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Slovakia spurned refugees before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now we’re welcoming them.

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Once I learn the information within the American press about what was occurring in Ukraine, or discuss to my associates in Western Europe, I can at all times inform that regardless of the shock and horror we share, they’re indifferent from what’s happening. The battle is harmful and something can occur, nevertheless it’s a battle in a distant place. 

That’s not how we really feel about it right here in Slovakia. We’re continually being assured by our leaders that NATO will shield the international locations on its japanese flank, however that’s not at all times as heartening as they intend it to be. Shortly after the invasion, there was panic. First individuals began inquiring concerning the nearest shelters (there aren’t enough, and so they’re in determined situation), then they made a run on the passport workplaces, after which some even began shopping for iodine drugs within the hope they might shield them from a nuclear assault.  

Whereas I discover it very heartwarming that so lots of my fellow Slovaks are welcoming now, I’m conscious that it’s possible not going to final.

That panic now appears to be over, however there’s nonetheless lots of background worry we’re residing with. My children come house from college asking me all types of questions I by no means anticipated to must reply, and it’s terrifying. And whereas the bullets and bombs may not be crossing into Slovakia, hundreds of Ukrainian refugees are. For Slovakia, a rustic of some 5.4 million inhabitants that shares a border with Ukraine, it’s the refugees who’ve introduced the battle house. In lots of instances into individuals’s literal houses.

Thus far, greater than 62,000 people have asked for non permanent safety, a special asylum regimen for Ukrainians that makes it simpler for them to have entry to well being care, the schooling system and the labor market. Ukrainians may enter Slovakia with out a visa for 90 days. Many are right here “visiting” their family members, as there was already a big Ukrainian group in Slovakia earlier than the battle. 

For individuals who don’t have acquaintances right here, native residents have stepped up. Considered one of them is my brother. For practically every week, he and his spouse hosted a Ukrainian girl, Vita, and her three kids, ages 15, 10 and 5. Vita arrived by practice from Bratislava late one night time. Her husband needed to keep behind for the battle effort. However she determined to flee along with her kids after three weeks of hiding of their basement in Kharkiv whereas the Russians shelled the japanese Ukrainian metropolis. It took them three days to cross Ukraine whereas avoiding Russian tanks, attain the Slovak border after which journey by practice all the best way to the capital. Once they arrived on the practice station’s info level for refugees, a volunteer picked my brother’s telephone quantity from the record of individuals providing shelter in their very own houses.

Companies stepped up, too. I’m in touch with a lodge within the metropolis close to me, Trnava, that began housing refugees and has now constructed an entire group round it full with rooms, meals, even an area for on-line lessons — some children nonetheless have lessons with lecturers who’re within the battle zones in Ukraine! In the meantime, a gaggle of volunteers searches for houses, organizes transfers, helps individuals register with the immigration authorities, seek for jobs and extra. 

For all of the Slovaks concerned, this chain of occasions would have appeared like sheer fiction only some weeks earlier. Now, hundreds of households have a story like my brother’s to share. Amid the anger and the phobia of the battle, a wave of compassion and solidarity has washed over my nation and adjusted it.

In 2015, Slovakia was among the E.U. member states that rejected the redistribution of refugees from the Center East and Africa across the E.U to alleviate the burden overwhelming Mediterranean international locations. When Slovakia was assigned to take in 802 asylum-seekers who had arrived in Italy and Greece, the nation sued the E.U. 

After the Russian invasion, Slovakia has lastly understood what it means to be neighbor and utilized an open-door coverage. It’s a declaration echoed in each speech of each member of the federal government, and it stands in sharp distinction to what politicians throughout the ideological spectrum have been saying seven years in the past.

What has modified? Essentially the most easy reply is that the Ukrainians are “individuals like us,” which prompts Slovaks to assist them greater than they might ever dream of serving to, say, Syrians. Nevertheless it’s clear the change of coronary heart additionally goes past the difficulty of racism, partially as a result of unfavourable attitudes towards Ukrainians have themselves undergone some alteration.

Earlier than the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have been principally perceived as seasonal staff in automotive crops, agriculture or development. Now Slovaks have an opportunity to get to know them. Many have new Ukrainian colleagues and their kids have Ukrainian classmates, and they’re discovering frequent floor and overlooking a number of the variations they disparaged earlier than. 

The outpouring of help can be helped by the best way Ukraine evokes our personal historical past. For one, there may be the persistent, if considerably inaccurate, reminiscence of ”Russian tanks,” a reference that stands for Soviet-allied nations’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the nation that Slovakia was part of in the course of the Chilly Warfare. The invasion, which was carried out by extra than simply Russian forces, ended the Prague Spring democratization motion and cemented the power of the totalitarian regime right here for an additional 20 years, prompting tens of thousands of people to flee their homeland.

Most essential, when Slovaks see the movies of shelled Ukrainian cities, the neighborhoods with destroyed communist-era prefabricated house buildings wanting precisely the identical as their very own, after they see the children crossing the border sporting garments from the identical retail chains, they can not assist however suppose: “It may very well be us.”

However whereas I discover it very heartwarming that so lots of my fellow Slovaks are welcoming now, I’m conscious that it’s possible not going to final. The darker forces in society are already onerous at work. Disinformation retailers, web trolls and the far proper have swiftly recovered from the preliminary shock of the invasion. Refugees, and the efforts to assist them, are one of many foremost targets of the propaganda. Vitriolic articles and Fb posts that depict refugees as criminals are sprinkled with varied variations of “What about serving to Slovaks first?”

No matter risks are lurking, although, the expertise of the previous few weeks has the potential to present a long-lasting enhance to Slovakia’s burgeoning civil society. Being citizen now means providing tangible, sensible assist. Most people who find themselves aiding the refugees now had by no means achieved something like that earlier than, had most likely by no means even met a refugee. They didn’t know that they had it in them, however now that they do know, they may by no means be the identical individuals they have been earlier than.

Certainly, the entire nation won’t ever be the identical. Now we all know we’re able to a communal effort that goes past ourselves. The problem for the nation is to show this right into a story that we are able to construct our collective identification on. This, too, is who we’re.