A refugee boat organised by the Latvian Central Council on the way to the island of Gotland. (Source: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.)
I was born toward the end of August, when—despite the summery weather—a few leaves had already turned red or gold. A month or so later, my father, my mother, her mother and I were forced to flee my birthplace, Valmiera, which the invading Soviet Army subsequently burned to the ground. We kept going—first by car, then by ship and, finally, by train—until we reached the Austrian Alps, where we found refuge. Some five years later, we crossed the Atlantic Ocean during a mid-October hurricane to resettle in the United States. So, from the start, autumn has been a time of great urgency and gratitude for me.
This was put into words when I learned “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” at the first elementary school that I attended in the States:
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!
The urgency was expressed in the “safely gathered in” part, which I took to mean everything that had to be done before winter arrived. If we did not have to harvest crops, there was produce to be put up and a pantry to be stocked. And leaves to be raked into piles and burned. And storm windows to be installed and heating oil to be delivered and coats and hats and mittens and boots to be bought. The gratitude was expressed in the “God . . . doth provide” part, though—skeptical of the existence of a Beneficent Being even then—I unconsciously replaced Him with my resourceful parents and grandmother and the occasional kind stranger. Since such adults, even in Austria, managed to do what must be done, I was left to look for signs of snow. Each year, I selected one dry leaf on one all but bare branch and willed it to drop, believing that then sparkly flakes would fall.
Last September, I felt the same urgency, but not the same gratitude. The worst refugee crisis since the one that I had experienced was underway. While the good people of Lesbos and the like struggled to save those who came to their shores in overcrowded dinghies and others in northern countries such as Austria were welcoming, a remarkable number of Latvians and Latvian-Americans remained indifferent or even hostile. Since I saw myself in the faces of uprooted Syrian children and my parents and grandmother in the arms that held them, I experienced their abandonment. Not knowing what to do, I posted a piece, “Debt of Honor,” urging former Latvian refugees like me as well as their progeny to show more support. And was pleased when it received thousands of views and started some spirited discussions. And was crushed when it ultimately failed to convince anyone not in basic agreement with me. I could not understand how the remainder could be so incapable of empathy, and they could not understand how I could say what I did. Over and over, they told me in various ways,”You don’t understand. It’s not at all the same.”
This September, I entertained the possibility that the majority view might have merit. This came about while I was searching for images of Latvian refugees crossing the Baltic Sea in woefully inadequate contraptions comparable to those now used for Mediterranean Sea crossings. Since over 3770 making the Mediterranean crossing died doing so in 2015 alone, I thought that there would be a compelling parallel to draw. I learned, instead, that only a few thousand Latvian refugees had fled in this manner. Most of us, mainly members of the cultural, political and economic elite, were evacuated in seaworthy ships under the protection of the retreating German Army. Just how different this was is evident, for instance, in videos of well-dressed women and children carrying bouquets of flowers. And stories from people such as my father, who was allowed to bring his red sports car onboard, even though it was subsequently confiscate in Danzig.
The more I thought about the implications of this difference, the more others came to mind. Soon, I could completely see why former Latvian refugees and following generations might not readily relate to Syrian refugees. And certainly not to those, say, who fled Somalia. But that did not explain why I felt such kinship. I could not believe that I was nothing more than a bleeding heart, particularly since I am something of a hard-ass. After careful analysis, I concluded that I could be characterized not only as hard-assed but also as imaginative. Both attributes have come in handy in my scientific and technical work as well as fiction writing, But the latter has an additional benefit. As novelist Ian McEwan noted when calling the September 11 attacks a “failure of the imagination,” “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”
This failure of the imagination, of course, is not limited to terrorists or those with whom I share some history. It is a problem of global proportions. People on either side of any divide—racial, cultural, political or spiritual—seem more ready than ever to erect barriers against each other and, as though that was not bad enough, to seek out others with the intent of changing or eradicating them. Simultaneously, it seems that the forces throwing many opposites together—say, the displacement and migration caused by armed conflict, climate change and economic hardship—have never been greater. I cannot see this ending well unless we, as individuals and groups, become far more imaginative. And soon since winter is on the way.
We could start now. Look at the photograph below, where refugees disembark a small boat against the backdrop of storm clouds and an angry sea. Then pick out a person and imagine how he or she feels. (My choice is the toddler with the flimsy blanket held by the man in a short-sleeved shirt.) Then imagine what you would do. (I would get her a down parka and and insulated boots. And some form of shelter. And water and food, of course. And do the same for the man since she cannot survive without an adult to care for her.) Then play the video below showing schoolchildren and teachers performing for audience members. Imagine that most are from the nation where you live and a few years have passed and that the person that you selected is now among them, safe and warm. (At this point, there is little left for me to imagine. I once was that refugee girl singing an English hymn in an American school, waiting for that dry leaf to fall.)
Refugees arrive at Lesbos on 14 October 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a dinghy. (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP / Getty Images)
“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Hope PR School Program 2013.
Note: Last autumn, when I was looking for something more tangible than words to contribute to the refugee situation, I was looking for a birthday gift to send to someone of Latvian descent who was born in one of the World War II displaced person camps in Germany. I had sent her a wool scarf from a fancy store the previous year but decided to do something different. I went the the website of the International Rescue Committee, the organization where I once did volunteer work, and bought a refugee rescue gift—Warmth Through the Winter—in her name. And vowed that I would do something similar for everyone else, whether or not they cared about the current crisis. And would ask that they do the same for me.
Warmth Through the Winter. (Source: International Rescue Committee)
2 thoughts on “Before The Storms Begin”
Your Before the Storms Begin post touched me deeply. I too was a post-WWII refugee who came to America by way of Austria, in a converted troop transport ship and under what I now have come to appreciate were pretty decent conditions. My heart breaks for modern day refugees. Your thoughts on the relationship between human imagination and human empathy were quite profound. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.
Would love to learn more about your experience.