Amid Europe’s mi­grant ten­sions, kind­ness arises too

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY AN­GELA CHARL­TON

A 24-year-old Dan­ish woman sails refugees across windy straits to safety in Swe­den. A Ro­ma­nian whose an­ces­tors were driven from their home­land opens his house to to­day’s mi­grants. A girl brings pens and pa­per to mi­grant chil­dren sleep­ing at a Mi­lan train sta­tion.

While Euro­pean gov­ern­ments string barbed wire across borders and lam­bast each other over asy­lum rules, or­di­nary cit­i­zens are tak­ing ac­tion to cope with an un­prece­dented in­flow of mi­grants, their gen­eros­ity of­fer­ing mo­ments of hope for the new­com­ers — and for Europe it­self.

“Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hun­gry and weary souls. Europe is the stu­dents in Mu­nich and in Pas­sau who bring clothes for the new ar­rivals at the train sta­tion. Europe is the po­lice­man in Aus­tria who wel­comes ex­hausted refugees upon cross­ing the bor­der,” EU Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker said ear­lier this month. “This is the Europe I want to live in.”

Long-es­tab­lished aid groups and freshly cre­ated online fo­rums are work­ing col­lec­tively and tire­lessly to help where gov­ern­ments can’t, or won’t. But in­di­vid­ual acts of kind­ness are what many mi­grants will re­mem­ber, whether they build new lives in Europe or even­tu­ally make it back to Syria, Su­dan or wher­ever they call home.

These are but a few among the many, many peo­ple who have stepped out of their daily lives to con­trib­ute.

Sail­ing To Safety

“Welcome. Do you want to go to Swe­den?”

An­nika Holm Nielsen and Calle Vangstrup greeted refugees at Copenhagen’s main train sta­tion with a sign bear­ing this mes­sage, of­fer­ing to sail them from Den­mark across to Swe­den, where asy­lum poli­cies are friend­lier.

It’s just a cou­ple of hours with good winds to Malmo, Swe­den, but for asy­lum seek­ers, it could be the end of a long and per­ilous jour­ney.

Their first pas­sen­ger was an ex­hausted Syr­ian refugee. Dur­ing the cross­ing, he was too ner­vous to eat or sleep un­til he ar­rived within reach of the shore.

“Den­mark and Swe­den are very much alike, but if you are a refugee it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties,” Holm Nielsen told The As­so­ci­ated Press as she re­fu­eled for another jour­ney. “If you are a refugee in Den­mark, you are treated as a prob­lem.”

Many Danes have helped refugees make it across the bor­der by car, train or boat — de­spite the risk of be­ing ar­rested for smug­gling. Nielsen and Vangstrup de­cided to go public to raise aware­ness and en­cour­age oth­ers to do the same.

In 1943, or­di­nary Danes helped more than 6,000 Dan­ish Jews cross the nar­row Ore­sund straight be­tween Den­mark and Swe­den in boats, af­ter word went around that Nazi Ger­man author­i­ties were plan­ning to round them up.

Vangstrup lamented ris­ing xeno­pho­bic and far-right sen­ti­ments to­day in some Euro­pean quar­ters. “The world hasn’t got­ten any bet­ter,” he said.

A Ro­ma­nian stu­dent was on the train lis­ten­ing to John’s Len­non’s “Imag­ine” when the idea came to him: to welcome Syr­ian mi­grants into his fam­ily home.

Their plight re­minded Tu­dor Carstoiu of his own an­ces­tors. His grand­fa­ther, great-aunt and great­grand­par­ents had been twice forced out of their home in north­ern Ro­ma­nia, which was oc­cu­pied by Soviet troops dur­ing World War II.

The fam­ily trav­eled to Poland, Ger­many and Hungary be­fore set­tling in Ro­ma­nia. Six years ago, Carstoiu moved to Mi­lan, where he’s a grad­u­ate stu­dent and IT con­sul­tant.

“I want the mi­grants to feel at home in Ro­ma­nia, the way I feel at home in Italy,” he told The AP.

The 26-year-old is among many Euro­peans whose own fam­i­lies faced per­se­cu­tion or ex­ile, and who are now reach­ing out to to­day’s refugees. In Croa­tia, where ten­sions have soared along the bor­der with non-EU mem­ber Ser­bia, peo­ple whose fam­i­lies were forced from their homes dur­ing the 1990s Balkan wars are among those of­fer­ing food to mi­grants.

Carstoiu’s of­fer— and at­ti­tude— stand in con­trast with Ro­ma­nia’s gov­ern­ment, which was one of four EU mem­bers to vote against a plan last week to share asy­lum seek­ers across the 28-mem­ber bloc. There is scant public sup­port for the idea in one of the poor­est EU na­tions.

