A cold coming

Another train arrives. About a thousand people disembark. Many families with small children, babies wrapped in blankets, lads with worn backpacks. The elderly and disabled are helped into wheelchairs. From grim carriages they make their way out onto the platform. Floodlit in the darkness, a thick layer of snow covers the ground around the tents and prefabs. It’s been snowing for several days. Temperatures have dropped to minus fifteen degrees. Then there’s a slight thaw. Gravel paths become a mess of mud and slush. Freezing rain starts to fall. A shadowy police cordon guides the emerging passengers towards registration.

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Train in which refugees travelled – taking photos in the camp was very much restricted

Welcome to Croatia. The Slavonski Brod transit centre is a brief stop-over on a route that begins in the throes of war. This trail of displacement involves risky voyages across land and sea, led only by the hope of a better future. Papers are processed. People enter the distribution area. It’s like a makeshift bazaar. At the doorway, sweetened tea is served in plastic cups. On one side of the railed passage through the tent, NGOs hand out health and sanitary supplies. On the other, volunteers distribute clothes. An array of donations is stacked on metal shelves and spread on trestle tables. Further items are sorted into labelled boxes – shoes and boots that quickly disappear, underwear, gloves, hats and scarves.

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Our work as volunteers in the distribution tent

Footwear is a high priority. Some people are wearing soaking trainers, wellingtons, even flip-flops. Socks are saturated, stuck to raw, chapped toes. One woman tries to squeeze into warmer boots. She winces with pain but doesn’t want to linger to get treatment for her chilblained feet. It’s all about moving, keeping going on adrenaline. The travellers are exhausted but they’re anxious to complete what is almost the last leg of their journey. Before borders close. Tense officers hurry people on.

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Some of the very necessary boots which I bought with donations from Ireland

They pause to gather essentials. We never have enough of what’s most needed – strong shoes for men and women, jackets, kids’ tracksuit bottoms. Generally, the people are thinner and of shorter stature than European sizes anticipate. As volunteers, we soon learn the Arabic word ‘asr’ar’, which is used to ask for something smaller. It’s a relief to hear ‘akbar’, meaning larger, as finding a bigger garment is easier. With gestures, guessing and a bit of humour, we try to meet requests as best we can. Strange linguistic combinations are coined: ‘geansaí’ sounds quite similar to the Arabic equivalent for jumper while ‘đrabat’, as it’s transliterated onto a piece of cardboard, and the Croatian ‘čarape’ are interchangeable terms for socks. ‘Shalwar’ – trousers – is our keyword in Farsi.

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Jackets and tracksuits for children from the Irish donation

New Year 2016… This is travelling through Europe if you’re sufficiently ‘lucky’ to be from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Only these nationalities are allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border and continue into Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and beyond. The right to seek asylum gets reduced to racial profiling. For those who are permitted to proceed, the mass movement is akin to the aftermath of World War II. People weary from conflict and near-drowning, trekking through ever-colder countries.

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Ready to give out New Year gifts to kids

A Syrian man describes the waves that almost claimed his family not far from the Turkish coast. A young woman from Afghanistan loses her phone with all her relatives’ contacts while she’s taking care of her siblings. Pregnant women look for stretchy clothes because ‘baby coming’. Mothers change and breast-feed infants in the UNICEF tent before they board the train again. Girls must cope with periods in unhygienic portaloos. Children have no chance of a hot meal or a bath. Yet their excitement at receiving a banana or a snack sends ripples of joy through the crowd. Moments of gladness… A mum’s delight when a pair of scruffy runners fits her little son. The charming guy who demands a ‘stylish’ jacket makes everybody laugh.

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The snowy road to the camp

‘Sister, sister!’ All we can offer are second-hand scraps of clothes, through smiles and elemental forms of communication that transcend our different languages, cultures and experiences. Humanity is expressed in these fleeting interactions between brothers and sisters. But now it’s time to go. People pick up the remains of their belongings. The rain has turned to snow. Feathery flakes drift down as the last groups are directed back to the platform. Three or four trains per day, with wagons often unlit and unheated. Volunteers from Croatia and across Europe wave goodbye. ‘Thank you!’ voices shout from open windows. Heading towards Germany or wherever their ultimate destination may lie. Those who pass through the surreal station that is the camp in Slavonski Brod are nearly there. Although who knows what reception awaits them when they reach their new home.

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Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Written after two weeks working as a volunteer in the Slavonski Brod refugee camp, Croatia, with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Refugee Support Initiative of the Centre for Peace Studies, Zagreb. For further details see: http://welcome.cms.hr/index.php/en/

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Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

Déjà vu. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Like refugees from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the scale of this movement is far greater. This is Europe, 2015.

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Most EU states have been reluctant to deal with this crisis. Countries of arrival and transit have been struggling to cope. Some leaders have used language tantamount to hate-speech. At the same time, across Europe, people are showing solidarity with our sisters and brothers who’ve made perilous journeys from even more dangerous places. Offering hands-on assistance and appealing to our governments to accept refugees.

Sadly, it took the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, almost two weeks ago, to finally awaken our collective conscience. The photograph of this Syrian boy, lying tiny and lifeless on a tourist beach in Turkey, has sparked a huge reaction. Yet, over recent months and years, many children have drowned in the Mediterranean as families – in the hope of escaping conflict – make risky crossings on routes run by traffickers. Just this weekend, another boat capsized near the Greek islands. Fifteen victims of this latest tragedy were babies or young girls or boys. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been killed in Syria and other war-ravaged regions. Without any public outcry.

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Now, prompted by both sympathy and shame, support for refugees among ordinary Europeans has galvanised. In Ireland, we’ve been signing petitions, pledging beds in our homes, getting involved in the aid effort, writing to the media and to politicians. We’ve attended protests in Dublin – at the Famine Memorial on 5th September and at the Spire last Saturday (12th). People have gathered demonstrations and events throughout the country, calling on the Irish government to do more. On Sunday, 13th September, hundreds of us stood on Sandymount Strand to form the message ‘refugees welcome’ for an aerial photo organised by a coalition of prominent NGOs.

Given its grim history of emigration, Ireland should have a particular affinity with those who are forced to flee. The country still has many recession-related problems, but these can’t be used as an excuse. Accepting refugees is a moral obligation for any state which claims to respect human rights. Indeed, a humane response to this issue could be a significant step in Ireland’s social recovery. It requires a shift in policy – to focus on people, not simply on figures. This approach could benefit the nation as a whole. Especially at a time when, though economic indicators appear positive, levels of disadvantage have grown.

