It Is Worth Doing

 

We said goodbye to one of our three refugee-adoptees a few weeks back. Our Somalian. Of all three, he had made maybe the greatest effort on the social side of his particular equation. He did everything he could to fit in and make friends. He had a huge contagious smile and laugh, accepted every invitation to our house, was determined to finally win a round of Level 8, participated in my husband’s cooking lessons with enthusiasm, and gave us thoughtful Christmas presents. He went to school and learned German. He liked almost everything here except that there were no other Somalians left in his house, in fact, no other Africans. Most refugees feel alone, but that made him feel even more alone. With a lot of help, he found a new place to live in Vienna – an apartment with 8 young men of various nations – two of them Somalian – with friendly and welcomed supervision of the local social welfare office. He has kept in regular contact with my husband since leaving here – so far he seems to be doing well. He is currently looking for a new school that will accept him.

I miss him.

I’ve talked to so many people who have been involved in helping refugees and certain themes have crystallized. The most critical ones are those who had a “bad experience” and feel disappointment. They thought they were going to change the lives of the objects of their patronage. Make them see the light and realize the necessity of adopting Austrian cultural attitudes and norms. Turn them into desirable new citizens. As if a few dinners and talks could turn a forced-by-destiny survival artist into a socially conscientious, democratic participant. These patrons were baffled when their protect-ee continued to take full advantage of every freebie that came their way – and there are a lot of them right now – with no thought of paying it back.

I don’t know how many times I have asked people “How would you act if you had lost absolutely everything except the clothes on your back? Wouldn’t you take everything you could get?” It has little or no effect. The disappointed patron remains disappointed. The recipient of their social largess turned out to be undeserving. Payback never materialized.

I keep saying over and over – “You can’t do this work – helping the refugees – with rose-colored glasses.” You can’t change their destinies. You can’t save them.

You can be kind. You can be hospitable.  And that is all you can do.

It is worth doing.

 

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Election Eve

austria-green  austria-blue

Tomorrow is Presidential Election Day here in Austria.

Again.

It is a do-over after the nearly 50/50 results of the second, run-off election were contested. So we will see in about 18 hours if the country is caught up in the big blue wave from the right. Will it be “First Brexit, then Trump, then Austria, and then . . . the world”? Or can little Austria stop the wave with a green light?

Again.cookies

Tomorrow is also the Open House day at the refugees’ home. Our guys came over tonight to bake cookies for the event. Afterwards, we had a nice dinner and played Level 8.

Again.

Tomorrow, a whole lot of my fellow villagers will go to the polling place and vote for the party who says migrants are not welcome and that they should not come here. Many others will go to the home of the migrants. They will be welcomed.  “Please come in! Have a cookie!”

Quite a few villagers will do both.

 

Barbarian Hordes Descended

I have written previously about the 30 young (former) refugees who now live in my village. I have also written with some horror about how my village went 80% for the far right candidate in the last presidential election. So I have been a bit worried about the boys’ chances to fit in here and find a life. It doesn’t help that ridiculous rumors keep spreading among the more fearful and . . . let’s say, “less than worldly” of the villagers. The latest one I heard (third or fourth hand) hit a new level of absurdity. The story goes like this: a local wine tavern owner got a bad anonymous review. He tried to trace the source and discovered that it came from one of the migrant boys. Then he found a picture on the boy’s Facebook page where he is dressed up like an IS fighter and waving one of their flags! I sort of startled the person who told me this by laughing out loud. I said “I don’t know what is more ridiculous – the idea that one of these kids would declare himself to the world as a terrorist (on Facebook no less!) or that he would write a restaurant review.” My word! The only way a person could believe a story like that is by really, really wanting to.

I try to get my head around the fear my fellow villagers feel – but, in the end, I am at a loss. Is it racial? Cultural? Are they afraid these 30 young men will change the way we all live? Or is it more material – that they will lose something? That they will find strange people milling around their houses looking for something to snatch?

So – knowing that the fear is there and that nonsense has been passed around to stoke it up, I was a little nervous about how yesterday would go. A bunch of us had planned a “Welcome” fest for the boys and we were all worried that no one would show up.

fest1

fest2But they did! And clearly not only for the beer! As I looked around the tables I saw the migrants and the natives all mixed up together and having conversations. Laughing and smiling. One of the Somali boys sang while the band was on a break and others broke out into a traditional dance. Signboards had been put up with pictures of our new villagers and some of their flight stories.

fest3A beautiful book made by a hometown boy turned journalist/photographer was on display and all the copies sold out quickly. Four Afghani women who live with their families in a nearby village had spent 9 hours cooking the day before – the food was excellent. Migrants and local kids played games in the nearby field. One second after I took this picture, the rope broke and both teams went flying backward into laughing piles.

fest4

Some of the villagers were stand-offish, at least at the start They eyed the boys with suspicious curiosity until they got introduced to one or the other. Then most relaxed visibly and some even seemed to get a little giddy – the way we all do when fear evaporates.

