LIVES IN BETWEEN

The somewhat different intercultural communication blog

Category: Refugees

How a cup of coffee can save lives – Weekly Act of Kindness #2

Now that I keep my eyes and ears open for great initiatives that change people’s lives for the better, I start noticing them everywhere. This week I’d like to share with you the idea of Suspended Coffees. Founded by John M. Sweeney, currently occupying the position of chief kindness officer (what a fabulous job title!), the movement aims to restore faith in humanity by highlighting simple acts of kindness happening all around us (such as being invited to a cup of coffee), and encouraging others to do the same.

Kindness can come in many forms, including the purchase of a suspended coffee, which is the very idea that inspired this movement. A suspended coffee is the advance purchase of a cup of coffee for someone who needs it, no matter why. But it really is about so much more than the coffee. It can provide physical comfort, conversation, a smile or even a laugh, and a sense of belonging. A suspended coffee can change lives, sometimes even save them.

The idea is simple. When you are in a coffee shop, instead of buying just one cup for yourself, you can purchase two or more cups of coffee in advance for someone who needs it, but is unable to pay.

I find this initiative great for two reasons. One, it is simple, direct, with immediate impact. Two, the anonymity of the gesture takes away the unequal power relation that is often inherent in charitable acts (the one who gives vs. the one who receives, the savior and the victim, the rich and the poor).

I work in coffee shops a lot. On one occasion – at Starbuck’s – a homeless person approached me and asked me for 5 Swiss francs to buy a cup of coffee. I gave it to him. Got him a hot drink, and made me feel good. But had Suspended Coffees been available, it would have spared this man the humiliation of asking for my money.

In Switzerland, so far one coffee shop in Canton Aargau participates in the movement. If anybody from that region reads my blog, I’d love to hear about your visit to that café. In Austria (my native country), there are three. I’ll certainly check them out next time I’m there.

What can YOU do to make this world a better place? Weekly Act of Kindness #1

So much for keeping New Year’s resolutions. It’s been far too long since my last post, but what can I say… life has gotten in the way.

However, I have not been idle. I have been collecting content and inspirations for a new feature I’d like to introduce on my blog: the Weekly Act of Kindness.

Bad news are all around at the moment. The world we live in seems to become increasingly inward-looking, nationalist, self-centred, doubtful of strangers. World leaders (including democratically elected ones!) are erecting walls to stop “illicit migration flows”, in other words, keeping out people in need, in search for safety or simply a better life. But the fact that they come from different cultural backgrounds automatically makes them suspicious. All of this deeply bothers me, makes me sad, even a bit scared for the future sometimes.

But instead of being gloomy and lamenting the state of the world which seems to be in decline of solidarity and a basic sense of humanity, I thought I’d do something more uplifting and inspiring – because there are also good things out there. Our eyes and mind just need to practice recognizing them. Somebody once said, kindness is like a muscle, the more we exercise it the better we are at it.

So, what is the Weekly Act of Kindness? Each week I’ll present an idea, an initiative or a project – however big or small – which contributes in its own way to making this world a better place. This may sound cheesy to some of you, but aren’t we all in need of good news, of inspiration? Perhaps some of the examples I bring will even inspire you to do something similar, to take action in the context and limits of your own life. This is my hope and motivation anyway.

So, don’t be shy to share this with friends or share your own ideas with me here on this blog. Every contribution counts, even a gesture as small and seemingly insignificant as an uplifting smile or a friendly hello to the person sitting in front of you on the bus on the way to work in the morning.

Weekly Act of Kindness #1 – “Leave a coat” racks

This picture is what actually got me thinking about the Weekly Act of Kindness idea.

Need a coat? Take one. Want to help? Leave one.

This simple yet potentially life saving initiative helps people from poorer households, homeless people, those who cannot afford a proper warm jacket get through winter. I am not sure who and where it started, but the initiative has been replicated across the US and the UK. Simple. Small. Useful. Wonderful.

Stay tuned for more inspirations. What’s yours?

