Tag Archives: Latvian Refugees

Steering Clear of Camps

Little me in Altach, Austria, far from any displaced persons camp.

I like it when readers contact me. Particularly those who know how to put what I have written to good use. So I was delighted when I received a message from Celia Schiller, which included some requests:

. . . I am a first year IRPH (International Relations: Politics and History) student at Jacobs University Bremen, which was the former Camp Grohn. I am currently enrolled in a course where we discover the history of the campus and, as a final project, create an exhibition on Camp Grohn and the situation of the DPs that lived there. This is why I did quite some research on this topic and fortunately found your contact information. Would it be possible for you to give me a little bit more information on how you perceived the life at Camp Grohn and maybe describe how it influenced you in the years after? If you have anything else to share, I would really welcome that . . .

Much as I wanted to support Celia’s effort, I had to admit that I knew almost nothing about Camp Grohn. Or any of the hundreds of other DP camps set up in sectors of Germany, Austria and Italy controlled by the United States, Britain or France—three of the victorious Allied Powers—in the aftermath of World War II. And that I might even be the only one alive that I know from my native Latvia who could make such a claim. You see, my father, mother and maternal grandmother—together with one-month-old me—at some point separated from the masses fleeing the advancing Soviet Army and simply kept going. Once we reached the Austria-Swiss border, we rented a root cellar from a farmer and spent four or so years living amid the breathtaking beauty of the Alps. My mother found a good job, so we lived well compared to those warehoused in the camps. And avoided the constant fear of forced repatriation to our then Soviet-occupied homeland. Why more did not dare to go it alone I never understood.

Eventually, we had to reside in a DP camp, but only in order to emigrate. We first went to one nearby in Alberschwende. It was in the French Zone, and my mother, who had long been a francophile, was able to persuade the commander to let her leave each day to go to work. From Alberschwende, we transferred to the International Staging Area at Camp Grohn in Bremen, Germany. It was there, I believe, that we received permission to permanently resettle in Lowell, Michigan, not São Paulo, Brazil, as previously planned. Which was monumental for my family, but not, apparently, for me. The way I describe it in “Welcome to America,” all I did was rail at arbitrary rules:

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any little girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible on my passport photo or I could not emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know precisely how I felt about that.

Or so I was told. The first thing that I can say for sure that I remembered on my own was merely a strange sensation: the way that my first dental filling felt—metallic and clunky—when biting through a sandwich made of a fried egg and two slices of squishy white bread.

But Celia needed something more substantial than Wonder Bread. Particularly when it came to understanding how DP camps might have influenced my later life. While there is no doubt that war and displacement affected me in profound and enduring ways, I cannot make a single connection to anything that occurred in the camps. Not like my contemporaries clearly could. The late publisher and author Juris Jurjevics, for instance, was able to state in an interview:

I think my familiarity with the aftermath of war made me a sympathetic and good observer when I got to the highlands of Viet Nam. It really felt like I had made that scene before. A war-torn society felt completely familiar, as if it were in my DNA. Despite the cultural differences, I thought I knew what the locals were going through, caught between warring factions. There weren’t any surprises as there seemed to be for my buddies. Where I had been the kid pestering American GIs for gum and comic books, now I was the American GI being cajoled to “souvenir” waifs with cigarettes and C-ration chocolate. One day I took a picture of a Eurasian seven-year-old at the wheel of a jeep. It was me eighteen years earlier in a gutted jeep in Germany.

Only after I had set aside the preliminary material I sent Celia did I come to see—for the first time in my life—that not spending substantial time in the camps might well have informed everything, from how I interacted with peers to how I viewed my place in the world.

In the case of the former, I had clearly skipped some stages of social development, having spent my early years mainly in the company of adults, and not that many of those. How ill-prepared I was is illustrated by a story that my father liked to tell, always while smiling and shaking his head. Shortly after arriving at my first DP camp, I came upon a large group of teenaged boys hardened by the harsh conditions they had endured. Appalled that they were drinking rainwater from abandoned tar barrels, four-year-old me marched up to them and, without hesitation, schooled them on subjects such as sanitation. Lucky for me, all that they had time to do was laugh before my father came to my rescue. Over the subsequent years, I never lost that sense of standing apart, of never being able to fully embrace whatever it was that others so easily—so mindlessly—could share.

