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There is nothing new about refugee crises. As my followers will know, I have, over the last 2-3 years, been exploring the appalling events that took place in Ireland between 1845 and the early 1850s. These events led to an exodus of people from Ireland to North America, and Australia.
Last week I was privileged to be a (minor) part of the 7th International Famine Conference which took place in Strokestown Park House, home of the Irish National Famine Museum. The event was truly international, with contributions from academics from the USA, Canada, Australia the United Kingdom and Germany.
My link will take you to a film by a Canadian documentary film maker, made as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations last year, it describes the way ordinary Canadians responded to the arrival on their shores of ships laden with refugees from Ireland’s disaster. The film received it’s Irish launch on the opening night of the conference.
There are, surely, important lessons to be learned by legislators in the USA and Europe as they grapple with the 21st century refugee crises – not least the reality that we are all descended from immigrants or invaders. We are, indeed, the world. Closing borders is not a moral option.
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A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention yesterday. The first was in the Irish Times: a review of a book about prisoners of war in England during WWII and the way they were treated.
You might expect that, as soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for Britain’s enemies at the time, they would be shunned, spat at, feared. The reality was rather different. In fact, as the review’s author points out, “it wasn’t uncommon for friendships to be struck up and for POWs to be invited into civilians’ homes for Christmas lunch.”
Many were permitted to leave the camps in order to work on farms and in forestry projects alongside English (mainly female) workers. It reminded me of my own experience growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1940s and ’50s. There was a camp in the village which, at different times, held POWs and Polish refugees. One German and one Pole each married local girls and set up homes next door to each other in tied cottages on the farm where both worked.
Their children attended the local school. As a schoolboy I often worked on the same farm and got to know both men.The young woman who married the German POW had a younger brother the same age as me who became my best man at my 1963 wedding.
And then I discovered the other article, in The Guardian, about European citizens, skilled workers resident in Britain for decades, who are returning to the continent, some with their British spouses and all saddened by last year’ Brexit vote and its aftermath in which so many of them were made to feel unwelcome. It made me wonder what has become of the country of which I used to be proud, the country of whose values my father fought and died for.
From being a place that welcomed all comers and extended the hand of friendship to enemy POWs, it has become a place in which many want to shut themselves off from the rest of Europe and embrace the same nationalistic fervour that destroyed Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and which the parents of my generation sacrificed so much to overthrow.
Have the people who voted ‘leave’ not studied history? Do they not realise that, right across Europe, we share more than a thousand years of common history? Admittedly, it was a relationship often characterised by the struggle for domination between the members of the land owning aristocracy. But it seemed for a while, in the 1950s and ’60s, that, having emerged from two terrible world wars, we understood that co-operation was better than conflict. Social liberalism trumped nationalism and the majority of us understood that it was better to share the product of our labours with people like ourselves wherever they were born.
What happened? How did so many ordinary British voters come to believe that the EU, and those of its citizens who chose to make their homes in Britain, were responsible for every symptom of their country’s economic failure? Why did Cameron and the other leaders of the Remain campaign embark on a doomed quest to scare people into voting to remain in the EU? Why did the media not give much greater attention to the words of men like Lord Ashdown who made the arguments that mattered with such passion?
I wrote several posts ahead of the vote pointing out the folly of what was being proposed. Now the case for leaving is beginning to unravel as the real implications of extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together in mutually beneficial endeavours, from aviation safety to radioactive isotopes for medical use, become apparent. If only more attention had been paid to these things in May and June last year perhaps the vote would have been different. They certainly strengthen the case for a second vote once the details of the deal are published.
Thanks to Stevie over at https://steviet3.wordpress.com/ for nominating me for the ‘Three Quotes for Three Days’ challenge.
The rules of the challenge are:
- Three quotes for three days.
- Three nominees each day (no repetition).
- Thank the person who nominated you.
- Inform the nominees.
For my first quote I am going to take one from George Bernard Shaw:
The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity. From “The Devil’s Disciple” (1901), act II
I heard it recently during a television programme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster. For those who missed the publicity surrounding the anniversary and too young to remember the actual event, mine waste stored on a mountainside slid onto the village school burying it and many of its occupants. 116 children and 28 adults were killed.
At the subsequent enquiry the barrister acting for the villagers used that quotation during his summing up. The enquiry found that the people responsible for siting and maintaining the waste tip should have been aware of the risk that it could become unstable and ought to have taken steps to prevent what happened.
The significance of the quotation for me was in relation to my researches into the Irish famine years 1845-’52. Few now doubt that the suffering caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop was far worse than it needed to have been, nor that the attitude of many of those in positions of power contributed to the entirely inadequate response to the evolving situation.
The words I would have used to define that attitude would have been an absence of empathy. Shaw’s words offered an alternative: indifference. It’s what happens when people in positions of influence and power perceive a problem and either ignore it, as at Aberfan, or impose a solution regardless of the consequences for others.
It also characterises the way supposedly civilised people sometimes respond to modern crises like the arrival on European shores of refugees from poverty stricken and war-torn parts of North Africa and the Middle East. There was a vox-pop piece on a BBC news programme recently in which a bloke from Devon said: “We can’t look after our own, why should we bother with them?”
To which my response is along the lines of “sorry mate, but we do care for our own.” (There will be more about this in my next piece). We have health care free at the point of delivery, education free up to the age of 18. Those who designed some aspects of the benefits system could, however, be accused of indifference. Indeed, that is exactly what Ken Loach has done in his award winning film, I, Daniel Blake.
We also have a media, and quite a few citizens not unlike that man from Devon, who are so indifferent to the plight of those of our own citizens in genuine need that they characterise them as scroungers. The real point is that it should not be about choosing between looking after ‘our own’ and caring for others. We should be sufficiently concerned about all those in need, wherever their origin, to support whatever steps are necessary in order to relieve their suffering.
Jennifer Young http://jenniferyoungauthor.co.uk
Val Tobin http://www.serenitynowgifts.com/
A few days ago I wrote a piece under N (for nightmare) in the atoz challenge. I tried to imagine what it must be like to experience what Syrian, and other refugees, have experienced, and continue to experience. I wish I had expressed it as well as this lady does. The link should take you to a Facebook post. https://www.facebook.com/notes/amanda-buessecker/why-its-not-cool-that-my-new-next-door-neighbours-are-syrian-refugees/10154105544404668