Sunday, September 6, 2015

What the Migrant Crisis Says About Us

I write about foreigners, like myself, who choose to move between places and cultures; who face the challenges and reap the rewards of “nomadic” life. But I have always, intentionally, – steered clear of writing about a particular kind of foreigner: the one who moves by necessity or force, rather than choice; the one who is uprooted by war, poverty, persecution or all of the above. Refugees are not my area of expertise. But lately I have been feeling that humanity should be everyone’s expertise.
The stream of people fleeing broken countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to seek safety elsewhere is hardly a new situation, but it is one whose urgency and visibility have risen dramatically in the past few days. European citizens and their governments are confronted with a swelling flood of migrants; a humanitarian crisis of overwhelming proportions. And, for the moment, they do not seem to have a coherent plan for how to deal with that crisis.
I don’t have a solution for the tragedy that unfolds every day before our eyes. I am not issuing condemnations or calls for action. I don’t know how we will make it right. But I believe that trying to make it right will make us better people.
As we go about our daily lives, most of us are not confronted with the extent of poverty, need, suffering, and desperation that that have come our way now. As we go about our daily lives, we don’t have to rise to the occasion. Before scores of refugees were washed out on their beaches, the people of the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos – two of the first stops for Syrian and Afghan migrants on their way to Europe – did not have to show unbelievable generosity and kindness on a daily basis. They did not have to offer whatever they could spare – which is often so very little – to help those who have even less. They did not have to work full shifts in addition to their day jobs to collect donations, distribute water, medicine and clothes or take care of hungry children. They did not have to open their homes so that their foreign “guests” could clean themselves or sleep. Now, that’s what they are doing – on a daily basis.

And this is no isolated response. When trainloads of refugees arrived in Munich central train station last week, the locals’ donations of food, water, clothes, blankets and toys, were so overwhelming that the city’s police asked them politely to stop bringing supplies because there were more than enough. In Iceland, within 24 hours, over 10,000 people responded to a Facebook pledge and signed up to open their homes to Syrian refugees – when their government had previously agreed to offer asylum to only 50. In Germany, crowds at football stadiums raised banners welcoming refugees. In Austria, this weekend, hundreds of rail workers pledged to work overtime for free, to drive special trains that will get refugees to their desired destinations as soon as possible. People all across Europe are taking matters into their own hands, not waiting for their governments to act, feeling the moral responsibility to ease the suffering of the hundreds who have been thrown at their doorstep.

What is happening right now, in our own back yard, is making us push against the boundaries of our own empathy, our sympathy, our desire to do the right thing. This massive influx of fellow human beings, driven out of their homelands has revealed unprecedented solidarity and compassion that lay dormant in us. It has allowed us to explore the depths of our humanity – or lack thereof. Because this latest crisis has also brought out the worst in some. It has stirred up xenophobia and racism; exposed some very short memories; allowed those who choose, to to give in to hate, cruelty and the building of fences, emotional and literal. I will write about the kindness and humanity; not the harshness and fear.
I was struck by a recent study that found that the most powerful predictor of identity change is the disruption of a person’s moral faculty. Not memory, but morality. If our moral character changes (the study focuses on the impact on the brain of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s), we become unrecognizable to others. If our moral compass is messed up, we are not ourselves any more. Empathy and compassion are part of that moral compass that is the essence of our identity and makes us who we are.
This human tragedy shapes our moral identity – as individuals and as nations. It brings out our true selves; or it changes our true selves. It exposes our collective inner sense of right and wrong. It transforms the moral fabric of our societies and ultimately changes our national identity.

Who will we choose to be?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Punch the knife

As I relish one of my last scorched, wind-blown afternoons on my little stone-paved veranda on a Cycladic island, I think of my past few weeks here and the Greece I have encountered.

Greece is a country in perpetual crisis. It has been in a constant crunch, a state of emergency, a permanent state of transition, for a while now. Scenarios of doom and reckoning have been floating in the air for at least half a decade. It’s hard to miss how all that has affected its people.

