Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Refugees in Chelsea

The following are quotes from a few literary giants from the time of the First World War and literary criticism impressions thereof. One cannot but wonder how these sentiments and actions reflect the current humanitarian crisis as well and should be posited against the overriding sense that nations become ever more inward-looking and that political discourse increasingly draws on sentiments of division, near hatred even, and not on unity and compassion.

In his posthumous contribution to the Times Literary Supplement on 23 March 1916 called 'the Refugees in Chelsea', Henry James – who had died four weeks earlier – examined the validity of fiction and narrative in the face of historical challenges as posed for instance by the sheer existence of refugees. The following is a selection of his TLS piece. Quite some striking relevance for today's ongoing humanitarian crisis.

"This is not a Report on our so interesting and inspiring Chelsea work, since November last, in aid of the Belgians driven thither from their country by a violence of unprovoked invasion and ravage more appalling than has ever before overtaken a peaceful and industrious people; it is the simple statement of a neighbour and an observer deeply affected by the most tragic exhibition of national and civil prosperity and felicity suddenly subjected to bewildering outrage that it would have been possible to conceive. The case [...] has had no analogue in the experience of our modern generations, no matter how far back we go; it has been recognised, in surpassing practical ways, as virtually the greatest public horror of our age, or of all the preceding[...]"

However, the difference between today’s worrying climate of xenophobia that has taken hold in Europe as it struggles to cope with the crisis and a refugee crisis one hundred years ago lies in the presence of so much being “done in direct mitigation of it”.
“We live into — that is, we learn to cultivate — possibilities of sympathy and reaches of beneficence very much as the stricken and suffering themselves live into their dreadful history and explore and reveal its extent; and this admirable truth it is that unceasingly pleads with the intelligent, the fortunate, and the exempt, not to consent in advance to any dull limitation of the helpful idea.”
Henry James had already been involved in charity towards the Belgian refugees. When Edith Wharton, who stayed in France during the First World War organizing relief for Belgian refugees there, asked her circle of friends to look for contributions for a charity book, published in 1916 as The Book of the Homeless the proceeds of which were used to fund accommodation for displaced people, Henry James had asked W.B. Yeats whether he would contribute. Yeats replied with a short poem called "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations", which became “A Reason for Keeping Silent" first and finally "On being asked for a War Poem" in Yeats's wartime poetry collections "The Wild Swans at Coole". Henry James himself contributed The Long Wards.
It has been argued that after Henry James had taken an active interest in the relief of the Belgian refugees, his allegiance to Britain and that country’s welcoming of refugees fuelled his decision to become a citizen of Britain in 1915. James aligned himself with the plight of the Belgian refugees in Britain very early on in the war. The first Belgians arrived around 22 August 1914, nearly three weeks after the Germans so brutally invaded their neutral home country, and James is still in his house in Rye.

“It was in September, in a tiny Sussex town which I had not quitted since the outbreak of the war, and where the advent of our first handful of fugitives before the warning of Louvain and Aerschoot and Termonde and Dinant had just been announced. Our small hill-top city, covering the steep sides of the compact pedestal crowned by its great church, had reserved a refuge at its highest point; and we had waited all day, from occasional train to train, for the moment at which we should attest our hospitality. It came at last, but late in the evening, when a vague outside rumour called me to my doorstep, where the unforgettable impression at once assaulted me. Up the precipitous little street that led from the station, over the old grass-grown cobbles where vehicles rarely pass, came the panting procession of the homeless and their comforting, their almost clinging entertainers, who seemed to hurry them on as in a sort of overflow of expression of the fever of charity. It was swift and eager, in the autumn darkness and under the flare of a single lamp — with no vociferation and, but for a woman’s voice, scarce a sound save the shuffle of mounting feet and the thick-drawn breath of emotion. The note I except, however, was that of a young mother carrying her small child and surrounded by those who bore her on and on, almost lifting her as they went together. The resonance through our immemorial old street of her sobbing and sobbing cry was the voice itself of history; it brought home to me more things than I could then quite take the measure of, and these just because it expressed for her not direct anguish, but the incredibility, as who should say, of honest assured protection. Months have elapsed, and from having been then one of a few hundred she is now one of scores and scores of thousands: yet her cry is still in my ears, whether to speak most of what she had lately or of what she actually felt; and it plays, to my own sense, as a great fitful, tragic light over the dark exposure of her people.”

