Sunday, August 10, 2014

Refugee Saga

By Stephen Wilson

Second City Teachers spoke with Scottish Journalist Stephen Wilson based in Moscow who is helping Ukrainian refugees. (Photo by Oksana Chebotareva)

(Moscow, Russia) - While Second City News chief Jim Vail was visiting Moscow in July he witnessed the frantic activity of volunteers attempting to deal with the constant arrival of Russian refugees flooding into the capital of Moscow seeking to desperately obtain any residential rights, recognised refugee status and dignified work. Deprived of their homes, work and even the right to continue their education, we soon noticed that their dire predicament had not ended with finding sanctuary in Russia. On the contrary, it was only beginning. Life as a refugee means a struggle against petty rules and red tape where officials are still denying them refugee
status, residential status and the right to work. In fact, according to the latest reports obtained from a refugee the Moscow Federal Migration service has stopped granting refugee status to people fleeing from Ukraine or they claimed they would only grant it to people who had been participating in the conflict.

            Second City Teacher Editor interviewed Stephen Wilson who, along with some Russian volunteers, has been helping Russian refugees from Ukraine.

Editor   What is a Scotsman doing in Russia?

Stephen Wilson         For the past twenty years I have been teaching English as a foreign language, working in Journalism from time to time and working with aid organisations. I also take an interest in collecting, telling and promoting Scottish and Russian folk stories.

Editor       Why have you and some Russians set up a group of volunteers to help refugees? Should not the Russian government do all this?

Wilson      Yes, of course the Russian government should do more to assist the refugees from Ukraine but the situation is too critical to leave to just officials. It is a real national emergency which calls for every person in Russia to take action to support the refugees. I'm not sure the Russian government can fully cope with the situation and they even make no bones about appealing for volunteers to help. It is the normal and natural law to help people in trouble. It should at least be viewed as second nature rather than something which is 'special' and applauded.

Editor        Can you tell us about the character and structure of your aid group?

Wilson       The first point to grasp is that we are not a huge aid group with a lot of resources, funding and sponsors. We don't have huge offices or an administration. We don't need this to operate. We are simply a small group of around three or four volunteers who almost spontaneously came together to aid the refugees. We have only been working for one month and are not an established group. Nevertheless, a few devoted volunteers can make a difference if they work carefully, diligently and ardently.

Editor         What kind of help do you provide to refugees?

Wilson        We have been attempting to help refugee families from the Donesk and Lugansk by providing basic stuff such as food, juice, toiletries, blankets and toys. Since the refugees often have a lot of young children, providing pampers was very important. However, on reflection, I think offering moral and spiritual support to the refugees is crucial. Many of our volunteers are Orthodox, so they are praying for the refugees. It is also important that we offer our friendship to refugees and not just hand them food or products. What we have quickly discovered is that refugees need help to get registration, work permits and jobs. This is not easy work. We are trying to find contacts amongst officials who will make life easier for the refugees and aid, rather than hinder their attempts to find work. If people want to aid the refugees they don't need a vast amount of resources, a bureacracy or to employ a secretary. This is a dangerous myth! We operate from the ideas of 'keeping things simple'. If you want to, those ideas were largely inspired by our old friend, Blackfoot American Indian teacher, Daniel Ogan. If you want to help a refugee you find where he is living, ask what he needs or wants, and then give it directly to them. Why do I need to use a middle man or ask special permission from some organisation? If we don't have a car we can just go by train and then foot! If a volunteer is poor, he can still offer something very valuable. He can offer something very precious which is time! He can just go and listen attentively to a refugee, play football or chess with them. They might be able to teach them something. We have not reached this stage of help yet, but I have heard that some Russian volunteers are helping refugees by acting as nannies! I think that our group is largely labour intensive, rather than capital intensive. To put it succinctly, running a charity is not like running a business! People have to treat people far better than running a business and should treat refugees in the same way the best priests work with people. 

            Some of the refugees find it difficult to accept help so we have to be very tactful and careful not to inadvertently offend and hurt their feelings. They have been traumatised enough!
A lot of what passes for ' charity' raises many questions. In Scotland and other places, the old thing a charity wants from you is money. They seem to be wholly absorbed in fund-raising. It is as if they are asking, 'We need your money, but not your time, skills or love'. Just put some money into a particular bank account. What a waste of human labour! All those people want to get involved actively in some charity are just told, 'We only need your money'. They forget that the original meaning of charity implies 'loving respect' that is an active commitment of directly meeting and visiting people. It is not just about 'fund-raising' or finding this or that 'sponsor'.

Editor         How many sponsors and money do you need to spend time with an orphan by teaching them to play chess? 

Wilson        You don't need any. You just have to give him your time. The Russian theologian Alexander Men put it well when he mentioned one example of Russian parents who were offering to look after an orphan. They told him, 'We can give you all those things, a room, toys etc.' The orphan answered, 'I don't want all those things!'  'Then what do you need?' asked the bemused parents. 'I just need someone to love me.' This concrete example should make us pause and critically reflect on what we mean when we speak of charity. The word has long lost its original meaning and at the worst, become a term of abuse. Some people see charity as       synonymous with abusing and humiliating people.

