Sunday, 11 October 2015

Rant about private bathrooms, law clinics, mittens and senior diapers

Some weeks ago F and I were discussing refugees and asylum seekers in Europe for the umpteenth time and comparing stories of all the amazing initiatives that we had heard about it.  One distinct feature of the discussion was, however, the fact that it concerned other countries.  People were coming together with great ideas and open hearts to help in Germany,  Finland, even bizarrely anti-refugee England and, as I mentioned in my last rant, tiny Iceland.

Why was nothing happening in Switzerland?  We are not the least connected or informed members of the Swiss society, why were we not being bombarded with initiatives that we could join and where we could do our little bit?

Starting to dig a little deeper we discovered that the problem was not the inactivity of the Swiss civil society, but the lack of “crisis”.  When one looks at a map, one would be forgiven for assuming that asylum seekers arriving across the Mediterranean to Italy will venture up the country and arrive in Switzerland, to the extent that they cannot be handled by the Italians (which they cannot, as a result of the sheer numbers).  In fact they are not.  They do a detour into Austria with the aim of reaching Germany (or Sweden or other countries further north).  They are not interested in Switzerland.

As bizarre as this was, it meant that F was not the only one who ended up carrying his old winter jacket and other second-hand clothes still in good condition to Germany on a visit, as they were needed there, not here. 

We were not deterred, though.  The Swiss know that the tide may turn, so while the immediate situation is not critical, a lot of work can still be done.  We found, for example, an initiative by OSAR whereby refugees (ie asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status and the right to stay) can be housed with Swiss families.  As we have a guest room / home office in our flat, we thought we'd volunteer, but were told we don't qualify as we cannot provide a private bathroom for our potential refugee housemate. 

“Only in Switzerland” is all I can say.  Given the rent level here, we are super-privileged by having a second bedroom.  I don't know ANYONE who has their own bathroom – let alone a spare one.  But apparently refugees can expect better from the Swiss society!

So we turned elsewhere and thought that maybe there is an area where we DO qualify and have something to provide that maybe everyone cannot.  Obviously enough that would mean law for both of us.  As the self-appointed pro bono officer of my office I am currently investigating with a few colleagues the possibilities that exist for our firm to help in providing legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers.  We already had our first mandate approved by management (obtaining export licenses for unused medication to be sent to a clinic for refugees in Greece), which was exciting.  F, for his part, is looking at setting up a clinic that would combine the language skills and international law expertise of the students at his Institute with the Swiss administrative law expertise of Geneva University.

The lesson we learned from this – whether our ideas ever come to fruition or not – is that there is a way for everyone (who wants to) to help in a way that feels right for them.  For us it means harnessing our legal and organisational skills. For those with a spare room (and bathroom...) it may mean offering that to house asylum seekers, but only if you're comfortable sharing your living space, with I recognise not everyone is.  For those with a needle addiction (like my mum), it may mean knitting beanies, scarves and mittens in preparation for winter.  And so on.

Nyt has reported that at least in Finland there is a surge in people volunteering IN GENERAL, not just for helping asylum seekers, which is great.  Those that grumble that we should not be helping all these foreigners when there are Finnish senior citizens stuck in their wet diapers in badly staffed care homes should shut up and volunteer to go on diaper duty at their local care home.  And of course there are those who think we should help Syrians and Iraqis in the refugee camps and not let them come here.  Well, please do.  I have ranted previously about the many organisations that are active in the camps and could undoubtedly do with more donations.

Not only are there absolutely no excuses not to get involved, this can be fun if done in a way that plays to each of our strengths.  I'd love to hear in the comments what you have gotten up to!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Rant about the Cuddly Serbian Police

Does anyone remember, some weeks ago just before the current refugee crisis in Europe exploded, a news piece from a small German town, where a driver on a local bus, upon noticing that many of the passengers were foreigners, possibly refugees or asylum seekers, activated the bus loudspeaker and announced, in English, that all the passengers were welcome in Germany?

Such a simple gesture, yet it made international news.

I was personally moved and inspired by the gesture. It was the hallmark of much bigger things to come, the change that had been just hovering in the air. The change is not the sudden and dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers, but us, as Europeans, determining who we are and what we stand for. I think we are at the crossroads of history.

I never thought I'd agree on an issue of immigration and asylum policy with Finland's new minister of justice, but when he tweeted on 4 September that there are two sides to the immigration discussion, the right one and the wrong one, I wholeheartedly agreed. Because I think the time has come to choose sides, and it is no longer a question of simply nodding one's head when someone else wishes the asylum seekers welcome. It is time for each of us, individually, to put our money where our mouth is. Our children and grandchildren will ask us down the line, what WE did, when the chips were down and Europeans were asked to reveal their true colours.

