An Interview with Professor Elizabeta Jevitic-Somlai
Elizabeta Jevtic-Somlai is a native of Serbia and a passionate advocate for nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, and children’s active participation in peace building and peacekeeping. Liz received a BA in international relations as well as a BA and an MA in German, at Brigham Young University with a focus on the persecution of the Roma during World War II. She then received a PhD in international conflict analysis from the University of Kent. Liz worked for ten years in Vienna, Austria, with the United Nations at the Preparatory Commission for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. Following her time at the UN, she joined the BYU Department of Political Science from 2016 to 2018 as a visiting professor. She continues to advise the Kennedy Center European Studies collegiate Model EU program.
As someone with personal experience as a European refugee, how do you view the current refugee crisis?
Europe has been experiencing a steady flow of refugees since World War II. Despite it, two great influxes stand out: the first resulting from the war on European soil itself during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the second—the current crisis—resulting from the war in Syria. I would draw some parallels and suggest that the humane approach exhibited by individuals across Europe in the current influx is what is making the difference in how refugees are accepted.
During the April 2016 general conference, Elder Patrick Kearon stated: “As members of the Church, as a people, we don’t have to look back far in our history to reflect on times when we were refugees, violently driven from homes and farms over and over again.” He referenced the women’s session of conference, saying, “Last weekend in speaking of refugees, Sister Linda Burton asked the women of the Church to consider, ‘What if their story were my story?’ Their story is our story, not that many years ago.” (Kearon, “Refuge from the Storm,” Ensign, May 2016; quoting Linda Burton, “I Was a Stranger,” Ensign, May 2016.)
With this statement, Elder Kearon asked each member in attendance to take a step back and reconsider their approach toward those in need. What if their story were mine? Not so long ago, their story was mine, as my family crossed into Austria in an attempt to avoid the perils of the wars on the soil of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
What parallels can be drawn from this history that might inform us today?
The breakup of Yugoslavia started brewing during the late 1980s. When it finally erupted with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, the first wave of refugees started arriving in the neighboring countries, followed by two more waves in 1992 with the war in Bosnia and in 1996 with the war in Kosovo. It should be remembered that, at the time, in addition to the conflict in Yugoslavia, there were other conflicts across the globe producing disproportionate numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees. While these numbers are smaller than those Europe experienced in 2015 through 2017 with the influx of Syrian refugees, they are sizeable enough to allow for comparisons.
At the beginning, the issue of refugees was only visible in political rhetoric and media. It is due to this visibility that locals were frightened of the refugees, causing two principle sentiments: empathy and willingness to help versus rage, fear, and antagonism. The rage and fear drove some locals to extreme measures. As a result, acts of aggression toward the shelters and the foreigners could be observed as early as 1992. However, there were also expressions of empathy, as many individuals called for tolerance and understanding. Demonstrations against radicalism and racism were regularly held in most capitals across Europe for months.
The current sentiments are not any different, just more visible in the media—providing water and food to the passing masses, acts of aggression toward mainly Muslim men, and videos and articles that confirm refugees’ innocence or terrorist nature. The list goes on.
What also remains similar is the fact that despite all the discussion and fanfare around refugees, the actual people behind the term remain invisible. In the 1990s, some were granted refugee status, few were granted asylum, and most were allowed to remain until the situation changed in their countries of origin. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, most were invisible to aid and had a hard time getting access to education and the labor market. In Austria, foreigners, or Ausländer, as they would call the refugees, were made to feel unwelcome in most public spaces. Today’s treatment is not that much different, with one difference: countries who have labor market shortages tend to be more open to granting working rights to them.
What was your experience as a refugee?
My family was among the invisible number. While we were allowed to remain in Austria, the circumstances around that life were made so difficult for us, in effect trying to encourage us to leave or to move on. We ran out of financial sustenance, had no home, and could not speak the language; no one would employ us, and we had nowhere to turn—except we were Latter-day Saints. Our church community took us in and helped us gain a footing.
