The Changing Face of Europe

#RefugeesWelcome

#RefugeesWelcome

Not long ago, merely 13 years, I took a chance: I left my (at that time) non-EU country, Romania, and decided I would be a European citizen living in Belgium. To me, that meant a wide open space of possibilities, diversity, travel and freedom. No borders. Romania was not yet absolved of all the special conditions imposed by the Union on the newly-entered countries when I took the Belgian nationality and embraced my new identity as a European.

Today, this space that I and many others integrated for  the benefits and privileges it so alluringly offered has become a place of confusion. This is not what I imagined. Borders are up again. Borders of fear. The freedom that the EU promised looks at us helpless, feet in shackles, caged within walls of prejudice. Schengen seems a blurry dream that is likely to fade away with a strong morning coffee.

I look around: people with shattered lives waiting for confused countries to distribute them among each other like livestock. They don’t get to choose. Their sudden presence forces change upon us, one that, as it turns out, we are not fully prepared for. They challenge our level of tolerance at home, our own private values and capacities for acceptance of the other. And they intimidate, scare and even repel some of us in this new process, us civilized, highly educated and sophisticated inhabitants of Europe. But right now, all they want is to live.

Leaders blink blankly and get more confused over numbers. Of human lives. They act as if they’re playing in a new version of the 4400 series – a crowd of people was kidnapped by extraterrestrials, lobotomized and dispatched back on Planet Europe. But they have no superpowers and they’re not even using the ones they have as they should. Incapable of dealing with war refugees who also happen to have a different colour and religion, and not recognizing their changing surroundings anymore, they resort to racist, xenophobic speeches and gun-protected borders. The refugees are coming. Fear, as it turns out again and again, is a dangerous , disabling disease that spreads like fire among the simple minded and turns any sign of intelligence into ashes.

Looking at good old Europe, with its traditions and values becoming as questionable as its future, I see panicked citizens and impressive levels of leadership incompetence. Europa is giving up on its children. Ignoring needy migrants as they drown at its gates. Putting loads of responsibilities on Italy’s and Greece’s frail shoulders. Then scapegoating Greece. Who believes in the purpose of the EU anymore?

Panicked about a situation it cannot control, one that was nonetheless strikingly obvious and foreseeable, EU decides to share the refugees among the member states. A remarkable thought, no doubt, with the only disadvantage of not being fully functional. Eastern countries and part of the Central European countries do not exactly have a colonial past nor have they historically been much in contact with other cultures. They emerge from a complicated communist past where any minority was condemned and all good things were white and Christian. A non-neglectable detail when you ask them to take in dark-skinned, Muslim people coming from the “Arab countries” that could have played the evil character in bed-time stories. The politics of open-mindedness has not been duly practised in some of these countries for generations, on account of their borders being…closed to the world until not very long ago. It would be naive to expect them to welcome the refugees with arms wide open. This said, this is not an excuse for not putting humans first.

Poor governance in case of crisis is fertile soil for outbursts of nationalism. Multiculturalism is being questioned and presented as threatening. Although no one has come out in the streets to make an official statement, it has become clear lately that the EU project is slightly failing. At many levels. And unforgivably at human level. While common people hurry to provide assistance in support of the refugees all over Europe, politicians come up with the most derisory remarks.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban suggests that multiculturalism is a threat to the European values. There is nothing more detrimental to our liberties in Europe today than allowing people such as himself to become public influencers. It is bad enough that they go about unpunished. But their words may have a heavy impact on mentalities for years to come and those will be hard to change.

If multiculturalism starts being seen as a danger to Europe, I think many of us should start packing and find another planet to mess up. Because this little community of 28 is by nature multicultural: Romanians, Belgians, Germans – we are NOT the same. But yes, we are white and mainly Christian.