But camps did more than socialize children; they also strengthened a nascent national identity. At the time we fled, you see, Latvia had only existed as a nation for about a quarter of a century, and the Latvian National Awakening had only begun about a century before. My mother had been educated in German schools, and while my father did attend the University of Latvia, it was only established about a decade after his birth. However, the educated elite were disproportionately represented in the DP population. Instead of falling into despair at the conditions encountered in the camps, some set about re-creating the cultural institutions that they had left behind. Soon there were Latvian churches and schools and athletic teams. Even newspapers and orchestras and theater groups. As historian Laura J. Hilton states, this “provided them with a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose, preserving their idealized conception of who they were.” A sense of belonging and purpose that I never got the chance to gain. Which is just as well since “idealized” is the operative term. 

As Juris recalled, camp was no place for anyone, much less a child:

Knowing nothing else, it seemed perfectly normal to grow up in refugee camps in postwar Germany. What was it like? Creepy. Tense. Menacing. We were malnourished and constantly hungry and often shared quarters with other families, making dividing walls out of blankets hung on strings. I remember two families—ten adults—sharing two rooms and the embarrassment of a chamber pot for a toilet. I must have been two and a half. My sister, four years older, remembers a mass of people jumping from windows to their deaths after some announcement over the public address system. My guess is that they may have just been informed of their forced repatriation to the Soviet Union . . . The adult world seemed uptight and threatening. I was probably never fully comfortable in it again, truth be told. Deprivation was humiliating. It didn’t bring out the best in people. A Latvian pediatrician refused to go to the aid of a sick child whose parents were in dire straits and had nothing to barter for his help. Leaders pushed to the front of immigration quota queues.

Also, the nationalism evident there was cause for concern to some:

. . . the Allies had hoped that One World would emerge from the war, a world where victors and vanquished alike declare their solidarity in Humanity. But as occupation authorities tried to further these ends, they discovered that many of the DPs were stateless only according to diplomatic labels: these refugees revealed a tenacious attachment to their ethnic identity. The issue was faced by an American Quaker in Germany working with DPs, who wrote that he was concerned over “the growth of nationalism among them at a time when the world at large is suffering from too much nationalism.”

Ironically, the Allies themselves, or the American-dominated United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, might have fostered this. Europe had never seen such an onslaught of refugees, and no one knew what to do. The hope was that those displaced would go home once the war was over. However, some, particularly Poles and Latvians, saw themselves as being “unrepatriable.” According to Hilton, reasons ranged from “fears of political or religious persecution to uncertainty about economic stability and outright refutation of Soviet-dominated governments.” Thus, administrators had some cynical reasons to give DPs a free hand, even encourage them. (See Arta Ankrava’s doctoral dissertation, From Displaced Persons to Exiles.) If they could be made to miss their homeland enough, they might set aside rational reasons not to return. If so, even the most selfless DP leaders might have inadvertently served as stooges.

Both the bonds and the attitudes carried over to the Latvian American communities that I encountered once my family and I were re-settled Michigan. Although I attended Latvian Saturday school longer than I care to recall and participated a range of other Latvian activities, I continued to feel like an outsider. Try as I might, I was still that new arrival by the tar barrels, passing judgement on kids who acted like they had never left Latvia. Yes, I always seemed to be saying, Latvia is a lovely land, but there are plenty of beautiful places in world. Yes, Latvians suffered unimaginable atrocities at the hands of the Soviets, but so did countless other people. Also at the hands of that other invader, Nazi Germany, which Lutheran Latvians, at least, like to forget. And no, the current refugee crisis, is no less devastating than the one we and our families experienced. And no, the current refugees do not deserve any less help than we were once given. And—for God’s sake—NO, your vote for a president who puts America first and acts like he is Vladimir Putin’s puppet is not the way to safeguard the sovereignty of a small nation about the size of West Virginia situated on Russia’s western border. It will merely fan the flames of neo-nationalism that are increasingly evident everywhere.

I cannot say for certain that I would have turned out differently had I been forced to spend my formative years in DP camps. After all, Juris was and he sounded a lot like me. But I will encourage Celia to consider the likely link between conditions in refugee camps and identify politics if she remains part of the project. Surely the concentration of so many people who have experienced such traumatic loss and displacement and have then been forced to endure such deprivation are more likely than most to display some degree of radicalization. Studies such as the one conducted in the Middle East during the current crisis by University of Maryland researchers for the US Department of Homeland Security certainly show that refugees living within the confines of camps are more prone to hold extreme beliefs than refugees living outside of them. Regardless, I see it as a good sign that a former DP camp—the unfortunate result of rampant nationalism— is now the site of an institution of higher learning that actively embraces internationalism, with students coming from 110 countries and exchange programs in 26 nations.

