“There are so many positives about refugees. It is our duty to reveal them to the public,” says Dharshan from Sri Lanka.
The negative public opinion about refugees was always common in Lithuania. Outbreaks of hatred in the streets, rooted in the differences in race or beliefs, migrate to workplaces where the newcomers face discrimination while trying to find a source of livelihood. Following the events of the past months at the border with Belarus, this hatred seems to have culminated. Auguste Dudutyte, a refugee integration coordinator at VA Caritas, identifies the problem in media portals and breaking headlines.
“The majority of the society has some opinion about refugees, whether bad or good. However, there are very few who truly know the newcomers. We indicated that those people who come in direct contact with the refugees have a better opinion than those who only hear about them in the media or in public. 97% of the employers are satisfied with the work results of immigrants. Also, we, while taking care of the immigrants, interact with them, have no fear of them, and our work makes us happy. Negative stereotypes are often shaped by the media. Some media portals follow the principles of ethical communication, but there’s also a number of headlines trying to create a sensation. I understand that this is one of the ways for the media to survive, but it is at the cost of the quality of life as well as the dignity of certain people. Refugees are referred to as some fauna that’s going to engulf the country soon. Those are the cases where the newcomer is not portrayed as a person. Instead, he is represented as some phenomenon or associated with criminal groups. It affects how society perceives these people.”
According to A. Dudutyte, the public perceptions are also affected by cinema: “If we take a look at the American movies, which are often preferred by us, at some point, as a result of the Cold War, the enemies were the Russians and the Americans. Earlier in the past, the bad guys were Germans, and now this role is mostly taken by people from the Middle East. In our subconscious, there’s a connection.”
A. Dudutyte states that the responsibility for the complicated situation of refugees in Lithuania falls on our society rather than on the newcomers themselves. She says that people from all walks of life come to the country, including those professing doctoral degrees in history, sociology, medicine, and pilots, those who are able to speak four languages! Such people with higher education get a stamp in Lithuania, acquire refugee status and work in much lower positions than they could according to their achievements in their home country. Lithuanians are afraid of differences in appearance, for example, a beard or religious clothes. That’s the reason why the refugees are often determined not only to learn the Lithuanian language, to take an interest in the country’s culture but also to change their appearance and flee from their nature.
“Assimilation is not the same as integration. It is unnecessary to change who you are, especially, how you look, in order to build your life here. It would be great if such details like appearance would not be associated with a threat to Lithuanian society and that people would not have to change them, especially when there are no negative impacts,” A. Dudutyte assures.
One conversation can be sufficient to dispel the fears and myths
Inga Rancova, the head of the Living Library, has been working a long time with people who face discrimination and are excluded from the society. Therefore, she is well acquainted with the daily lives and problems of refugees. The woman herself can talk about the negative public perceptions of various groups of people based not only on work at the Living Library but on her personal experience as well. Originating from a small town, I. Rancova notices great hostility towards the minorities every time she visits her hometown and does wonder, why it still exists.
“It seems, the people travel and experience the role of the guest in foreign countries themselves. I can partially understand an older generation that feels tension. What I don’t know, what I’m not familiar with, makes me fear. My dad was a sailor and travelled all over the world. People of other nationalities do not stress him, as he is familiar with different cultures,” narrates I. Rancova.
Her mother has a different opinion. Previously, I. Rancova worked with people suffering from addictions. When she informed her family that she will soon start working with refugees, she heard the following words of her mother: “The drug addicts did not kill you, so now you will work with terrorists,” recalls the head of the Living Library, “ So even my own family can represent the different opinions of the society.”
By working at the Living Library, I. Rancova contributes to truly significant changes in Lithuania. Her experience shows that it is important for a person to learn, hear, and get acquainted with what is foreign and even intimidating. The woman recalls a visit with volunteers to a small town, where the youth was convinced that the refugees were all black and had rashed skin. Thus, a light-skinned blue-eyed Afghan who also spoke in advanced Lithuanian caused a real shift in the village.
“Those eleven young people had a conversation with a man who was the complete opposite of their prejudice, and when they returned home they shared their experience with their loved ones and friends. For them it was such a discovery, such a new realisation! In instances like this, you understand the impact of the Living Library,” rejoices I. Rancova.
