Sunday, November 8, 2015

Europe in Motion -- A Learning Conference

In my personal opinion Facebook is becoming more annoying -- the new "suggested posts" which are a new way to say advertisements and the "share" things people post with already 10 million viewers which are either silly or highly improbable or both. But then it turns around to be very helpful sometimes too. I noticed a friend was going to an event called Europe in Motion sponsored by the Norway House. Because I spend so much time in Europe, the social conditions there are of great interest to me. 

This conference is the fifth such conference sponsored by Norway House, and if you are curious about Norway House, please click Here.This particular Norway House sponsors a Peace Initiative associated with an organization in Oslo. Last year's conference, for example, examined the Ukraine situation.
So I registered for this event, and took off about 4 PM from my apartment towards the 10th Street light rail station. Tuesday, November 3, was also election day in Saint Paul -- an election for city council and school district seats. My particular polling station is right by the light rail station, so this was all one trip.  And this day was unusually warm for a November day in Minnesota. I took only a light jacket thinking coming home later in the evening the temperature might be a bit cool. But oh my! temperatures in the 60s -- what a treat.

I got off on the East Campus stop and walked to Applebee's for supper. I had not been to one for several years. It wasn't very crowded on a Tuesday night and I enjoyed the American Standard Burger. 

I arrived at the Alumni Center,where the event was to be held, and was surprised to see coffee and cookies set out for refreshment. Then I thought, well yes, it's a Norwegian event -- there must be coffee, and then chided myself for thinking through a stereotype. But when the moderator for the evening welcomed the group, she invited everyone to be sure to enjoy the coffee and cookies, after all it was Norwegian event. So apparently I was right.

The moderator for the evening explained the Peace Initiative of the Norway House sponsors this type of conference because both the quantity and quality of news has declined in the United States. And that one can not function in a democracy without information. I heartily agree with the statement about the decline of the quality and quantity of news in the United States.

What follows is how I understood what I heard. While I will attribute statements to speakers, please remember I could have misheard or misinterpreted the speaker. 

The first speaker at the conference was Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and Director of International  Justice, Advocates for Human Rights. Her job was to help us all understand the terms being used to describe the movement of people into Europe. I was well aware of the definition of refugee. This describes someone who must leave his/her country due to the threat of great harm or event death because of characteristics such a race, religion, or political views. When I was teaching my students always read the book, The Middle of Everywhere, by Mary Pipher. This book describes how to work with refugees, a very timely subject in Minnesota. What I didn't realize is this definition of refugee is not unique to the United States. It is the universal definition of refugee adopted in 1951 as nations worked with the displaced persons in Europe following WW II.

But I have been puzzled about asylum seeker. A person seeks asylum for the same reasons as a refugee. The only difference is where the person makes the application. Refugee status is assigned while the person is in his/her home country. Asylum application is made when the person has traveled to another country in which that person seeks to live. In Europe asylum is further regulated by the 1961 Dublin Convention. The Dublin Convention requires the country of entry be the country in which the asylum application is filed and evaluated. This helps me now understand that countries such as Italy and Greece have not only a huge humanitarian load but also a huge administrative load processing asylum applications.

I can't remember which speaker eventually explained that several countries are ignoring the Dublin Convention. Some are refusing to register applications for asylum, while others, notably Germany, are telling people to come to their country to make the application without regard to which European country was the country of entry. It was also noted that it is more than people from Syria who are fleeing to Europe. People are also coming from the Balkans,Ukraine, and several African countries.

The asylum issue is further complicated by the absence of the common definition. The speaker noted there are at least 28 countries with differing definitions.

Following the presentation about definitions, three panel members were introduced. As listed in the program, they are Jan Petersen, Daniel Wordsworth, and Dianna Shandy. Mr. Petersen is a former Norwegian Foreign Minister as well as former member of the Norwegian parliament. Daniel Wordsworth is the President and CEO of the American Refugee Committee, an organization which works worldwide and just happens to be based here in Minnesota. Dr. Dianna Shandy is a Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College in Saint Paul. I learned a great deal from each of these speakers.

Each panel member spoke briefly and then all took questions from either the moderator or audience members. Rather than summarize each person's presentations, I will list what I learned.

(1) One speaker said there seemed to be either disappointment or outrage, on the other hand, that the people who are moving don't seem to be bedraggled and poor. Speaking of the Syrian people, one speaker said: These are every day people who need help from every day people. They are teachers, mothers, engineers, children. They are people who find their cities at least 50% destroyed. They are people trapped in situations where there is no food, no work, and no school for the children. What would you do if you were in this situation? 

We were admonished to talk to our friends and help them understand. I had planned to write a blog about this experience, but the above statement is what drove me to trying to find the words to explain and summarize this experience.

(2) Next, what happened in Syria? One speaker noted there is/was a huge divide between the rural poor and the urban elite. In my opinion that is enough right there to create conflict, but the social situation has been exasperated by a drought which caused the rural populations to flow to the cities.

(3) There appears to be a major misunderstanding that Syrian people are not finding homes in neighboring countries. That is not true. Many Syrian people have found at least temporary homes in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.  We were told 600,000 Syrians have moved into Jordan, and that 500,000 are being housed in Jordanian homes, not in refugee camps.

(4)  Is the problem Islamophobia? The speaker from Norway said in his opinion the bigger fear by European countries is that they will lose their national identify. Frankly, this is an idea difficult for me to understand since our country is made of up of people from everywhere -- our national identify is made up of multiple peoples.

My comment -- And a quick Internet search reveals that while Islam is the dominant religion, people in that country practice other religions as well. When coming from Poland this summer I spent one night in Amsterdam and picked up the end of the story on BBC. This related to criticism BBC had received for showing refugees building a small Christan Church. Since I didn't see the front end of the story the back end of it made no sense at all.

Back to the Norwegian speaker -- he said that the sheer number of persons right now makes it very difficult. There are huge numbers of people who need housing assistance, who need to find spots in language lessons, and all the other services one needs when entering a new country.

(5) People are arriving on Norway's northern border. Who would have thought? The rule here is that no one is allowed to walk across that border. We were told it was amazing how quickly bicycles appeared, for it is not illegal to ride across the border.

(6) Should people be forced to assimilate into a new culture/country? The more up to date thinking is that we help people to integrate into a new country. Newcomers should not be forced to give up their culture, but they do need assistance in using a new health system, or a new educational system.

In the book I mentioned above, The Middle of Everywhere, Pipher has a list three pages long of things that puzzle a newcomer.  Often it is these 100 little things that are more difficult than one big thing. Little things such as how to use a parking meter, how to buy a bus ticket, what is Black Friday, or how to find bread one really likes.

 (7) One person asked what we could do "upsteam" to prevent refugees. The response was that we should always keep the doors open to people running for their lives. But somewhat related to this question came the idea of help populations develop resilience so they are more able to withstand "external shocks." That is exactly what Mano a Mano is doing for the people of rural Bolivia who certainly will have to face the external shock of climate change. And that is why I enjoy every minute of volunteering I do for the organization.

I hope you all have found this worthwhile reading. I would surely appreciate comments.

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