Meanwhile, borders rise up again. Mental borders. Mentalities are closing in. I stand an astounded European citizen who wants Europe and the EU to shake its people off their prejudice and start acting on human principles. Refugees are not a threat, it is the ground-gaining narrow-mindedness and anti-migrant propaganda that threaten our freedom in Europe today. Century-old universities that produced tons of top-of-the-class thinkers and we get to listen to derogatory speeches that install fear of other people? Decisions whether to host them or not on account of their religion? Europe has clearly forgotten where it comes from and how it has achieved so much. Now it solves migration crisis by building walls. This makes no sense.

Tell your children that multiculturalism is beautiful. That without it, there is no Europe. I still want to believe that Europe can be the place where multiculturalism not only happens, but where it thrives.

In the meantime, winter is coming.

Where is the European Union?

Taken from Carloseco

Taken from Carloseco

“What is that?” asked the man when I said that I was coming from Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. The couple I’m talking to comes from the US, so that justifies the question. We met on a boat to Amalfi, the name of which they cannot really pronounce either. But generally speaking they know we are in Italy. Europe.

Lately, however, during my efforts to grapple with one of the most sensitive and hot topics to date on the European agenda – immigration- I came to ask myself the same question as my American friend. I, too, am lost as to the European Union’s position, even though I am able to locate the building. But where is it, really, when it comes to addressing the unprecedented illegal mass migration that is currently reshaping the most crucial aspects of the European economic, social and political landscape?

Take Lampedusa, for instance. Now, if I were to explain the situation to my newly-made encounter from the States, I would put it simply: a small, once quiet and touristy island in Italy 115 km away from the Tunisian coast, this is where asylum-seekers first arrive before they evaporate somewhere in Europe. But Lampedusa has a problem: too many boats it can handle arrive filled with immigrants. And it also has few more: the locals are exceeded by the number of uninvited visitors and start to be fed up with it. They are kind people, mind you, but they cannot stay passive forever and watch their lives take a U-turn while the only source of revenue – tourism – turns into a fiction and they experience fear in their courtyard. Anyone would lose patience, sympathy, and even humanity.

Sadly for Lampedusa, it cannot count on its government’s attention too much and so it deals with this massive problem the best it can. But Lampedusa knows it is only a transitional territory, a gateway for the immigrants to spread across Europe. And so, Lampedusa, carrying its big problems on its feeble shoulders all alone might wonder, how is it that the broader European Union turns a blind eye to what is going on and leaves the burden of rescuing, welcoming, sheltering, feeding, shipping immigrants elsewhere on its population and resources alone?

Greece, which bleeds its way out of the worse financial crisis only to wake up the country with the highest debt in Europe (Italy comes second), could ask itself the same question, considering that 9 out of 10 illegal immigrants to Europe enter through its territory. I think even my 7-year old nephew would ask himself how is it that two of the most indebted countries, already fraught with corruption, poverty, unemployment, and other plagues that come with the realities and extent of their troubles, are left to deal with a tsunami of immigrants all by themselves. Because they happen to benefit from an immigrant-friendly geographical position?

So far, June 2014, it is estimated that around 42,000 people engaged in the crossing of the Mediterranean to reach the Italian shore, which is already the equivalent of last year. And Greece never even had African colonies in the recent history, so why should it deal with the aftermath for which other European countries should rightfully be responsible?

In light of the EU’s frail involvement and its mere acknowledgment that yes, “Houston, we have a problem”, the European countries will start taking decisions of their own. “If the mainstream does not act, extremists will,” warns the controversial journalist Douglas Murray during a BBC World News debate on the motion “Europe should shut the door on immigration”. This he said in 2013.

The man is a psychic. It is 2014 and the far-right National Front –yes, an anti-Europe, anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen – wins the European parliament elections in France. Founder of the party is the man who had the courtesy to state that “Ebola could solve France’s immigration problem in three months.” There you go. My hope is that what he needs is simply another speechwriter.

Crossing the English Channel, we find a similar trend – the UK Independence party wins. Their dream of getting out of the European Union is about to come true. Murray was saying the truth: the EU non-action triggers country per country reaction. The UK is already struggling to cope respectfully with legal immigration and has experienced major distress at the thought that the border would be open to a Bulgaro-Romanian invasion that never happened. They surely couldn’t bear the sight of more Somalis delivered via Lampedusa.