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On 5th September, evidence of this need for overall change could be found not far away from the Famine Memorial. To conclude the protest, the crowd spread out around the bridge over the Liffey for a minute’s silence in memory of all who have lost their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe. We followed the other participants to the opposite bank of the river. There, a group of homeless people were sitting on a bench. They were understandably upset about this sudden concern for refugees while they remain deprived of the right to shelter. Their objections were largely ignored. But, as chance would have it, we ended up in conversation. Together – Irish citizens who this country has badly failed, Bosnians who’d come here as refugees in nineties and their families – we agreed that we were ‘on the same side’. Because everyone deserves a safe place they can call home. Whether they’ve been displaced by war or dictatorial regimes, or whether they’ve been dispossessed by inequality in Western ‘democracies’.

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Public pressure can influence political proposals, so we hope the current momentum can be sustained. On 10th September, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that Ireland will accept ‘up to 4000 persons’ over the next two years. This is an improvement on the government’s previous commitment to admit a mere 600 of those presently seeking refuge in Europe and a further 520 Syrians from outside the EU. However, it’s vital to ensure that all of these people are accommodated in hospitable environments. They will also require access to services, particularly in relation to health and education. Appropriate English language support must be provided and counselling should be made available. Communities must unite to welcome these new arrivals who have come from such appalling situations.

The implementation of these programmes cannot mirror the degrading system of ‘direct provision’. This has left people who seek asylum in Ireland trapped in debilitating and restrictive conditions – often for years on end – while they await decisions on their status. As numerous human rights organisations demand, this system must be immediately abolished. Survivors of trauma should be treated with dignity, not subjected to institutional abuse.

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Ultimately, the causes of Europe’s refugee crisis have to be addressed. Stopping the war in Syria, which has now uprooted over half the country’s population and claimed at least a quarter of a million lives, must be a priority. To date, there has been very little political or public engagement in Ireland in this regard. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement will hold a protest outside the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd September to raise awareness as to why Syrians are refugees. It’s important that, although their plight seems almost forgotten, we think of those who are still under attack inside Syria.

All of these issues – tackling homelessness, welcoming refugees, respecting everybody who seeks asylum here, considering Ireland’s role as an ally of people affected by conflict – could be part of a new agenda for this country. They call on us, as individuals, to take whatever action we possibly can. For history will judge us on our humanity. In July, along with other members and friends of the Bosnian community in Ireland, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As well as remembering this atrocity, we pointed out that we’re witnessing similar horrors in Syria today. We can’t just turn away – we must do something (please see links below). And forgive me if I sound shrill, but this stuff is personal. Because, reader, I married a refugee.

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Some useful links:

What you can do – via Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – including links to organisations bringing to humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe:

http://www.mrci.ie/our-work/international-work/news-international-work/refugeeswelcome-what-you-can-do/

‘Refugees welcome’ aerial photo – via Irish Refugee Council:

http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/irish-people-spell-out-their-welcome-to-refugees-ahead-of-crucial-eu-meeting/4143

Reflections of a medical evacuee from Bosnia who came to Ireland in 1994 on the experience of Bosnian refugees – RTE Drivetime 7/9/15:

https://vodhls.rasset.ie/manifest/audio/2015/0907/20150907_rteradio1-drivetime-irelandspl_c20842389_20842392_261_.m3u8

Also see RTE Player – Six-One News 7/9/15 and The Week in Politics 13/9/15:

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/

Letter to the Irish Times published on 1/9/11: 

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/seeking-refuge-in-europe-1.2335262

Have yourself a merry little listen!

Handing over to the gang of three… Here are my daughters singing their own multilingual production of ‘Silent Night’. Please take a few minutes to enjoy a Bosnian-Irish musical treat!

We wish you Nollaig Shona agus Sretna Nova Godina!

For other posts in this series, please see: 

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

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On a twelfth birthday at Christmas

Christmas birthdays add extra sparkle to the annual festivities… and a lot more hassle. My second daughter is one of those blessed or cursed to have been born in this crazy season. Twelve years ago, on 12 December, she tumbled wiry and wailing into the world. A Thursday’s child, the line from the rhyme saying ‘far to go’ was inscribed in her cheeky look. A tad superstitious, I was relieved she’d been induced on her due date, rather than letting Nature prolong the torment of labour until Friday the thirteenth. Somehow, though, I don’t think she’d have waited. Full of energy from the start, she began to make an impression by exercising her lungs. Sleep was pretty low on her agenda. Aching and light-headed, having been awake over twenty-four hours, I could’ve done with a bit of rest. Instead, I spent the night after her arrival waltzing her around the post-natal ward. Five babies snoozed peacefully in between their feeds. One did not.

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And that’s been the story since… Maybe it’s the infamous ‘middle child syndrome’. With an older and, four years later, a younger sister, Number Two has learned to assert herself. Although that’s no problem to someone so adept at stealing the limelight! Her first Christmas set the tone. Youthful and idealistic, I was determined that everything would be calm and bright. In hindsight, I was way too high on adrenalin. Trying to write assignments for my Masters, decorating the tree, squeezing back into trim skirts (thanks the miracle of the Japanese Velcro corset) and even planning the perfect Christmas dinner! My colicky new-born did her utmost to sabotage the big day. The meal was over-cooked and a veritable disaster. The baby howled through it. Her elder sister, then aged two, fell asleep. Tough turkey was served with a sauce of tears and exhaustion. But we survived.

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Slowly that weary winter melted into spring. My diva cut teeth early and ran before she walked. Soon, she was crowned the queen of tantrums. A title she still holds! My husband claims it’s because she was ‘made in Sarajevo’. I was pregnant with her when we returned to Ireland. Perhaps the upheaval of moving had some effect… or the DNA of her volatile parents. Whatever influences might’ve shaped her personality, she’s quite a conundrum. Fearless yet deep-feeling, sociable but occasionally shy. A speed-devil on bikes and scooters, she picks herself up quickly when she ends up over the handlebars. Sensitive, enthusiastic, loving, madcap, artistic… And now the candles glow twelve on her birthday cake. Nearly a teenager!

