Together to live as one

Solidarity, solidarité, solidarnost… Perhaps it’s an instinctive human reaction to inexplicable horror. Shock at the appalling events in Paris on 13th November turns to grief, confusion. What vile brand of evil could target people enjoying a Friday night? In the city of love and light? At a rock gig, in restaurants and bars, at a football match?

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All across Europe, we were doing similar things. In our house, the whole family was watching the first leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs. Insofar as it could be seen through the fog in Zenica. The Ireland versus Bosnia game was heading towards a draw. We were joking that the result wouldn’t serve as grounds for a Bosnian-Irish divorce. Until, just before the final whistle, our screens began to fill with scenes of chaos. Paris… Sirens screeching, carnage unfolding in real-time. Unreal. Young fans at a concert, taken hostage, brutally slain.

We mourn for the victims. But our tears are crocodilian if they don’t flow for the quarter of a million Syrians slaughtered in almost five years of conflict. Those murdered by ‘Islamic State’ extremists, who’ve now added the attacks in Paris to their catalogue of terror. And the tens of thousands more who’ve been killed by the forces of President Assad and his allies. It’s no wonder that families trek to Europe to escape this. From Syria and elsewhere – fleeing bloodthirsty fanatics and oppressive regimes. What would you do if a hazardous journey was the only hope of a future for your children? If the other options were either the daily fear of death or indefinite displacement and destitution. When all you want, as a parent, is to give your kids a safe home. To ensure that they have health, education, peace.

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Photo: UNHCR

The chance of a new life. It’s the destination sought by the adults and children crossing the Mediterranean, the families and individuals making their arduous way through the Balkans. Up to 800,000 so far this year. And over 3,400 lost at sea. Like at least two Titanic-scale disasters in less than twelve months. Though drowned infants are no longer headline news. Numbers become numbing. Words seem, at best, useless and, at worst, sinister tools to redefine the innocent as threats. From refugees, back to migrants, now potential terrorists – the terms bandied about by journalists and politicians seep into public opinion.

But the people keep on coming. Although the waves are rougher and temperatures are falling. Despite an atmosphere that’s growing colder. After Paris, the challenges they face may be greater. Yet, if Europe is to boast of any ethical values, these must hinge on cherishing our brothers and our sisters. Treating them equally. Sharing with them the liberty that we take for granted. Not closing our doors and turning them away. As European citizens, we should play a part in shaping these critical moments in our history.

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Photo: UNHCR

On a personal level, I find it’s not enough merely to talk or write about this issue. I need to act. That’s why I’ve decided to go back to Croatia and do some voluntary work with refugees there. I’m travelling to Slavonski Brod at the end of December. It’s a town that I last visited in 1994 when I was volunteering with Bosnian refugees who’d fled to Croatia during the wars in the Balkans. Now, it’s the location of a new camp to accommodate people en route to countries, such as Germany, in which they hope to stay.

This tragic cycle of world conflict has prompted my plans to return. I might be twice as old but I’ve acquired significant experience since the nineties. In fact, the course of my life owes much to those turbulent times. I’ve spent the intervening years with someone from Sarajevo. He came to Ireland, for urgent medical treatment, through a resettlement programme established for people who were affected by the Bosnian war. My three daughters are the children of a former refugee. Thus, the present crisis hits straight home. I’ve got to put my energy into practical action.

So I’ll be joining volunteers with the ‘Dobrodošli’/’Welcome’ initiative which has been supporting refugees since their arrival in Croatia this autumn. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also be fundraising for donations to aid refugees in the Slavonski Brod camp. More on this to follow very soon!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a small example of solidarity. On Saturday (14th November) I went to an event at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. It was a festival of food hosted by the Syrian community and Human Appeal Ireland, an organisation which has done remarkable work in bringing essential supplies into Syria. From speaking to Syrians, Irish people and attendees from other countries, it was clear we were united in revulsion at the atrocities in Paris. We were also linked by concern for those still suffering in Syria and an awareness of the ongoing plight of refugees. Above all, though, we were simply fellow humans engaging in conversation. We talked about common interests over sweet Middle Eastern cakes on a wet afternoon in Dublin. Together – irrespective of our origins or beliefs. And this was welcome.

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Down with all sorts of intolerance

Pillow talk, 1.30 a.m.. But it’s no night for sweet nothings. Not after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This cold-blooded slaughter of journalists, artists and police officers has chilled the heart of Europe. Reading some reactions, it sounds like civilisations are clashing all the way from Paris to our bedroom. Maybe we should draw a line along the mattress between two rather errant adherents of the world’s most (deservedly) maligned religions.