Thanksgiving Thoughts – Celebrating Extraordinary Encounters

Last weekend I was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Although this gathering around an enormous turkey is not a European tradition, it lives on through the many Americans who import it to Europe and keep it alive. The origins of Thanksgiving lie in an encounter of two very different cultures: the encounter of European settlers (now commonly known as Pilgrims) with Native Americans sharing an autumn harvest feast in 1621.

Around the wonderfully decorated dinner table sat a colorful bunch of people. A Swiss-American dating a Swiss living in France, another Swiss-American married to a Peruvian who runs a business in Madrid, an Austrian dating a French living in Geneva (guess who that is ;)), an American who just met a Sudanese during studies, a Canadian dating a French, and the list actually goes on. Throw into the mix the occasional “Swiss only” couple from next door, and what you get is a lively and lovely crowd of people having fun and conversing in approximately 4 languages.

To fellow Geneva residents this might seem like just another multicultural gathering. I call it creating encounters. In the spirit of the original extraordinary encounter – where Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants – it is this kind of personal interaction that fosters understanding, tolerance and respect for “the other”.

Two disclaimers here:

I realize that all of us at that dinner table come from similar socio-cultural backgrounds, well-educated, well-travelled global citizens, winners of globalization, if you will.

I am also aware of a certain level of romanticism and naivety in my observations here, viewed against the backdrop of a highly problematic relationship (to put it diplomatically) between European colonists and Native Americans throughout history.

Nevertheless, I wanted to share with you through this little anecdote my firm belief in diversity and the creative energy it can unleash. It is my vision and hope that such personal encounters can break down the metaphoric walls politicians literally put up these days. We need more of that. The world needs more of that.

„The Little Virtues“ – Why you should read Natalia Ginzburg

the-little-virtuesI recently discovered Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Don’t get me wrong, I knew she existed, I even had some of her books on my Amazon wish list for months (or years?!). Then I came across this article on The New Yorker, which finally made me buy “The Little Virtues”. And I am so glad I did. Instant coup de coeur as the French would say. Her way of writing – plain yet so full of meaning and poetry – went straight to my heart.

The Little Virtues is a collection of short essays published in various magazines and newspapers between 1944 and 1962. Historically, this period covers Fascist Italy and World War II. Experiences of war and oppression, of having to flee in the middle of the night leave a mark in her writing. The topics are as relevant as ever.

In Son of Man she tells the story of war. Of what war does to people. “Those of us who have been fugitives will never be at peace. Once the experience of evil has been endured it is never forgotten”.

In Portrait of a Friend she describes her feelings when she visits her home town she no longer lives in (if you’ve been reading my other posts, you’ll see the red thread here).

“…when we go back, simply passing through the station and walking in the misty avenues is enough to make us feel we have come home; and the sadness with which the city fills us every time we return lies in this feeling that we are at home and, at the same time, that we have no reason to stay here; because here, in our own home, our own city, the city in which we spent our youth, so few things remain alive for us and we are oppressed by a throng of memories and shadows.”

To those of you who live in London, England: Eulogy and Lament is for you: A dry yet funny depiction of London as what Ginzburg perceives a colorless, melancholic city where “they all dress in the same way. The women you see in the streets all have the same beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower-curtains or tablecloths in restaurants.”

Ginzburg also gives parenting advice in The Little Virtues, powerful reflections which I will certainly keep in mind for the day I have children.

And finally, my personal favorite, the story of a lifetime in fast-forward, Human Relationships. A beautifully written journey of a human lifetime, from childhood over adolescence to adulthood, examined through the relationships forged and lost along the way.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about the writer, the book, the topic, or anything that comes to mind!

Americanah – Another book review

americanahI just finished reading this fabulous novel and couldn’t wait to recommend it to you here on my blog. It’s one of those page turners (the last time I experienced such a captivation – this is a confession – was with E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey), all the while maintaining a steady level of quality writing and clever observations about sensitive issues, such as race, discrimination and alienation.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young people in love, growing up in Nigeria during the military dictatorship. Both of them dream of leaving the country to study abroad in an idealized United States of America, and build a better future for themselves.