It took a year for us to learn the language and another year to obtain some sort of employment. Our right to remain in Austria was reviewed every six months for the ten years that would follow. Finally, in 2002 my brother and father obtained more stable, permanent visas. It took another three years for my brother to obtain a work visa and, with it, a semipermanent residency in Austria. None of us has secured citizenship after twenty-four years of living in Austria.
But mine is only one of many such stories. While many believe that refugees’ hardships end once they cross into Western, more developed countries, in many experiences it is only the beginning of a new type of hardship. Many of the refugees are reluctant relocators and had good lives back home. As a result of their refugee experience, many struggle to reestablish a sense of dignity and humanity and to feel accepted as contributors to that particular society, not as its burden and demise. Unfortunately, that has not changed since my experience. And I suspect it never will as long as fear is used as a political tool, allowing negative sentiments
THE ISSUE HAS A LONG-TERM EFFECT ON THE LIVES OF MANY. A MIGRANT WILL RETURN TO A HOME BECAUSE HE OR SHE HAS ONE; A REFUGEE CANNOT DO THAT AND REQUIRES FURTHER ASSISTANCE TO REBUILD HIS OR HER LIFE.
Do you think that we have a complete understanding of what is happening in this crisis?
No. And how can we? Not even governments have the complete understanding. Let’s use one example, that of terminology used. Take a look at any dictionary, and it will define a migrant as a person who moves regularly in order to find work or better livelihood. In contrast, a refugee is defined by international law as someone who has been forced to leave their country of origin because of war or for religious or political reasons—a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.
While migrants also have the right to movement for a better life, equating a refugee with a migrant minimizes the hardship, the trauma, and the risks that any refugee has experienced. It also diminishes our need to feel empathy and feel accountable—and accountable we are. Refugees have rights under international law, which places responsibility upon receiving states to provide shelter and protection. Each country signatory to the Hague Conventions and various other international treaties agreed to that. Once the initial shock wears off, terming the issue as a migrant crisis creates an attitude of it being a routine situation, which creates the sentiment of no urgency. And yet the issue has a long-term effect on the lives of many. A migrant will return to a home because he or she has one; a refugee cannot do that and requires further assistance to rebuild his or her life.
Second, using the term “migrant” enables the countries unwilling or unable to aid the refugees to excuse themselves without the burden of international law accountabilities. If referenced as a migrant, a person is not entitled to any special provisions by the state, while a refugee is guaranteed protection and shelter under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)—the convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol. As a result, calling the issue a migrant crisis allows countries to deal with the situation in accordance with their domestic laws and political sentiments, thereby dismissing their obligations under the UDHR.
Let us remember that the current situation is brought on by people running away from war. They are trying to escape homes and cities destroyed through bombing, constant shooting and aggression by people with opposing views, forceful recruitment and participation in the military, starvation due to natural and man-made catastrophes, and violence and unrest caused by civilians usurping power—sometimes even by their own governments.
European countries are, in varying degrees, repeating the scenario witnessed during the 1990s. What are the differences in the way Europe is reacting to the refugee influx now?
The first difference is that the international community is more organized. As a result, more individuals are aware of states’ obligations and can call on them to fulfill such obligations.
The second difference is the availability of information. Through social media and the internet, each individual can be easily connected with what is happening in the refugees’ countries of origin. While this has caused more opinions to be voiced and has allowed the perpetuation of racist and anti-refugee commentary to spread farther than before, it has also had the positive effect of allowing each individual to witness the destruction and create his or her own picture of the situation. It has given refugees a face, and with that face comes greater empathy.
Third, many of the countries through which the Syrian refugees passed in 2015, such as in the Balkans themselves, are populated by people who have either experienced civil war or were refugees themselves. They are drawing from their past experiences to aid those in need.
Left: Interviewing a former child soldier at the Kalongo Training Center, Uganda, 2008 (courtesy of Robert Seidl). Middle: Playing with Nepali children during a humanitarian expedition in Lamjung district, Nepal, 2009 (courtesy of Veronica Schindler).
