo-Nazi rally took place today?) Knowing that these out-of-town people will come and turn my city in a spectacle of bigotry and division. Stay away? Stay in my church and pray? Or go to the Emancipation Park and lock arms with the clergy, people of faith and all those singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I recommend to watch the memorial service for Heather Heyer. Her father said with deep emotion: ” We need to stop all this stuff. We need to forgive each other. I think this is what the Lord would want us.”

Around the world we need to do many things and surely forgiveness is one of them. We are in a desperate need of humility, love in action, listening to each other, kindness and moral courage – in real life in real time. At the same time we need to have moral clarity about dangerous ideas. One friend posted on Facebook: “You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American (added – or proud Latvian or proud German or proud Russian) We literally had a war about this.”

Rec Walk

Photos from personal archive