Debt of Honor

The Austrian farmer and his wife who turned their root cellar into a home for my family and me after we had fled the Soviet Army invading Latvia

I have long made the message of John Irving’s novel Cider House Rules part of my personal belief system: if you do not live in the cider house, you do not get to make the rules. So, as a native-born Latvian who has been a naturalized United States citizen since she was a small child, I have assiduously stayed out of Latvian politics. I have neither claimed Latvian citizenship nor voted in Latvian elections from afar, although that is my right. Attempting to influence situations from the sidelines that I do not understand from my own experience and that have no direct consequences for me appears—at best—somewhat unseemly.

But there is one situation where I do feel that I can have some say: Latvia’s resistance to giving refuge—over two years, no less—to a mere 250 of the 60 million or so people currently displaced by conflict simply because it is not ready to receive them. You see, this is the worst refugee crisis since World War II, when some 250, 000 refugees fled from Latvia to other countries. And my parents, my maternal grandmother and I were among them. Even though I was only about one month old when we drove to Liepāja, sailed to Danzig, then traveled by train to Altach, Austria, where we settled for about five years, I carry that harrowing experience with me to this day. And the stories that I heard from my relatives and their friends as I grew up, safe—at last—in the United States. In fact, this might be a situation that I understand better than current political leaders, since most are too young to have seen anything similar. (The president, Raimonds Vējonis, for example, was born some 20 years after I arrived in Austria.)

So I feel the need to tell them and their supporters that no nation has to be—and probably never really can be—ready to receive refugees, which they apparently believe is a precondition for what ordinary people might view as common decency. Austria most certainly was not ready for us. Its infrastructure and institutions had been devastated by war. It was occupied by the victorious Allied powers (the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France). Its economy was in shambles, and its people were near starvation. And it was overrun by foreigners. About 1.4 million of them, including roughly 650,000 refugees that settled there for good. Still, we were welcomed. And allowed to find housing and employment. (We refused to live in a displaced persons camp.) And it worked out well, since refugees are not that fussy. All we wanted was a place to live where bombs did not fall—a root cellar was fine—and a places to work that did not resemble Kazakhstan gulagsa hazardous hydroelectric plant was fine.

To tell them that, compared to postwar Austria, today’s Latvia looks close to ideal. Although the nation’s GDP growth rate has not yet returned to the levels seen prior to the recession, it is among the highest in Europe. And while the unemployment rate is not yet where it should be, there is a clear downward trend. In fact, about the only troubling trend is the negative population growth. The number of people has been decreasing in an alarming manner, making Latvia the sixth most rapidly shrinking country in the world. And the population loss is not proportional. University of Latvia professor Mihails Hazans, who has conducted significant migration studies, is quoted in a 2012 media piece as saying, “Most emigrants are young—about 80 percent of recent emigrants are under 35—hence the remaining population is ageing faster.” He refers to this trend as a “demographic disaster.” So it is hardly the case that Latvia could not support—nay, does not badly need—the young refugees who are clamoring to get in.

Alas, unlike my family and me, politicians are fussy. And often want what they cannot get. I find it funny that the sorts of refugees that the States wanted, as specified by the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, were primarily “people who previously engaged in agricultural pursuits and who will be employed in the United States in agricultural pursuits,” followed by “household, construction, clothing, and garment workers.” Precisely what our cohort was not. Latvian refugees, as noted by Ilze Zaķe in  American Latvians: Politics of a Refugee Community, “represented a selective stratum of inter-war Latvian society—mainly upper and middle classes with a very high proportion of politicians, public figures and intellectuals among them.” My father—if not my Rīga-born mother—could finesse that: though an urbane student of theology and philosophy, he was born on a Cēsis farm.

Latvia, similarly, wants to have a say in whom it will help. (Note both countries’ indifference to discrimination.) Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma wants Christians, those who come as families and “educated people.” According a recap of a radio interview, she claims, “Accepting such people would be more understandable to the Latvian society.” Although she might not believe it, she might actually get at least some  of what she wants. While there are unlikely to be that many Christians in, for example, the current wave of Syrian refugees—the Syrian population is only about 10 percent Christian—it is painfully obvious that many come as families. And while Syria falls short of Latvia’s admirable 99.9 percent literacy rate (both sexes), its male rate of 86.0 is still in the top quartile. (The female rate is 73.6). But I would not be surprised if those now arriving on Europe’s doorstep are not a select sample much like Latvian refugees. Besides a strong back, it takes intelligence and resourcefulness to escape.

But, come to think of it, there is one thing that some Latvian politicians are not the least bit fussy about: international obligations. After the 1990 Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia, by which it separated from the Soviet Union, Latvia hastened to join the United Nations and other entities. In 2004, it became part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. All smart moves for a country the size of West Virginia that borders on the massive Russian Federation, which still has designs on its neighbor. However, with the improved stability and security that these valuable alliances bring come commitments. Alas, Latvia has managed to antagonize, to varying degrees, both the UN and the EU with its intransigence on at least two immigrant matters.

The UN, not to mention many human rights groups such as Amnesty International, is not all that happy with how Latvia has been handling the problem of nationality that arose for over 700,000 persons following the 1990 breakup of the Soviet Union. While something like a decade later Latvia acceded to the Human Rights Council’s Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, a key legal instrument in the prevention and reduction of statelessness, the High Commissioner for Refugees still lists 262,802 stateless people as living there. (Statelessness puts people outside the protection of any nation and makes even everyday acts problematic.) But Latvia claims that it has none, having cleverly created the unique official status of “non-citizen,” thereby making the whole question of statelessness moot.