And so many people are doing this. I wrote in my last rant about my frustration with the hostility that people were showing, but that is receding to the background in my newsfeed, partially because the positive news are outnumbering the negative ones, partially because I am no longer interested in reading about meanness and cruelty. The haters are SOOO last month.

The news that are pouring in are overwhelming in attesting to the kindness of people. From a Serbian police officer cuddling a Syrian toddler to frustrated Austrians driving to the Hungarian border to offer a lift to the fleeing families. It is not only in pesky Iceland that individuals are coming forward in their thousands to offer to house asylum seekers, even the Finnish prime minister (at the instigation of his wife, naturally,) has promised his second home for this purpose. In many countries refugee organisations are not inundated only with arriving asylum seekers, but with offers to help from the local population.

We are finally beginning to see the real power of the “civil society”. It is not some far away fancy concept for academic study and policy wonks to talk about on current affairs programs on TV. It is us.

Other inspiring examples, from your own experience or what you have seen in the media, welcome in the comments! I will come back to Switzerland and our own efforts in my next post.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Rant about my Grandma's Suitcase

I never got to know my paternal grandmother, as she passed away before I was born.  I know little about her childhood, but I know she was pretty (one of the few surviving pictures is of her as a teenager, as she is crowned the “Miss” of her village) and that she was very talented and smart, but was prevented from getting a schooling by her father, who had views on “people getting ideas above their station”.  She left home young, to become a waitress in Viipuri (Vyborg), the nearest town.  I also know she grew up to be an open, lively, positive and sociable woman, in an apparent refusal to let her experiences shape her life. 

Viipuri is these days called Выборг.  It is a small town in Western Russia.  My grandma left it first sometime in 1940, either as the Winter War was raging around her, or as a result of the 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty, in which Karelia, the district in which she had been born and lived her whole life, was ceded to the Soviet Union.  She returned during the Continuation War, as the Finnish troops regained the territory.  She left in a hurry again, with only what she could fit in a suitcase, as the Soviet troops were advancing towards the end of the war.  This time she settled, for good, in Central Finland, which is where she met my grandfather.

This is my personal family background, but I doubt it is very rare.  Just among Finns my grandma's  experience, as traumatising and dramatic as it was, was not unusual.  Karelians evacuated into the (rest of) Finland numbered close to 500,000, which is about 12% of the population at the time.  Yet they were all settled and integrated.  People took them in and gave from what little they had in the harsh years following the war to those that had lost everything.  Other Finns moved in the opposite direction during the war: 70,000 children were evacuated to Sweden where they were received, cared for and kept safe.

Most European countries went through something similar in the 1940s, many of you will have grandparents or great-grandparents who were displaced or evacuated at some stage, or who had to, in some other way, seek and rely on help from others.

The evacuees from Karelia are hardly different from those fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq.  National policies in European states are what they are, but I am baffled by the lack of empathy, or indifference, or even open hostility, that so many individuals are demonstrating.  Have they forgotten their own family stories? 

I am very grateful for the fact that my grandma was helped on her journey and as she settled into a new life in Jyväskylä.  Here I am, partially as a result, having had all the chances in the world that she did not have.  It is my duty to help, in turn, those now fleeing their homes due to a brutal war that is not their making. 


