Anna Trofimova: Refugees in Europe: a crisis of gratitude?

Political discourse of the refugee crisis seems to be the leading framework of analysis, with some attention to the institutional dimension of the problem. The social perspective of experiences of the newcomers entering local communities, preoccupied with their fears and daily struggle with their own economic issues, is often a puzzle left to the people to solve it themselves. New ethical questions regarding the meaning of sharing and mercy do not find an easy answer in political speeches and legal formulations. At the same time, the migrants’ inflow works as a magnifying glass, demonstrating the shortcomings of social and cultural policies. Unemployment, low income, lack of equally available childcare and educational establishments suddenly became amplified to distorted proportions. In terms of the culture of sharing, we still confuse help and sacrifice; sharing from abundance and taking a share from those competing in the job market.

The case of Sulistrowiczki, a small village in Dolny Śląsk, Poland, which made it to the local news reports, can be a quotidian illustration of this. In September 2015, one of the Caritas organizations in Wroclaw archdiocese responded to the request to give shelter to Syrian refugees. The house, previously used for a charity project for local children, was repaired to become a refuge for as long as it might be needed. Suddenly, children seemed to have lost their summer camp. Sulistrowiczki has a population of about 140 – supposedly, to be joined by 100 refugees. Most village dwellers learned about the decision from gossip and the news reports. The villagers were quite concerned about the price they would have to pay for the decision of their bishop and Caritas’ management. The journalists enjoyed a rich material of dissatisfaction and unease. In October however, radio Wroclaw published information that there would be no refugees in Sulistrowiczki (see: Caritas denied information about refugees coming in, as no one has accepted the generous offer: Sulistrowiczki was not attractive enough. A TVP Wroclaw news report informed that potential refugees stopped by police in Dolny Śląsk in August did not wish to ask for a status in Poland at all, though. They preferred to move to Germany.

Redistribution of benefits is a painful topic. Why should locals keep struggling for their daily bread, while the newcomers would be enjoying free residence, food and good schools for their children? The social cost of helping refugees is an uncomfortable idea. An open refusal to show mercy is frowned upon. Compared to Pope Francis, Sulistrowiczki residents seem terribly heartless. Quite a different proportion of refugees resides in the Vatican, though. Our culture is confronted with a new question: can mercy become obligatory by the will of powerful leaders?

My most useful lesson of a migrant’s ethical code came from forced migrants – internally displaced persons I met in Ukraine, while volunteering for a charity. The charity was happy to receive local donations for the IDPs, still, most of the gifts came from abroad in large cardboard boxes. Volunteers were delving in those boxes together with the IDPs. One of the forced migrants, Olena, was a mother of three children – one of so many mothers who left home taking just the kids, a bag with a change of clothes for them, and a folder with their documents. Olena needed emotional support with her task to choose something fitting – and befitting – her family. She used to own a chain of second hand clothing stores back in her hometown, “in my previous life,” as she said. Just in a couple of days, she became a person unable to pay for a second-hand T-shirt on a clearance day.

During one of her visits, an internally displaced glamorous lady dropped in. She announced that she came from one of the towns occupied by separatists, and therefore the charity is obliged to give her aid. She brought along her friend for support. “I want you to give me appropriate shoes to go to work”, she said, pointing her finger at me. “These should be designer shoes, genuine leather, black, high-heeled, and no round toes. It’s matronly. Size 36.” Marvelous, thought I, any of my friends would appreciate designer shoes. But we have to work for at least six months to afford them. No one has donated designer shoes for the IDPs for some weird reason. “I am sorry, but we do not have high heeled shoes. All we have here is warm clothes and footwear for everyday wear. Used clothes, donated. Mostly children’s clothing, as we support families with many children in the first place.” “Don’t you get what I say? I want new designer shoes now! Or I will sue you and your charity!”, replied the young lady. “What’s your name and address?”, her friend enquired. In the back of the room, looking for a sudden smile of fortune in the boxes of second hand boots and sneakers, Olena was trying to hold back her tears. Tears of helpless anger: “We are not all like that. We are not.” The girl went upstairs to try her charms on someone more important than me. She did not show up to search for a happy chance in our boxes. Six months later, I learned that Olena and her children started volunteering for a charity supporting sick children.

I interviewed a university professor, also an IDP, about his experience in his new dwelling place. Every second sentence started with “I am grateful.” Grateful to his colleagues for getting him a job many locals would enjoy, to his new friends for offering their support, to the quiet and welcoming town he’s adapting to after leaving a city that never slept. I learned from my informant and from Olena’s family to see migration as an experience of gratefulness to the receiving community, a comforting experience of sharing, and making an effort to give support to others – an effort of gratitude.

It is not a common belief that sharing can be a direct manifestation of gratitude to those who do not need our help, but used to help us. If we can see beyond our privilege for a moment, gratitude is the first thing we might notice. Each of us has been a receiver of someone’s help at some point. Usually, the benefactor cannot be repaid, as the nature of giving presumes being better off in some aspect than the one receiving support. Gratitude goes beyond equal shares and careful measuring of due payback. We can only repay by helping others as an act of gratitude for the times when we were helped. At the same time, true gratitude cannot be earned, nor can it be demanded. Just as genuine mercy cannot. Both of them are continents of emotional values to be discovered. Gratitude comes from courage to be human no matter what.

Gratitude and sacrifice are often confused. Gratitude has a goal and time limits, a grateful giver is capable of measuring their capacities and giving the support of clear purpose and timing. Emotional sacrifice can often be blind and have an undertone of emotional self-purging experience, not a relation between the giver and the receiver for the improvement of abilities of both sides of support. We (demand) sacrifice to help our own selves to feel better; we help to strengthen someone in a hardship.

The refugee crisis posed too many ethical questions we have no answer for, both in the grand narrative, and in a small instance of a given locality. Has the small Polish village ever experienced gratitude to Caritas for helping them? Could we assume that gratitude possesses power to open people for sharing their hard-earned benefits, or is it rather a utopia in regards with human capacities? Did the villagers feel it was the charity`s first obligation to cater to their needs, just like some migrants might presume? Should the cases of unwillingness to share one’s life with those in danger mean that we should stop gratitude in its tracks to reach those who try to rebuild their life in a culture which is so foreign in its deification of self-reliance?

Anna Tromifova is a postgraduate student in international HR management at the Wroclaw University of Economics in Poland, where she specializes in migration and labour studies, and a PhD student in social anthropology at the Ethnology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.