Blog post from my stint as Incidental New Yorker, September 9, 2015
It is painful to follow events in Europe from my new outpost. When I saw a photo the other day in one of my Danish newspapers of a man on an overpass, literally spitting on Syrian refugees walking below, just off the ferry in Denmark, I felt acute pain and deep shame. Because this is not my country – or it isn’t what I believe my country is and ought to be.
I have always been proud to be a Dane, proud of my native country; proud of our democracy, transparency, lack of corruption, our education and health systems; proud that my father, who came to Denmark as a boy, was the only Siamese (what is Thai today) in the Danish resistance movement during the German occupation in WWII. When things got too hot in Denmark, he fled in a small rowing boat across the Sound to Sweden along with a trusted friend from the resistance movement. He was welcome in Sweden, was fed and helped; he was treated with life saving penicillin in a Stockholm hospital when he fell gravely ill. Siam (Thailand) sided with Germany in WWII, so when the occupation ended and my father returned to Denmark, he was stateless. Without any ado whatsoever, he became a Danish citizen.
When I was three years old, in 1956 when Hungarians fled after the failed revolt against the Soviet puppet regime, my parents took them in. Only much later did I truly understand why they were there, but I clearly remember all the rooms in my parents’ small pension overflowing with Hungarian people, and my parents explaining that this was the only right thing to do. “We have to help these people. They are fleeing from their home country and need our help;” as easy as that. Helping was just something you did; because we were Danish, because we were Scandinavian.
Actually, I got the same explanation years later, in 2000, when I asked people in Minneapolis, why exactly they were able to successfully and happily receive and integrate so many more refugees from first Vietnam and later Somalia than the rest of the country, in the late seventies and nineties respectively. Being of Nordic origin, many people in Minnesota simply answered, “Because we’re from Scandinavia.” Ouch! That hurt. Because things had already started moving in the opposite direction in Denmark; a growing number of Danes were developing xenophobia and started feeling self-sufficient onto themselves. Our former solidarity, hospitality and sense of justice was gradually evaporating.
Back in time once more: When in 1989, as a TV reporter, I covered the tragic events in Beijing where the People’s Liberation Army killed unarmed Chinese civilians, and later that same year how the communist regimes were toppled, one after the other in Eastern Europe, Hungary once more played a prominent role in my version of history. Because back in 1989 it was the Hungarians who cut the first hole in the Iron Curtain, who started tearing down “that wall;” they literally cut holes in the wire fence separating Hungary from Austria, and people swarmed through the small holes in their thousands to the democratic West. Since followed the breaking down of the hated brick wall that separated Berlin in East and West – a big chunk of that same wall is exhibited here at the United Nations in NYC to commemorate events in Europe in1989.
So it seems even more bizarre and tragic that it is the Hungarians who are now building fences yet again – this time to keep out desperate refugees from war and conflict. It is well nigh incomprehensible that that same people after only 25 years (and another 35 years before that) have forgotten their own plight and the hospitality with which they were received when it was they who fled.
Other European countries act much more responsibly and with far more insight, understanding and dignity. Denmark’s neighbours Germany and Sweden, to name but a few. And there is Uruguay’s former president Pepe Mujica, who invites 100 Syrian children from Germany to live on his private premises.
The Danish government runs ads in Middle Eastern newspapers urging refugees and asylum seekers to stay away from Denmark and go somewhere else. Even if Denmark is a democracy, and normally a well functioning on at that, it is needless to say these ads do not express how the majority of Danes feel, but only how the tiny minority government feels – and there are signs that the prime minister is listening to some of his more sensible European colleagues and recognising the need for common action and the sheer impossibility and idiocy of Denmark acting completely on her own. Parliament too, has level headed and more sober voices that circumvote the government’s most extreme anti-migration decisions. If one good thing has come of the Danish government’s attempts at fencing in Denmark and keeping refugees out it is that a very large number of Danes have come out to help and to counter the official stance.
I admit that the above is hugely emotional. However, it doesn’t change the acute need for urgent action. 60 million people are displaced or fleeing. Borders cannot be sealed. People will flee from danger, hunger, poverty, terror and climate change, anything that endangers their lives and livelihood. Tragically, thousands of people are dying and more will die in the process, but it will not stop others from trying their luck. So we, the haves, have a duty to contribute to creating better living conditions for the have-nots, whatever that may entail in the way of creating decent living conditions, empowering people, communities and countries to withstand the threats of war, conflict, climate change and all the other debilitating factors that contribute to sending people on the run.
© Mette Holm