Narrated at times by Ifemelu and at times by Obinze, the book takes you on an insightful journey of people experiencing life as strangers in new environments, and then again as strangers when they return back home to Nigeria. Seen through the main characters’ eyes, the story is dotted with sharp observations about the peculiarities of societies and sub-cultures.

In the US, Ifemelu is confronted for the first time with the issue of race. In the UK, Obinze’s fate illustrates the motivations and dangers of illegal migration, and sheds light on a topic that couldn’t be more relevant in view of the current debate about the global “migration crisis”. At a dinner party in London he observes that guests “understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.”

They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.

Having reflected and written a lot about culture shockreverse culture shock, and what it means to feel at home, here comes a book that makes you see and feel for yourself. As I so often say, sometimes a story is all it takes…

Cultivating empathy – Have you tried meditation yet?

Today I dare you. I dare you to try something unconventional.

One of the basic, underlying principles of intercultural communication is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Without this capacity to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes, an encounter of people from different cultural backgrounds will not automatically lead to understanding and tolerance.

I have been astounded lately by the lack of empathy and compassion displayed by members of our society towards people who are experiencing terrible things in life – war, loss of loved ones, violence, constant danger, and humiliation. A study conducted at the University of Michigan in 2010 showed that levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years. Most alarmingly, trends suggest they are declining at an increasing rate, despite globalization and massive improvements in telecommunication. Thanks to television and internet, we are better connected to other people across the globe, but at the same time we care less about their lives and fates.

Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek. Dalai Lama XIV

In essence, empathy is a cornerstone of a peaceful and tolerant society. Is there a way to restore and cultivate it? Research suggests that meditation in general, and the practice of mindfulness in particular, encourages caring and benevolent behavior toward oneself and others. I found this encouraging and thought, let’s give it a try. I did some research and found this short (10 minutes) guided meditation focusing on cultivating compassion, kindness and forgiveness. It aims at increasing one’s capacity to feel empathy for people who you would not normally relate to, people from different cultural or social backgrounds, complete strangers.

I invite you to try it. It will only take 10 minutes of your time.

What do you think? How do you feel?

City of Thorns – A book review

City of Thorns coverThis week I’d like to share a fabulous book with you, which I have just finished reading over the past few weeks: Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns (published by Portobello Books Ltd 2016).

A glimpse into the lives of 9 individuals who fled violence in Somalia and sought refuge in Dadaab, Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp. Rawlence follows them over a period of several years and tells their stories: their daily struggles coping with poverty, hunger, disempowerment, insecurity; but also their joys, hopes and dreams. While for some residents of Dadaab the biggest hope is resettlement to a country like the United States, Canada or Australia, others simply want to be able to return back home some day, to a peaceful and stable Somalia.

“Everything spoke of transience. The inhabitants lived in their heads, in the future, elsewhere.”

In Dadaab, all of Rawlence’s protagonists have one thing in common: their lives are put on hold. “Life was only a process of waiting. […] Nothing had any permanence, there was no building anything, since both the people you loved or the people you hurt could soon be gone.”

This book is a must-read for everyone who ever wondered what life is like in a refugee camp. You’ll dive into a different reality, which exists at the fringes of our Western society. The topic of forced displacement and migration couldn’t be more relevant.

If you are still looking for an educational, captivating summer read, I can heartily recommend you this book…. And if you live in or around Geneva, give me a shout, and I am happy to lend it to you.

 

World Refugee Day – Will you stand #WithRefugees?

Yesterday – June 20th – was world refugee day. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announces that forced displacement has reached unprecedented levels, with more than 65 million people uprooted from their homes globally.” He asks for solidarity and compassion with these men, women and children who flee their homes.

I am supporting UNHCR’s We stand together #WithRefugees campaign and petition to urge governments to

  • Ensure every refugee child gets an education.
  • Ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.
  • Ensure every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.

Will you take action as well?

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