Although James himself accommodated Belgians in his house in Rye, his piece in the TLS focused on Chelsea.
“I have small warrant perhaps to say that atmospheres are communicable; but I can testify at least that they are breathable on the spot, to whatever effect of depression or of cheer; and I should go far, I feel, were I to attempt to register the full bitter-sweet taste, by our Chelsea waterside, all these months, of the refugee element in our vital medium. […] I need go no further, none the less, than the makeshift provisional gates of Crosby Hall, marvellous monument transplanted a few years since from the Bishopsgate quarter of the City to a part of the ancient suburban site of the garden of Sir Thomas More, and now serving with extraordinary beneficence as the most splendid of shelters for the homeless.”
James did not refer to the fact that Thomas More’s Utopia –published in 1516 – allocated an important element to the port city of Antwerp, a city as well where about one in three of the Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War had come from. Instead, he elaborates on the grand civic character of Crosby Hall, “one of the noblest relics of the past that London could show”, and how it is still magnificent, despite having been moved from Bishopsgate to Chelsea for the purpose of “candid commercial interest”.
“The British, James suggests, might feel safe on their island fortress, protected by the English Channel from the battles on the continent. But just as the continent has its war-displaced refugees, so too does England have its own refugees, not just the foreigners it shelters but the victims of commercialism like Crosby Hall in its original site. The point, then, is that things are not safe, since anything or anyone can be displaced. Culture, though, at least through its correlate, education, may be the best bulwark against the chaos of displacement. This too James emphasizes through the choice of the word "edified." if we read it now in its more common sense of "instructed," for it is through edification that the Belgian refugees can receive whatever sense of security is now possible to them. While post-war Modernist classics such as Ulysses and The Cantos sought to rebuild the modern world after the chaos and destruction of World War I. and James agrees that culture is the one defence against chaos, his play on re-edification is a reminder that a reconstruction is never perfectly solid and unthreatened.” (Pierre A. Walker, 1999, Introduction, in: Henry James on Culture, p.xxv).
And in 1915 that very grand place formed “the headquarters of the Chelsea circle of hospitality to the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered; and if I may speak of having taken home the lesson of their state and the sense of their story, it is by meeting them in the finest club conditions conceivable that I have been able to do so.”
“This exhibition of our splendid local resource has rested, of course, on a multitude of other resources, still local, but of a more intimate hospitality, little by little worked out and applied, and into the details of which I may not here pretend to go beyond noting that they have been accountable for the large housed and fed and clothed and generally protected and administered numbers, all provided for in Chelsea and its outer fringe, on which our scheme of sociability at Crosby Hall itself has up to now been able to draw. To have seen this scheme so long in operation has been to find it suggest many reflections, all of the most poignant and moving order; the foremost of which has, perhaps, had for its subject that never before can the wanton hand of history have descended upon a group of communities less expectant of public violence from without or less prepared for it and attuned to it.”
James then continues on the “scores and scores of thousands […]testimony to suffering, dismay, and despoilment” and that it is “because we have responded in this degree to the call unprecedented that we are, in common with a vast number of organisations scattered through these islands, qualified to claim that no small part of the inspiration to our enormous act of welcome resides in the moral interest it yields […] truly representing the exquisite in the horrible.”
Mainly in Chelsea did Henry James become involved with the Belgian community in exile there. He made no distinction between civilian refugees and wounded, convalescent soldiers, the latter “reminiscent of the bedside comfort provided by Walt Whitman to soldiers during the American Civil War” (Eric L. Haralson and Kendall Johnson, 2009 , Critical Companion to Henry James: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, p.13).
“The strong young man (no young men are familiarly stronger,) mutilated, amputated, dismembered in penalty for their defence of their soil against the horde, and now engaged at Crosby Hall in the making of handloom socks, to whom I pay an occasional visit — much more for my own cheer, I apprehend, than for theirs — express so in their honest concentration under difficulties the actual and general value of their people that just to be in their presence is a blest renewal of faith.”
The diverse otherlingual situation of the Belgians in Britain did not hinder James much as he was able to “offer verbal solace to the French-speaking Belgians and expressive sympathy to the Flemish-speaking Belgians, a virtual nation of strangers in a strange land to whom his heart went out in identifying sympathy” (Fred Kaplan, 2013, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography, np).
In an essay on Henry James, Virginia Woolf posited that Henry James was very qualified to relate to the outbreak of war.