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It’s scary, the too-fast passage of years, the future that lies ahead of her. She’s growing up into the maze of modern womanhood. One minute dancing to Taylor Swift, the next she’s curled beside me like my Christmas child of 2002. Then I realise how lucky I am to have her and her sisters. Even as a flawed, unorthodox kind of mother who freaks at the stereotypes still associated with that role. At least, though, dirty nappies and puke-stains are things of the past. These days, life’s more about slamming doors, jokes and neon nail-polish, rows and times of the month and, when needed, simply being a cry-on shoulder. As, one by one, each of my daughters discovers it ain’t always easy to be a girl.

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Some kind of tune

For a while, it seemed my pen was running dry. But recent reports about how women have been affected by Ireland’s financial crisis triggered this response. An attempt at a protest song and homage to Dylan… minus the mouth organ:

Tune 1

 

Subterranean Home Truth Blues

Have babies too young,

Get priced outta town,

Big suit sellin’

Houses on commuter belt,

Laughs with his banker friends,

You sign – thinkin’,

‘Roof over children’s heads’.

But the ink’s permanent.

Look out girl

Read the small print.

Guys in the government

Gamble with the balance sheet.

You work hard, puttin’ food on the table,

And it appears

That things are

Tickin’ over –

Just raisin’ kids, upskillin’,

When the crash hits.

Tune 3

Bailout – you’re screwed,

Equity is negative,

Banks make phone-threats

To families in debt.

Meanwhile the troika – the trinity,

The new church, the state’s

Right hand – is absolvin’

The filthy rich.

Look out girl

You’re livin’ in sin

If you don’t believe

The neoliberal creed

That money’s morality

And virtue lies in greed…

You’re to blame –

Should be ashamed.

‘Well, bless me patriarchs,

For I’ve been ripped off.’

Tune 5

Qualify, diversify,

Enquire, apply,

Pick up precarious,

Temporary projects –

Never mind no pay,

Must keep in the fray…

Embargo on recruitment –

What to do? Emigrate?

Look out girl

It’s grim for you,

Chief losers are women –

Bearing the brunt of

Austerity’s burden.

Impact on wages,

High cost of childcare –

Hey, what employer’s

Gonna hire a mother?

Tune 8

‘Got sick, gettin’ well,’

Politicians tell us.

But the ‘recovery’

Seems a bit chimerical.

Outside the quarters

Of power and privilege,

Still tough for people –

And it’s becomin’ more and more unequal.

Look out girl

Even though it hurts,

Better stop ‘em stealin’

Our verve, hope and love.

Wanna be a success?

Rise like a lioness…

From each knock-down.

Yeah, teach your children –

‘Don’t follow leaders

And watch the water meters.’

Links:

The peerless Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: 

Articles from 3/10/14 on ESRI study regarding women and austerity in Ireland: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/married-or-co-habiting-women-hit-harder-by-austerity-1.1950132

http://www.independent.ie/business/personal-finance/latest-news/the-working-mothers-and-families-who-paid-the-bill-for-austerity-30634349.html

From the Latin Bridge

Heads turn here. No longer for a glimpse of visiting royals… Not at the shock of shots. One hundred years since the wearer of a feathered hat slumped against his dying wife in their open-topped car, this is history’s junction. The silt-heavy Miljacka flows past, too shallow to drown an assassin and his bungling accomplices. The disturbance as the culprits were apprehended, choking on non-lethal doses of cyanide, has dissipated among the city’s ghosts.

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Now there are just pedestrians, checking the traffic. The impatient gauging their distance from the oncoming tram before they dash across the road. Those prepared to wait glance to make sure the boy racer roaring along the quay in a turbo diesel hits the brakes at the red light. You never know. He could be the son of a politician. Festina lente, as it says on the new bridge downstream – požuri polako in Bosnian tempo. At least dodgy drivers are ordinary hazards. Unlike the sniper-fire that hailed on Sarajevo in the nineties. Or the bullets that heralded the Great War.

They stand at ‘the street corner that started the twentieth century’. So the poster wrapped around the museum proclaims.

‘But it started in 1900.’

Their eldest child questions the logic of the notice. Yet she grasps its metaphor. She’s five years younger than Gavrilo Princip was when he raised his weapon. And took aim. He glowers – a hollow-cheeked teenager – above the entrance. Franz Ferdinand’s whiskers curl on the other side of the building. His stare inspects the river as it gurgles through the capital of his empire’s annexation.

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A thunderstorm threatens. The air has grown oppressive. The vibe between the couple on Latinska ćuprija is tempestuous. That’s become their norm – a dynamic of power and revolt. It wasn’t always like this. But difficult years have led them to their July crisis. She feels she’s borne the brunt of it… as a woman, as the mother of his children. The balance that was vital to their marriage has been shaken.

‘You’re as smug as he was.’

‘Who?’

She casts a rueful eye at the archduke. ‘His highness.’

‘Tito dragi!’

Exasperated, he invokes a dead dictator – now icon whose omniscience may extend to secessionist wives. As if that’ll stop her launching into another of her tirades… She blames him, by default, for much of what’s gone wrong. These days he hasn’t a clue what she wants. Nor does she.

Freedom? Or maybe just to be free to be lovers again. Like the first time they came together to Sarajevo. It was 1996. He was returning to his war-wrecked hometown. She was enthralled by the indestructible beauty beneath the ruins. The city was rooted in him and they were joined by its trauma. But, full of joy, they were reckless. At the crenellated husk of the national library, he’d pulled her away from the dust of incinerated words. Even today, you must be wary of the unexploded. Especially in more isolated areas.

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‘Don’t pee on a landmine.’

She’d instructed their youngest daughter a few days earlier. Half joke, half advice for the inevitable emergency as they reached an ancient fort atop a peak in Herzegovina. The thrills of travelling with kids! From flying back like swallows every summer, their children are familiar with the drill. The chances of detonation by urination may be slim. Particularly for girls. If you’ve got to the point of squatting, you’re probably OK. As a rule, though, it’s safer not to walk on the grass. Unless you’re with someone who knows the territory.