It was a very good day – for my village and for my own peace of mind.

 

But things are not so rosy everywhere! It turns out that my sister in America is going through a little migrant crisis of her own. There are Pokemons in her yard and the hordes have descended! All these strange people are milling around her house, looking for something to snatch . . .

Yesterday's wave
Yesterday’s wave

Go Figure

I have been crunching some numbers today to try to make sense of Brexit. My burning question: how does a population get manipulated to such an extent that they would drop out of one of the world’s most successful peace projects in order to get more customers for Donald Trump’s new golf course in Scotland? Secondary question: why let the people decide by vote on a subject that literally none of them fully understand? Third question: why are people’s levels of satisfaction inversely proportional to the actual situation they are in?

My first surfing stop was at the OECD’s index on the quality of life (http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org  ). Considering a country’s level of housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, health and safety, the US comes out pretty rosy in 4th place. Germany, Austria, and the UK are #’s 13, 14, and 15 respectively. Of the top 38 countries listed, 22 of them are European Union countries. Only Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, and Romania don’t make the list (but give them time!)

go figure 1

 

I then jiggered the parameters a bit and some interesting stuff happened. Simply add the category “Life satisfaction” to the mix and this happens: Austria goes up, Germany stays the same, the UK goes down a place and the USA sinks 4 full places:

go figure 2

Click on “Life satisfaction” on its own and it gets worse. Germany and Austria take the lead at places 12 and 13, because the US sinks to #15 and the UK all the way down to #21:

go figure 3

Conventional wisdom, “the experts”, and the pundits all tell us that the Brexit, the Trump phenomena, and the rise of the nationalist right have arisen because of people’s anxieties about the economy and immigration (or the refugee crisis). But numbers simply don’t support this. Economically speaking, of all the countries in the world, the USA and the EU countries monopolize the top spots in all indicators. And yet we are unsatisfied.

So is it the threat of migrants that makes us so insecure?

That idea is also not borne out by the numbers. Everyone knows how many refugees Germany took in – hundreds of thousands. To be precise they took in 587 per 100,000 population in 2015. What few people know is that, in percentage of population, Austria took in almost twice as many – 1027. In contrast, the United Kingdom took in a mere 60 and the United States took in about 70,000 refugees in 2015 – or 22 per 100,000 Americans (if I am doing the math right):

go figure 4

Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911

___________________________________________________________

Refugee Arrivals

In FY 2015, 69,933 individuals arrived in the United States as refugees, according to data from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS).

Source: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/refugees-and-asylees-united-states

___________________________________________________________

So what conclusion do I come to? The level of “life satisfaction” in a country is directly proportional to the generosity and welcome shown to people in need. Germany and Austria moved up in satisfaction rankings and the UK and the US moved down, despite the fact that they are barely affected by the “crisis”.

As I sit here writing this, my husband is upstairs watching a soccer match with Rohulla, Shaban, Hayez and Gedere. Our guys. We originally called them “the refugees”, later “the migrants”, then “our guys”, and now by their names. Despite the fact that this is their third visit, they were excruciatingly polite and very hesitant to even enter the house, much less walk upstairs to the TV room. Later, Gedere dived into the chips with a smile, but he was the exception. The others held back. We eventually had to coerce Rohulla into accepting a simple glass of tap water.

So threatening.

 

Dinner Guests

Although our 30 new (refugee) neighbors have been here since Easter, I have had no real opportunity to meet and talk to any of them beyond greetings in the grocery store. My husband has allowed 8 of them attend his school and he also goes running with some of them, but I have had no pretext so far to initiate any kind of contact or acquaintance. Today the chance finally arose.

There are about 10 families in the village involved in the effort to help these young men integrate, and each of us were “assigned” three to focus on. My husband decided to make a kettle goulash over an open fire in the yard and invited “our” three over to join us. They pedaled their bikes up the steep hill, arriving fashionably late. I shook their hands and then mentally kicked myself for not doing some prep work on their names. I couldn’t even pronounce them correctly, much less remember them.