“For years he had been appreciating ever more and more finely what he calls “the rare, the sole, the exquisite England”: he had relished her discriminatingly as only the alien, bred to different sounds and sights and circumstances, could relish others so distinct and so delightful in their distinctness. Knowing so well what she had given him, he was the more tenderly and scrupulously grateful to her for the very reason that she seemed to him to bestow her gifts half in ignorance of their value. Thus when the news came that England was in danger he wandered in the August sunshine half overwhelmed with the vastness of what had happened, reckoning up his debt, conscious to the verge of agony of the extent to which he had committed his own happiness to her, and analysing incessantly and acutely just what it all meant to the world and to him. [...] Read, for instance, the scene of the arrival of the Belgian refugees by night at Rye, which we will not curtail and thus rob of its completeness. It is precisely the same little scene of refugees hurrying by in silence, save for the cry of a woman carrying her child, which, in its thousand varieties, a thousand pens have depicted during the past four years […] with the scene painted for us by Henry James might perhaps be credited to his training as a novelist. But […] we cannot help feeling that if all philanthropies had such advocates our pockets would never be anything but empty.” (Virginia Woolf, 1919, Henry James: 1. Within the Rim).

Friday, 3 June 2016

Louis Ide en de vluchtelingencrisis (Knack 02.06.2016)

Het politieke debat in Vlaanderen en België is al lang verzand in een woord/wederwoord-discussie, waarin het inhoudsaspect en het betrekkingsaspect voortdurend door elkaar lopen, vaak overgoten door irrelevante tussenkomsten die argumentatie niet onderbouwen maar onderbreken. Er is nog weinig plaats voor context, nuance of visie, polarisierung muss sein. Dat is echter niet de bedoeling van dit stukje.

Als Louis Ide in Knack online een analyse wilt maken van het werk dat NVA sinds de verkiezingsoverwinning van 2014 zou hebben verricht, is dat zijn volste recht en ben ik niet de juiste persoon om daartegen in te gaan wegens gebrek aan degelijke dossierkennis terzake. Ook het feit dat zijn stuk, ‘opinie’ kan je het moeilijk noemen, zowat samen verschijnt als een antidotum voor de kritische analyse van alles wat Vlaamse superminister Homans al dan niet heeft bereikt, is een plat argument dat ik hier niet verder wil uitbouwen. 

Echter, als algemeen secretaris van een partij waarin historie toch een belangrijke rol speelt, kan hij toch maar beter accurate feiten aanhalen als hij streepjes wilt zetten achter de naam van zijn partij. Zo stelt Ide dat in 2014 niemand de omvang van de migratiecrisis kon zien aankomen, noch dat de ‘grootste migratiestroom sinds de tweede wereldoorlog’ Europa zou overspoelen. Over het vervolg van zijn betoog, hoe Theo Francken hiermee omging, kan ik mij door datzelfde gebrek aan kennis over diens handel en wandel in dezes niet uitspreken.

Natuurlijk kan niemand inschatten dat miljoenen mensen op de vlucht zullen slagen en naar West-Europa willen trekken als in april 2011 (!) een 5.000 Syriërs, vooral vrouwen en kinderen, in Libanon aankomen, of als een dikke maand later de eerste grote groepen Syriërs de grens met Turkije oversteken. Tegen het einde van dat jaar heeft Turkije al 15 miljoen dollar uitgegeven aan vluchtelingenopvang. We hebben dan nog 2,5 jaar te gaan vooraleer NVA de verkiezingen wint. De aantallen vluchtelingen blijven nog relatief beperkt totdat in juli 2012 ongeveer 200.000 inwoners Aleppo ontvluchtten. De meesten proberen Turkije te bereiken. Steeds meer gaan aantallen van ‘enkele duizenden’, naar ‘enkele tienduizenden’. 

Tijdens de zomer van 2012 kan een vluchtelingenkamp van de UNHCR, het commissariaat voor vluchtelingen van de VN, meer dan 110.000 vluchtelingen opvangen. Die zomer ook bereiken de eerste Syrische vluchtelingen de EU, de niet aflatende drama’s van gammele bootjes en laffe mensensmokkelaars op de Middellandse Zee neemt in toenemende mate dramatische proporties aan. Op het einde van 2012 zijn er ongeveer 750.000 Syrische vluchtelingen, zowat heel Antwerpen en Gent samen. In Syrië zelf kan nog eens een 300.000 op de steun van de UNHCR rekenen, maar er zijn binnen Syrië niet minder dan 4,25 miljoen mensen op de vlucht, internally displaced people.

