I Do Care
The Need to Unlock
On a hot day in July 1991, my husband George, our son, Anton, our daughter, Sasha, and I boarded the Moscow–Budapest train.
We carried a couple of travel bags filled with what would be just enough for a family to enjoy ten days of summer holidays. One of the bags was topped nonchalantly with two tennis rackets. This was a cover-up to divert attention from something that we took great care to conceal. Carefully wrapped in a plastic bag in George’s pants pocket, we had a stash of five thousand German marks. This was the largest profit we could ever have hoped to make while living in the Soviet Union, whose economy was leaking at every possible seam. The profit came from the sale of our new house in south-eastern Ukraine, which we had built through many sleepless nights, foraging and procuring the construction materials through the application of whatever ingenuity we possessed. In addition, bribes, bribes, and more bribes, forever indispensable to the Soviet way of life. The construction of the house would never have been accomplished without whipping up endless fatty lunches and surreptitiously cooking gallons of moonshine for friends ready to give a hand alongside teams of amateur builders. The moonshine was why the crooked walls had to be redone so often and building materials kept disappearing from the house construction site—particularly those that had been procured with exceptional difficulty.
Regardless, the house was built and sold for five thousand German marks in a cash deal—exchanged with a handshake while the house paint still smelled fresh. We had many good reasons to feel implausibly lucky. The main one was the simple reality that to exchange 100,000 rubles (the amount the house was sold for in Russian money) into any foreign currency in what any Westerner would understand as a banking establishment was absolutely inconceivable. First, in the whole Soviet Union, with its population of 293 million, only a few banks even existed in 1991. Being served in one would have required extra time traveling to some large city and queuing for days. We could not afford this because the moment the house was traded, we needed to leave immediately. Second, the banks were restricted to exchanging only a portion of the amount we needed to trade. Third, such a transaction would have exposed our intention to have that amount of money in a foreign currency. Doing so at a bank meant submitting voluntarily to official questioning regarding where we had obtained that money and why we needed it in marks, not rubles. That was definitely not something that we wanted to happen. To avoid any of these kinds of questions, we made sure that no one, not even our parents, knew that we were planning to never come back.
Now, settling ourselves in a sleeping compartment on the Moscow–Budapest train, George and I were anxiously scanning it for a secure nook where we could hide our DM 5,000 treasure before arriving at a Soviet Union/Hungary border control checkpoint the next day. Traveling by railway was a significant chunk of our socialist reality. We, in particular, had been attached to it throughout our student years, which involved endless trips from Astrakhan—where George did his medical school training and I studied at the college of fine arts—to our parents’ cities to obtain basic goods, as this was never a matter of simply getting them from the shops but rather of acquiring them through years-long establishments of reliable quid pro quo networks. Students, in general, were not part of these networks and therefore had to rely on their parents to procure sustenance.
On this particular hot day in July 1991, though obscured by cheap disinfectant, the lingering scent of food in transit and the odor of numerous feet liberated from trampled shoes took us into a completely different territory of associations. We almost felt like the conspiratorially trained agents from the pages of our school and summer holiday reading, as well as many movies that had taught us about the various skills of the hero-communists who knew how to smuggle all sorts of revolutionary propaganda, as well as money, under the noses of tsarist guards. The only difference was that now it wasn’t a movie—it was real life, and we had two children whose lives depended on how well we hid that stash of money.
That was excruciatingly scary.
We considered a few hiding places but dismissed them even before trying them out. Our apprehension was mounting, and under its enormous weight, we could not think of anything better than rolling the money up inside the plastic window curtain. How secure that hiding place would be, we had no idea. It was quite possible that it might be the first place an experienced border control officer would start his search.
Perched on top of one of our bags, we had two half-liter bottles of Zhigulevskoe beer and two deliciously hand-smoked fish. They were prepared for the border control officer, who received them with great appreciation.
“Have a good journey,” the officer said, saluting, handing our passports with departure visas back to us, and exiting our compartment with a plastic bag of beer and fish in his hand, not bothering even to check inside our luggage.
We stared at each other in disbelief. We were well aware of numerous stories about the ruthlessness of the Soviet custom border workers, so this was a rare gift of fortune, as if an invisible mighty force was exerting patronage over our journey. Our relief was so overwhelming that I recall everything around me quivering through the blurriness of tears. I was about to break into sobs when we heard our eight-year-old daughter, Sasha, mimicking the border control officer’s voice: “Good evening; border control examination.”