Migration is by no means a new phenomenon, but at the scale and the speed at which it occurs, it is a determining one for Europe nonetheless. It is a problem that waits for adequate solutions. With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing North Africa into Europe to final destinations I’m not even sure that any authority of any country takes note of, this has the potential of creating a domino effect. The Maltese and Italian coast guards try to save the immigrants from drowning when they can, but what if in time they decide not to anymore, submerged themselves by the incapacity to deal with new arrivals daily?

Most importantly, immigration is about people who wait for solutions. Behind the growing numbers of refugees that try to escape wars, poverty or simply try their luck and find a better life, there are people. People who do not put their lives at risk for fun. People who are desperate. People whom none of us would like to be. People who literally go through hell and back in hope for the better. Because try is all they have. They are often people smuggled, injured, kept in inhuman conditions in overcrowded camps until they are packed and sent somewhere else with few chances of ever knowing integration because Europe is too overwhelmed to be guaranteeing this today. A large number does not make it to the shore.

Illegal immigration is dead serious business. It impacts all levels of life and for everyone. Today, the Dublin II Regulation has a hard time proving its efficacy. Its objective of “avoiding asylum seekers from being sent from one country to the other” is clearly crippled. Nor should the “Member state into which the asylum seeker has irregularly crossed the border” hold full responsibility “for examining the asylum application.” Not in the conditions in which a Member state is but an entry point which can hardly support its own population and certainly not when it faces such number of incomers. That union makes strength should at the very least be shown by revising this regulation and adapting it to more contemporary circumstances.

Some interesting videos:

Childhood: made in concrete

Galati by the Danube - courtesy of Wikipedia

Galati by the Danube – courtesy of Wikipedia

I grew up in a concrete environment. During communist Romania, blocks of flats emerged from the ground and spread across cities like mushrooms after a fresh rain, with no architectural purpose other than squeezing people in. Glued one next to the other and separated by thin walls, we could hear our neighbours putting a glass on the table. Because some families had been forcedly relocated from the countryside to the cities, they brought along their rabbits and hens and kept them on the balconies. Being woken up by a rooster was not such uncommon business.

To pass the time, we, kids of the blocks, would take care of the kittens and puppies that were systematically taken away from their mothers and thrown by well-intentioned neighbours in the huge collective garbage bins. Yes, Romania has a big collection of stray dogs and cats. These were the most exotic animals we had, and we bathed them and fed them in our apartments while our parents were our for work, named them, buried them and cried for weeks when they eventually died from poisoning or smashed by a car, as it was often the case.galati romania
Instead of having a playground, my generation played hide and seek among garages. We also discovered that the concrete was actually perfect for rollerblading: Romania thus gave rise to a generation of rollerbladers. All day every day during holidays we would skate along the Danube border (on the uneven asphalt of what we called ‘Faleza’). Chunks of it were close to collapsing into the water, making the ride all the more exciting.

Part of the holiday fun was robbing the few communal trees of their fruits. We used to think they were everybody’s trees because no one truly owned the small patches of land in front of the blocks where they were growing. Still, some people took possession resolutely, as often in life, considering that if they were occupying a flat on the ground floor and the patch was right in front of their window, it had to be theirs.

And they put a fence, and so did all the other inhabitants of other ground floors who had a window to the land. Some planted a tree or the tree might have been there before and all of a sudden the fence proved it belonged to someone. The improvised “land owners” sometimes even started cultivating vegetables and so whenever we accidentally dropped a ball in “their” courtyard, the item was either confiscated or claimed back with a lot of struggle and tough negotiation.

I didn’t have any relatives at the countryside like most of my friends. So when the city trees had ripe fruits, I was curious to climb and do the picking. I would then eat the fruits dirty and dusty as I found them, something which, had my mum known, would have caused her a panic attack. I was never convinced that I was committing the act of stealing, since the tree itself might have been confused as to the identity of its owner.