Note: The planned exhibition, Military Base, Displaced Persons’ Camp, University—Exploring the Past at Jacobs, based on research conducted by students of Jacobs University Bremen under the guidance of historian Rüdiger Ritter, seeks your support. For more on the area, see “Bremerhaven Today,” prepared by Amanda Lauer for this site (Displaced Person.)

 

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Welcome to America

Five-year-old me photographed for emigration to the United States.

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible or I would not be allowed to emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know exactly how I felt about that. Or so I was told, at least. I have no actual memory of anything from my first five years, when I was a little displaced person from war-torn Latvia.

Similarly, I have no memory of the turbulent transatlantic crossing in a converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane, where almost everyone but my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. Or of refusing to be labeled like luggage at Ellis Island, where I not only tore off my tag and drew a picture of a girl on the back but also snatched those identifying other refugee kids. Or of the 730-mile train ride to Michigan. Or of my mother bursting into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings. Or of the meager meal of canned tomato soup and Saltine crackers that our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife, served us before putting my mother to work. Meaning that she was to hand-wash the dirty laundry accumulated since their washing machine had broken down, except that my mother—a clever lady shaking from exhaustion—diagnosed the problem as a short and fixed it with wire strippers and electrical tape and then only had to repeatedly load and unload the machine and carry everything out to the yard to dry. Or of the cramped, unheated space above the garage that they deemed suitable quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child, during a chilly fall and the following freezing winter. Or of my urbane father being tasked to single-handedly turn their fallow fields into a functioning horse farm. Or of him walking 26 miles in deep snow to Grand Rapids, the closest large town, to secure a factory job. Or of us moving to a nice flat on Ethel Street.

The first thing that I do remember is staring at a large Coca-Cola clock on the cloakroom wall at Sigsbee Elementary School, where I sat for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that no one would come to take me home from kindergarten. Before you conclude that this was the same sort of separation anxiety seen in American kids starting school, let me remind you that Europe had been decimated by World War II and dealing with the devastating aftermath. As a result, my father and mother and maternal grandmother had been the only source of stability that I had ever known. The thought that I had been left to fend for myself was unbearable. Which is why I am appalled when Americans refer to the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who cross the Mexican border to seek asylumtheir right under both US and international law—as sending them to “essentially summer camps” or “basically boarding schools.”

As you might expect from the way that my family and I were welcomed to the United States, I was not nearly as shocked as many of my progressive American friends were by the way that a recently empowered segment of our society views foreigners who have been forced to flee their native land. That was always there, if not always so openly expressed. But back then, at least, no one kept me from my family. Despite my worst fears, someone eventually took me back to Ethel Street. Still, the memory of sitting alone in that cloakroom with that ticking clock stays with me to this day. I wonder what traumatic memories and subconscious changes will stay with the 2500 some kids recently separated and sent to shelters in at least 16 states. Some are only a few months old. Hundreds have been apart from their parents for several weeks. And there is no good system for reuniting them, so who knows how many will ever see Mom or Dad.

 

A border patrol agent takes a youngster into custody in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where at least three facilities are holding “tender age” migrants. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Children are held in a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas. (Source: US Customs and Border Protection/Reuters)

 

Bread, Salt and Water

All I had on my dining room table this New Year’s Eve (Photo: Ilse Munro)

One thing I learned early on was that you see in the new year properly or suffer the consequences. Even though we arrived in the United States as Latvian refugees who had lost everything in World War II, soon there was caviar and vodka on the table on New Year’s Eve. And on New Year’s Day, there was a remarkable dish garnished with dill, lavished with Hollandaise sauce and washed down with white wine: a poached fish with head, tail and skin intact but bones and flesh removed, the later turned into forcemeat that—together with hardboiled eggs and other artistically arranged items that looked lovely when sliced—was reintroduced into the unscathed skin.

Alas, more was involved than mere food and drink. The scales from the fish were rinsed clean, dried in the oven and, apportioned by the number of people present, wrapped in parchment and given to each to put in a pocket. Then silver coins were handed out to each to put in a shoe. This belt-and-suspenders approach increased the certainty that there would be abundant wealth in the coming year. At least according to my maternal grandmother, who had once been a businesswoman and was the most financially savvy among us. Even  with this, she would warn, good luck could elude us if the first to cross our threshold was anyone other than a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. Even my father, who fit the bill but was disqualified, had his own two cents to add: as soon as the clock struck twelve, we had to head outside to toast the entire world. And, no matter how wasted we were or how deep the snow might be, take a long walk after breakfast.