We burst into laughter.
Soon, however, our elation was replaced with heavy uneasiness as Sasha repeated the same words, “Good evening, border control examination,” over and over. We were no longer laughing. The shock of the border crossing and the fear of heading towards absolute uncertainty in a strange new world were taking a toll on our children. We could see how rapidly they were maturing throughout this journey into open space, where no one was waiting for us and no one had any idea who we were or what we were looking for.
Anton was fourteen at the time, and during our audacious voyage from the world behind the iron curtain to practically nowhere, his sense of pragmatism was advancing too rapidly for our comfort. As a teenager who naturally saw his parents as nothing but a couple of seriously flawed folks, he resisted our trust in the idealized goodness of the nonsocialist universe. The skeptic in him anchored itself resolutely. Even to the present day, I have to be careful about criticizing socialism in his presence, as the reply would be So? Not everything is good in the West either.
After our arrival in Hungary, we applied for political asylum, explaining our situation honestly and presenting our rationale as to why we could not go back. A few days later, we got off the train in Bicske, a small town 35 km west of Budapest.
In the warm twilight, we followed the directions drawn for us on a map, walking down the street under trees heavy with ripe fruit. At the end of the street was a refugee camp to which we had been allocated by the Hungarian authorities. Although the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, and we had to enter it through a checkpoint, we were relieved to see not weather-beaten camp tents and people lining up for food and water but neat cabins with modern facilities and straight asphalt streets with children riding bikes. There was a nice canteen in the camp and some recreational accessories—all reason enough to again mention our gratitude for the exceptional moments of grace that accompanied our progress into the unknown.
For all the proverbial “beginner’s luck,” as expected, it was not an easy time for our family. Yes, we had a place to stay and money to buy warm clothes as the winter approached, and for that we were extremely appreciative. In December of that year, the monstrous red flag—with the golden hammer and sickle, a symbol of holding generations of the fifteen Soviet republics in its firm grip—fell, sending uncontrollable ripples of lawlessness, chaos, criminality and moral degradation through the fragmented country. The “unbreakable, mighty” Soviet Union, the country that we had left only five months before, officially ceased to exist. We watched this development from a TV screen in the common room of the Hungarian refugee camp.
We did not have a home or jobs, but we knew that the unknown that we were facing outside Russia provided us and our children with more security than the unlawful unknown spreading through the disintegrating layers of the Soviet empire like an opened can of worms.
This book is not about our family story—that would require another volume. Nor is it about refugees and their struggle to find a country to call home and to be accepted by communities of strangers. The goal of this book is to bring to general attention one very important aspect of human existence—the significance of people caring about, and for, other people.
Our family obtained political asylum in Hungary in 1991 because there were people there who cared. We were helped by people who did not know us but helped us, nonetheless, when we arrived in South Africa, then Swaziland, then New Zealand and finally Australia.
People cared. I have the greatest respect and most immense gratitude for all those who lent a kind hand—and the countries that welcomed our family and gave us the chance to survive because of their care about others, even those profoundly different from themselves. Coming from the Soviet Union, we were very different, yet, except for some insignificant events, we were never treated unfairly, nor did we experience humiliation or the loss of dignity in any way.
Twenty-eight years later, as naturalized Australians, we watch and read about the unfolding of the global refugee crisis on our numerous devices and screens. The situations we observe are so different from what we, as a family, experienced in 1991. The world has changed. The conditions have changed. Hungary, the country that once accepted us, has changed. Under a ruling by its current Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, the state no longer welcomes refugees. “Migrants are ‘a poison’ […] Whoever needs migrants can take them, but don’t force them on us, we don’t need them,”[i] Orbán said.
“Today everything is about immigration,” said former EU president Donald Tusk. “We live in sobering, shocking times.”[ii]
There are a variety of puzzling and concerning aspects that have shaken the usual order of events and rendered the accepted patterns of asylum-seeking strategies unproductive. The global crisis continues to escalate in terms of the number of places, people, and complexities, and what is truly disturbing is how widespread it is.
Australia, for example, is practicing illegal, indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers. Government-produced flyers that stated, “You will not make Australia home,” “You won’t be settled in Australia,” and “No way” were issued to people arriving by boat. In a tweet, Donald Trump praised these flyers. “Much can be learned,”[iii] he wrote. These flyers targeted people who were about to take, or were already taking, the extremely dangerous journey to Australia by boat as they and their families ran for their lives from war-torn or persecution- and torture-riddled homelands.
