A Helping Hand for the Refugees

1The closing of the Serbo-Hungarian border in October 2015 caused a massive influx of refugees seizing their last chance to make it into the European-Union through Hungary. Katharina* (54), housewife and mother of three children in Munich decided in October 2015 to go to the Serbo-Hungarian border to offer her help to the refugees.

She agreed to share her experience with us in this interview.

YCF: What motivated you to go to the Serbo-Hungarian border?

Katharina: I decided to go there, when the refugee crisis and particularly the position of the European-Union at its borders were at the center of media attention. The spotlight was put on the Syrian refugees and their struggles at the borders to get into the European-Union by land or by sea. When I saw these people in Hungary walking by feet on the streets direction Austria I couldn’t stop thinking of them.

Furthermore, there was a wave of solidarity coming up in Munich, the city in which I live, as well as in Germany in general.

But the thing, that pushed me the most, was the urge of the situation and the will to face it. I mean, there was a huge humanitarian crisis just about 500 miles away and I couldn’t stand it, just to stay in my comfort zone and not do anything about it.

YCF: How did you go? And who did you take with you?

Katharina: I got in contact with a small group of people in my neighborhood who also wanted to do something. Most of them helped by donating stuff and/or money, but two of them were willing to come with me to the border to help the refugees there – a German architect who was about 40 years and a Syrian man who has lived in Munich for over 40 years.

Once the group was formed we decided to rent a truck and fill it with the donations. We even got supported by a charity organization which gave us among other things strollers and baby-carriers.

We first arrived in Budapest, where we originally wanted to help, but we were quickly told that there were enough people willing to help in the city. However, there was a huge lack of people at the Serbo-Hungarian border.

YCF: Once there, what was your first impression?

Katharina: I was surprised by the lack of infrastructure when we arrived. We first had to clean the surface to even think about creating a kind of infrastructure where we can welcome the arriving refugees. Then we distributed tents and made a plan to create a structure.

I was also surprised, that there were just very few people who came for humanitarian causes and a lot of journalists. I even felt, that there were more journalists than volunteers that came to the border. And there were quite a lot of Hungarian policeman at the border as well.2

YCF: What were your main activities at the border?

Katharina: Well, the activities varied. As already said, we installed tents to welcome the refugees, but we also gave them dry clothes when they arrived wet from head to toe because of the heavy rain. And we gave shelter and information to the disoriented refugees. We even gave money once in a while when they lost everything on their way. We also gave the often terrified children some toys and brought families to main train stations so that they could continue their way from there. As you can see, we always had something to do.

3YCF: What impressed you the most?

Katharina: I think it was to see so many families. Of course, I expected to see some families, but I was surprised to see that many families with small kids I thought meeting a lot more young to middle-aged men, who made the way to get their wives and kids later.

I was also surprised by the dignity and the decision of the refugees. Some of them had made very tough ways to get to the border and most were very tired. But all people were incredibly respectful and helpful one to another. I’ve never noticed a violent skid or even a feeling of aggressiveness.

Last but not least, I was surprised by the fact that there were not only Syrians trying to cross the border, but also a lot of Iraqis and Afghans fleeing terror and war.

4YCF: What was your most shocking experience

Katharina: One evening we were looking out at the border, if there was anyone who could need our help. We noticed someone hiding in the bushes, so we went a little closer. It was a young woman with a newborn in her arms. The young mother just gave birth a very few days ago in Serbia. But she didn’t have the time to recover from the birth. She had to continue her way direction Hungary. Once they arrived at the border, she sat down in a bush and stopped moving. She stayed in a severe state of shock with her newborn for one day and one night. The baby was almost not dressed. He wouldn’t have survived one more night like this in the cold.

At the example of this woman you can see how the refugees are going to their extremes. There is no going back for them.

YCF: Are you still active in the help for refugees today?