Right: Discussing findings during a Directed Exercises 2006 (DE06) areal overflight in Slunj, Croatia, 2006 (courtesy of Grace Okongo).
Do you see any positive responses?
Yes, you can find them amidst the ugly and the bad examples of governments’ inflexibility to accommodate the refugees. A number of good initiatives and efforts involve governments that are working to rectify mistakes of the past. One such effort can be seen in the media’s struggle to portray the refugees in a neutral light. For example, consider Germany’s “We welcome refugees” initiative, an integration attempt that provides options for locals to take in refugees as roommates. What is remarkable about this is that it builds on the assumption that the local population is willing to house refugees in its homes and is incentivized by the state’s provision of funds to cover rent.
Another good example—and probably the most important one—is exemplified in the responses along the refugee routes. Lines of volunteers and helpers have risen to the task of aiding in ways they are able. In Greece, locals help arrivals out of their boats, provide blankets and words of encouragement, or invite refugees into their homes to eat, shower, and rest before they continue their voyage west. In Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria, hundreds line themselves on the streets, providing food, clothing, blankets, and hygiene kits or help assist with medical needs. In Germany, the locals welcome new arrivals with signs, toys for the children, and water and food for all.
Further, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have, according to Elder Kearon, experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul as they have responded to a deep, innate desire to reach out and serve those in such extreme need around them. The Church has provided shelter and medical care. Stakes and missions have assembled thousands of hygiene kits. Other stakes have provided food and water, clothing, waterproof coats, bicycles, books, backpacks, reading glasses, and much more. Individuals from Scotland to Sicily have stepped in to every conceivable role. Doctors and nurses have volunteered their services when refugees arrive soaked, chilled, and often traumatized from their water crossings. As refugees begin the resettlement process, local members are helping them learn the language of their host country, while others are lifting the spirits of both children and parents. In almost all situations, members are welcoming those arriving and helping them integrate into society by reestablishing a sense of dignity and humanity.
What about a broader positive response—across political spaces?
While the political realm might take another decade or two to adjust to this pattern of individual empathy, it is through the power of each individual citizen that states will shape their thinking, their laws, and their conduct. According to Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail, the past shows that “the 1990 Balkan refugee wave provoked a political crisis unlike any being experienced today: So fearful were Germans of a permanent tide of refugees that they amended their constitution, which had previously guaranteed citizenship to anyone seeking refugee status. It seemed to many that the Balkan wars would last forever, and the millions of refugees would be permanent. [Were the Germans justified in these fears? No.] Those worries proved unfounded. About two-thirds of the 1990s refugees returned to Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo; the third who stayed became well-integrated citizens of Germany. All evidence suggests that the Syrian refugees are in a similar situation, with similar long-term intentions.” (“The Migrant Crisis: Here’s Why It’s Not What You Think,” 2 September 2015.)
HAVING BEEN A REFUGEE WAS A DEFINING MOMENT IN MY LIFE, BUT IT DID NOT DEFINE WHO I AM, NOR DID IT DEFINE MY FRIENDS WHO WERE REFUGEES WITH ME AND WHO HAVE ALL ACCOMPLISHED GREAT THINGS SINCE THEN. IT WAS A PERIOD IN OUR LIVES, AND IT WILL ALSO ONLY BE A PERIOD IN THE LIVES OF THESE REFUGEES.
What is the main takeaway?
This crisis is as much of a test for those leaving their homes as it is a test of our humanity. Having been a refugee was a defining moment in my life, but it did not define who I am, nor did it define my friends who were refugees with me and who have all accomplished great things since then. It was a period in our lives, and it will also only be a period in the lives of these refugees. According to Elder Kearon, if we reach out and aid them in this transitory period, “some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”
As a community and a people, as members of the Church and citizens of countries that can provide help, and as children of God, our response, if we choose to show empathy, will refine us.
This interview was adapted from a presentation given by Liz Jevtic-Somlai at the 27th Annual International Society Conference on 4 April 2016 in Provo, Utah.