Friday, September 18, 2015

Croatia: Refugees Ante Portas

A Croatian friend from Las Vegas sends me an e-mail from our native Zagreb which she is visiting after several years of absence. She says she has shelved any plans for a possible retirement in the old country, and that even future visits are in question. Why? She finds the conversations too shallow, or "pouring from the hollow into the empty" as they say there and people too grim-faced, xenophobic and generally mean-spirited, living beyond their means, pretending to be what they are not, and thinking they know everything - even if they have not stepped out of their backyard for the past quarter-century.

Of course she is exaggerating, but I know what she means. Over several past decades, I have made at least five or six - probably more - trips to Croatia. The conversations invariably revolved around local issues: prices and availability of goods and services, alleged incompetence of political leaders and local who-are-whos. Despite the popularity of American movies and TV shows, the distaste for the United States is widespread (it's the country that wants total control of the world, where danger lurks around every corner; goods are cheap and poor quality; high culture is non-existant, and the food is good enough only for the boat people). Washington is not worth a visit for these "intellectuals" in the country of "cultural traditions" dating back to King Tomislav. Only "refined" cities such as Paris, Rome, London or Vienna will do. As my Las Vegas friend notes, without ever visiting the United States, many of these people believe they know all they need to about it, so the opportunity to learn first-hand from someone who actually lives there is passed up. During these many visits, I don't recall anyone asking me about my lifestyle, my career or my experience living in the United States. If I volunteer, the eyes glaze over and the subject is quickly changed.

Cafè in central Zagreb:  World News Not Discussed Here
Just recently, I attempted an e-mail discussion with an acquaintance in Zagreb about the averted train attack in Europe and the bravery of the Americans who subdued the heavily armed gunman. I thought surely that would be of interest to someone who lives on the continent and might travel on just such a train. The response was a total blank - the acquaintance had not heard about the incident. Neither had she heard of the Croatian worker who was kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS in Egypt. She does not read newspapers or watch TV news, she said. This from an intellectual with a published book behind her belt. Such news are of no use to her, she said. She feels sorry for the poor Croatian guy, she said, but the information I gave her only upsets her and has no other purpose. I was speechless. Of course she has the right to block out the unwanted information and, yes, the news are mostly depressing. But can an intellectual, even a fiction writer as opposed to a journalist, live in a vacuum - in a personal bubble protected from the infections of the outside world? I guess so.

Today's news (September 17) is dismal for Croatia. Thousands of migrants poured in through the border with Serbia as they head for Western Europe. Unprepared for the crowds the size of a small Croatian town, the border authorities were overwhelmed and what they hoped would be an orderly passage turned into chaos. Even those willing to help the exhausted, desperate and angry people were taken aback. An estimated 14,000 migrants entered the country in just two days after being diverted from the Serbian border with Hungary, which is now sealed.

Refugees are not new to Croatia. The country hosted tens of thousands of people displaced by the 1990's ethnic conflict in the Balkans. But those refugees trickled in gradually, they were neighbors and they spoke a language that could be understood. After the war, many returned to their homes and those who stayed were easily integrated.

Chaos on the Croatian Border with Serbia
The current waves comprise people from the Middle East and other far-away foreign regions.  They don't plan to stay, but as a European Union member, Croatia will have to settle a certain number of the refugees that have reached Europe in the past few years. Many locals cringe at the idea of integrating people of such different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. During my school years in Zagreb, the handful of Middle-easterners and Africans in Zagreb were young people from the so-called non-aligned countries, befriended by longtime Yugoslav leader Tito, and they came temporarily to study at the Zagreb University.  Only one of those students, a Kenyan,  became a permanent resident.  But EU executives earlier this month said each member nation should accept 160,000 migrants. Even one third of that figure would create a huge impact on the Slavic country with very few and not very diverse minorities.  Maybe that's a jolt that Croatia and other eastern European countries need to realize that they are part of an increasingly global world, despite barbed-wire fences they may put up.

The barbarity of the Balkans conflict stunned the world in the early 1990's. By the time the world recovered from its stupor, thousands of people were massacred, tortured and displaced. The world is now equally stunned by (and therefore unprepared to accommodate or process) the number of people risking life and limb to escape the new places of conflict, popping up in the developing world. Why the surprise? Perhaps because too many intellectuals block out distressing information and choose to live protected in comfortable bubbles?

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