I suppose I could have scrapped all that when I left home and distanced myself from the Latvian-American community. Instead, I not only dutifully performed every ritual and internalized every superstition but also added a few of my own. The latter started simply enough with a decision to dispense with the American custom of making, then breaking New Year’s resolutions. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to get my life in order before the old year ends so that I could start the new one with a clean slate? My response to something so seemingly sensible soon turned into a compulsion as compelling as any that came from my ancestors. Every bill had to be paid, every room—closets and cupboards included—had to be cleaned, every obligation had to be met. Not to mention shopping for liquor and fish and washing and drying those damn fish scales.

By the time, decades later, that my father had died and my mother and her demanding English Springer Spaniel had moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me—while I was making the 60-mile DC commute, working 16-hour days and flying cross-country on business trips—I sought simplification. Not at first, of course. She loved the holidays as much I did, which only motivated me to do more. But as the year that she turned 90 drew to a close, I was dragging so badly that the best that I could do was haul home a tree and prop it up in a corner, where it stood for days before I could bring myself to set it up and decorate it. Come Christmas Eve—when Latvians hold their main celebration—everything looked festive, but it then took another supreme effort to start New Year’s preparations.

Perhaps I sensed that this would be our last New Year’s Eve together. Perhaps she sensed it, too. At any rate, she felt the need to lighten my load. All those things that we do, she confessed, are nice but not that necessary. All that really matters is that there is bread, salt and water on the table by midnight. With those three essentials, any resourceful person can survive—and even thrive—in the coming year. Of course, I managed to do all the unnecessary things that I had done before. But, from then on, every year but one, an arrangement of bread, salt and water occupied a prominent place on the table. Particularly the last few years, when it became impossible to ignore the role that hunger plays in the United States and also in the global refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II, when my family and I were among the more than 50 million displaced persons.

The exception was the one time in my life when, for want of better words, I thought: fuck it. Without doing a damn thing, I went to bed early instead of seeing in 2015. Within weeks, I was hospitalized and nearly died. The reason, I knew, had nothing to do with my singular lapse. In retrospect, my health had been deteriorating throughout 2014 and causing considerable lethargy. But, when it came time to ring in 2016, I did not dare take chances. I made absolutely sure that I would be awake and that, at the least, there would be bread, salt and water on the table. And since 2016 was generally acknowledged to rank among the worst years ever and 2017, what with the political situation as it was and all, was unlikely to be much better, I decided not to tempt fate and do substantially more than the minimal.

So, I re-stocked my liquor cabinet and wine bin. Then headed for the fish store where I was once instantly recognized as the fish-scale lady. Only this time, no one remembered me. And I opted for red snapper instead of rockfish, which my late mother liked to call “rocket fish” in honor of my NASA consulting work. But did manage to pick up some caviar, which she would have wanted, as well as a dessert that, in deference to her cravings, had to included some form of chocolate. By the final countdown, all my bills were paid—easy now that everything is automated—and there was bread, salt and water on the table. And other items reserved for after midnight and the following day. And there was one of the Kennedy half dollars that my maternal grandmother collected in my shoe and a packet of fish scales in my pocket and more scales in a pretty silver box on the table. The house, apart from the dining room, was mainly a mess as were other aspects of my life, but somehow now it did not matter.

I lit candles, including one that I placed in the window for all my distant and departed family members and friends. Then, at the proper time, walked out onto my front porch and raised a glass to 2017. It was unseasonably warm but cloudy, so I could not see either fireworks or stars as I crossed the street to stand on my riverbank. And I was all alone—my neighbors were celebrating elsewhere—so there was no one to grab for a kiss. In fact, if any tall, dark, handsome man were to cross my threshold in the new year, it would likely be an installer from Best Buy, since several major appliances had recently died. But when I returned inside for caviar and cake, everything suddenly looked so lovely. I was strangely satisfied with my imperfect effort and even allowed myself a moment of irrational optimism.

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In addition to the basics of bread, salt and water, necessities for welcoming the new year were expanded to include dried fish scales in a silver box and a Kennedy half dollar as well as dry white wine, black caviar on ice and chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Note: If you have European, British or Middle Eastern roots, you might want to learn about variants of welcome rituals based on bread and salt. And if you then want to do something that is more than merely symbolic, might want to send New Year’s greetings to family and friends through the International Rescue Committee, which lets you make gifts that help refugees in their name, which is what I also did this on New Year’s Eve.

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.)

 

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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.

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Warmth Through the Winter. (Source: International Rescue Committee)