Op het einde van 2013 zijn er naar schatting anderhalf miljoen Syrische vluchtelingen, even veel als het aantal Belgen dat in de herfst van 1914 op de vlucht sloeg naar Nederland, Frankrijk en het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Na de zomer van 2013 – Angelina Jolie is dan al op rondrit geweest in vluchtelingenkampen in Jordanië en de voorzitter van het UNHCR stelt dat de Syrische vluchtelingencrisis groter is dan die van Rwanda in de jaren 90 - kan Bulgarije de toevloed niet meer aan en krijgt het steun van de EU en het Internationale Rode Kruis. Zweden laat gezinshereniging toe voor de dan al 8.000 Syriërs die in het land zijn aangekomen. In oktober 2013 beloven 16 Westerse landen – België is er niet bij maar alle buurlanden wel – om meer Syriërs op te vangen. Nog voor het einde van het jaar roepen de VN op om geld in te zamelen, er is 6,5 miljard dollar nodig om soelaas te bieden, en vervoegt het Verenigd Koninkrijk zich tot die ‘actieve’ Westerse landen.

Als in België en Vlaanderen eind mei 2014 verkiezingen worden gehouden, is 1 op 5 personen in Libanon een Syrische vluchteling en begint het ergste: IS start zijn terreur. In een klap ontvluchten een half miljoen mensen Mosul. Nog voor Geert Bourgeois zijn eed aflegt en de regeringsverklaring leest op 25 juli, heeft IS het kalifaat afgeroepen en bezit het de meeste olie- en gasvelden in Syrië. Terwijl in Vlaanderen en in België het begin van de Eerste Wereldoorlog herdacht, met aandacht voor de Belgische vluchtelingen en daarbij horende parallellen naar de toenmalige vluchtelingencrisis in het Midden-Oosten, wordt het aantal mensen op de vlucht binnen Syrië geschat op 6,5 miljoen en het aantal dat buiten Syrië is geraakt op 3 miljoen. De High Commissioner for Refugees van de VN heeft het over de grootste humanitaire crisis die bepalend is voor ons tijdperk, en merkt ook op dat “the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them". Het duurt dan nog zeven weken vooraleer de regering Michel in het zadel zit. De VN trekt aan de alarmbel, de doos van Pandora is zelfs nog maar net geopend, maar niemand kan de migratiecrisis zien aankomen? Ik heb in de lange zomer van 2014, maar ook ervoor al, bij tal van herdenkingstoespraken, waaronder een van zijn partijvoorzitter, net het omgekeerde gehoord.

Uiteraard kan Louis Ide niet voor elk thema dat hij aanhaalt veel details mee opnemen, al kan je wel stellen dat het ontbreken van accurate historische representatie en onderbouwend cijfermateriaal hoe die vluchtelingencrisis wordt aangepakt, ervoor zorgt dat zijn initiële stelling over dit onderwerp nogal selectief is – dat doen we uiteindelijk allemaal – maar ook erg kort door de bocht. Je wilt je niet inbeelden dat hij en zijn partij andere thema’s op een gelijkaardige snelheid nemen, thema’s zoals de versmachtende snelheid waarop België een duur land aan het worden is om in te leven (vooral dan op het vlak van voedsel), maar ook mobiliteit, ecologie en belastingontduiking. Een extra 'spaarpotje' van 300 miljoen voor onder andere pensioenen neemt Ide wel op, 15 miljard voor nieuwe gevechtsvliegtuigen dan weer niet (reken zelf uit hoeveel spaarpotjes dat zijn), nochtans mag dat nieuw oorlogstuig de oude vliegtuigen gaan vervangen die nu al twee jaar bombardementen uitvoeren in Irak en sinds kort ook in Syrië. 

Christophe Declercq is docent aan University College London en is ook verbonden aan de Universiteit van Antwerpen. Hij doctoreerde aan Imperial College London over Belgische vluchtelingen in het Verenigd Koninkrijk en is verbonden aan herdenkingsprojecten zoals het Vredescentrum in Antwerpen, Amsab-ISG in Gent, Flanders House Centenary series en Wales for Peace. Hij werkte verschillende keren samen met VRT en vooral BBC.