Triin Toomesaar asks what helps and what hinders the refugee debate in Estonia, pulling apart some of the popular myths about the refugees purported in the comment sections of news portals and on social media. How to help us understand that a couple of hundred, or even couple of thousand refugees, won't stop us from being Estonian?
During these past weeks the air has been quite thick. Thick of fear, thick of hate, and also thick of fear of that hate. People are called to hoist our national flags upside down, to wear white shirts or to join a "non-political and non-racist" motorcycle drive to the Vao village, where the refugees who have been admitted to Estonia, are currently accommodated. Pictures with slogans like "For a White Estonia!" or "Coal’s place is in the oven!" are shared in the social media. Emotional articles from iffy sources about black men or Muslims raping or beating white women in their home countries are distributed.
In the light of all of this it seemed very difficult for me to celebrate our national Victory Day and Midsummer with my fellow citizens. I could compare the feeling with walking on the clean city streets without knowing what kind of pipes, wires and hollowness are really under the asphalt below our feet, only to find out the real desolation when it all suddenly collapses.
It seems that I didn’t even have a clue what kind of negative attitude towards people with different skin color or different religion could be carried by a person born and raised in Estonia, by someone who usually posts cute family or animal photos in the social media, by someone who takes the same bus as me, or bangs his or her head to the same music next to me at a Midsummer's Eve party.
Whatever I read or listen, watch or even ignore – it all comes down to one of the biggest challenges of solidarity and tolerance for the European Union. Reality looks more and more like a bad serial, only you cannot switch it off, even if you wish to. The sarcasm and hypocrisy, widespread in the social media, the steps forward and backward are not carefully fine-tuned fiction, but a real life.
What is allowed to a white man, is not allowed to a black
The popular point of view in the comment sections of news portals and on the social media sites is that the refugees are horny, lazy and ignorant thieves – just because of their race, ethnicity or religion. For example, according to one fear, if we allow refugees to enter Estonia, the black men come here to use, oppress and even rape white women. But if you start to examine these claims, they fall apart pretty fast.
In a situation where the gender pay gap, the under-representation of women in politics and media is considered to be a pseudo-problem in Estonia; in a situation where we simply "misunderstand" sexist commercials and the online sport-section of Postimees is a legal soft-porn site from time to time; in a situation where according to widespread judgment a victim of sexual abuse or rape is more or less guilty of being foolish, inappropriately dressed or lying, it is very odd to hear the hypocrisy of those who don’t support helping the refugees, suddenly worrying about the welfare and fate of Estonian women.
Let us play with a particular case from real life in Estonia.
Jaak Madison, a young Conservative People's Party MP and an anti-refugee activist, was working on a Tallinn-Stockholm ferry before getting elected to the Parliament in last election. Just after his election, it emerged that Madison had narrowly escaped criminal charges. Working behind an information desk on the ship, he was handed a lost iPhone, which he then proceeded to sell online a few months later. But according to the ferry company's regulations, he should have notified the company and handed the phone over to its lost and found department.
If Madison would be black, his misconduct and scandalous attempt to sell a smartphone would be used as a clear evidence of the bad habits of black men and their hopeless tendency to dark deeds.
In another case, Madison was said to have harassed his female colleagues while working on the ferry. If Madison would be black, he would be used as a tragic example, how black men want to harm Estonian women.
But since Madison tried to do illicit phone-business as a white man, it was – as the boy himself put it – “an ethical mistake“. Since Madison intruded the cabins of his female colleagues and tried to snuggle up with one of them as white as a white man can be, for some reason that kind of behavior is not a problem, not to even mention that no myths of all white men being rapists would be distributed as a result.
Who would help us to become European?
The truth is that a lot of people cannot tell the difference between a legal/illegal immigrant and a refugee. The truth is that a lot of those who post disputable statements like “I’m not racist, but...”, don’t regularly follow the news, nor are they motivated to understand who is a refugee or why and what kind of help he or she needs. The truth is that a lot of people are just frightened.
Fear of refugees or strangers is understandable. But fear makes things seem bigger and more threatening than they actually are, making us act irrationally. Someone who is afraid of heights, clings to the first object that feels safe, not daring to move forward or back towards actual safety. Someone who is afraid of deep water and has swam too far from the shore, trashes with her arms and feet uncoordinated, trying to stay above the water, not understanding that she is tiring herself and quickening the drowning process by gulping up water. Someone suffering from arachnophobia hits a spider with a slipper ten times, unable to understand in that moment of fear that local spiders are completely safe and that it probably died already after the first hit.
But there is one good thing about fears and phobias – if you want to and if you have help, you can get overcome them, by acknowledging your fear and practicing opposite reactions to your usual ones. Instead of squishing the spider while shouting curse words, you could try to get used to the idea that with a newspaper the spider can be escorted outside, or that you could just accept its existence, because spiders are actually quite helpful catching other bugs.
To be able to get over a fear, one usually needs the help of others. So to get over the fear of refugees, the consistent help and support of the government, experts and others is needed. But as the sentences like “They are good animals!” or “Why are you screaming like that!” won’t help anyone afraid of spiders, people who are afraid of refugees aren’t helped by similar statements. In order to help someone overcome their fear, you would first have to help them acknowledge the need to get over it.
How to help us understand that by helping refugees we’re not only helping people looking for a safer life than their homes could offer, but we’re also helping Italy or Greece, who are struggling with providing for the men, women and children who have arrived on their shores? How to help us understand that in the long run this favor is important to the whole Europe, including Estonia? How to help us understand that history has repeatedly shown the ghastly consequences of accumulated tensions exploding in the European countries, and that solidarity is one option to avoid the history repeating itself this time?
How to help us understand that we will continue to be Estonian? If we ourselves believe in and have consistent respect to what we consider important, no-one will take our song and dance festivals, our language or dialects, our habits or customs. Neither “the 700 years of slavery” nor half a century of the Soviet occupation has managed to do that. Why should a couple of hundred or even a couple of thousand refugees be able to do that?
How to help us understand that, while continuing to be Estonian, it is the ultimate time to become European? European by values and openness, by the greatness of both heart and mind. Without sentences like “I’m not racist, but...”.
Triin Toomesaar is an educational activist and a master of political science.
Editor: S. Tambur