Katharina: I am indeed. I joined an organization in my city that offers different types of workshops for the refugees. The aim is, to integrate them and to offer them something to do during the long days. The workshops vary from German-classes and help in the bureaucratic steps to sports and cooking workshops. I personally lead a painting workshop with another woman. With this workshop we try to give them an opportunity to show their artistic skills and to express their experience. At the end of the workshop we’ll expose the paintings in a gallery to show it to a broad public.

* name changed as requested

Interview: Clara Hachmann

About the author:

Picture Clara HachmannClara took part in our “My Europe”workshop in Munich in 2013. She is one of the winners of the international writing contest from the workshop and has been actively representing the voice of young Europeans through the “Youth Council for the Future” (YCF). Read more…

My Name Is Lectrr

Lectrr, Spotlight Europe
De Standaard’s cartoonist Lectrr for Spotlight Europe. (Lectrr Official Page)

My name is Lectrr. I’m a professional cartoonist from Belgium, working for ‘De Standaard’, a newspaper with a strong tradition in quality journalism. I’ve been working as a cartoonist for over a decade now and I’ve seen the business change a lot. For better or for worse is something only the future will tell.

Most of the changes have happened slowly and over the years. Budgets for quality journalism and cartoons have been sinking since the day I’ve started working in this field. Media companies have become multi-media brands, and so forth. But the most abrupt change for me happened on January 7th this year. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

“Before Charlie Hebdo, cartoonist were not to be taken seriously.”

Before Charlie Hebdo, cartoonist were not to be taken seriously. We were men and women that drew comic book like figurines with silly noses. Things that made people laugh, sometimes think, but mostly help to put things in perspective. Funny, sometimes a bit more than that, but always somewhere on the edge of what newspapers were about. Cartoonists were outsiders, nobody knew how we looked like. We hardly got interviews, never appeared on TV.

But then the attacks took place. In one blink of an eye, the entire world turned to the cartoonists and instead of seeing men drawing silly figurines with big noses, they saw freedom fighters. Something we never intended to be, something most of us aren’t.

We were interviewed on worldwide news channels, invited for debates on live TV, VIP guests at media conferences. When a cartoon exposition opened a prime ministers would even attend, while before we hardly got normal visitors. The outsiders were at the center of attention. But our message never changed, it was only the perception of what we did that changed.

I found that to be dangerous. It is our task, as cartoonists, not to be celebrities. It is our task to be annoying, out of the context, out of the spotlight. As eternal opposition for the ones in power, asking difficult questions. But politicians embraced us! They were all Charlie. Suddenly everybody was supportive of the freedom of speech-idea, even the ones who make the laws or machinations that diminish this freedom of speech.

“My place is behind the drawing desk, not in the spotlights.”

Personally, I backed out. I refused television interviews and media appearances. I found it to be more powerful when I spoke on these current events by making cartoons, not comments on TV. I’m a lousy TV guest but a great cartoonist. My place is behind the drawing desk, not in the spotlights. While a lot of cartoonists worldwide, all Charlie and pro-freedom of speech, became more careful in their cartoons I never found the necessity to give in. I didn’t see the need to draw Muhammad and still be critical about religion and violence, and found my urge to make cartoons very strong the weeks after the attacks. I felt that my pen did become as sharp and powerful as a sword. And a lot of readers found so too: the cartoons I made in response went global. And got the attention of Islamic extremists.

The number of hate mail a critical cartoonist receives is getting more and more substantial over the years. Back in the seventies it was difficult to send a hate letter to a cartoonist: you had to write a letter manually and mail it by post. You had hours to change your mind before the bad letter would leave. But nowadays, with the internet one can literally get mad and reach the person you’re mad at within seconds.

“One morning I received a death threat from an extremist.”

No time to think or to change your mind about something. Just instant hate. By getting a lot of those over the years, cartoonist tend to get numbed. I never respond to or even read hate mail. Sometimes we joke among cartoonists about the bad spelling in hate mail. One morning I received a death threat from an extremist. Didn’t give much attention to it, really. Completely numbed by hate mail.