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Bosnia remains a wounded country. Under the arched doorway of Vijećnica, a plaque testifies to an attack at the end of August 1992. The text is short but rancorous. It states that over two million books, periodicals and documents were consumed by flames. Irreplaceable thought and learning lost. But the edifice has finally been restored. The former city hall, which later became a repository of literature, gleams anew. An architectural jewel – connoisseurs remark on how its Austro-Hungarian grandeur adopts a ‘Moorish’ style. That meeting of East and West, a taste of the Orient in Europe… It’s been lavished with such stereotypical praise. The bricks are striped in shades of Bajadera nougat – hints of almond, hazelnut. Inside, the foyer rises to a hexagon of sky. She looks up, into its stained glass floral patterns. Dizzy, she sniffs back tears.

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This was where Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were received. In between two attempts to slay them – the second of which was successful. Some say that carelessness was their graces’ downfall. Flouncing around, they seemed blasé about security. You’d wonder why they headed to this peripheral province. It’s fanciful, but did the Habsburg heir and the humbler Duchess of Hohenberg think of their trip as a romantic break? A myth, yet it wouldn’t have been a bad way to escape Viennese snobbery and Emperor’s disdain for his niece-in-law. Poor old Soph… She always felt sorry for the forgotten collateral spouse. The role of snaha – female relative by marriage – isn’t easy.

Maybe she should’ve rebelled. Although often struggles only cause more pain, even if this was never their intention. Take Princip. His motives might be debatable, but he didn’t set out to spark a worldwide bloodbath. Hapless lad or terrorist, he died one-armed and tubercular – a prisoner in Theresienstadt – before the end of the war his actions had ignited. While millions of young men like him were gunned down, shelled and gassed.

‘Can we go to see the statue?’

‘What statue?’

‘The one they put up this year.’

She saw it on the news in Ireland. The British channels covered the story at the kick-off of their World War I commemoration fest. Most cameras focused on the assassination site on the Latin Bridge. But some lenses zoomed out further, to a monument erected in East Sarajevo. Aka Lukavica. Across entity lines, après la guerre, this erstwhile suburb appropriated the city name in a manner sounding rather Berlinesque. It’s not too hard to bypass. After a scattering of buildings, the road melts back among farms and thicketed countryside. This is the chunk of Bosnia defined as ‘Republika Srpska’ by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Detached red-roofed houses accommodate generations, floor upon floor.

Quiet, she gazes out the passenger window. Thinking of the unsaid between the pair of them… Cornflowers and bindweed mingle with garden gladioli. Errant petals brighten fences that can’t enclose roaming hens. In pastures beside some farmhouses a few cows graze. At one driveway a guard dog lies chained. Lazing in the heat, he shows no interest in his charge – an incarcerated beast.

‘Oh my God, a bear!’

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The children jump at her shout, straining to see if she’s right. But they missed it. They’re clamouring to go back. Their father isn’t pleased about having to do a U-turn on a dangerous bend. He doesn’t believe her. Now she’s hoping that the creature really is ursine. Otherwise he’ll devour her. Though who could imagine something so bizarre? They pull in tight along the verge outside the residence of – yes – a captive bear. It seems crazed, pacing up and down an iron cage. He gets out for a closer look. The animal lumbers into the hut at the top of its rusted confines. As if it’s scared of humans.

‘And wolves! Vukovi!’

The kids yell at two wildish dogs slinking across the overgrown lawn into wooden kennels. They’re leaner than the German shepherd sprawled on sentry duty. Grey-backed, buff at the chest, their legs are longer than those of domestic mutts. Their snouts are pointier too. Čuvaj se psa – ‘beware of the dog’ – reads the sign at the gate. An understatement, considering the menagerie, but they’re more nervous about the pet collector. One of those ‘bear-like’ Balkanites who populate foreign commentary on this region? Luckily it appears that nobody’s at home. So they won’t have to explain their borderline trespass. This mini-zoo isn’t open to the public.

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Then they resume their search for Princip. Though there’s no way it can compete with the attraction of neighbourhood fauna. But first, a stop for coffee… In a café called ‘Dublin’. It’s got the Irish flag printed on its sugar sachets and a window adorned with a scene from O’Connell Street. The waiter has no idea what inspired its Hibernian theme but he gives them clear directions to the statue. They find Gavrilo lording over a park across from rows of apartment blocks. He’s been upgraded from the sullen waif with a pistol stuck in his pants or drawn from the worn lining of his jacket. Here he poses, broad-shouldered, above his Cyrillic name. A wilting yellow bloom in one hand and ribbons in Serbian colours in the other, he seems a bit too burly, too mature.

Sum17

A pensioner in a blue singlet addresses her as ‘young lady’ – a welcome compliment for a mother of three kids. The old guy wants a photo with his hero. It’s a quaint request in the selfie era. She takes a couple of snapshots. He’ll bring them back to America, where he’s lived for fifteen years. Questions about why he left his homeland float unuttered. She guesses he’s more ex-communist than war criminal. She could be misjudging him. He might be neither. Or both. They talk about Ireland. She tells him the First World War was virtually deleted from Irish history. Until it got a retro-trendy revamp. Mostly for the sake of diplomacy, so that heads of state can honour… what? Heinous waste. The futility of fighting is tangible in the damage still visible throughout Bosnia. And lodged in innumerable hidden scars.

Any hope of ‘Stoljeće mira nakon stoljeća ratova’? ‘A Century of Peace after the Century of Wars’ – the title of a multimedia spectacle performed on 28 June. Back in the city centre its promotional banner hangs across the main street. Almost one month later it’s beginning to sag, eclipsed by an advert for the Film Festival and a Bajram greeting from the Islamic Community. A few more days until the end of Ramadan… At sunset each evening, cannon-shot rings out from a mosque in the old town. There’s an intake of breath before the muezzin’s call confirms it was fired in worship, not in warfare. Or maybe that’s just her over-reaction. Based on what she remembers – the blast of homemade explosives, the numbing thud of mortars. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a girl from ‘bandit country’ got involved with a guy from Sarajevo.

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Their birthplaces are, officially, at peace. Armed conflict has shifted from Bosnia and Northern Ireland, back to the Middle East. Gaza under bombardment, Iraq riven apart… After over three years of carnage, Syria’s cries are ignored. So are those of other neglected ‘civil’ wars. The ‘fortunate’ get a fast-fading media spot, a flurry of hashtags – #PrayFor all in the plane that was blown to scraps of fuselage over Ukraine. They die as images ogled in cyberspace. But does the world give a toss about these viral martyrs, any more than it does about those who are mourned off-line? And even when outrage goes beyond a ‘share’ or a ‘retweet’ it seems so ineffective. The cronies of today’s great powers protect their interests regardless. As people are slaughtered.

