July 18, 2012
(Continuation - Latvians Online published the first part in this two-part series on 8th May 2012)
The Jewish community has Birthright, a program which funds trips to Israel for Jewish youths. While not nearly as well endowed, ALA has Sveika Latvija. To date the program has for the most part been targeted at graduates of heritage language elementary schools. It must be expanded and marketed to include even those who don’t attend Latvian school or speak Latvian. We need to get as many young adults of Latvian descent as possible to visit Latvia.
The émigré community should work with Latvian authorities to promote tourism to Latvia among Latvians and non-Latvians alike. Iceland is a case in point. There are non-stop Icelandair flights from Minneapolis to Reykjavik. What’s the connection? The Upper Mid West was the destination for many Icelandic immigrants. Few if any now speak Icelandic but there is a connection. Enough to warrant direct air service. Air Baltic is lagging but it needs to be encouraged. When it does expand overseas, the émigré community needs to support the airline.
The émigré community should work with the Government of Latvia to encourage study and internships programs in Latvia. It needs to push for removal of obstacles to ensure that participants are welcomed, that their professional skills are recognized and that their weaker Latvian language skills and non-existent Russian is not held against them. It should facilitate visits by professionals of Latvian descent in order to share their knowledge and experience.
The post-war Latvian exile community was cultured and sports were on the periphery. With the restoration of independence, Latvia’s athletes have fanned out across the world and garnered Latvia publicity and good-will that money can’t buy. Yet when compared to the enthusiasm that ethnic Italian or Greek communities show their national football teams, the reception of Latvia’s athletes by the émigré community has underwhelmed.
For example, in 2008 eight hundred hockey fans from Latvia descended on Halifax in Canada for the World Hockey Championships. Another two hundred Latvians from Canada and the United States joined them. Even though this was the biggest gathering of Latvians in Canada in 2008, the event failed to get mention in that year’s annual report of the Latvian National Federation in Canada (LNAK). Go figure! Sports is one of the best ways to connect younger émigré generations to today’s Latvia and not just the young, but also those not interested in culture and more artistic pursuits.
The post-war diaspora survived for many years as a transnational community in large part by personal links the older generations had forged growing up in pre-war Latvia and later in Displaced Person camps. The links were renewed at larger gatherings such as Song Festivals and facilitated by newspapers such as Laiks that covered community news across the United States and elsewhere. Today, the émigré community is dependent on electronic and social media to sustain its transnational nature – email, web-sites, draugiem.lv, latviansonline.com, Facebook, Skype, news sites and web radio and television from Latvia.
Some community papers like Latvija Amerika published in Toronto continue their broadsheet format although a pdf version can be requested. Austrālijas latvietis is marketing both a print and electronic version and using electronic transmission to expand to its content and readership to new geographies. [The Australian Latvian press has two national publications - Australijas latvietis and Laikraksts Latvietis: the former is primarily a printed publication with a website attached, while the latter is an online publication with a printed option. Ed.] Jauno Laiks is a welcome quarterly supplement to the venerable Laiks, now published out of New York and Rīga. Jauno Laiks is colourful, with articles in both English and Latvian, typically written by younger authors and a good read. So stuff is happening. It needs to be encouraged, supported and sustained.
Work through émigré communities around the world Googling „Latvian New York”, „Latvian Denver”, „Latvian Toronto”, „Latvian Edmonton”, „Latvian Melbourne”, „Latvian Leeds” and you will bring up hundreds of links. They range from references to Latvian organizations on local registries to nicely constructed content-rich web sites. Some are produced by IT professionals while others are home-spun. Some smaller communities have done a nice job while some larger ones are missing. Some have created Facebook groups and rely on them to get the message out. Many sites struggle keeping content up-to-date. Yet they’re there and allow community members to stay connected.
The web is democratic, it relies on local initiative and it can’t be driven from the top. Yet émigré umbrella organizations could hire IT summer students to produce web templates that can be loaded through easy-to-use content management systems and made available to local communities at no cost. The umbrella organizations could line up Internet Service Providers for local communities to use eliminating the hassle to figure it out on their own.
Causes in Latvia continue to attract the interest and support of émigré Latvians. Nothing wrong with that and anyone can donate to any cause or charity as they see fit. However for the most part, it should be done on an individual basis. Direct funding from émigré community organizations particularly national and transnational organizations should be done selectively for sustainable priority projects and balanced with the needs of the community abroad.
This brings us back full circle to the political role that the émigré community should play both abroad and in Latvia. In today’s world with massive global movement of people, borders, time and space are disappearing. It is natural that émigré communities are interested in and have a role to play in their homelands. However that role must be realistic, aligned with the capacity of the community and once again, balanced with its needs abroad.
As the representative of the post-war diaspora, PBLA has little political power in Rīga and has struggled to attain its goals. The question of re-opening dual citizenship languished until Latvian politicians started taking mass emigration seriously. Teaching Latvian history as a subject separate subject in Latvia’s schools saw the light of day only when others picked it up locally. Efforts to rollback Soviet changes in Latvian orthography have gone nowhere. The charge for electoral reform is led by expats living in Latvia. They have been able to garner local support and as a result are making inroads. On its own, the post-war diaspora is not strong enough to mount a major political action in Latvia. To succeed it needs to find common ground and forge partnerships with local interests in Latvia that are strong enough to push something through.
With tens of thousands of recent emigrants abroad, this might be the time to push for formal representation for the diaspora in Latvia’s parliament. Latvia does have an Ambassador at Large for the Diaspora. Currently he is Rolands Lappuķe, who is an expat himself. Still, he is a representative of the Government of Latvia and needs to take orders from the mothership which is different than being elected by voters and accountable to them. Why not one deputy for Europe and the other for the Americas and Australia? Romania has diaspora representation, why not Latvia? Getting this won’t be easy but it is a goal relevant to Latvian communities abroad and would help both recent arrivals and the established to connect with Latvia.
The Latvian émigré community needs a paradigm shift in order to survive. It needs to be welcoming. It needs to be inclusive and reach out to Latvians and non-Latvians alike. It needs to be re-enterable for those looking to re-connect with their Latvian heritage. It needs to be multi-tier. It needs to reconcile with different levels of Latvian language proficiency. It needs to be modular and recognize that being Latvian abroad cannot be a 7x24 experience.
The Latvian émigré community needs “To encourage and enable positive individual connections with Latvian society, culture and Latvia”.
(This is the second in a two-part series of articles; originally published in the 23rd June-6th July edition of Jauno laiks)
Viesturs Zariņš lives in Canada and is a periodic contributor to Latvians Online. He was a member of the World Federation of Free Latvians executive board from 1991 through 1999 and a board member of the Latvian National Federation in Canada for 10 years, including three years as its president.