I can’t go into detail but the threat was serious enough and my family and I lived in fear for weeks. But even fear wears out. I think that’s exactly what happened to Charlie Hebdo: after a while you grow used to the threat. Next time a death threat comes along, and I’m sure it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’, it’ll have less impact on my life and that of my peers. That’s the big danger in things: we grow indifferent of the danger, in the same way we grow indifferent of freedom of speech.

That’s the biggest point I would like to make. Islamic terrorism isn’t the biggest threat to freedom of speech, we are. We’ve been taking our freedom for granted. The danger no longer lies in the idea that someone would want to take it away from us, someone like a dictator or a terrorist mastermind, but within our own behavior.

“Indifference is worse than being forced out of your freedom of speech.”

Nowadays we’re all the media. Information is no longer dominated by newspapers or TV channels. Everybody with a smartphone or tablet or computer has become a media producer. We produce content at an enormous rate: cat videos, instagram pictures of our cappuccinos, selfies with new sneakers, yay! But what we don’t realize is that we have a responsibility as a medium. By producing these enormous amounts of meaningless content, we’re creating an enormous internet diarrhea of images and ideas hardly worth our concentration. True, interesting messages of social importance get swamped in that internet diarrhea: good investigational journalism no longer weighs up to cat videos. Newspapers start to adopt the ’10 ways to’-journalism. Cartoons no longer find their readership to make people laugh and think. Everybody has a responsibility to be critical, but it’s more fun to get a lot of likes. Jihadists don’t need to kill advocates of freedom of speech, we’re burying them ourselves in cat videos and endless lists on how to improve your sex life. Just because we are growing indifferent. Indifference is worse than being forced out of your freedom of speech. When you’re forced out, you at least still have an opinion of your own. A thought. When you’ve grown indifferent, you don’t. Not. Even. A. Thought.

The world isn’t better off with 10 million people saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we need the few that will think for themselves. Now more than ever.

Since 7/1 I’m not afraid of Islamic terrorism, but I’m scared shitless about indifference.

About the author:
Lectrr, Spotlight Europe
Lectrr – Author at Spotlight Europe

Lectrr is a Belgian cartoonist, currently working for De Standaard-newspaper.

About Charlie Hebdo

Nous sommes Charlie, Spotlight Europe
New and old questions arise since the attack on the Parisian satire magazin Charlie Hebdo. (Flickr: ActuaLitté /licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

I cling to no religion in particular and all of them at the same time. In the end, don´t they all advocate the things we are striving for? Happiness, justice and clairvoyance. However, I do have some beliefs: I believe in believing, in freedom and in humour. I believe in humour to the point of being rude. If an action is assured to make someone laugh later on that day, it is almost completely justified. (Take notice: almost! Because some things are just not acceptable.) I guess it´s Stuart Mill´s utilitarianism applied to laughter.

Now it gets tricky. Everyone should believe in something. It is a human right and need. I not only respect but also cherish it, because it is a sign that there´s still freedom and diversity in this world. But how can I respect someone who justifies murder with ideas like “unbearable disrespect for the prophet should be severely punished”?

“I aim to be tolerant and understanding but incidents like Charlie Hebdo´s in France outrage me”

I aim to be tolerant and understanding but incidents like Charlie Hebdo´s in France outrage me and I am afraid I might develop a biased opinion on muslims. And I am certainly not the only one because, whereas I am writing and pondering about what concerns me, there are people who forgot not all muslims are terrorists and decided to make justice with their own hands.

I´m afraid a violent comeback is to be expected: ignorance generates hate, which will develop into rage that will spread and produce terror. It´s how it is but it doesn´t make it less frightening. And I feel very ignorant: I don´t understand a lot of muslim beliefs and they don´t understand mine. Yet it could be the case that a muslim kid is thinking the same thing, the other way round.

