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.