‘Like in Srebrenica.’ He stubs out his cigarette.

‘Yeah, it’s happening again.’

Sum12

The headstones in the cemetery at Potočari date lives cut short in July 1995. White marble, except for the green wood stumps which mark where remains were buried on the recent anniversary – the earth is still fresh around them. The youngest of this year’s 175 identified victims was only fourteen, the age of their first-born. Over 6,000 others have already been laid to rest. Of the 8,372 known to have been massacred. The men and boys of entire families wiped out in a ‘safe haven’… under the watch of the United Nations.

They’re recorded in lengthy columns bearing the same surnames. Even if they can be seen and heard no more, their existence is inscribed on a crescent of giant slabs. Graves stretch into the hills and the horror can’t be counted. But there’s a presence. And its weight is what visitors carry with them. Forever. A reminder. In front of the rose-rimmed gathering space, a fountain gently weeps. He holds out his hands in Muslim prayer. She blesses herself. Useless gestures… Yet this place demands them. Humanity has failed here. So has God, many would argue, though men did the killing.

Sum25

Confronting the reality of genocide stifles personal strife. They leave in silence. Their children are no strangers to Bosnian graveyards, but the little one whispers at the exit:

‘Mama, are there any wars in Ireland?’

‘No, lovie. Not now.’ She hugs the worried child. ‘There used to be… A long time ago.’

The twentieth century is aeons away for kids of the twenty-first. Though, with her Arabic name and big, dark eyes, their youngest could pass for Palestinian or Syrian. And all three of them look Bosnian – post-war by the serendipity of the decade of their birth. A peaceful childhood, it’s the least that they deserve. Everyday disputes seem so petty in Srebrenica.

Sum9

A land of tough love – the spectre of war gives a sharp sense of perspective. In Bosnia, you don’t quarrel about what can still be mended. They want to fix things but, when passion sours to bitter accusation, it’s impossible. Enemies are often those who had the most in common. Rebuilding any relationship, whether intimate or international, needs trust… and commitment.

‘You must be strong.’

She’s been told. She resents the implication that stoical strength is a female obligation. Along the lines of ‘stay alive for our children’… or whatever Franz said to Sophie when she was fatally injured. But, by then, he was also doomed. Perhaps, for all their aristocratic flaws, there’s truth to the legend of their closeness.

‘This might be my last time in Sarajevo.’

He doesn’t listen, doesn’t want to hear. It shatters her to admit this about a city that’s seduced her, somewhere so ingrained in their children. A place that’s been their link for twenty years, since the siege… They could surrender to the friction that’s escalated between them. Break up. Balkanise. Be done with each other for good. She’s barricaded her heart in self-defence. Yet she wishes she could grab his sun-steeped hand and waltz away with him. To rediscover their kiss, to try to reconcile.

Ireland’s solidarity with Syria

Forgotten people die forgotten. They’re tortured, raped and shelled without anyone noticing. We’ve seen their unremembered faces, their dismembered bodies. They’re on our screens daily, but we’re not watching. After almost three years, gore becomes boring. The world has tuned out from the war in Syria. Victims of chemical weapons can’t compete with Miley Cyrus in the annual internet ratings. Who wants to recall hundreds of poisoned children? The kerfuffle over US intervention dissolved into anti-climax as the story just got bloodier. Devoid of any clear script, it’s now portrayed as extremists killing each other.

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An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict began as a popular uprising in 2011. While this peaceful revolution met brutal oppression from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, its spirit survives among many Syrians who strive for a democratic, tolerant state. However, in the turmoil of war, such aspirations have been hijacked and thwarted by fundamentalist groups with foreign links. Opposition forces are a disparate bunch, increasingly at loggerheads. The situation appears too complex to resolve.

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Of course, this has served as a perfect excuse to ignore it. Russia’s clever manoeuvres on behalf of its tarnished ally enabled Western leaders to sheathe their unenthusiastic sabres. Global powers selectively forgot the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ – a commitment to act against mass atrocities which was made by the United Nations after its failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria has continued to escalate. Agencies such as UNHCR are struggling to deal with its human consequences – over 2.3 million refugees, half of them children. The impact of the conflict on Syria’s youngest citizens has been severe. By November, it was reported that over 11,000 children had been killed in the fighting. Since then, more have perished. Cases of polio, particularly among infants have been confirmed by the WHO, while curable diseases have proven fatal due to lack of healthcare and sanitation. Children are now dying from starvation and freezing winter temperatures have taken their toll.

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The facts are tragic. But how can Ireland respond? Syria may have slipped from the headlines, but donations from Irish people to organisations providing humanitarian assistance have contributed to a relief effort of historic proportions. As individuals, it seems we haven’t entirely forgotten Syria’s plight. It must also be acknowledged that the government has given significant aid to help those living in refugee camps in surrounding countries. However, at state level, Ireland could do more. Millions are displaced within Syria’s borders, with many in desperate need of food and medicine. Donor nations should insist that aid reaches civilians most at risk, especially those trapped in besieged towns.

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Furthermore, Ireland, along with other EU members, must be prepared to resettle a substantial number of Syrians. Amnesty International has described Europe’s response to this immense refugee crisis as ‘pitiful’. Thus far, the Irish approach to it has been disappointing. Last year, Ireland accepted only 35 people from Syria with a promise to take 90 more in 2014. This figure is negligible compared to, for instance, the 10,000 places pledged by Germany or the approximately 15,000 Syrians admitted by Sweden since 2012. Contrasting present Irish policy with that pursued in relation to past conflicts, our official attitude seems to have lost any vestiges of ‘fáilte’. In the 1990s, more than 1000 Bosnians – refugees and injured people requiring urgent treatment – were brought to Ireland. My husband, who had been seriously wounded in Sarajevo, was one of those medical evacuees. In many ways, we owe our family to the resettlement programme devised for Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time. Two decades later, Syria holds personal reminders.

