Suprised in Europe

I grew up in Toronto, Canada, a city with more than half its population born outside the country. Communication from the city often comes in several languages and the City of Toronto provides translations for their website into 52 various languages via Google Translate. University Health Network’s four hospitals offer patients translation services in over 180 languages. Many of the city’s neighborhoods are associated with other countries: China Town, Korea Town, Little Italy, Little India, or the Danforth, which is home to a large portion of Toronto’s Greek community, to name a few.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Mike Gifford


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Multiculturalism was my normal, something I did not think about and took for granted. I became more aware of Canada’s diversity on my visits home, after I had moved to Europe. Though this could be a product of my liberal, progressive upbringing and education, in Canada this view is not unique. Public opinion polls on a wide range of topics – immigration, the environment, gay rights, the death penalty and abortion, along with the latest election results, show that most Canadians share similar views.

Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the perceived security risks that come with Canada’s acceptance of 25,000 Syrian refugees in an interview on the CBS’s 60 Minutes. Trudeau replied: “Every time a tourist or an immigrant or refugee shows up in another country, there is a security risk … Ultimately being open and respectful towards each other is a much more powerful way to diffuse hatred and anger than … big walls and oppressive policies.”

Here, Trudeau summarizes what I, perhaps naively, have always considered to be the common Canadian attitude, despite Stephen Harper’s conservative administration that led the previous eight years. Harper was an aberration, and the last election showed it. Though his economic views were popular for a while, his social views were often questioned. Many Canadian news outlets have described the Liberal’s return to power as a return to Canadian values. In the CBS interview, Trudeau was simply reflecting the values that shaped me and many of my fellow Canadians; those that helped propel him to his recent majority government. I’ve never felt any other way, as I was raised in a culture where hateful, angry or oppressive attitudes were met with criticism both privately and publically.

Prague has been my home for most of the past three and a half years. Upon completing my undergraduate degree in European History, I moved here in September 2012 to learn Czech and teach English. After two years I went to London to obtain a Master’s degree, returning last September, and I am now working in Prague. Over the last several years both studying and living in the V4, I have come to understand how the environments in which we live shape our attitudes. Yet, I continue to be puzzled by the anti-refugee sentiments expressed by V4 governments, given my upbringing and knowledge of modern Central European history.

It seems to me that many of those refusing to accept refugees from Syria and the Middle East overlook their own recent history and the massive migration of people from the V4 region. After the shifting borders, the Nazis, the Soviets, the national communist governments, the massive physical destruction, the deaths and displacement of millions and the migration of millions more to the west, often with little more than their own lives – why are we witnessing so much intolerance towards migrants? I have a very hard time understanding why Central European governments are taking such a hardline position or employing such rhetoric against accepting these refugees – whether that be Viktor Orbán choosing to build a fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia or Milos Zeman claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated the influx of refugees, and that Muslims could never integrate into Europe. Or what about Polish President Andrzej Duda claiming that migrants would cause health epidemics and the newly re-elected Slovak PM Robert Fico vowing not to accept one Muslim into his country?

Given the number of Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Slovaks who have left their countries over the past decades, one might think that Central Europeans would have a greater understanding of why people flee their homes. In order to leave their countries, refugees risk imprisonment and death. How is the current experience of those migrating from the Middle East so different to that of Europeans who migrated between 1933 and 1989?

I am not suggesting that those who fled Europe were warmly welcomed or accepted into North American society. Many were subjected to varying degrees of discrimination due to their religions and nationalities. Jews, Catholics, Italians, Greeks, Poles and Ukrainians, just to name a few, encountered many barriers to economic, social and political advancement. Over time, however, those obstacles began to break down.

Two generations ago, those who were pro-integration would point to the diversity of professionals and students in law, medicine and graduate programs. They, of course meant young, white men and women of European origin. For my generation, those people are lumped together, their original divisions largely forgotten. Discriminatory discussions now center more on race, reflecting the immigration trends of the last 40 years. My hope is that Canadians will not be having that discussion in another 20 years. Immigrants have not destroyed Canada or Canadian culture; if anything they have made it stronger, more open, self-assured and vibrant. Societies are defined by shared beliefs, attitudes and mores that inform members how they should treat one another; this should not be contingent on where they were born or how they pray.

The current wave of Middle Eastern migrants looks a bit different. They aren’t as fair skinned as most Europeans and most of them are Muslim. Who knows what will happen as more visible minorities seek refuge in otherwise predominantly white societies, but chances are that they’ll integrate pretty well over the next couple generations. As Trudeau said, accepting anyone has its risks, but treating newcomers with respect and openness will yield far better results than inciting anger and hatred.

The majority of Canadians seem to agree. Racist and xenophopic politicians rarely gain any traction. This attitude is apparent in a video clip of a social experiment that went viral after the October 2014 shooting of a soldier on duty in Ottawa on Parliament Hill by a “lone wolf,” Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a Canadian born and raised with a Libyan-Canadian father, who had converted to Islam 10 years prior. In the video, one actor poses as a Muslim student at a bus stop, dressed in robes and a taqiyah, while another actor begins insulting him, suggesting that based on his attire, he is dangerous and could bomb the bus they are waiting for. However the unaware bystanders at the bus stop do not join in the verbal attack; they actually defend the student and tell the “bully” off – one  bystander even punches one of the “bullies” in the face.

I am not suggesting that Canada has all the answers. Integrating 25,000 refugees will surely have its challenges, though I am convinced that showing humanity can only do more good than bad. The V4 governments are democratically elected, and have every right to formulate their own policies. However, given my upbringing and experience, and my understanding of Central European history, I simply just don’t get it.

Lara Wigdor

Lara Wigdor

is a Canadian based in Prague and recently completed an MA in History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. Her research interests include opposition to human rights violations, gender equality and democratization in Visegrad states.