The Australian boat story started in 1976, when the first boatload of Vietnamese asylum seekers fleeing from the war in their homeland sailed into Darwin Harbor. “They were received by the government with real generosity,” Australian professor of politics Robert Manne wrote. “Comfortable hostel accommodation and comprehensive settlement services were provided. The detention of these refugees, let alone their expulsion, was unthinkable.”[iv]
In 2012, the asylum seekers found themselves in a much less lucky situation, as they were made to
choose between returning to danger in their homelands or being marooned on Nauru or Manus Island for the next five years. If they are lucky, either immediately or eventually, they will be released into the community, with neither adequate means nor the right to work until 2017.[v]
In January 2019, Abdul Aziz Adam, a Sudanese refugee, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, stating, “This is a humanitarian crisis that requires urgent attention. … Each day it gets worse and worse and I fear for the lives of hundreds of vulnerable people who are stuck in limbo on Manus Island and Nauru.”[vi]
Responding to Abdul’s speech, Edwina MacDonald from Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre said, “What we see and hear in Australia, and also across the world, is a dehumanization of refugees.”[vii]
Dehumanization … it is a chilling word. It embraces both those who are being dehumanized and those who dehumanize others. It implies that those who do the dehumanizing first do so to themselves. Those who dehumanize themselves walk away from humanity, rendering themselves more blind and deaf to human suffering with every step they take. In predigital times, treating others like animals meant first turning yourself into a beast. We know many horrible stories of how people treated others as if they were not human beings. In this time of advanced technology and rapid progression towards AI, dehumanization might take an unpredictable form—one that is, potentially, utterly soulless.
This soulless creature, dehumanization, has been rearing its multiple heads all over the world, in different places and at different events. The most disturbing reality is the flourishing “I don’t care” (IDC) culture that provides fertile soil for dehumanization to grow.
One of the most vivid symptoms of dehumanization in recent years has been Trump’s policy of family separation, officially introduced as a “zero-tolerance” policy in April 2018. Due to heavy international criticism, it ended in June 2018, but nevertheless it continues to exist to the present day, January 2020. In July 2019, it was reported that “as many as five kids per day were separated from their parents at the border.”[viii] Trump’s family separation policy was widely branded as cruel and inhumane.
Unlocking my thinking about why this happened and pouring out my apprehension onto the pages of this book—as a citizen of the world and as a mother of two who once submitted her children to the hands of an authority in a strange land with a full faith in human kindness, pleading for temporary protection and receiving it—I believe that I have not only the right but also an obligation to contribute to the fight against the rising global IDC culture.
[i] Kroet, Cynthia (July 27, 2016). Victor Orbán: Migrants are ‘a poison.’ Politico [Website]. Retrieved June, 2019, from: https://www.politico.eu/article/viktor-orban-migrants-are-a-poison-hungarian-prime-minister-europe-refugee-crisis/
[ii] Traynor, Ian (September, 2015). Migration crisis: Hungary PM says Europe in grip of madness. The Guardian [website]. Retrieved June, 2019, from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/migration-crisis-hungary-pm-victor-orban-europe-response-madness
[iii] Trump, Donald J. (June 26, 2019). @realDonaldTrump [Twitter Account]. Retrieved June, 2019, from: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump
[iv] Manne, Robert (March, 2013). Australia’s shipwrecked refugee policy. The Monthly [Website]. Retrieved July, 2019, from: file:///Users/elenapetrova/Documents/Publishing/I%20do%20care/australia%20detention%20centers/Australia’s%20shipwrecked%20refugee%20policy:%20Tragedy%20of%20Errors%20%7C%20The%20Monthly.webarchive
[v] As above.
[vi] Baker, Nick & Lam, Charlotte (June 28, 2019). Ex-Manus detainee has blasted Australia at the UN Human Rights Council. SBS News. Retrieved June, 2019, from: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/refugees-are-being-destroyed-ex-manus-detainee-blasts-australia-at-un-meeting
[vii] As above.
[viii] Roldan, Riane & Rocha, Alana (July 12, 2019). Family separations aren’t over. As many as five kids per day are separated from their parents at the border. The Texas Tribune [Website]. Retrieved December, 2019, from: https://www.texastribune.org/2019/07/12/migrant-children-are-still-being-separated-parents-data-show/