Category Archives: Middle East Conflicts

Before The Storms Begin

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 giftWarmth 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)

A Good Day

My father and me doing nothing much on a nondescript day in the Fifties.

In 2010, WilliamTunstall-Pedoe, a University of Cambridge-trained computer scientist, claimed that analysis of over 300 million facts by his search engine True Knowledge led to the conclusion that the second Sunday of April 1954 was the most boring day since the start of the 20th Century. As a nine-year-old experiencing that day, I am sure that I would have wholeheartedly concurred. And predicted that the same would be said of the entire decade. But that there would surely be a shift in the Sixties, when I would be old enough to go away to school and leave behind the most boring city in the world, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my family, which, though not the least bit boring, tolerated tedium all too well. I would then lead an exciting life.

I did go on to lead an exciting life, although often not in the ways that I had naively envisioned. Which might be why, after more decades of that than I care to recall, I came to the same conclusion that my family must have reached by that Sunday in 1954: any day where nothing happens is a good—not a boring—day. A day, for instance, were my grandfather is not dragged out to the courtyard of the factory that he runs in Kharkov and executed by Russian revolutionaries. Where my pregnant grandmother, accompanied by my mother, a mere toddler, does not arrive in Rīga with little more than suitcases of worthless rubles. Where I do not leave my native land right after leaving the hospital where I was born because the Red Army is about to burn down Valmiera. Where, once my family and I escape to Austria, I do not cry because all my grandmother can give me while my mother is at work in a distant city is goat’s milk from the old woman who lives up the mountain. Where my father does not fall the equivalent of several stories at the hydroelectric dam where he has to work. Where my family and I do not wear overcoats inside the unheated space above the garage that our sponsor in the United States—a Lutheran minister—sees as suitable living quarters during a Michigan winter. Where my well-educated father does not walk 26 miles in the snow to Grand Rapids to find work as manual laborer in a furniture factory. Where my well-bred mother does not miscarry my brother doing brutal piecework at a brass factory on the same street. Where my accomplished grandmother does not read a redacted letter from her son, who is imprisoned in a godforsaken Kazakhstan gulag. Where . . .

So, as I sit at my computer on a gray October Sunday and have little to look forward to other than finishing this piece and the housecleaning that I started last week and the cooking that I do on weekends to use up as much as possible before shopping on Monday, which I do so that I can dispose of as much packaging material as possible when trash collectors arrive at my curb before sunrise Tuesday morning, I must grudgingly admit that I am having a good day. After all, I hardly need to head for the hospital because I am in danger of dying, as was the case just this past January. I can even take comfort in the fact that others that I know are likely having a good day, as well. I just read a message, for instance, from a fellow Latvian in New York who grew up with me in Michigan and whose family, much like mine, had survived some seriously bad days. I learned that she spent last night handing out Halloween candies and reminded myself that she did not need to deal with waking up this morning to a seemingly healthy husband in the throes of the cardiac event that kills him, since that had already occurred, along with my disturbing brush with death, earlier this year.

Still, it is hard to dismiss all those incessant updates on the Syrian crisis that serve as nagging reminders that there are refugees much like what my NY friend and I and our families once were still out there and that they continue to have horrible days. I am relieved, at least—and hope that my friend is too—that, earlier this month, I stopped short of ordering that frivolous birthday basket of cookies and brownies with those pretty ribbons from Williams-Sonoma, doubled what I would have spent, found the site of the International Rescue Committee—the outstanding refugee-aid NGO where I once volunteered—and gave the Gift of Warmth Through the Winter in her name instead. Since it has grown much colder over the subsequent weeks and this present provides families with emergency kits that include protective sheeting, warm blankets, mattresses, woolen socks and insulated boots and clothing, perhaps now there is at least one less displaced person at risk for hypothermia. Hence—by my current definition—having a good day. I doubt that my friend missed the unsent basket since she does not need to worry about hunger. And could spend her birthday having a lovely lunch in the city, followed by a rousing night at the opera, which, no doubt, took it from a good to a great day.

Note: If you want to send me a holiday gift—or even a card or a cheery message—might I recommend a similar re-direction? Or, even better, a direct refugee donation, since that seems to involve a little less overhead.

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?”