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On one side of the bed, a tired ‘foreign’ soul is trying to get to sleep. A ‘native’ near-insomniac natters into the wee hours. Midnight browsing through Twitter is rarely soporific. Though this evening? Among the words of rightful condemnation, there’s a burgeoning and self-righteous streak of hate. Coming from erudite voices who’d consider themselves ‘liberal’. Comments from across the globe, from Ireland…

‘You’d love to say something. Like start a conversation about this.’

He stifles a yawn but, despite his fatigue, he’s worried. ‘So why don’t you?’

Submission. Fear of what others will think. Often we violate our freedom of expression by obsessing over perceived social norms. You wouldn’t want to be labelled as… Disrespectful? A crank? Some kind of sympathiser? OMG(od-or-Western-Values) no! The perpetrators of terror are a threat to everyone. Yet a little dialogue mightn’t hurt. Especially here in Ireland where there’s a tendency to brush over cultural difference with a laissez-faire approach that silently advocates assimilation. Fáilte… if you’ll act like us.

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It’s reminiscent of the ‘Father Ted’ show about the reception that people from China got when they arrived on godforsaken Craggy Island. Broadcast in the mid-nineties, while Ireland was at the beginning of a wave of immigration, this episode of the sitcom featuring three eccentric priests still sums up Irish attitudes. ‘The Chinese – a great bunch of lads!’ Ted declares at the conclusion of his ‘multi-ethnic’ slideshow in honour of the newcomers. His Asian guests are unimpressed – the presentation was held to make amends for the cleric’s racial abuse of them. But cross-community relations are salvaged by pints in the local pub, where Ted’s earlier gaffes are forgotten (until closing time). ‘More drink!’ Cheers ensue. Sure doing as the Romans do is grand.

The series, which ridiculed certain bizarre aspects of Irish life, was a huge hit with my Bosnian. It constituted a major part of his intercultural education. He learnt that ‘down with this sort of thing’ (written on a placard outside a small-town cinema) is a priceless response to any form of blasphemy. He still laughs out loud at the reruns – knows the lines better than I do.

‘Shows how much time you’ve spent watching TV.’

‘Careful now!’ quotes the Balkan Ted-head.

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In Ireland, Ted and Co. were instantly popular. Only the most conservative moralists objected to their irreverence. The rest of the country chuckled at this Anglo-Irish production. The main actors were Irish comics, so everything was fine. We were just slagging ourselves and the idiosyncrasies of an era which, by the end of the twentieth century, was on the wane.

More hallowed topics such as the tragedy of the famine of the 1840s could, however, prove less hilarious. At least in the minds of some who view a proposed British comedy about the ‘Great Hunger’ as a wound to Ireland’s psyche. How dare the ‘ould enemy’! Though, looking back, their aversion to this type of joke isn’t surprising. Historical portrayals of the Irish as simian drunks by English cartoonists don’t seem too funny. ‘Punch’ magazine, for example, printed masterpieces in the art of racist offence. But satire, even if tasteless, can never be something to die for…

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Two days later – further attacks in France. Concern at terrorism in our midst, rising Islamophobia. It’s strangely familiar. I’m telling the non-radical-Muslim in the house about sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. How it spread a similar sense of dread, how it unjustly implicated whole communities. The killing of workers in Kingsmills, the murder of musicians from a seventies show-band – the region where I grew up is haunted by such barbarity. And, also, the bombs in England which left Irish people who lived there the target of derision and suspicion.

Then we’re satirising each other again. No shortage of skit material in a ‘mixed marriage’. Yeah, it might’ve been easier if he’d met a Muslim girl and I’d fallen for a Catholic guy, preferably of our own nationalities. But probably there’d have been less dark humour. Anyhow, that’s not how fate operates. With us, it was coup de foudre… followed by a work in progress. Varying perspectives always need to be negotiated. Dealing with cultural diversity in pre-millennium rural Ireland, awareness of identity in post-war Bosnia, and after 9/11… It hasn’t exactly been a ‘garden of roses’ relationship but it’s forced us to challenge prejudice.

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Free speech. Well maybe now it’s time to talk. About the violence in Paris. About the brave blogger, Raif Badawi, who was flogged and imprisoned this week in Saudi Arabia. About those killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. About Syrian refugee children dying of the cold. To question why some issues get prioritised by the media. To be liberated from our insulating ideologies and respect all people as equal brothers and sisters.

Because life is a constant lesson in trying to understand. Sometimes – perhaps through love’s smiles and tears – it makes us re-evaluate things we’ve taken as given. And that can help us create unique pieces in the mosaic of co-existence which illustrates humanity. Teaching us to say in a personal, meaningful way ‘Je suis…’