Thursday, 13 August 2015

Rant about the Power of Stories

I must have been about 12 years old when my mum told me about the nightmare that my brother K, who was 8 at the time, had had the previous night.
I was surprised by this. Not because of the content of the dream, or how it had affected K or mum, but by the FACT that my brother HAD DREAMS. He was a PERSON, not just a little kid who could be a nuisance to me.
Let’s just say I was not the most socially or emotionally precocious child …
I was reminded of this incident some months ago when reading about a grassroots awareness campaign that an NGO was running in some rural Indian village aimed at improving the rights of women.* The program was simple: organising workshops for men, during which they were taught how and why to treat women better. But the level was startling to someone living in my comfortable western, urban, educated bubble. One man, interviewed after completing the workshop, was proudly explaining how he had learnt that he should treat his wife and mother better, because they were people too and had their own thoughts and feelings.
While I’m hoping that all of you (men) reading will know that your wives and mothers have their own thoughts and feelings, why is it still that men have stories and experiences and women have women’s stories and experiences? And men are only interested in the stories and experiences of the default kind?
This was bothering me, so I did a test with one of the most casually comfortable male feminists I know, my partner F.** (This means that everything I say from now on has been scientifically proven.) I asked F to name his 5 favourite movies and 5 favourite authors. He named Lord of the Rings, Pride, The Jungle Book, Matrix and Dinner for One (movies) and Daniel Kehlmann, Herman Melville, Erich Maria Remarque, Ronald Dworkin and Karl May (authors).***
This tallies with statistics. Men read books written by men. Women read more books written by women, but because women read more than men in general, in the end this still means that 50% of male authors’ readership is female (while only 20% of female authors’ readership is male).**** I had a quick look at my own reading journal (yes, I keep a reading journal, shut up) and it appears that since the start of 2014 I’ve read 15 books written by men (42%) and 21 books written by women (58%). Granted, a book written by a man is not necessarily about men and a book written by a woman is not necessarily about women, but I am willing to state that the gender of the author (just like other attributes, such as race, nationality, class) does mean something in considering what the stories are that these authors write.
Same goes for movies. Women go to see more movies than men do (source). Here my facts are admittedly more vague and impressionistic, but let’s see if you agree. Women go to see all kinds of movies, including ones that focus on the stories of men (this follows from the stats – as there are many more women who go to the movies than there are movies about women, they must be also watching the stories of men). But I find it hard to even imagine a man going with his bros to see movies about women. This applies across the spectrum, from rom-coms to buddy road trips (Thelma & Louise) to serious drama (think last year’s Still Alice) and even war movies (which are almost by definition about men, but one exception comes to mind, the 2008 Les Femmes de l’Ombre, which is about four French (women) commandoes sent to rescue a captured geologist). If men go to see such movies, it is because their wives/girlfriends drag them there.
Why is that? Why do men not even consider women’s stories interesting enough to watch on screen (or read)? I get it that the most popular movie genre is a white hetero dude saving the world, but why ONLY this story, over and over again? And I don’t only mean douchebags who complain that the role given to Charlize Theron in the latest Mad Max ruins the whole action movie genre (really), but men in general?
I can only pose the question, I think, inviting everyone to provide their thoughts, and to consciously examine their own entertainment consumption habits. I will also continue to drag F to see movies that do not star white hetero dudes and suggest he read good books written by women. If any of you other smart dudes out there want to broaden your horizons and find awesome authors that happen to be women, I am happy to give tips and recommendations!
Because this stuff matters. Media and culture are key to better understanding which is key to better empathizing which is key to better accepting.
Love and peace.

*I read this in a paper article which I can no longer locate, which means that I can neither give the source nor even the name of the NGO. Bad me.
**He recently ran a ½ marathon wearing a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, without even mentioning it to me. It was a campaign tee for a Palestinian LGBT organisation. I was so proud of him.
***F told me that apparently info on favourite movies and authors is very personal, so for the sake of fairness, my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, Sofi Oksanen, Mika Waltari and Chimamanda Ngoci Adichie. I've mentioned my favourite movies in another rant.
****Admittedly this is only one study, but done by GoodReads based on the data their members reported, so quite a comprehensive look at avid readers. The Guardian did some good simple analysis on the numbers.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Rant Insulting Charlie