Since apart from rollerblading and fruit picking there was not much for the kids to do in my hometown Galati, we also took to playing tennis or rather squash. Most of the times, this meant banging a ball against the block’s wall. A wall behind which there was usually a family life trying to go on quietly. Not once were we cursed, chased, thrown water or tomatoes at for making noise and instructed metaphorically to go somewhere else. Which we did. To practise the same activity on walls that were a bit further down the alley, where people were not our direct neighbours.

Or else we were spending whole summers just gathered around a small camping table and playing cards. We were quite a number so we constantly swapped teams: the winners would sit down and continue to play with the new team and so on. I remember that once someone threw such a big plastic bag filled with water that it bent the wooden table that was positioned between me and my best friend quite badly when it landed. Water splashed on our faces with sudden violence and we remained blank faced, cards in the hand and just looking into each other’s eyes for long seconds, incredulous at to what had just happened. Then we laughed, of course. Analysing the damages thereafter, we concluded that, had that huge bag, most likely thrown from the 3rd floor, landed on one of our lovely heads, we might not have finished college after all.

We did a lot of asphalt drawing in the kindergarten, too. That’s when my parents realized that they needed to orientate me towards something different than the arts. We also did rope skipping. But my all-time favourite “game” was throwing myself from the block’s stairs onto the bars on which carpets were normally dashed. I was getting quite good at these improvised even bars. No wonder we have a country full of talented gymnasts. This went on daily until one of my neighbours spread Vaseline on the bars and I was forced to take up other sports. Try as I might (and I did), it is not easy to remove Vaseline from metal. My revenge was as cold as the water I threw on him one evening as he was going to work.

Yes, we were loud, we were eating sunflower seeds and we were spitting the husk on the ground and leaving hips of dirt wherever we camped. But there was hardly any entertainment for us in the concrete covered town we were living in. Those were the highlights of our holidays.

Maybe that’s why I have come to appreciate nature so much, that’s why I crave for boundless fields. At least no one tries to take possession of the trees that grow in the part of the city I now live in and put them behind fences. They bloom freely, defying the concrete that surrounds them.

Woluwé - unmistakably after rain

Woluwé – unmistakably after rain

Where are you from?

San bushmen paintings, Drakensberg

San bushmen paintings, Drakensberg

This is the typical opening question to any conversation in Brussels, Belgium. It is not by chance: home to some of the most noteworthy European institutions, the city is full of temps or perms coming from everywhere. Today, an uncountable number of cities make room for expats as far as the world stretches. Some still don’t. While some people relocate for better comfort and on the pursuit of happiness, for others “migrate or die trying” seems to be the only option. Mankind is on the move.

Migration lies at the core of our survival as a species. 50,000 years ago, a handful of indigenous people of Southern Africa (the San, our common ancestors) undertook the journey of their lives: from one place to the other, through drought and ice, they walked and populated the Globe as diversely as we have it today. “Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey” is a fascinating documentary tracing back our origins, in time and space, placing humanity face-to-face with the reality that we all share the same genes.

There is no end to migration. I hope there is one to prejudice. “Old concepts of race are not only socially divisive; they are also scientifically wrong.” Watch and reflect.

My Name is Silvia and I’m an Immigrant

immigration

I am one of the hundreds of million of people who moved from one country to another. At twenty, I willingly left Romania and reluctantly landed in Belgium. Back then, I was just travelling somewhere else, having no idea that immigration would stick with me. Now that I have been living in Belgium for ten years and only went back to Romania twice for few days all in all, I know that immigration is my new ID.

So one September day in 2002 I took a plane to this misty country I knew I would hate. Because I would have gladly gone elsewhere, but my sister was living in Belgium, so it was a “logical” choice. Because I was leaving all my friends behind and at twenty, that’s all you care about. I also hated the weather intensely, I hated the city (Liège), I hated the people’s over-politeness – Belgians have a thing for repeating “Hello, how are you, what can I do for you, good-bye and have a good day” on every occasion. Very disturbing when you come from a country where this is not seen as a priority. I hated their patience: the little old lady counting the Euro cents to pay her bill in a crowded supermarket would have probably been publicly crucified in Romania. I also hated that I did not understand everything that people were telling me, even though I had studied French at school. Later on I would understand that there is French French, Belgian French, Liège French, etc. This explained my struggle.

