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. 



  1. I agree! But I do not welcome people, who are coming to Europe to get better standard of living!

  2. Hello my anonymous friend!

    I agree with you that it is important to draw the distinction between asylum policy and other immigration policy.

    But why such a definite “not welcome” to economic migrants? Migration, very often for the reason of seeking a better life, is one of the defining phenomena of humanity: from our early ancestors traveling from Africa to Asia, Europe and America to populate the earth to Europeans flocking to colonise America, Africa and Asia. The desire to seek a better life is what makes us humans!

    Whereas refugees and those fleeing war have to be taken in and sheltered, for legal and humanitarian reasons, economic migrants should in many cases be welcomed for selfish reasons. We only need to look at the most prosperous countries in the world on the large (e.g. the USA) and smaller scale (e.g. Sweden) to see that they have huge immigrant populations. A recent OECD study confirms this: rich western countries benefit from immigration (

    Economic immigration needs to be controlled, but surely we cannot say as a general matter, that people seeking a better standard of living are not welcome, especially in this day and age when Europeans are moving around with such ease. I'm sure glad that Switzerland welcomed me when I wanted to come here, as did the UK and France earlier ...

  3. Amazingly well articulated, thanks for sharing your grandmother's story! Responses of European governments, politicians and people to the recent refugee crisis has been mixed but responses of countries such as Germany, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Canada has been heartwarming, to say the least. And the fact that so many common people in these countries welcomed refugees with open arms shows that Europe is built on strong democratic and humanitarian principles.
    Although we tend to forget sometimes, we in India have resettled persecuted communities for centuries, such as the Zorastrian Farsis who settled in India over 500 years ago. The Farsi community has produced some of the most successful businessmen of modern India, including the Tata Group. We have also resettled Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Afghan refugees in recent times.
    That being said, we also need to be acutely aware that we live in an era of disturbing political and religious polarization and violence across the world and socio-cultural integration of refugees into their host societies is easier said than done. Incidents such as those in Cologne and other German cities indicate that integration is anything but easy, especially when socio-cultural differences are as wide as those between Europe and the Middle East. One simply cannot hope that such differences will disappear overnight by the kindness and love offered by host communities. Socio-cultural integration is far more complex than that. While the economic argument of accepting refugees is sound, especially in an ageing Europe, I only wish that the Left-Liberal govts, politicians and people of Europe paid more attention towards the complexity and challenges of socio-cultural integration that the crisis brings with it. If not, then far right political groups will take over the political discourse, as has already happened in France, Netherlands, UK and Germany.
    I guess what I'm saying is that the crisis requires a more measured, Centrist response rather than a super Liberal Leftist response that has been seen so far!

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