SPECIAL REPORT: World Refugee Day marked with food in Latvia as debate rages in background

As debate rages in Latvia and throughout Europe over what to do with thousands of refugees fleeing warzones in North Africa and the Middle East, a sharply contrasting scene of peace and friendship unfolded at Latvia's one and only refugee center Thursday.

The Mucenieki refugee center on the outskirts of Riga was built as a base for occupying Soviet forces. Today it plays a more peaceful role, currently housing just 54 refugees, despite having a capacity of around 200.

On the same day the center threw its doors open to public and press at a special event ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, the Latvian government signalled it was willing to accept just 50 more refugees.

The European Union has suggested Latvia take in around 700 over two years, an idea that has met with universal opposition among Latvia's political parties and predictable fear-mongering of a "wave" of immigrants failing to integrate, living on benefits and getting up to all sorts of probably criminal and certainly un-Latvian behavior.

The fact that Latvia has failed to fully integrate its substantial Russian minority - or that the Russian minority has failed to integrate into Latvia - over the last 20 years has been held up by respected politicians such as Artis Pabriks and Krisjanis Karins as a further reason why immigrants from even more distant cultures should not be sent to Latvia.

But at Mucenieki, the different cultures seemed to get on just fine and a relaxed, festive air prevailed that clearly was not just a show for the cameras. While a Latvian men's choir sang traditional songs about their love of beer, Vietnamese refugees prepared food, Afghan women braided fabric into intricate ribbons and children did what children all over the world do - playing with each other regardless of their skin or hair color.

Among the visitors was Karolina Lindholm Billing of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Based in Sweden, she has been coming to Latvia since the 1990s when she helped to set up the reborn republic's system for dealing with refugees.

She says she's proud that many of the people she worked with back then are now leading lights within the sector and told LSM about how the current refugee debate is impacting UNHCR's work.

Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR

    Despite a certain natural nervousness, most of the residents of Mucenieki are happy to talk.

    There's Mahdi, aged 15 from Afghanistan alongside his niece Jasna, 2. They have been at Mucenieki for nine months (the maximum stay is one year) and he's waiting for his asylum application to be approved.

    He likes Latvia, has learned a little of the language and wants to stay here, he tells LSM, as the pair of them sit on the steps in what could almost be Afghan sunshine.

    "It's no good in Afghanistan now. I want to stay in Latvia forever. My brother and his wife are here too. They came before me. Now we study Latvian and Russian languages and when I am 18 I would like to work in a bank," he says.

    Busy chopping vegetables for the meal that's being prepared are three Vietnamese, Dang-Tiaien, 21, Tang, 34 and Ling, 17.

    "I left Vietnam because I am a Catholic but Vietnam is Communist," says Dang-Tiaien, smartly turned out in blue shirt.

    Looming over him is the tall, good-humored figure of Tang. If he seems to demonstrate particularly good skills with the knife perhaps it is because of his training as an acupuncturist. One day he might be able to open a clinic in Riga, he hopes.

    But the cameras are drawn naturally to Ling, not least because of his film-star looks and striking haircut. Remaining remarkably elegant in black leather jacket despite the high temperatures he is softly spoken, explaining that he had to leave Vietnam because of "political problems".

    He has been in Latvia, on his own, for six months. His family is still in Vietnam and while he admits being away from them is hard, he doesn't want to return.

    "I want to stay here. I study Latvian, I play football. I practice my religion and I cut people's hair. I cook well too. I hope to get a job doing one of those things. I want to stay. And of course because Latvian women are very beautiful!"

    The idea that all Latvians have hostile, knee-jerk attitudes to immigration and integration like those of the Front National in France or UKIP in Great Britain is as inaccurate as the idea that all asylum seekers are really only after the easy life of Western Europe.

    A good example is 26-year-old Reinis Gravitis, a volunteer with the Drošā māja (Safe house) organization which is Latvia's only NGO dedicated to working with refugees and asylum seekers, seeking to integrate them into the country.

    He's immensely friendly and enthusiastic but in a second is able to become more serious and give a crisp, factual account of his work.

    "I am a volunteer co-ordinator and am a volunteer myself. I'm also on the board of the organization so I'm basically working with everything - writing projects, implementing them, dealing with human resources and so on," he tells LSM.

    "It involves a lot of paperwork because if you get funding via different sources (including government and UNHCR), of course people want to see how the money is spent."

    On his motivation for giving up so much of his time, he's straightforward.

    "I just find it really interesting and a great environment in which to learn and lot of practical skills. It's a very valuable experience and one I want to share with others. That's why I'm in this area."

    "Our goal is to work on integration. That means feeling comfortable in the society in which you are living. It also involves working with society itself to be open and willing to accept people. Often it's very simple things: maybe a music night or a board games night, but that's a space where we can communicate with each other and teach each other things," he says.

    Younger people, who have traveled more widely and encountered other cultures perhaps on student exchanges are generally more accepting of incomers than the older segment of the Latvian population, he says.

    Latvia's own history is not short of migration stories. While the massive outflow of workers from Latvia to Western Europe following EU accession in 2004 is well documented, and should be borne in mind every time someone suggests that economic migration is somehow immoral, there are even darker episodes.

    The return by Sweden of around 150 Latvian and other Baltic Legionnaires in boats across the Baltic Sea to the Soviet Union in 1946 - for which Sweden later apologised - has some similarities to the situation in the Mediterranean today.

    In the aftermath of World War II thousands of Latvians fled west from advancing Soviet forces. Among them was the young Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a future Latvian president.

    Also among them were the parents of Karlis Roberts Celms, a renowned Latvian-American chef and restaurant entrepreneur, who was on hand to take charge of the catering arrangements at the Mucenieki festival - with considerable help from a well-organised team of refugees.

    "My father's family left Latvia in 1943," Celms says as he stirs his steaming cauldron. "They spent six years in a displaced persons camp in Germany, they emigrated to the United States and they started over again there. So I think what's being done here is fantastic."

    "I'm thrilled to be a part of it and I wish I could have this kind of help and support every day because we just went through about 50 kilos of vegetables in 20 minutes," he adds in tribute to the chopping skills of his assistants.

    And while Celms' Latvian soup, cooked in a vast iron pot over a bed of glowing embers was delicious, it was the spring roll-type creations of the Vietnamese residents that stole the show.

    You can see why some politicians are so keen to keep all refugees as far away as possible from Latvia's border - it's harder to say they are a threat to the nation when you have to look them in the eye - and harder still when they've made your lunch.

    UNHCR's new report on Latvia and integration is available here.

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