I hated that, during my studies at the university and right from the beginning of my stay in Belgium I would be an “exceptional case”. Since Romania set up conditions that were impossible for me to fulfill so as to legally study abroad, I left as a tourist, I was accepted at the University of Liège, but had no authorization to stay for more than 3 months in Belgium. I therefore started a regularization process under the article “9.3 of the aliens’ legislation. (According to this article, there may be an exception to the principle that the application for residence should start in the country of origin).” I was the alien, the article and the exception. The process took one year and a half, during which I was not considered a “legal” resident.

“Exceptionally”, I also managed to go to Germany with the Erasmus programme: “normally” I did not have that right. There were a number of other things that I could not really do, like stay in Belgium after my studies, unless I had a job, for which I needed a working permit which was mission impossible to get.

Hateful times. A lot changes when you live in a different country, especially if you’re used to mum putting the plate in front of you while you watch TV, like I was: you start from scratch, you have no papers and you freak out whenever you drive and you see a Police motorcycle in your rearview mirror. You suffer from nostalgia (acutely, if you also lack light): you miss the mountains, the seaside, having a normal conversation in your own language, you even miss the stray dogs. You lose the notion of “home” and you feel, rightfully, that you will never fully integrate into the new country. There will always be words and jokes that you will not understand. How could you? You did not even watch the same cartoons as the others when you were a kid and you have overall different reference points and ways of having fun. You feel that you don’t say exactly what you mean in a different language. You have an accent, so you know that you will always have to answer the question “Where do you come from?”. But when you decide that you’re not going back, you learn to look in front of you, in time. Learning to be an immigrant is a continual process.

You also learn to wear a label. Accept it or not, being an immigrant is one. You discover that labels exist everywhere in the world (which you do not know if you never get out of your country) and that you just have to live with them, because so many other people do. I was at least associated with prostitution in the “eastern countries”, “Dracula”, and Nadia Comanici. My mother even had right to a remark such as “I know your gipsy music and I like it very much” coming from someone who wanted to make a good impression and prove that he knew something about Romania. It’s still a mystery how the guy survived my mother’s look.

Labels aside, go abroad and see how little some people actually know about your country. I was asked if we had electricity (Romania being somewhere on a different continent, in a different century and we, blood-sucking Romanians who all perform on the uneven bars being somehow fallen from a tree). The best line I got for introducing myself as a Romanian came from one of my most beloved university teachers. “Nobody is perfect”, he replied.

You learn how powerful the notion of luck is. And how this saves you, white Caucasian, from having your papers checked by the Police one day when you simply step off the bus. Two of the travelers are requested to make proof that they are Belgian residents. They are dark-skinned, so it’s not their lucky day. They are visible immigrants, while I do not bear that mark. But that day, I was the illegal one. Today, I am a Belgian citizen.

What I also learned, while living in a foreign country was that I did not want to live in my own. Yes, guilty as charge! I was therefore also pointed with the finger by some compatriots who accused me of not contributing to my country’s development, of being a deserter, bla, bla, bla. Have martyrs ever been rewarded while they were actually alive? Along with bullshit of this kind, brace yourself to hear some of the most surrealistic remarks that have ever toured the Planet when you ditch your homeland. Also, when you live elsewhere (the exact place is of no real importance), your friends and family at home will always think that you are richer, happier and luckier than they are. Don’t try to convince them otherwise: it is a strong belief.

Looking back, I would have certainly not learned so much, about myself, about others, about life, had I not done the “big move”. I now know how to balance my sense of in-betweenness, because I understand that this experience makes me the person I am today. I’m not sure I got the best of both worlds, but I have knowledge of them. And while I am both Romanian and Belgian, I am also none of them, really. I am an immigrant. And I’m getting better at it every day.