Slovakia spurned refugees earlier than Russia invaded Ukraine. Now we’re welcoming them.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — When I learn the information within the American press about what was occurring in Ukraine, or discuss to my mates in Western Europe, I can all the time inform that regardless of the shock and horror we share, they’re indifferent from what’s happening. The battle is harmful and something can occur, nevertheless it’s a battle in a distant place. 

That’s not how we really feel about it right here in Slovakia. We’re always being assured by our leaders that NATO will defend the international locations on its jap flank, however that’s not all the time as heartening as they intend it to be. Shortly after the invasion, there was panic. First folks began inquiring in regards to the nearest shelters (there aren’t sufficient, and so they’re in determined situation), then they made a run on the passport places of work, after which some even began shopping for iodine tablets within the hope they might defend them from a nuclear assault.  

While I discover it very heartwarming that so lots of my fellow Slovaks are welcoming now, I’m conscious that it’s possible not going to final.

That panic now appears to be over, however there’s nonetheless loads of background worry we’re dwelling with. My youngsters come dwelling from faculty asking me every kind of questions I by no means anticipated to need to reply, and it’s terrifying. And whereas the bullets and bombs may not be crossing into Slovakia, 1000’s of Ukrainian refugees are. For Slovakia, a rustic of some 5.4 million inhabitants that shares a border with Ukraine, it’s the refugees who’ve introduced the battle dwelling. In many circumstances into folks’s literal houses.

So far, greater than 62,000 folks have requested for momentary safety, a particular asylum routine for Ukrainians that makes it simpler for them to have entry to well being care, the schooling system and the labor market. Ukrainians may also enter Slovakia with out a visa for 90 days. Many are right here “visiting” their family, as there was already a big Ukrainian group in Slovakia earlier than the battle. 

For those that don’t have acquaintances right here, native residents have stepped up. One of them is my brother. For practically per week, he and his spouse hosted a Ukrainian girl, Vita, and her three youngsters, ages 15, 10 and 5. Vita arrived by prepare from Bratislava late one night time. Her husband needed to keep behind for the battle effort. But she determined to flee together with her youngsters after three weeks of hiding of their basement in Kharkiv whereas the Russians shelled the jap Ukrainian metropolis. It took them three days to cross Ukraine whereas avoiding Russian tanks, attain the Slovak border after which journey by prepare all the way in which to the capital. When they arrived on the prepare station’s data level for refugees, a volunteer picked my brother’s cellphone quantity from the checklist of individuals providing shelter in their very own houses.

Businesses stepped up, too. I’m in touch with a resort within the metropolis close to me, Trnava, that began housing refugees and has now constructed a complete group round it full with rooms, meals, even an area for on-line courses — some youngsters nonetheless have courses with lecturers who’re within the battle zones in Ukraine! Meanwhile, a bunch of volunteers searches for houses, organizes transfers, helps folks register with the immigration authorities, seek for jobs and extra. 

For all of the Slovaks concerned, this chain of occasions would have appeared like sheer fiction just a few weeks earlier. Now, 1000’s of households have a story like my brother’s to share. Amid the anger and the fear of the battle, a wave of compassion and solidarity has washed over my nation and adjusted it.

In 2015, Slovakia was among the many E.U. member states that rejected the redistribution of refugees from the Middle East and Africa across the E.U to alleviate the burden overwhelming Mediterranean international locations. When Slovakia was assigned to soak up 802 asylum-seekers who had arrived in Italy and Greece, the nation sued the E.U. 

After the Russian invasion, Slovakia has lastly understood what it means to be a great neighbor and utilized an open-door coverage. It’s a declaration echoed in each speech of each member of the federal government, and it stands in sharp distinction to what politicians throughout the ideological spectrum have been saying seven years in the past.

What has modified? The most simple reply is that the Ukrainians are “people like us,” which prompts Slovaks to assist them greater than they might ever dream of serving to, say, Syrians. But it’s clear the change of coronary heart additionally goes past the difficulty of racism, partly as a result of adverse attitudes towards Ukrainians have themselves undergone some alteration.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have been largely perceived as seasonal staff in automotive vegetation, agriculture or development. Now Slovaks have an opportunity to get to know them. Many have new Ukrainian colleagues and their youngsters have Ukrainian classmates, and they’re discovering frequent floor and overlooking among the variations they disparaged earlier than. 

The outpouring of help can be helped by the way in which Ukraine evokes our personal historical past. For one, there may be the persistent, if considerably inaccurate, reminiscence of ”Russian tanks,” a reference that stands for Soviet-allied nations’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the nation that Slovakia was part of throughout the Cold War. The invasion, which was carried out by extra than simply Russian forces, ended the Prague Spring democratization motion and cemented the ability of the totalitarian regime right here for one more twenty years, prompting tens of 1000’s of individuals to flee their homeland.

Most vital, when Slovaks see the movies of shelled Ukrainian cities, the neighborhoods with destroyed communist-era prefabricated house buildings trying precisely the identical as their very own, after they see the youngsters crossing the border sporting garments from the identical retail chains, they can’t assist however assume: “It could be us.”

But whereas I discover it very heartwarming that so lots of my fellow Slovaks are welcoming now, I’m conscious that it’s possible not going to final. The darker forces in society are already laborious at work. Disinformation shops, web trolls and the far proper have swiftly recovered from the preliminary shock of the invasion. Refugees, and the efforts to assist them, are one of many fundamental targets of the propaganda. Vitriolic articles and Facebook posts that depict refugees as criminals are sprinkled with numerous variations of “What about helping Slovaks first?”

Whatever risks are lurking, although, the expertise of the previous few weeks has the potential to provide a long-lasting increase to Slovakia’s burgeoning civil society. Being a great citizen now means providing tangible, sensible assist. Most people who find themselves aiding the refugees now had by no means accomplished something like that earlier than, had in all probability by no means even met a refugee. They didn’t know that they had it in them, however now that they do know, they are going to by no means be the identical folks they have been earlier than.

Indeed, the entire nation won’t ever be the identical. Now we all know we’re able to a communal effort that goes past ourselves. The problem for the nation is to show this right into a story that we are able to construct our collective identification on. This, too, is who we’re.

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