            So we have to return to the original simplicity of its meaning. That means we don't do charity to gain any prestige, power or applause of any kind but to get a stressful headache. I would prefer to give something to someone secretly without them knowing where it comes or who gave it.

Editor         Could you offer examples of how you have changed the lives of some refugees?

Wilson        I can 't say. It is too premature to answer this question.

Editor         How many refugees do you think there are from The Ukraine?

Wilson        It is very difficult to estimate. I think the figure of at least half a million refugees by the Russian government is not necessarily exaggerating or overstating how serious this situation is. The figure may be even much more. Every day you hear a report of refugees pouring into Russia.

            Some arrive by plane, by train or simply walk over the border. What is clear is that this huge exodus will put strains on the Russian state whose budget is already overstretched over aiding the Crimea. They have even dug into the reserves used for pensions. The self-righteous rhetoric of sanctions won't hurt the richest officials and politicians but only the poorest or the poor which includes refugees.

Editor         What can be done to end the bloodshed In Ukraine?

Wilson        The Ukrainian government should stop its so-called 'anti-terrorist operations' which are killing innocent men, women and children. The American government and European Union should also stop offering moral and material support to a Ukrainian government which is fighting an illegal, unconstitutional and unjustified war against people.

            They should agree to a ceasefire with the rebels and not insist on them laying down their arms. Ideally, the United Nations should intervene and stop this war. You can't blame the Russians for everything. That is just too myopic and over-simplistic. This is not a black and white situation, but is much more complex than people in the west presume. Two wrongs don't   make a right and just because the Russian side has offended Ukrainians is no excuse to inflict so much suffering on people. How many civilians have been killed? At least 1300 not to mention the wounded.

            People wonder whether the intervention of the Russian army is required because the Ukrainian government, growing bolder with support from Europe and America, are becoming more, not less brutal against civilians. Russian army intervention to defend the separatists, while comprehensible, appears risky.

Editor            Who do you think shot down the MH17 plane?

Wilson           I don't know! Both sides are blaming each other and both are capable of telling all kinds of lies. What is idiotic is for leading statesmen to make theatrical accusations against Russia before any any inquiry or investigation has been carried out. I think it is absurd to justify the killing of innocent civilians in Eastern Ukraine on the basis that someone shot down a plane might or might not have been a separatist.

            Where is the logic? The warped logic goes, 'Now we have established that Russians downed this plane.  We have the right to go on slaughtering innocent women and children.' I heard that politicians held a minute silence for the victims of this crash which is correct, but I have never seen them holding a minutes silence for the Russians killed in bombing raids.

            There is one point the western media have largely kept silent about. Why was a plane flying over what was a dangerous war zone? The answer is that Americans, Ukrainians and Europeans have been busily reassuring airliners that there is no war in Ukraine and it is not so dangerous. If American officials make absurd statements that there are no real refugees, then you can hardly be surprised to hear them claiming there is no real war in Ukraine.

Editor              What do you think is the main long-term consequences of the Ukrainian conflict in Europe?

Wilson             It is just too terrible to contemplate. I already hear Russians telling me, ' I think Europeans and Americans hate us. They are condoning the killing of Russians in Ukraine'.

            I don't think most Americans and European hate Russians. When they meet them, they often get on well with each other. I do think there are some odd political academics, politicians
and journalists who hate Russians because they have mainly read all the bad things about what happened in Russia and get so fixated on it that they begin to dehumanise Russians seeing       them as 'fascists' or 'Stalinists' or 'bandits'. That explains so many atrocities in Ukraine. Both sides forget they are both human beings who have much more in common.

            Even if there are differences we should praise this diversity as it would be a dull world if we were all the same. The long-term results are that the European Union has lost a lot of credibility because of its inept intervention in Ukraine where they provoked and encouraged rather than cooled the crisis. European Union officials have been tainted with supporting fascism and supporting the abuse of human rights in Ukraine. They have largely ignored 20 years of discrimination of Russian minorities in Latvia, Ukraine and Estonia. Despite a fact that a Russian may be born in those countries, he or she still can't get citizenship. They still can't study in their native language Russian and still are denied the right to hold a government post such as a teacher or civil servant. The European Union has been silent about those issues. Why? Because the European Union is first and foremost a business club which serves the rights of multinational companies not to mention the National Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). If you are a gypsy or Russian, then forget about your human rights which are reputed to be enshrined abstractly in the E.U. constitution.

Editor             Is there anything else you wish to say?

Wilson            I would prefer if the Ukrainians and Russians buried the hatchet, stopped, thought and at least attempted to listen to each other. I think all this striving to become a great power and the arrogance of extreme nationalism is idiotic. I would rather my own country took no part in it and helped people fight against the great poverty and injustice we see around us.

            I would appeal to people in America, especially in the Orthodox church to help our project to aid refugees. If you see somone drowning in a river, you don't rush up to them and ask, 'Are you a Russian, Ukrainian, American or African?' You just go straight ahead and help them. In the Ordothodox liturgy they constantly chant 'Peace to all'. This is not a pious chant or wish. It is a call to truly bring peace to people, to refrain from supporting any brutal oversea's wars. It is only suggesting 'peace of mind' in a deep and profound sense. For how can you attain this 'peace of mind' without practising the basic peace of not going to war?

            So the refugees need your prayers, your moral and spiritual support as well as some material aid.

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