She explains that the hostility expressed by Lithuanians is mostly caused by the fears and stereotypes about foreigners. People are worried that newcomers will seize their jobs. They associate them with family breakdowns, disrespect for women, clutter, and inadequate social skills. Cases range from landlords who do not want Muslim tenants because they allegedly have poor hygiene skills, to employers who believe that such newcomers are not worth a job as they will constantly pray and will have no time for work.
I. Rancova assures that in order to adapt in Lithuania, first of all, the newcomers need courage: “It is important to be less reserved, to go out more, to establish connections. That’s the only way to dispel the myths about who the refugees really are.”
Bullying and insults in the neighbourhood
Dharshan Navaratnam from Sri Lanka shares his experience on the beginnings of living in Lithuania and his first encounters with Lithuanians: “I was called by the N-word. They didn’t even know if my skin was black or brown and they didn’t care about it at all. I was also cursed in Russian, in words, the meaning of which I did not understand at that time. Later, when I learned the meaning of those words, it just seemed funny. I made a decision on how to respond to such behaviour – it was to fully ignore it. When I started doing that, the insults stopped.”
The case of the refugee Dharshan Navaratnam is not an exception, but rather a rule in Lithuania. That’s a painful problem faced by the majority of the newcomers, especially those who stand out in their appearance, profess a different faith, and share fewer similarities with a regular Lithuanian. Here, the immigrants face social exclusion, experience discrimination, and abuse. However, when Dharshan shares his experience, there’s not even the slightest accusation in his voice and he does not express any reproach to the Lithuanian community. Dharshan, a good-hearted man, endured political persecution, violence, and torture in his homeland. He believes he saw the worst there’s in the world, therefore, here in Lithuania, he is safe and grateful for what he has. Sri Lankan also notices the changing attitudes towards newcomers in Lithuania. If in the past Dharshan could take a peaceful walk only in the capital city of Vilnius, the only city where there were no insults, nowadays he sees the positive changes in municipalities as well, especially in Pabrade, where he resided for many years.
“I always feel like a normal person in Vilnius. The situation is a bit different in Kaunas and Pabrade but during the last four years I have noticed significant changes. The city has changed. The locals became much friendlier to the refugees. Not everyone, but they are truly making an effort. Maybe because there’s no choice – after all, Pabrade is famous for the refugee center,” the man explains.
The benevolence of neighbours is a significant achievement for a foreigner
“I’m rarely at home, therefore there are just a few occasions to talk to the neighbours. In the morning or in the evening we greet and exchange a couple of words: ‘How are you doing, how was your day?’ The conversations are short, but they mean a lot to me. At first, no one talked to me. They nicknamed me ‘a beard’. I overheard a neighbour talking about me to her husband and repeating ‘beard, beard’, as she thought I couldn’t hear them. I remember a time when I had a barbecue party with my friends. In the neighbourhood, we overheard being called slaves,” the man reveals. “Most importantly, now they smile when they see me. That’s the most significant change. You see, it’s not necessary to talk. All it takes is a smile that costs nothing. I get that from the neighbours and I’m happy about it.”
Dharshan believes that such changes are due to the fact that he himself often smiles at those around him, makes sure not to disturb anyone, is engaged in his own matters, and simply enjoys quietly working in his garden. “Maybe the neighbours think that if this man keeps smiling at us, we have to respond the same at least once a day, otherwise we will feel guilty,” jokes Dharshan.
Changes in the society – in small but firm steps
“It’s not something that can change in an instant. It takes time. There are so many positives about refugees. It is our duty to reveal them to the public and to the authorities. Despite the fact that there are also refugee-related problems, it is important that people are aware of the positive examples and decide to give us a chance. Nowadays, there’s so much harmful information about immigrants, that people are afraid to communicate with us, as they simply don’t know us. You can’t blame them. It would be truly helpful if more positives about us were showcased on social platforms. Let the changes take place step by step because you can’t change everything in a day.”
Dharshan himself contributes to educating the society. He is volunteering at the Living Library. It’s a place where people turn into ‘living books’ and represent those groups of the society that face discrimination. Reading in this library is an unusual experience. The visitors have an actual conversation with the ‘living book’. During these conversations, the volunteers, by telling their stories, help to get rid of prejudice and establish the conditions for a closer connection with the stigmatized ones. Dharshan has joined this project in order to change the negative opinion about refugees, and to introduce the culture and customs of his homeland. Communicating in the Living Library also helps him to relax: “It’s like therapy for me. The more you keep inside, the more difficult it gets. I am free when I talk.”