(Hi! I'm back!)
Religious nutjobs storm the offices of a French cartoon magazine spraying bullets and fear and all of a sudden we all turn into Charlie.
I was hoping, as we all were, that ultimately something good would come out of the atrocity, like happened in Norway after the Utøya massacre four years ago when the nation came together, confirmed its liberal values and became the most admirable country on earth. There were encouraging signs with the unity marches (I was on the other side of the globe at the time, but there was a Je suis Charlie demonstration even in Auckland) and the awesome cover of the 14 Jan edition of Charlie Hebdo (and the fact that so many news outlets reprinted the cover with full knowledge that this will be considered a provocation by religious nutjobs).
What bothers me is that we are all so keen to be Charlie without much thought for what Charlie really is or was.
Freedom of expression is such a nice concept in theory. It is also nice when we are using it ourselves or someone is using it to criticise something we also see as a problem. But it is distinctly less nice when it is used to insult and offend us.
David Brooks at New York Times wrote a pertinent column pointing out that Charlie Hebdo would have failed in the United States and in Finland Helsingin Sanomat went further by noting that many of its cartoons would have been illegal. Charlie Hebdo was indeed in the business of dishing out insults in all directions, being a quintessential iconoclast.
Should we be protected from being insulted? Germans and Swiss seem to think so. Both countries have decided that to hell with the freedom of expression, the right not to be insulted is more important and protected by the CRIMINALISATION of insults.
Other countries are more restrained and only restrict certain types of insults. The legal systems I know best, namely English and Finnish, still contain blasphemy laws. The thinking appears to be that while our feelings in general are not worthy of protection, our religious feelings are somehow different and more important. The belief in the concept of “holy” is not just an everyday feeling, it is different, indeed holy in itself. Insulting it is worthy of punishment.
The European Court of Human Rights has been of no help, upholding the conviction of a neo-nazi for disseminating anti-Semitic materials* and a ban on a vulgar movie including Christian imagery.**
Herein lies, in my humble opinion, the problem. How can we condemn religious nutjobs for taking the law into their own hands and dishing out punishment for an act that our societies themselves consider unlawful and deserving of punishment? Isn’t that hypocritical? If we want to say, like some religious authorities do, that what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did was unacceptable, but that the right punishment was not a bullet in the head, then at least that is honest criticism. If we want to go further, and say that we are Charlie, thereby indicating that we endorse the right to freedom of expression to the extent of insulting everything and everybody, including things we hold dear,*** then we must look in the mirror and repeal the laws that restrict that freedom, whether blasphemy laws, general laws criminalising insults, or vague terrorism laws.
So far that appears to have happened only in Iceland, the smart little country that abolished its blasphemy law after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. France, by contrast, seems to be going in the opposite direction. Some of you will have heard about Dieudonné’s conviction for his thoughtless “Charlie Coulibaly” facebook comment, but more alarmingly I read in my Amnesty magazine that in total 117 people were charged in the two weeks following the attacks under France’s laws that criminalise “praising terrorism”, many of them summarily condemned. Calling the attack “France’s 9/11” appears to have been accurate in perhaps more ways than intended.
This is sad and counterproductive. Locking up islamists when they say hurtful things only furthers their sense of victimisation. If we really are for freedom of expression, we must be for all of it, including insults, and for everyone, including Muslims. When I see that happening, I will be able to conclude that freedom won and the bullets of those religious nutjobs really did hit their own foot.

*Kühnen v. Germany, App No. 12194/86 (1988).
**Wingrove v. United Kingdom, App No. 17419/90 (1996).
***Chapeau here for the French President François Hollande, for standing up so firmly for a magazine that dished out pretty outrageous insults at him.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Rant about Leaving a Murderous Terrorist Organisation

I have several heroes (don’t we all), and I’ve referred to a few of them in my rants.  The recent discussions about Western youth becoming radicalised and joining murderous terrorist organisations like ISIS has several times reminded me of the wise words of one of my heroes: the economist, social scientist and all around genius Amartya Sen.

In 2006, when the Iraqi war was already going seriously pear-shaped, prisoners were being tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere and tensions between Western countries and islamists were consequently at an all time high, Professor Sen wrote an insightful book called Identity and Violence. 

The book resonates incredibly well today.  If I grossly oversimplify its central message, it is that we all have multiple identities.  I will use myself as an example to illustrate:  I am, among other things, a friend, a partner, a daughter, a sister, a humanist, a feminist, an environmentalist, a lawyer, a hockey player, a Finn, a vegetarian, a Linkin Park fan, a reader, and left-handed.  All of these identifies have a role to play in shaping my life.  I can also bet that if I continue the list for a little while longer, there will not be a person left on this planet with whom I will not find an identity in common.

This is the key, according to Sen, to understanding (and perhaps assisting in de-radicalising) the young extremist.  Because nobody is “just” a jihadist.  A person who takes their religion very seriously will see this identity influence more aspects of their life than someone like me, but it will never, ever, become their sole identity.  We are all still the children of our parents, friends to those we like and while religion might influence what we eat, read or listen to, those interests in food, books and music still exist and shape us independently of the underlying religion. 

Religious fervour tends to lead to tunnel vision, in which all the rest of our identities become obscured, but this does not mean that those other identities are not there.  Maybe they can be teased out by non-confrontational techniques – in other words, discussion.  As I said, there will not be a person in the world with whom I will not share at least one identity, usually many.  When you have something in common with someone, you have something to talk about.  And when someone is talking about something, they are remembering that part of their identity and engaging with it.

This is an idea of how to get an obsessive radical to obsess a little less.  It is not going to help in dealing with the aftermath of someone having committed atrocities.  That is what criminal law, prosecutors, courts and the police are there for.

I try to also think of it as a good reminder when I am talking to someone with whom I appear to have very little to talk about.  There will always be that shared bit of identity there somewhere.