In between reconnecting with my sensory home – the smell of thyme bushes and fig trees, the crisp taste of watermelon, the buzzing of the cicadas in a hot afternoon – all I seem to be doing this summer vacation is talk; probe; ask questions. I seek out mostly the younger Greeks. They are the ones hit the hardest; the “lost” generation of Greece, as they are now called by sociologists and the media. More than half of them are unable to find jobs. Most of them can hardly envision, let alone plan, their future. They are also the ones that overwhelmingly voted “No” to the recent Greek bailout referendum, which I have had a hard time making sense of.

I talk to the young woman serving me at the village coffee shop. When I ask her how she and her peers are coping with the crisis, she tells me with a half smile: “I am serving my degree,” implying that her university degree is utterly useless in getting her a job. There is no anger or bitterness in her voice. She seems rather stoic. “I’m grateful that I can wait tables; at least I have a job, unlike most of my friends,” she rushes to add.

Across the street, the small crafts shop is empty most of the time I pass by. As the shop owner carefully wraps the piece of hand-made pottery I just bought, she shares with me her worries about her three children, aged between 17 and 22. “They are constantly angry and I don’t know what to tell them,” she says. “They have no future and it’s not their fault. But I have raised them to endure.”

The more I talk, the more it seems to me that the whole country is immobilized. Nobody really knows what’s coming or when, what the next development will be, which rumors are true and which are baseless. Everybody is in a state of suspended animation. At the same time, I witness an unprecedented level of stoicism and a very particular kind of resilience in the face of so much uncertainty. When I came here, I was expecting to be confronted with anger, frustration and bitterness. There is a lot of that going around, for sure; a lot of disillusionment. But there is also an extraordinary level of kindness. The crisis has brought families together. People support each other whenever possible, even with limited means. Everyone seems to realize that a selfish way of living belongs firmly in the past if the nation is to survive these times.

Resilience is in our Greek genes for sure. As a country, as a people, we have been through many crises over the centuries, most of them worse than this one, and we have always bounced back. But the kind of resilience I am observing here is not just the one that is bound to a strong survival instinct. This resilience comes packaged in humanity and compassion. It is a kind-hearted resilience; a caring resistance; a gentle, but undeniable, strength. Quite a contrast from the polarization and intolerance of only a few weeks ago.

As I am leaving the little crafts shop on the Cycladic island village, the owner tells me something that makes an impression on me. She says that, although her kids seem to have no future in a country that is battered and bruised from both the outside and the inside, they haven’t given up. “They are the ones inspiring me for moving forward,” she admits, “rather than the other way around. They tell me ‘Mom, you need to punch the knife!’” She looks at me with a half-conspiratory, proud smile. “We all need to punch the knife. Keep going even though it hurts.”

A whole country is doing that right now. Again. In our own, gentle way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Losing home

 I have written a lot about finding home – the two words that, in my mind, sum up the essence of nomadic life. But until today, I had not felt the need to write about losing home. For the past few weeks, I have been watching my vision of home slip away, little by little. I have been watching the people I love lose their home. I have been witnessing a whole nation becoming homeless, slowly but steadily, for a long time.

Even though I chose to leave my home and become a permanent foreigner 20 years ago, that home has always been in the back of my mind. I could always return if I wanted to, even though I probably would not. If I did return, though, I knew that I would be welcome; free to be myself; surrounded by people who share the same values as me – my people – because that’s what home feels like.

I have been a silent observer of developments in my home country, Greece, for the past few years. I have watched the country struggle and tear under the weight of the economic crisis and its people battle hardship and poverty – without losing their beautiful spirit. I have felt heartbroken but proud to be Greek, not least because in times like these, more than ever, Greeks stick together. We help each other. We share. We stay true to our values. We endure.