And while the EU seems to be giving Latvia a pass on the non-citizen solution, there is less sympathy for its stand on the current refugee crisis. Latvia’s allotment, calculated on the basis of population, economic strength, number of refugees already accepted and even unemployment, was initially 737. Latvia objected, citing extenuating circumstances such as the Soviet occupations from 1940 to 1941 and 1944 to 1991, which resulted in the number of ethnic Latvians being reduced to just over 60 percent; the absence of any in-place refugee integration program; and the limited capacity of Latvia’s sole refugee center, Mucenieki (50 people). Instead, it reluctantly offered to take 250 refugees over a two-year period as a one-time event. “Refusing to admit refugees would be like refusing to pay a bill,” said Inna Steinbuka, head of the European Commission Representation in Latvia.

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, former president of Latvia and former World War II refugee herself, had stronger words. In a radio interview, she decried the “political circus” that refugee policy discussions have become. “If we say that we are not able to ensure accommodation to such a small number of refugees and integrate them in our society,” she said, “then Latvia would sign a certificate of poverty, discrediting itself morally.” (By my count, 250 is 50 less than could be seated in the New Hall of the Latvian National Opera.) She also framed it as a matter of national security. Given the substantial number of ethnically Russian residents and the nature of Russia’s justification of aggression in Ukraine, it made sense for her to ominously add, “If Latvia declares that it is not able to integrate other people in their country, we are too weak and inable, then it is the white flag saying that somebody has to come and arrange things here.”  (A sobering sentiment that might be appreciated by a number of Latvia’s NATO partners.)

In my more mellow moments, I tell myself that Latvia is still a young nation. I add the two times it existed as an independent state and come up with about 50 years. And recall that that is about how long it took me to become a grownup. You see, it only really started after my father’s death, as I began to acknowledge the richness of my Latvian heritage, which had sometimes seemed little more than a source of alienation and sorrow. Then, after my mother’s death about a decade later, as I began to see the significance of the childhood that I spent as a refugee. And how—despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles—people from nations with no actual obligation to Latvia had helped my family and me survive. And that I had a debt of honor that I could only truly repay by helping other nations’ refugees, not Latvia’s alone.

So, I did volunteer work at the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1933 at Albert Einstein’s behest, because it offered emergency aid and long-term assistance to those displaced by war. And at the local immigrant assistance organization, FIRN. And put together a televised panel, “Immigration and Work,” for the League of Women Voters. And turned to writing fiction and essays to share my personal experience. And when the current refugee crisis was compared to the one precipitated by World War II, I saw little me in the faces of the Syrian children and my parents and grandmother in the arms that held them. And I saw Austria, which had been so kind to us, yet again, be so willing to hang out the welcome signs. And my native Latvia, from which 250,000 souls scattered to nearly every continent, become so selfish. And I knew that it was time for me to say something.

Austria: An Overwhelming Welcome (Source: UNHCR)

Note: For a more recent piece on Latvia’s evolving role in the current refugee crisis, see Kārlis Streips’ “Syrian Today, Latvian Tomorrow?”

16 thoughts on “Debt of Honor”

      1. I think there is one major difference between Austria in 1940-s and Latvia nowadays. There was common experience – war, that helped people to understand each other. War was tragedy for everyone in Europe, so that unitied people, helped to understand and help each other.

        Also one cannot compare farmer (ordinary folk) and politician, I believe there was and still is quite a big gap between those two parts of society. I do not thnk that society would act exactly as politician reactions may suggest they should.

      2. You make an excellent point the about the lack of a common experience of war among nations: these days, there is peace in Europe while conflict rages in the Middle East. Also, come to think of it, within societies: the abolition of mandatory military service separates the professional soldiers who are sent to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan from other people. Of course, Austria and Germany are not at war, and yet there is widespread support for refugees. So neither of these factors can serve as adequate excuses.

        As to the difference between politicians and other people, this was something that I had planned to address but left out because the piece was getting long. In democracies such as exist in Europe, politicians, ultimately, must reflect the will of their constituencies or they do not return to office. In the short run, of course, there can be great divergence. However, I–at least from afar–have no evidence that this is the case in Latvia. Nothing like what happened in Iceland, where 10,000 people offered to open up their homes when the government would only take 50 refugees.

  1. Ilse, why did you stay out of Latvia’s politics? Latvia needed you. Latvians needed you. Where was this concern for Latvians these last years? I’m sure you meant well but maybe you should have stayed with “if you do not live in the cider house, you do not get to make the rules.”

    1. I’d love to have my Latvian citizenship back, but I also feel that I cannot be involved and informed enough from this distance to be a responsible citizen. On the other hand, I still have my obligations as a citizen of the world. Speak truth to power, in whatever country or context — and offer humility, as well. That’s an extremely compressed extract from my understanding: no room here for a full essay. Room for one more: THANK YOU to Ilse Munro. (Liels paldies!)

      1. Mīļš paldies, Gundega.Then you understand.Only it takes more than a full essay to express what needs to be said on such a complicated, crucial topic. What I wrote is so incomplete, so terribly fragmented.

    1. I just signed it, thanks to you! (Don’t get me started on the ways that America is remiss. The shameful foot-dragging with Iraqi and Afghanistani asylum-seekers who risked their lives to help the US military is but one example.)

  2. Thanks Ilse for this article. So well said! I was thinking of renewing my citizenship but the circus that is going on around a mere 250 refugees is humiliating and depressing. I agree, you should have gone into LV politics. Grietina Langins (Copenhagen-Toronto).

    1. Thank you, Grietina. I was worried about what kind of reaction I would get from Latvians, but it has been overwhelmingly positive. (And a truly remarkable number of people have viewed the piece, according to the site stats.) But the best surprise came when I realized that after being critical of my native land in such a public way, I feel far less alienated.

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