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That’s why we, together with our three daughters, went to the gathering to mark the Global Day of Solidarity with Syria which took place in Dublin on Saturday 11 January. Attended by people of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds, it was part of an international campaign to refocus the world’s attention. The military blockades imposed on areas under siege were highlighted, with some participants fasting in support of Syrians who are starving as a result of this tactic. Above all, the need for a speedy end to the conflict, followed by a just resolution process involving the investigation of war-crimes and prosecution of their perpetrators, was emphasised. A petition expressing these objectives was signed by many passers-by while a symbolic ‘refugee tent’ added an eye-catching attraction. The Irish event was inevitably smaller than the marches and manifestations held in larger cities but, in front of the Spire on a busy afternoon, it made a striking impression. It also issued a powerful statement – saying Ireland won’t forget the Syrian people. Now we must act on this message and encourage our government to do likewise.

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You can still sign the petition online at:

https://www.change.org/petitions/petition-for-the-protection-of-the-people-and-human-rights-in-syria?share_id=gXkcOQnRzC

For more pictures of the event in Dublin see: http://www.demotix.com/users/robin-english/profile

Children of many languages

I envy my kids. Having grown up in a monolingual family, I’m green-eyed when I hear my daughters speaking Bosnian. Jealous of their double-barrelled identity – how they slip between worlds and curl their tongues around words that, for me, still have a foreign feel.

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‘Ja sam tvoja učiteljica,’ says my six-year-old, with a strong hint of Sarajevo in her voice. When it’s a question of pronunciation, I couldn’t have a better teacher. Her grammar also flows more smoothly than mine. She mightn’t always get it right, but her inflections seem the product of osmosis. No brainpower wasted deliberating over whether the case-ending is dative or instrumental. Her Bosnian sounds instinctive… sometimes she even uses it in her sleep.

Her ease with her two languages isn’t surprising. Children tend to learn more implicitly than adults. Thus, they appear to acquire second language words and phrases quicker than many older learners. However, the context of learning is also important. The extent to which children are exposed to two (or more) languages and the situations in which they use them can influence the nature of their linguistic development. Growing up in a bilingual environment, communication (with parents, teachers, friends, siblings and other relatives) is likely to draw on both languages in ways that are directly relevant to the child’s experience. As children develop, their knowledge of two languages should gradually become more complex… if their use of each is supported and allowed to diversify in an age-appropriate manner. Second language acquisition in such ‘natural’ contexts is generally more successful than ‘instructed’ learning, typically confined to lessons of limited duration held outside the region in which the language is spoken.

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Children from immigrant backgrounds should, therefore, be in a good position to develop bilingual skills. They’re often immersed in an environment in which the dominant language and/or cultural traditions are different to those of their families. Linguistically and socially, they may feel more ‘at home’ in this milieu than parents who grew up abroad. But at what cost…? ‘Minority’ languages and cultures can be rendered inaudible under the volume of the ‘majority’ voice. Certainly, to reach their full potential, children require a thorough knowledge of the language and cultural codes of the society in which they live. However, this should complement – not conflict with – their learning from extra-curricular sources, such as home, extended family and community. Integration must be a two-way process, one that fosters intercultural understanding. Shameful cases of racial profiling, involving Roma children in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, have recently highlighted the need to respect families’ home cultures and languages. These can contribute to and challenge prevailing discourse. Negotiation may be necessary, but this can be enriching… for everyone.

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Let’s take a look, then, at practical ways to support children’s home languages. This is an issue central to my research field so I ought to have a few answers! There are many experts in this area whose work I’d recommend to anyone who might be interested in reading further (please see the websites mentioned at the end of this post). But, for now, I want to keep things jargon-free. As throughout my blog, I’ll also illustrate some points from my own experience. The ideas I’m offering here are written more from the perspective of a parent than a postdoc.

Much advice exists as to ‘best practice’ in the raising of bilingual children. Sometimes, though, I find it can sound a bit too prescriptive. Or it gives the impression that bilingualism is state of perfect fluency which can be seamlessly achieved. This can risk demotivating parents, especially when progress doesn’t seem as steady as they may hope. Plus the literature often focusses on internationally ‘prestigious’ languages – ones that have an economic value. Unlike, for example, Bosnian, which – despite its alluring musicality – couldn’t be described as ‘lucrative’. On-line suggestions can consequently appear ‘ivory towerish’ or read with the saccharine ring of the ‘model parent’ who believes that Mandarin lessons are just what his/her toddler needs as a head-start en route to Harvard. Nevertheless, studies across the world, conducted in diverse social contexts, have proven the merit of approaches to learning which activate children’s plurilingual repertoires.

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Efforts that bring together family, school and community, have been found effective in sustaining the home languages of children from immigrant backgrounds. Indeed, in such cases, they can be particularly necessary, since mother tongue attrition is high when kids are being educated primarily through the society’s ‘majority’ language. Home language maintenance initiatives can thus combat the risk of linguistic loss and allow the children of immigrant parents to avail of the many advantages of bilingualism. These include:

  • Enhanced capacity to learn other languages.
  • Better problem-solving skills, due to more flexible thinking. This can be very useful when learning school subjects such as maths.
  • Greater ease in overall literacy development – reading and writing skills can transfer between the child’s two languages. Children who are literate in their home language have shown to be more adept at developing ‘biliteracy’.

I’ll end with a few tips for parents whose kids are growing up with two languages, especially when this dynamic results from immigration. These thoughts are followed by a short and ‘scary’ movie! Here, I’ll use the terms ‘home’, ‘heritage’ and ‘minority’ languages interchangeably and the ideas I’ll outline are as applicable to multilingual as to bilingual families. For additional research on this theme, check out the web-links below.

1. Use home languages!

If you’re a native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language, always use your mother ​tongue with your child. Our native language comes most naturally to us. It enables us to express affection in ways that might be language-specific. For example, Slavic diminutives to indicate fondness, such as the Bosnian -ica and -ić suffixes, lose some of their feeling when translated into English. Our native language also conveys cultural concepts. From the names of festivals and practices associated with them, to proverbs, abstract values and words for family members. In Bosnian, for instance, an intricate network of terms is used for the identification of aunts, uncles and cousins.

If you grew up bilingual – for example as a ‘second generation’ immigrant – try to use your ‘heritage’ language (that of your parents) as much you can with your child. As a formative language for you, it can be part of your child’s linguistic and cultural inheritance.