Carstoiu hasn’t set­tled a fam­ily yet in his three-room fam­ily home in the small vil­lage of Silin­dia, but he is work­ing on it — he’s set­ting up a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion in Italy to co­or­di­nate hous­ing and other help for mi­grants, and wants to reach out to refugees di­rectly via so­cial media or in per­son.

Fit­tingly, Carstoiu says the house was ren­o­vated with money his fam­ily won from a Ro­ma­nian prop­erty resti­tu­tion fund af­ter they sued for the house they lost dur­ing World War II.

While Ro­ma­nian politi­cians fear that mi­grants wouldn’t in­te­grate, Carstoiu notes that mil­lions of Ro­ma­ni­ans like him­self have em­i­grated in re­cent years, and have largely suc­ceeded in fit­ting in.

Some po­lit­i­cal lead­ers “want to build bar­ri­ers,” he said. “I want to build bridges.”

Broke, but Open-hearted

Many fi­nan­cially-bat­tered Greeks re­sent the un­prece­dented num­bers of hun­gry peo­ple ar­riv­ing on their east­ern­most is­lands, but many oth­ers are reach­ing out — and open­ing their pantries.

There’s the baker, men­tioned by Juncker, who handed out bread to refugees on the is­land of Kos. On nearby Les­bos, priest Ef­s­tra­tios Di­mou founded and op­er­ated a char­ity pro­vid­ing food, cloth­ing and a place to rest. He died last month, but his char­ity car­ries on his work.

In Athens, refugees sleep­ing in a city square re­ceive vis­its daily from res­i­dents who bring them some­thing to eat, some­thing to wear.

For­eign­ers are play­ing a role, too. Eric and Philippa Kemp­son, Bri­tons liv­ing on Les­bos, help bring hun­dreds of mi­grants to shore ev­ery week, greet­ing them with wa­ter and ap­ples as they reach land.

Eric Mills, a Cal­i­for­nia na­tive who now lives in Barcelona, was trav­el­ing in Tur­key when he re­al­ized the grav­ity of the cri­sis, and found a way to help on the small Greek is­land of Symi. He and a friend rose be­fore dawn and spent sev­eral hours a day pre­par­ing and serv­ing food to hun­dreds of hun­gry new ar­rivals.

His vol­un­teer spirit awak­ened, he hopes to mo­ti­vate friends in the United States and Spain to pitch in, and find ways to sub­si­dize or oth­er­wise help refugees find haven in Europe, “one fam­ily at a time.”

Tar­geted help is of­ten the most use­ful. In the French port of Calais, Brigitte Lips has for years charged mi­grants’ cell­phones in her garage. For peo­ple liv­ing hand-to-mouth in filthy nearby camps, it’s a cher­ished way to stay con­nected to their fam­i­lies and the out­side world.

Oth­ers are set­ting an ex­am­ple. Fin­land’s prime min­is­ter is open­ing his spare house to refugees on Jan. 1 af­ter his fam­ily moves to the of­fi­cial prime min­is­ter’s res­i­dence in Helsinki.

Pope Fran­cis’ call for help res­onated with Pol­ish priest Ra­doslaw Rakowski in Poz­nan. “I an­nounced from the pulpit that we want to host a fam­ily,” he said — and that Sun­day, the church col­lected 24,000 zlotys (US$6,500) to­ward rent­ing an apart­ment.

A Syr­ian man liv­ing in Poz­nan has of­fered to be an in­ter­preter. One fam­ily of­fered to teach them Pol­ish. Another of­fered to take care of chil­dren when par­ents are busy with ad­min­is­tra­tive vis­its.

In the Mi­lan train sta­tion, vol­un­teers have been help­ing mi­grants since 2013, some stay­ing day and night. Lots of in­di­vid­u­als bring do­na­tions — in­clud­ing 11-year-old Alice Chi­ap­pelli. Wor­ried about fel­low chil­dren home­less in a for­eign land, she brought them pa­per and pens to pass the time.

AP

In this Sept. 9 photo, An­nika Holm Nielsen, right, and Calle Vangstrup sail in the Øre­sund strait be­tween Copenhagen and Malmö, Swe­den. A 24-year-old Dan­ish woman sails refugees across windy straits to safety in Swe­den. A Ro­ma­nian, whose for­bear­ers were driven from their home­land, opens his house to to­day’s mi­grants. A girl brings pens and pa­per to mi­grant chil­dren sleep­ing at a Mi­lan train sta­tion. While Euro­pean gov­ern­ments string ra­zor wire across borders and ar­gue over asy­lum rules, or­di­nary cit­i­zens are tak­ing ac­tion to cope with an un­prece­dented in­flow of mi­grants, their gen­eros­ity of­fer­ing mo­ments of hope for the new­com­ers — and for Europe it­self.

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