I traveled to my native Sweden late August to attend a family gathering and take care of some business. Little did I know that I would end up immersed in this eruption of love that is Europe this week. When TV showed Germans waving flags and applauding as Syrian refugees arrived to a train station last week, we could not imagine that would set off an unprecedented outpouring of care, food, clothes, shelter, and help to refugees, all over this continent. It’s not all that clear why it broke loose this very moment, but I surmise a confluence of many factors: having witnessed the desperate hardship of refugees, and the letdown of the people of Greece; and how racism slowly but surely was taking a stranglehold on traditionally European values, and then the invitation by those Germans, so explicitly showing a different way, a fresh approach – one hinging on humanity and care.
Racism – or to use the Swedish term, “stranger-aversion” – has slowly but surely expanded across this continent over the last decade or so. The nationalist party is one of the largest in Sweden as per last year’s election but somehow was kept out of government by some creative coalition building. None-the-less, what we see and hear in regular media has made it seem like there is no more heart – only individualism and materialism – left in this place which used to carry its solidarity and humanism with pride. And now an influx of large numbers of refugees – a recipe for tension.
But instead, this: A self organized grassroots movement for helping refugees to safety. And. In Sweden also a migration authority that is prepared to receive even more than are coming, and with political backing to provide permanent status for those from war zones. Each country have their own limits and process. And, it turns out, it’s own way of interpreting international statutes, which creates part of the hassle and in some cases hazards for those seeking refuge.
After following the fate of that first group of refugees being mistreated in Budapest a few days ago, then helped to the Austrian border, then getting free passage – and cheers upon arrival – to Germany, I also wanted to “do something” when some of them reached all the way to Sweden. So I went online, joined “Welcome Refugees to Sweden” Facebook group, and then another, and then one more, initially to figure out what time was best to go to what location to help and maybe wave a flag. But then I started answering questions that came up online. And then I saw an important article that I posted to those groups… and after a short while it just grew and I quickly got quite immersed – from the comfort of my computer – with several threads of intense discussion and problem solving going on in parallel. The overall goal? To shepherd those fleeing people who want to come to Scandinavia, help them get all the way here where they can seek asylum. So, talking with ferry lines, looking up schedules, following news to get updates from developments on their routes, and trying to tease out the legalese of what constitutes trafficking and what is humanitarian help, so that those in cars knew what risks they were taking when following their hearts. The whole thing happening in conversation, online, in multiple threads in a handful of Facebook groups, all at once. All infused with so much care. And so much stuff, too, that organizers had to say “no more for now” to donations of food, clothes, bags and sleeping gear.
We get reports “40 refugees made it onto ferry xx” and “make sure there are people to meet up”. But also requests: yesterday someone suddenly posted pictures from inside a train. I didn’t get what was happening, but a few back-and-fourths later, I realized this man had his brother on a train that was stopped by police in Denmark. His english poor, his anxiety obvious. “they say passport or go back” and “can you help, maja”… scramble scramble, I had seen a link to legal help in regards to asylum in Denmark, I mentioned that, but also gave empathy, tried to maintain hope. Pray. Cry.
Maybe my newfound colleges had seen this coming and organized well ahead, but I don’t think so, for the most part it seems to all be erupting in front of my eyes. There are some key people, someone I know from college years. And we’re making it up as we go, giving advice to people who are in touch directly with those on the road. Everyone cares about their safety and successful arrival to whatever country they want to be in. Yesterday when Denmark suddenly stopped all trains and started forcing fingerprints and passport controls, we tried to get the word to people in Germany “take the ferry, take the ferry” (direct from Germany to Sweden). And then we shared a unified but nonsynchronous “hurrah” when late in the evening Danish Chief of Police decided to just let everyone go, let them continue through Denmark to reach the other Nordic countries. Why or how that happened I don’t know, it’s tempting so imagine that the love surrounding the decision maker was contagious. What happened at the site of the stopped train is more clear: they let all refugees get off the train where they had spent all day, and within minutes masses of cars were there and transported some 200 people to the Swedish border.
I know what this is, I’ve studied it for years. This is what nonviolence looks like in action.
We’re not against anyone. And we’re just trying to help where the systems are cruel or lacking. Help people reach safety. There are options for improving the official systems – someone created a petition for Humanitarian visas, for example – but while the rules are inhumane, hoards of caring humans make up the difference. This is what society could look like, all the time! Trust, caring, dignity, helpfulness. Sharing. Solving problems together, in dialogue. Social media helps, of course, a platform for putting out requests, coordinating needs in real time. But this has been done here before, in greater secrecy and with greater risks, when people helped Jews escape the occupation of Denmark in WWII, crossing the sound in small sailboats in the dark of night.
In September 2015 I wonder how this all is possible, and then realizing that threads of preparation have been going on for years, although I doubt anyone knew “for what”: In city of Malmö – the current vortex of the local goodness, and the main entry point to Sweden for refugees – there are initiatives for sharing economy, like gifting circles, and even a gifting clothes store. There is year round political activism. And a diverse community and probably much more that I don’t feel the pulse of from far away. All in all, some of what we talk about as “constructive program” could probably be detected here, with relationships being built over time, and shared values and projects to ground those. Enough of a core to hold the heartful chaos that thousands of welcomers-of-refugees bring to a joint purpose.
on September 10, 2015
PS. after writing this, I went back online, and there was a message. “My brother arrived now Thanks Maja”