I have watched the most recent developments in Greece, feeling tormented and powerless. I am not a person who talks politics, yet I have found myself actively engaged in discussions about my country’s future, its politicians, the merits of different views. I have read and debated scenario after catastrophic scenario. I have watched in disbelief as my people, led to the edge of a cliff, willingly, passionately, fanatically embrace self-destruction. I have heard the terror in the voices of friends and family who feel trapped in a country without a future, about to be forced off that cliff in the name of democracy.

As the crisis deepens and living conditions in my unraveling country resemble less those of a developed country and more those of a country at war, the spirit of unity that I was so proud of has all but vanished. In the place of solidarity with those less fortunate, I see polarization, aggression and intolerance. I see difference of opinion being regarded as treason. I see people viciously attacking and insulting each other on every occasion and through every available medium: in front of overcrowded ATMs, while waiting in line for their daily ration of cash; while queuing at the gas station; on social media. I see threats, bullying, intimidation. Friends tell me that, for the first time, they are afraid to express their views openly or post on social media, for fear of being labeled as taking one side or the other – by people whose help they might need in the near future. There is an atmosphere of fear and despair.

I fail to understand how all this is happening. Like many others who live away from our home country, I feel like I have lost touch. I no longer “get” my own people  how they think and why they act the way they do; what their values are; what they believe in. It feels like the home that was there is there no more. This is not the country I grew up in. These are not the values I was taught. These are not the people I was proud to be part of.

We are all losing our home.

There was an eerie silence yesterday on social media. There’s an eerie awkwardness today at the other end of the line when I call to check on my loved ones. A sort of numbness. As a good friend wrote recently, these are uncharted waters. Very dark uncharted waters. I hope that we can cross them and still find our lost home on the other side.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Home is what you make it

“I see you.” As Doug Ota said in his moving keynote speech that concluded this year’s Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT15), we exist in the eyes of others. I see you. I see into you. I understand who you are.
We exist in the eyes of our tribe. We are at home, with our tribe. We are “seen.”
Just like every year, coming to FIGT15 was like coming home – to my tribe. I was not the only one who felt that way. For the majority of the 150 or so participants from all over the world who braved the weather conditions and made it to Washington, D.C. that first weekend of March, this was home. First-time attendees and veterans alike, we had found our tribe. We were seen, understood, “gotten.”
This year I had the privilege of being able to combine this annual ritual of finding home and being with my tribe, with my passion, which is to explore exactly that – how we, perpetual foreigners, find home. The theme of this year’s conference – “Finding ‘Home’ Amidst Global Change” – has occupied me for years. I have been researching, talking and writing about it and wanted to share some of that. Presenting one of the Concurrent Sessions at FIGT15 was thrilling, stimulating and rewarding. The audience was probably the most welcoming and responsive audience one could wish for. I shared their energy; I learned from them; I came away with a richer perspective and a sense of gratitude.
I’ve been asked several times for a copy of my presentation, so here’s a summary:

“Home is What You Make It: How Our Concept of Home Shapes The Way We Move”
Why do we feel at home in some places but not in others? Why are there times when connection is almost immediate, while other times we struggle to find a sense of belonging? I believe that this has to do with our concept of home and how it affects the way we handle transitions; how it influences the strategies we use to adjust and create home every time we move.
In my research, I saw emerge three broad themes that home evokes; three dimensions that pervade most concepts of home: Home as Place, Home as Feeling and Home as People.
Home as Place is the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect. We can be rooted in place and that place can be as narrow as a specific room filled with familiar stuff that gives us comfort; as broad as a landscape that speaks to our soul and makes us feel grounded; and everything in-between.
Home as Feeling refers to the emotional dimension of home: feeling a sense of belonging, safety, comfort, authenticity, love. Home can be a single moment, a taste, a smell, an image, a sound or anything that evokes those feelings.
Finally, Home is People. We feel at home when we are with the people we love – whether these are our family, our close friends or our “tribe” – the people who “get” us and with whom we connect at a deeper level.
The need for home is a universal human need. But for us foreigners –who take the leap outside the normal paradigm of home – it is even more central: it shapes the way we experience expat life, how we reap its rewards and cope with its challenges. Our quest for home (and the kind of home we look for) affects how we cope with transitions and how we fare through them; how we constantly pack, unpack and repack our life; how we rebuild, recover and reconnect.
Different concepts of home often lead to different strategies for finding home. These include gravitating towards particular landscapes that evoke in us a sense of home; choosing to live in a bubble that offers us comfort and homeliness; creating a physical home that makes us feel grounded; establishing (and transferring) rituals and routines that create continuity and familiarity; and nurturing relationships, whether that involves connecting with our close family or finding our tribe.