They were quiet and shy at first, politely answering my small talk questions – “Where are you from?” (Afghanistan) and “How long have you been here?” (a few months). Conversation happened on tiptoes and teetered a lot. There were uncomfortable silences. Inside, what I really wanted to know is “So . . . do you hate Americans? Is it our fault that you had to flee? (Please say ‘No’!)” They struggled to find the words in their mental piles of broken German to formulate answers. At one point I asked them if they were getting German lessons, and the one who was most proficient answered “Yes” – but in such a tone that we all started laughing. The ice wasn’t exactly broken, but it got its first big crack. I commiserated with him about how hard it was for me to learn German grammar. (I have been at it for 43 years and still make my husband proofread all my emails before I send them.)

dinner guestsAfter a half hour or so of this, my husband – who thinks sports are the answer to most of life’s problems – sort of coerced our guests and our daughters into a Ping-Pong tournament. They had fun. Meanwhile the goulash bubbled toward the edible stage and I started setting up a patio arrangement and hauling dishes down from the kitchen. The circle of chairs was slowly occupied, one after another with our guests interspersed among us. The conversation turned toward their refugee experiences and . . . something happened.

They became people to us. And, I think, we became people to them.

I learned that all three of them were Shiite and they were here because they had had to flee the Taliban. Both Rohulla and Shaban had lost their fathers. In their words, their fathers had been “stolen” – or “kidnapped” – by the Taliban, but there was something more to it than either of those words could convey. Heyaz had a different story. His parents had fled Afghanistan before his birth (in Pakistan). He was eventually imprisoned there and then deported to Afghanistan – a country he had never known. Rohulla had also experienced imprisonment in Iran and then deportation on his first (failed) attempt to flee. Heyaz and Rohulla had both made one of those treacherous sea crossings on a hopelessly overfilled boat. Heyaz’s boat had capsized and he ended up swimming to European shores. Shaban had come over the land route and, on entering Austria, was sent directly to the notorious refugee “center” in Traiskirchen. (Designed for about 800 people, but housing several thousand.) His one comment about it was that the portions at mealtimes were so small that he never got enough to eat.

We talked a lot about the Taliban and I finally got the chance to ask if the American and European troops there were a good thing or a bad thing.  All three were emphatic in their answers of “Good!” The thing they feared most was the Taliban gaining control over the entire country again and if the foreign troops left, that could still happen.

We talked about their situation now – what stage they were at in terms of seeking asylum. They showed us their ID cards – Heyaz and Rohulla were in relatively good shape with their white § 50 cards, but Shaban was worse off with his green § 51 card. (I might have those numbers reversed. They refer to different sections or paragraphs in the Austrian laws concerning asylum seekers.) We talked for a long time about what the difference is. Their answer was that white card holders were believed when they said they were under 18 years old. Green card holders were not believed completely.

When asked about their futures, they all said the same. They wanted to build a life here so that they could help their families back in Afghanistan. We asked if they hoped to bring family members here and they shook their heads. Their own experiences had taught them about how hard it would be to accomplish. The best they hoped for was to be able to send money home and maybe, someday, be able to return.

Other things happened during this conversation. We all leaned in. I discovered that Shaban spoke the best German after only three months here and that he had a terrific sense of humor. I recognized that Rohulla spoke impeccable English, but refrained because he understood how important it was to learn German now. Before fleeing, he had been in his last year of High School and intended to study Engineering. Heyaz, the Boxer, also spoke great English but had the tendency to mix up the languages completely – German words appeared in his English sentences and vice versa. His favorite school subject had been Chemistry and his dream was to go to New York. All three of them liked being at school again – but Shaban said the teachers all spoke too fast. He sometimes asked them to slow down, and they did so, but – he held up one finger – only for one minute. That made us all laugh again. (I thought about my own teaching – how I told students to alert me when I was talking too fast. I added that I would slow down for one minute and then speed up again. They would simply have to listen faster.)

The goulash was finally ready and we all moved to the tables to eat. Rohulla took the most extreme of my husband’s dried chili pepper mixes and doused his plate with it. We all watched him take his first spoonful and waited for his head to explode. All that came was a happy smile. Skinny Shaban stopped after the first plateful and declined when I offered seconds. I objected, saying “What’s this?? What you ate was just a Traiskirchen portion!” He laughed and accepted seconds.

As the visit wound down, my husband started making plans about when to meet up the next day for sprinting training. He suggested early afternoon and the boys countered with 7 am (because they get up at 6 am – typical teenagers!) We also asked them if they would like to come over again. As they answered “Yes!” their eyes lit up in a way that simply can’t be faked. They got on their donated bikes and took off down the hill to their new home.

