Riga, Latvia

Thoughts on the Refugee Crisis & my Last Days as an Embassy Intern

Well folks,

This is my last blog as a Canadian embassy intern. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read my posts this summer. Throughout these crazy 15 weeks, I feel as though I have grown so much as a person and a professional.

The last three weeks have been a bit of a blur. There have been goodbyes, adventures, and frantic scrambles to finish up outstanding projects. One task I had was to observe and report on an anti-immigration protest in Latvia. As you may know, the world is experiencing a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since WWII. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in Europe in the past two years. To accommodate the influx of people, the EU has assigned all member states quotas of migrants they should resettle in their territories. Latvia has agreed to resettle 250 migrants over the next two years, which has some citizens rather upset. As a result, they staged a protest that many people did not approve of. Since Latvians can exercise their right to free speech, the event was allowed to continue. Approximately 300 people took part in this event.

I did not speak to any protestors because I did not want to cross to the protest area (a large tree-lined path in the middle of their main street), and risk being photographed with them. However, I did speak to a few observers who emphasized their belief that the protestors were a minority, and that many people supported the decision to take in migrants.

Migration is one of the biggest challenges facing Latvia right now. Latvia is not a country with a huge migrant population. Most people who come to Riga are students or those who already have jobs lined up.  As a result, the social systems necessary for migrant integration are poor. Latvia is only just now examining these issues and making a plan to resettle the 250 migrants. It will be interesting to watch over the next year whether they are able to succeed in creating a successful migrant integration program, and how decisions made now will shape their migration policies for the future.

Another project I worked on was finding out about educational opportunities for international students in Canada. I had to contact many different Canadian universities and ask them specific questions about their programs and admission requirements. Then, I consolidated this information into a a reference document for my supervisor.

The last major project I undertook was hosting a Twitter session for my colleagues. I explained the Twitter basics-character count, hashtags, adding photos and videos, and how to tailor content to your audience. As trivial as it sounds, this was actually a huge deal for me. Three months ago I knew next to nothing about Twitter. So being asked to teach everything I had only recently learned to a group was extremely nerve-wracking but also very fulfilling.

In Latvia, it is tradition that the person celebrating a birthday shares food and cake with their friends and colleagues. I figured my last day called for a similar effort and so, I slightly altered this tradition. I bought takeout for everyone from a restaurant that we all liked. My coworkers are amazing people, and they have all made an effort to make me feel welcome here, and I will miss them all. I’m not going to lie, I cried a bit when I said my final goodbyes.

When I wasn’t at work, I’ve been cramming in as much travel as possible. Recently, I spent 24 hours in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. It felt like I was in Pleasantville and it was an odd feeling. The city itself was very safe, and it was interesting to see the Stalinist architecture and Soviet monuments. However, it took me about half the day to realize that people are incredibly quiet there-very little laughter, no children crying or making a lot of noise, no music coming out of cafes on the streets. Although it felt subdued, the people are nice. Two of the McDonald’s employees spent 5 minutes helping me get wifi so I could find my hostel. At the end of the day, I was glad I went and saw Minsk, but I’m not sure I would return.

On the way back from Belarus, I stopped in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which was much cheerier. I loved exploring the little city, especially Uzupis, which is an “independent republic” with a constitution which includes things like “a dog has a right to be a dog” and “people have the right to be happy”. There was also a lot of really cool street art up and down the alleyways. Also, I found a Second Cup! This made me really happy because I love a good London Fog, and it was so nice to have a taste of Canada 6000 miles away from home.

In other crazy travel adventures, a good friend from London trekked to the Baltics. I showed her Riga before we headed up to Estonia for an EDM concert. From there, we headed to Helsinki for a day. We did all that in 72 hours! It was exhausting, but well worth it.

In Riga itself, I realized there were a bunch of museums and exhibits that I hadn’t seen in the three months I’ve been here. When you are living in a new city for an extended period of time, touring all the sights isn’t always your top priority. You make friends, get invited to social events, or decide to spend the night relaxing after work. It’s funny how that happens and then you have to cram everything in at the last minute, which is ultimately what I ended up doing. Pretty much every day I was going to different events or museums, trying to see everything. To be honest I was glad I did it backwards. I heard about many of these events or memorials from my colleagues and had a better context to frame new information in.

For the next few weeks, I’m travelling a bit more before heading home. I hope you all enjoy the rest of your summer!

Until next time,

Natalie

 

*The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the Canadian Government.*

Photo Credit: Stefan Leijon via photopin (CC)

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