No one strategy is better than the others. There is only what works best for each one of us; the strategy that helps us find the comfort of belonging and home. Reflecting on our experience and becoming conscious of our core concept(s) of home helps us make better transitions. If we can use that fundamental sense of home as a guide, if we know what we need and what to look for when we cross cultures and create new lives, then we can find home wherever we are.

Linked to #MyGlobalLife linkup at

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Less homesick, more lonely?

It’s Sunday evening and my kids and I have just finished a Skype call with my mom. She is in Athens and we are in Zurich. We try to have these calls at least once a week. My children take turns parading on my mom’s tablet screen, the timing and duration of their appearance depending on the importance of the distraction – suddenly “remembered” homework for tomorrow, texting with friends or finishing up that "last" video game. Besides the weekend Skype sessions, my mother and I talk on the phone every morning. I call her from my car, when I’m on my way back from the last school drop-off. She waits for my call so that she can get on with her day. We chat about the day that passed, about what’s ahead, about how we feel, about the weather. Nothing of extreme significance, just normal everyday stuff, stuff you talk about over morning coffee – only our respective coffee cups are a few thousand kilometers apart. It’s winter, so these days she concludes our call by telling me to makes sure I dress warm – the same way she would if I was in Athens, going out of the house and she was at the door saying goodbye.

I have been away from home for almost 20 years but have always had regular contact. The actual rituals have evolved, of course. Talking daily, as we do now, was not always possible. Phone calls were expensive, especially when my family and I were on different continents. There was no Skype nor smartphones that would allow us to talk for free or see each other even when we are not at home. Still, whether it was through letters, faxes or weekly calls, I remember us being as much part of each other’s lives as we are now.

I often wonder if I was more homesick then; if I felt more disconnected from my family and friends when I did not have the privilege of instant access. Does being able to virtually see and hear my mother every day, sometimes multiple times per day, lighten the pain of separation? Or is the illusion of closeness created by technology just that – an illusion?

I was discussing this with a friend and she told me that, although she loves being so connected to the people in her life, she finds that the effortlessness of communication that has become standard nowadays - at least in the developed world - makes us feel that we are part of each other’s lives, when we are not. And how can we, she added, if we are not there physically?

At the same time, all that virtual connection can distract us from engaging with real life, especially relationships. The time we invest in being up to date virtually often means less time available for being present in the real world. This is true whether we are expats or not; but for expats engaging is crucial, relationships are crucial. No wonder some of us end up isolated and lonely. And, as I read recently in an article, loneliness is not only unpleasant; it is unhealthy, even deadly sometimes.

I have kept some of the letters I exchanged with my parents back in the “old days” – the first few years after I left home. We used to fax them back and forth, since fax was the most immediate means of communication at the time. I was surprised at the depth of some of the conversations I had with my dad – about life, about where we come from and where we want to go; at the advice and love pouring out of those faxes, both always in large doses. I found recipes my mom faxed to me when I needed ideas for a dinner party I was hosting. I found more letters from my parents congratulating me on a success, consoling me when I was heartbroken. So many details about our respective lives that I had almost forgotten; immortalized, just because they are on paper.

So yes, I am slightly less homesick now that we talk every day. It means a lot, knowing that I can always pick up the phone and connect. But there are also times when being a phone call away – and not there – makes me even lonelier than I was in the “old days.”