Also, if you’re a native-speaker of the ‘majority’ language, support your partner’s attempts to raise your child bilingually. Learn his/her language yourself and use it, to the best of your abilities, with your child. It doesn’t matter if your proficiency isn’t at ‘native-speaker’ level – don’t let grammatical worries get in the way of talking. You can play a vital role in preserving the ‘minority’ language by making it a channel of communication. From my family’s experience, this is particularly important if the father is the native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language and there isn’t much chance to use it in the immediate community.

2. Don’t expect perfection!

Globally, bilingualism is prevalent over monolingualism, but most people aren’t ‘balanced bilinguals’ who are equally proficient in two languages. The degree to which languages develop depends on contextual factors. In bilingual societies, both languages are prominent in everyday life, education and media. However, when one language is dominant – as English is in a lot of anglophone countries – parents may have to enhance the child’s environment by creating opportunities for bilingualism. But how?

  • Buy or borrow children’s books in the ‘minority’/home language and read these to your child. Help him/her learn to read and write in the language of the home.
  • Songs and DVDs in the home language are fun ways of increasing your child’s exposure to it.
  • Internet games and resources are also very engaging and children can use technology to research school topics through their home languages. Skype provides a handy link to relatives in other countries and, as an audio-visual means of communication, it may be easier for children than telephone calls.
  • Visits to family in places where the home language is spoken. Even if relatives abroad are themselves bilingual, ask them to use their native language with your child.
  • Contact with the home language community within the child’s country of residence can be significant too, although access to this may depend on where families live.
  • If possible, enrol your child in a complementary school. These schools, which offer weekend or evening classes, have been established to support children’s home languages in many states. In Ireland, the Polish community is particularly active in this regard, with over twenty weekend schools teaching Polish language and culture to children across the country. For smaller, more scattered communities, it can be difficult to set up such schools – parental involvement and commitment are the key to their existence. Complementary schools can provide kids with opportunities to use/learn the home language alongside other children, as well as to develop biliteracy and understand more about aspects of their culture.

3. Make home-school links with languages!

Talk to your child in the home language about what they did at school. Help them with school-related words that mightn’t normally enter into ordinary conversation (e.g. subject-specific terms). When children are doing homework, use the home language as a medium for discussion. My kids, with some support, explain maths exercises in both Bosnian and English. They also translate Irish reading passages and spellings into Bosnian.

Encourage teachers and schools to become more aware of children’s home languages and cultures. Schools, in Ireland at least, may differ in the emphasis they place on intercultural education, despite the fact that it’s essential for all children (see my previous post ‘Back to intercultural school’). However, many welcome the involvement of immigrant parents and value their role as representatives of children’s diverse languages. This can enable parents to participate in activities with a home language focus, such as storytelling, which some schools already facilitate. Making connections between complementary and mainstream schools further recognises this fundamental dimension of children’s learning which can otherwise go under the official radar.

4. Don’t give up!

Kids are kids… They learn at different rates. They vary in their learning styles and their personalities. Their motivation fluctuates. From my own family, I’m all too conscious of the problems… Answering their dad in English, when they know the reply in Bosnian, not wanting to ‘stand out’ by speaking a ‘foreign’ language in public, sibling rivalry, accommodating different age and interest levels, living far from other Bosnian children, trying to make the most of our short trips to Sarajevo. The obstacles are many. Yet the benefits are huge – not just the linguistic or general educational advantages of being bilingual, but the cultural and emotional attachments that kids develop through two languages. It requires perseverance… though even the smallest steps forward are positive. So parents – bon courage, good luck, sretno!

SCARY MOVIE in Bosnian (za djecu / for kids)

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Coming up to Halloween, my three daughters wrote and performed a short horror film in Bosnian… Please enjoy!

https://vimeo.com/78005461

If you have any problems opening this link (unfortunately I’m on freebie WordPress without video uploads) I’ve also sent it via Twitter… follow the tweets! Please turn off the HD function if watching on a PC – it should work fine on a smartphone or a tablet.

© Noć Vještica Filmovi

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Also, some useful websites:

Multilingual Learning – Goldsmiths University of London: http://www.gold.ac.uk/clcl/multilingual-learning/

Bilingual Forum Ireland: http://www.bilingualforumireland.com/index.html

Website of Jim Cummins – international expert in bilingual education: http://iteachilearn.org/cummins/

Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!

Don’t ever have children!

That’s my advice to my daughters. I look forward to the day when they can tell me I was wrong. I hope they’ll be able to say that being a female parent doesn’t leave them at a disadvantage. But between now and then, I fear they’ll face a struggle.

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I wish I could sound more optimistic. As a born feminist, I’ve always believed women could rule the world. In primary school, the principal dubbed me a ‘right wee women’s libber’. I took it as a compliment, years before I fully understood what it meant. But Mary Wollstonecraft, the grande dame of feminism, would’ve been proud of me. I used to turn the dullest classroom tasks into chances for vindication. My spelling-practice sentences forever started with ‘the woman…’ instead of the default ‘man’. And this Amazon drove bulldozers and scaled the highest peaks. For, although I knew things weren’t exactly equal, growing up in the ‘80s I didn’t see any obstacles. Girls were achieving academically, there were laws against discrimination. Yet, through the twenty-first century, I’ve gone sceptical…

What happened in those intervening years? Did feminism get hijacked by the capitalist myth of ‘meritocracy’ sometime during the reign of Maggie Thatcher? Or was it the cosmetics industry conjuring, with its mascara wand, a new paragon of femininity – one who’s ‘worth it’? In all likelihood, it was a combination of these highly compatible forces. We girls apparently fell for it. Sexism was dead. Women could be prominent. If they used their brains wisely, never questioning the tilted playing field of male-oriented workplaces. It also helped, of course, if they had perfect figures and flawless faces.

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Feminism became a dirty word, reserved for bitchy losers. Apart from when it was sanitised and deconstructed in university courses. By the noughties, it’d already gained the prefix ‘post’. And, though women knew their trials were far from over, calling yourself a feminist seemed a bit passé in that era of bling and booty. Women’s concerns were more material, judging by the media space accorded to ‘It Bags’ and Botox. TV schedules bulged with celebrity chefs and programmes devoted to lavish home improvement. Not that I ever watched them. I was occupied with babies, studying and trying to hold onto whatever work I could get. Without the designer buggies and infant monitors suddenly deemed essential items in the business of modern motherhood. Somehow I never joined the cult of ‘yummy mummy’. Mental note to my less-than-dutiful daughters… don’t be duped by Gwyneth Paltrow’s gooped-up version of maternity!