So this is a call for those who are feeling concerned and confused: enough with the killing, enough with the bias. All I want is to read my Garfield strips tomorrow without having to worry if Jim Davis is about to be attacked by a bunch of angry persian cats who are tired of being fed lasagne.

About the author

The author once participated in one of My Europe´s workshops but wishes to stay anonym. In the light of the horrible attack in Paris on Wednesday, 7. January 2015, it was felt to express an opinion.

Unfinished Struggles

I was touched when I recently read the memoires of Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgium socialist statesman and one of the founding fathers of the European Union. How beautiful to see the passion of the man who in the middle of the fifties headed the group that worked on the Treaty of Rome (1957), the treaty establishing the European Economic Community.

The negotiations between the founding countries were not always easy. Sometimes simple issues like duties on bananas seemed insurmountable obstacles.

‘When I ran out of arguments and patience, I declared that I gave the struggling parties two hours to come to an agreement,’ Spaak writes in his memoires. ‘Otherwise I would invite the press and tell them that it was impossible to build Europe because we could not solve the issue of bananas.’

They made it. When the Treaty was signed on the 25th of March 1957, ‘the clocks of Rome sounded at full strength, to greet the birth of the New Europe,’ Spaak wrote. In his eyes it marked ‘the triumph of the spirit of cooperation and the defeat of egoistic nationalism’.

I work for the Dutch online journalism platform De Correspondent. At De Correspondent we don’t believe in absolutely independent journalism. Of course we strive to be open-minded and not driven by ideology. But we choose to show the parti pris everyone has and that journalists normally feel obliged to hide. I fully confess that I have warm feelings for Spaaks ideals, for the attempt to overcome narrow nationalism and seek common understanding and cooperation on our war-torn continent.

Just like the European Union, De Correspondent is a project of collaboration. We believe the time in which the journalist told “the truth” to the reader and simply sent his message to him, is over. We want to take the readers with us on our journalistic adventure. Under our articles readers have the possibility not to react, but to contribute, and to mention their field of expertise. Often very interesting debates take place on our site. Readers share their ideas with us and give us suggestions for research we have to do and new articles we have to write.

De Correspondent is made possible by our members. We started a year ago after setting a world record in crowd funding for journalism. We proved that it is not true that people do not want to pay for journalism on the internet. Maybe not for news, but our goal is to not to provide news. We want to delve deeper and to write background articles on the reality behind the headlines. On our site we have no advertisements, to avoid flickering banners and give a comfortable reading experience, but also to make sure that advertisers don’t have any influence on what we write.

At the moment about thirty correspondents work for us, each with their own field of expertise. I myself am ‘Correspondent Europe between power and imigination’. As I said, I have strong feelings for the European idea. But that doesn’t make me an uncritical sympathiser of the European Union as it is. On the contrary. My research as a journalist shows that there is a lot wrong with the EU. Lobbies often have too much influence on the making of European laws. Although the European parliament has become more and more powerful, many Europeans do not feel they are represented by it. And the EU wants to be a ‘strong global actor’, but often the member states act on their own in foreign policy.

The memoires that Spaak published in 1969 have the tittle ‘Combats inachevés, Unfinished struggles. The part in which he writes about the EU is titled:  ‘de l’espoir au déceptions’, from hope to deception. In the last chapter Spaak writes about the crisis of 1965, when France stayed away from European meetings, protesting against the plans for a common agricultural policy.

Fifty years later we are maybe in an even deeper crisis. How to overcome the economic malaise we’re suffering from for years already?  How to regain believe in the Europaean project in times of rising euroscepsis? How to find an answer to the chaos and the violence near our borders and really become a strong global actor?

As ‘correspondent’ I want to find out how Europe tries to find answers to these difficult questions and to renew itself. Not only the European Union, De Correspondent is also an ‘unfinished struggle.’ Indeed, in both cases we have just begun.

About the author:

Tomas VanhesteTomas Vanheste is journalist with the innovative online media platform De Correspondent in the Netherlands. more…