This all may be incredibly boring to readers, but I can hardly express the emotions and revelations I went through today. Take some abstract concept like “refugee crisis” and it sounds frightening. Meet three refugees, hear their stories and see their smiles, laugh and share a meal with them . . .

It changes the world.

Freedom Egg

freedom egg

The top guy in our local chapter of the Freedom Party came by today and gave us this Easter egg. Of course it is blue – the party’s color. How nice. Maybe I’ll vote for them after all. Oh wait – I’m not allowed to vote. I’m a foreigner.

To be precise, they aren’t really the Freedom Party (“Freiheit”), but the Freedom-like or Freedom-ish Party (“freiheitlich”) – which always makes me think of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”. And like all political parties claiming to be freedomish, their definition of that term is hard to discern. It’s clear what they want freedom FROM: from government and regulation, from conservatives and socialists, from the EU and political correctness, and, of course, freedom from foreigners. The freedoms TO . . . do whatever  . . . are much less clear. What would actually be freer if they got into power – I mean, beyond cigarette lighters in election season and blue eggs in March?

The last election to happen while I was still teaching university students was for the European Union Parliament back in 2009. We discussed the platforms of all the parties, with the freedomish one providing some comic relief – literally! Part of their campaign came in the form of a comic book distributed throughout the country. It was all about the heroic acts of their national leader, HC Strache with his bluest of eyes. Here’s a little taste:

blue planet comic book
Translation: “We are only hospitable to guests who also behave like guests. Now get outta here!!”

 

More recently and locally, this same party got almost a third of the votes in my little village last year with their campaign slogans “Foreigner in your own country?” and “YOUR chance for REVENGE!” The posters shouting out these words also featured pictures of local party members, including the bearer of today’s blue egg. He is actually one of my nearest neighbors. He owned the gas station and restaurant at the bottom of our hill. Despite his retiring recently, this restaurant is still the favorite hangout of the village’s freedomish people.

And we all just got new neighbors. 100 meters uphill from the restaurant, an old Bed & Breakfast was renovated to house 30 refugees – all young men from various nations. Separated only by a meadow and a small stream, those two houses can now spend all day pondering one another. I wonder if the refugees – actually, we call them “migrants” now – got blue eggs today too?

Cool School Kids – (MYoM – Part 16)

As part of our project on the refugee crisis, I had the kids do a role play this week and they blew me away. The scenario was a simplified version of what we are experiencing at the moment:

refugee role play

I put them into four groups representing 1) the refugees and migrants, 2) the government of Country A, 3) the government of Country B, and 4) international relief organizations like the Red Cross or UNICEF. Each group got an article and a list of various opinion statements to read. They had an hour to work on their positions, reasons, and proposals. I sent them off to separate corners to prepare, thinking “Oh my god, what have I done? – this is way too hard for them!”

But then, as I walked around from group to group, it struck me how focused and seriously they were working. They asked smart questions and slipped more and more into their roles. The Country B group, in particular, geared themselves up to do some play acting and to say things they didn’t really feel or believe.

As they worked, I set up a serious looking conference table, complete with group-name tags, maps with statistics, and a little replica of the Statue of Liberty in the center. At the arranged time, they all came to the table and took their seats, and then . . . silence.

“Why don’t we start with the refugees?” I asked. “Can you tell us where you are? How did you get there? What it is like there? and What do you want?”

One girl from the group slowly started to speak and then picked up the pace as she got into her role. Suddenly she was interrupted by Leo from Country B.

“How do we know if you are all refugees? You could be from anywhere!”

Another silence.

Then Anja from the same group piped up. “I believe what my colleague means to say is . . . .”

From that point on I could just sit back and listen. They went at it for over an hour. They brought up the Geneva Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They discussed whether it is better to break those rules or the asylum policy agreement of the European Union. They talked about borders and the Schengen countries’ shared concerns. They argued about push and pull factors of migration. They talked about the source of the crisis and whether they had contributed to it – whether they were partly responsible. They came up with reasonable proposals and possible solutions.

And they never once got distracted or silly.

Near the end it became clear to them that they weren’t likely to find a solution. I asked them if anyone wanted to say something before we ended the role play and then said “Okay. You can drop your roles now and say anything you want.”

Anja immediately exploded. She almost shouted “I DON’T BELIEVE A SINGLE THING I JUST SAID!!” And then she smiled and laughed. We all did. Another boy added, “Boy! Politics makes everything so hard!”

Did I mention that they are all 12 and 13 years old?