January

I can’t write this month. Here is a news item from Bulgaria:

US Embassy in Bulgaria: No Visa Interviews for Citizens of 7 Countries in Trump’s Executive Order

Business | January 30, 2017
Bulgaria: US Embassy in Bulgaria: No Visa Interviews for Citizens of 7 Countries in Trump's Executive Order BGNES

The American Embassy in Sofia has published a special announcement calling on the citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen or persons who have dual citizenship of these countries not to schedule visa interviews and not to pay any taxes [fees] related to such interviews.

The reason is the executive order of US President Donald Trump related to the issue of visas for citizens of these seven countries.

— from novinite.bg

That’s all.

OK, well, I’ll say this. There are so many articles being written about Trump’s executive order on immigration, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” both attacking it and defending it, that the din is deafening. Moreover, so many adherents of each opposing view (as if there were only two sides) see only their (our) own preferred view, excluding any other view except to treat it with cynicism and mockery. That’s a damn shame. Can we do better in listening to “the other?” Fight like hell for what you believe in. Volunteer. Advocate. Work for the good as you perceive it. But be sure the good as you perceive it is not screaming so loudly that you cannot hear anything else.

There’s no need to point you to the published articles I’m referring to, for and against; you’ve probably read and liked as many of your favorite kind, and read and hated as many of the other kind, as I have. Well, maybe just one. This one.

Discuss.

Going Back

We’re going back! Toward the end of October. It’s just for a week, but it will be the first time Stormy and I will have returned to Bulgaria since we went back to celebrate at The Ball in 2004. Memories rush back as we think of what it was like when we were there, and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the people we knew. There is a little trepidation as well. We’re twelve years older now for one thing, maybe a bit slower, and the resilience we relied on as volunteers may have ossified a little. Bulgaria will have changed too; we hope we’ll still be able to get around with what remains of our old familiarity. The language we learned has been packed away like an old souvenir up on a high shelf in the spare bedroom closet. There are Bulgarian phrases and random words that rattle around in my head from time to time, but they’re not much more than in a tourist phrasebook. Still, it’s exciting to be traveling to that place that means so much to us.

As a side benefit, it will be a respite from the yammering back-and-forth cynicism and hateful diatribes of our current political process (though don’t get me wrong our democracy is perfect and a model for the world and we should export it everywhere even if by force oops no I mean be a shining example of how a country should be governed). I hope the subject won’t come up. I do recall, though, how I was mercilessly held to account for U.S. foreign policy in 2003 by my eleventh-graders and by strangers on the street, about the events broadcast on BTV and CNN, red and white and orange flashes in the dark sky and American soldiers pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein while Iraqi fighters shed their uniforms on the run and melted into the night. It was the first-ever American preemptive strike, setting the “America will never” bedrock military principle afire and leaving it to smolder in the ruins of another country. They thought we were doing it for oil. Our country, in the eyes of the old-line European countries with so many more centuries behind them, was looked upon as a two-year-old having a tantrum. A two-year-old with bombs.

Lady Liberty Crying

From friend Chasen’s Facebook page. I don’t know where he found it.

One might have thought we would have grown up as a country since then, having been through such perilous times and so many challenges. I wrote last month about the severe divisions we Americans are feeling these days as our elections approach; drawing closer to November the acrimony has only intensified. Looking at the picture of Lady Liberty, I know that many of my friends will have different ideas about why she’s crying. I hope to put it aside for a while, or if I can’t do that I might find a new perspective.

As in our own beautiful country, Bulgaria has lots of beautiful places that we enjoyed while we were working there, with mountains and seashore, forests and fascinating cities, towns and villages. As it is with life wherever we find ourselves, it was the people — the real human contact — that made it so great to be there. We’re looking forward to seeing our Bulgarian family, school colleagues, former students and neighbors, who made such a difference in our lives with their open and generous spirit.

We won’t get to see everyone, of course. My former students are scattered all over now, in their professional and family lives all over the world. People move on, and some will never cross our paths again. I remember so fondly the brash young guy in my classroom, who later apologized on behalf of himself and his classmates for giving me such a hard time (he said they called it climbing on my head). He was the one who set our goal of coming back for the Graduation Ball. Warm memories, forever locked in time. His name was Georgi. Our hearts were touched, time and time again, right up to the day we left.

A little after midnight, we said our goodbyes. One of my students, Maria, gave me a little slip of paper from her family’s Easter bread, with Kusmet, Good Luck, written on it. She wrote her name on the back, with her class number and “I won’t forget you.”
     — Breeze, p. 337

I still have that little slip of paper in my wallet.

His Name Is Muhammad

In my 2013 Christmas letter, I wrote about refugees. Despite my expressed wish, then, for Peace on Earth, I don’t think things have improved.

Refugees Fleeing Violence in Syria Confront Dire Conditions in Bulgaria. Escaping war and running for their lives, Syrians are overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union. Bulgaria is all the way across the breadth of Turkey from Syria, a thousand miles! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell…”

Since that time I’ve heard little about Bulgaria’s problem, except that the inevitable strains and stresses have spread and flared within the country, with predictably unpleasant consequences. In the meantime, the numbers of people running for their lives have increased rapidly. If they’re running for their lives figuratively, we call them migrants. If literally, refugees.

Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Greece and other countries along the spongy old borderlines on the east of the West are straining and breaking with the flow streaming toward the hoped-for safety of the West, now idealized in Germany, Austria, and some of the Nordic countries. On their way the migrants endure privation and deception, robbery and rape, starvation and drowning, tear gas and fire hoses, new border blockades and razor wire, and often deal tragically with black-hearted smugglers. Some find pockets of kind-hearted people who provide food and shelter along the way — both officially organized and personally driven — but these are by no means pervasive and the hardy few who do offer help can only do so much.

As you might expect, feelings are sharply divided, with some citizens violently opposed and others wanting to stretch toward humanitarian ideals. That is surely a European thing and would never happen here in the U.S.A. of course. As for Bulgaria, Prime Minister Borisov has requested that the EU establish a “hot spot” in the country on a par with Greece and Italy to organize and help pay for the temporary accommodation of refugees. 1 The ensuing political firestorm is comparable to what we might expect if a U.S. presidential candidate were to announce his support for “amnesty” and called it that. 2

I admit to being a Facebook user, and among the more enlightening offerings of that scene are the postings of Humans of New York. It is the work of a photographer, Brandon Stanton, who takes pictures of people on the streets of guess-where and includes a quote or a few paragraphs about them. He has taken several trips outside the Big Apple, most notably to Iran and other places in the Middle East, and recently to countries along the diffuse and tortuous paths between Syria and the West. Recently, documenting refugees’ situations within Europe, he told the story of a Syrian he had met in Iraqi Kurdistan last year.

His name is Muhammad. He had fled the war in Syria and was working in an Iraqi hotel when Brandon got him to be his interpreter. Brandon found him again a year later, in Europe of all places, and caught up on what he had been through.

(If you’re on Facebook, you can skip my summary below and read the original series starting with the first installment which was on September 26, 2015. Click here to read it, and then you can go “next” to follow the story. If you don’t do Facebook, Brandon’s blog has the same stories but you can’t click from one to the next in order. Muhammad’s story is in six installments, as follows: 1/6, 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, 5/6, 6/6.)

Muhammad had saved up money from his Iraqi hotel job, working 12 hours a day at the hotel and teaching English “in his free time.” (“I work 18 hours per day, every day. And I have not spent any of it. I have not bought even a single T-shirt.”) He amassed 13,000 euro to buy fake papers and pay for the smugglers and bribes he would need. Along the way, in Istanbul, his sister contacted him and said their his father had been badly beaten by police and was in the hospital. Then his brother was killed by ISIS and “They found our address on his ID card, and they sent his head to our house, with a message: ‘Kurdish people aren’t Muslims.’ My youngest sister found my brother’s head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since.” From Istanbul he paid a smuggler to go on a boat to Greece. That part of the story is perhaps the most harrowing, with being herded to the boat at gunpoint, the smuggler abandoning the boat, women screaming, the motor failing and the boat almost swamped.

Plastic Boat

Plastic Boat
Photo credit:
Brandon Stanton,
Humans of New York

Finally landing on a Greek island, thinking they were safe, they headed for a police station to register as refugees. When police intercepted them, they “acted like we were murderers and they’d been searching for us. They pointed guns at us and screamed: ‘Hands up!’ I told them: ‘Please, we just escaped the war, we are not criminals!’… They threw us into prison. Our clothes were wet and we could not stop shivering. We could not sleep. I can still feel this cold in my bones. For three days we had no food or water. I told the police: ‘We don’t need food, but please give us water.’ I begged the commander to let us drink. Again, he said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’… He chose to watch seven people suffer from thirst for three days while they begged him for water. We were saved when they finally they put us on a boat and sent us to a camp on the mainland. For twelve days we stayed there before walking north. We walked for three weeks. I ate nothing but leaves. Like an animal. We drank from dirty rivers. My legs grew so swollen that I had to take off my shoes. When we reached the border, an Albanian policeman found us and asked if we were refugees. When we told him ‘yes,’ he said that he would help us. He told us to hide in the woods until nightfall. I did not trust this man, but I was too tired to run. When night came, he loaded us all into his car. Then he drove us to his house and let us stay there for one week. He bought us new clothes. He fed us every night. He told me: ‘Do not be ashamed. I have also lived through a war. You are now my family and this is your house too.'”

Muhammad

Muhammad
Photo credit:
Brandon Stanton,
Humans of New York

From there, Muhammad found his way to Austria and his story took a turn for the best. In a bakery he met a man who had been well treated in a visit to Syria years before, and took him under his wing. Muhammad studied German and went through the process fo gain citizenship. It took seven months while he learned German. When he asked the judge if he could have the interview in German instead of having a translator, he was in. He said the judge “pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!'”

Not every story ends so happily, but many share the miseries and setbacks that Muhammad faced enroute to a better life. So was Muhammad a migrant or a refugee? Sometimes what we read makes it look like hordes of people are invading Europe to take people’s jobs and change their culture but that’s an incomplete picture at best. They are trying to escape death. They are leaving everything they love behind. Many want to stop the flow because these people are potential terrorists. They are trying to escape the terrorists! There are frantic reports of Muslims in Europe accosting western or westernized women and attacking them for the way they dress. That, of course, is criminal behavior and needs to be punished. Civilized societies can handle this, don’t you think?

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p.s. What a mess! Since this situation involves people, there are no easy explanations, solutions, or irrefutably right answers. There are reports that the people fleeing to safety in Europe are not all refugees and therefore not deserving of the attractive everybody-be-nice-and-help-your-fellow-man treatment. At a minimum, it’s a huge problem of sorting things out.
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p.p.s. And yes, this: Pope Francis Calls On Europe’s Catholics to Shelter Refugees. Crazy, huh?