Times, though, are a-changin’ and feminism is enjoying quite a comeback. During an economic melt-down. Well, perhaps that’s more than mere coincidence. Women are realising that there is such thing as society and that it’s rife with injustice and inequality. But is this latest wave of feminism as radical or as significant as its predecessors? Can it bring real reform, like the Suffragettes or the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Or is it just successful, still mostly ‘Western’, women striving to out-perform their male counterparts? To have as much stuff, dosh, sex, prestige… as the guys of the upper echelons. What has it got to offer the wider sisterhood? Those of us who may not be in a position to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recommends.

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And dare I say the c-word? Yes, let’s talk about children. Do feminists skirt too lightly around the delivery suite? After three painful visits, I’ll admit it’s not the prettiest of places. But childbirth is an experience that, at some point in our lives, most women share. It has a massive impact on our identities. Shaping new roles we assume… and boxes into which we’re often shoved. Motherhood is a very complex construct. And it’s one with which feminism must constantly engage. The challenges faced, for instance, by the frazzled mum who’s juggling job and child-rearing or the pregnant teenager trying to cope on social welfare are familiar. But does that mean they’ve ever been addressed? Even the aspiring graduate is likely to find her options slashed if a ‘Clearblue’ pee-stick turns positive before she’s established her career path. Qualifications quickly devalue when the stork arrives in your biological prime. Instead, childcare serves as the litmus test of a mother’s employability. Whenever it’s too expensive or difficult to schedule around working hours, kids become a distinct liability. This Catch-22 scenario is typical of recessionary Ireland. Personally, I’m au fait with its bitter reality.

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So where’s the feminist clamour for a pro-women work-life balance? Beyond occasional voices that tend to fade too fast. In Ireland’s recent abortion debate, a question rarely heard was ‘why do women not want children?’ It’s no longer about the risk of stigma within a quasi-theocracy. Frequently, it’s that another ‘hungry mouth’ could push a family into poverty or that, in the work-sphere, an unplanned baby-bump equates to professional suicide. Such reasons call for reflection on the social structures behind them. How much ‘choice’ do women really have in a chauvinistic world? How woman-friendly are even the most ‘developed’ of nations?

And what about the larger part of the planet, countries in which women’s role in society is critically defined by reproduction? Where this can be a death sentence – every day, according to the WHO, 800 women die of preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these fatalities in developing countries. Places where women labour under harsh conditions simply to feed their children… sometimes at the expense of their own lives. The majority of the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh were female. What does feminism have to say about women slaving in dangerous sweat-shops to make clothes for their Western sisters? About girls deprived of schooling, married off at an early age? The tragedy of the child-bride who died last week in Yemen, highlighted the horrors of a practice often associated with dowry customs and their consequences for poor families. Young Malala Yousafzai, who defied the bullets of misogynistic extremists and who continues her fight for girls’ right to education, sets us an extraordinary example. We feminists from affluent states have a lot to learn.

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Surely these are issues more important than the ‘politics’ of body hair – a popular theme in current feminist argument. Or women’s need for porn, despite Germaine Greer’s description of it as a ‘huge wart’ that’s inherently anti-feminist. I’m not denying there are different pressures on girls growing up in Ireland to those felt by their peers in Pakistan. And on the subject of pornography, its internet ubiquity is something that scares me stiff – especially as my daughters reach adolescence. It’s a frightening thought that teenagers now have a cyber-skewed concept of what constitutes a relationship. Feminists rightly condemn this sinister influence which exposes girls to new forms of abuse. Yet they’re more ambivalent about ‘erotic’ novels, featuring female characters in archaic roles of submission, when these are written and gobbled up by middle-aged, middle-class women. Double standards?

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I recently read a collection of essays called ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’, its title subverting that of the bestselling ‘raunchy’ trilogy. The volume compiled the views of fifty women – many with a background in either the arts or journalism. Its purpose was to look at ‘what being a woman means to them and to those around them today’. I found some of its entries rather self-pleasuring. Orgasmic paeans to feminism, albeit slightly more nuanced than Caitlin Moran’s riff on how to be a person with a vagina.

Other contributions were, however, powerful. Sayantani DasGupta probed how Western narratives on gender oppression can often ‘reinforce racist/imperialist assumptions’ by portraying it as being ‘worse’ in non-Western countries. International coverage of gang-rape and murder in India can indeed mask attention from grim statistics much closer to home. In the UK and Ireland rape convictions are in the abysmal region of 6 to 7% and British figures indicate that 90% of cases go unreported. At the same time, rape as a weapon of war – now widespread in Syria – attracts little media interest. So who decides which woman’s story needs to be told… and why? As feminists, we have to ask ourselves if we’re guilty of issue selectivity. Do we just jump on certain bandwagons?

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Even in relation to less serious matters, does feminism represent all the shades along its spectrum? Where, for example, is the Irish campaign for greater parental equality? When surveys on the topic repeatedly confirm that mothers in Ireland do the lion’s share of housework and raising children. From the outset of our marriage, my husband and I have divided domestic chores. Initially this came as shock to a guy from the Balkans, but he managed to get the hang of it. After our kids were born, though, I had to adjust my life to function as ‘always-on’ parent while he continued with his, relatively unaffected. This paradigm – reliant on the multi-tasking superwoman – is perpetuated by the state’s lip service to paternity. Ireland lacks an equitable system which grants adequate leave to both mothers and fathers, as is the norm in Scandinavian countries. And, socially, we’re still a long way from ‘fifty-fifty’ parenting.

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So my message to my girls is… hold off on the children! Freeze your eggs and wait until there’s genuine liberation. Or you’re earning a salary sufficient to pay other women to look after your offspring – such are the (male-devised) principles of supply and demand. Don’t be deceived into thinking the world’s your oyster. It can shut on you clam-tight with the burgeoning pearl of an embryo. For feminists, this mother of all battles is yet to be won. Be careful then, my dears. Don’t fall in love too soon. And never, when you’re twenty-one, let your heart be charmed by a Bosnian!

My daughters just roll their eyes. They’ve heard this kind of spiel a trillion times. Headstrong like their father and as rebellious as their mother, it’s most unlikely they’ll listen. Though, at least, I’m sure of one thing – they’ll belong to the next generation of feminists.

Read more…

Fifty Shades of Feminism – Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, Virago 2013