Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

One of Holland’s most well-known historical figures is Anne Frank, the young diarist who, because she and her family were Jewish, were forced into hiding during the Second World War. For a little over two years, between 1942 and 1944, Anne lived with seven other people holed up in a “secret annex” at the back of an Amsterdam office in an attempt to survive the Nazi occupation of Holland. The diary that she kept through this period was posthumously published; it is now considered a classic of non-fiction, and is an enduring testimony about the human capacities for peacemaking and hope, and hatred and intolerance.

Though Anne and most of her family were still tragically killed in concentration camps after they were caught in 1944, they were still afforded two years in relative placidity that allowed Anne to create what was to become her lasting legacy. Their demises could have come earlier after all: Anne’s older sister Margot had been one of those summoned early on to report to a “work camp,” which almost certainly meant an immediate death. It was this summon that had finally pushed the Frank family to put their plan to hide into action.

Those two precious years would not have happened if not for the Frank family friends Miep Gies and her husband Jan, Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan. Most of them were connected to the business that Otto Frank managed. As professionals who were safe from the Nazi extermination campaign they could have opted to move on with their lives and concentrate only on their welfare during this trying time. But as Kugler said, “I had to help them: they were my friends.” It was this small group which delivered food, clothing, books, and other necessities to the company’s secret annex. During wartime, this rationing was extremely difficult, and there was always the fear of being betrayed and arrested. Hiding Jews carried the penalty of death.

Miep Gies, Bep Voskuijl, Kugler, and Kleiman were all at the office when it was raided in August 1944. Kugler and Kleiman were both arrested and sent to labor camps, similar to the fate of the people they had been helping. Gies and Voskuijl were luckily let off, but they had to traumatically witness their friends being taken away by the SS. All these helpers would eventually survive the war, but would not be left unscathed by it.

More than seventy years later, something similar continues to happen in many places around the globe. In Europe, the Research Social Platform on Migration and Asylum (ReSOMA) recently released a report saying that since 2015, more than 150 individuals have been investigated and/or charged in connection with what authorities deem to be the illegal entry and residence of migrants in various EU nations. Among them are Frenchmen Pierre-Alain Mannoni and Cédric Herrou, who have been taken to court for transporting migrants (i.e., driving them in a car) who were seeking asylum. German ship captain Carola Rackete, by rescuing 53 migrants seeking to escape war-torn countries like Libya, may have defied the letter of the law and was thus reasonably arrested and imprisoned, but she has repeatedly asserted that it was unconscionable for her to leave the migrants’ boat in the middle of the Mediterranean, nor to transport them back to Tripoli.

One of the most bewildering cases is that of Sarah Mardini, a young Syrian refugee who sought entry to the EU in 2015 via journeying on a small boat that almost immediately broke down after she and her fellow refugees took off from a port in Turkey. Mardini and her sister Yusra were excellent swimmers (Yusra would eventually compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics, a member of the pioneering “refugee team” composed of individual athletes who were stateless), and so they swam for more than three hours to shepherd their boat (and the passengers in it) to safe shores. In 2016 Sarah Mardini volunteered with Emergency Response Center International to help refugees like her. During a trip to Greece (she and her companions had originally landed on Greek shores) in 2018 she was arrested with fellow aid workers Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos on charges of “people smuggling, espionage, and membership in a criminal organization.” Amnesty International has said of the Mardini case: “Criminalising humanitarian workers and abandoning refugees at sea won’t stop refugees crossing the sea, but it will cause many more deaths.”

In the United States, one of the most highlighted cases was that of Scott Warren, a geography teacher who faced up to 20 years in prison for providing food, shelter, and medical care to two injured migrants from across the border with Mexico. Warren and the aid group No More Deaths are known to extend assistance from leaving water in the desert during the scorching summer to recovering the bodies of those who did not make the travel safely. He has asserted that he was only following the dictates of his faith and conscience by being there for those in need.

Warren’s first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, but prosecutors still took the rare step of trying him again, as if to drive the point further that any and all humanitarian help at the border will severely treated as criminal acts. Warren’s acquittal at the second trial gave aid workers some relief, but there still does not seem to be an end in sight given the Trump administration’s hardline stance towards such charitable acts.

All these lead me back to thinking about the Philippines. In Mindanao, the Region 11 Regional Peace and Order Council (RPOC 11) concluded a recent meeting calling for the closure of the Haran Evacuation Center in Davao City and for the displaced Lumad there to be returned to the custody of their respective local governments. Aside from this, the RPOC urged that criminal charges be filed against those it deems to be running Haran. The possible charges it brought up were human trafficking and serious illegal detention, aside from additional accusations of “manipulating” the Lumad to join rallies or raise funds.

The United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Southeast Mindanao Jurisdiction, in whose compound the Haran Evacuation Center is located, stated that providing a sanctuary for the distressed Lumad is no less than their Christian duty. It was a commitment that they wholeheartedly took on since the 1990s, when the cycles of militarization and displacement began for the Manobo of Talaingod. According to UCCP bishop Hamuel Tequis, “like Christ, we face these challenges with courage and faith.”

The RPOC’s threat also recalls an actual filing of criminal charges against humanitarians when eighteen people – including former Congressman Satur Ocampo, incumbent teachers’ representative France Castro, religious pastors, and educators – were arrested en masse in late 2018. The group had been assisting Lumad students to flee to safety after their boarding school had been forcibly shut down by paramilitary agents. The initial charges against them ranged from human trafficking to child abuse, while the students’ allegations about how they were physically and emotionally traumatized by the paramilitary were never formally investigated.

These instances demonstrate a pattern of cracking down on concerned individuals and organizations who have sought to help some of the most vulnerable sectors of society: refugees, migrants, the stateless. The ReSOMA report notes that this seems to be a new trend that has been dubbed as the “criminalization of humanitarian aid” or the “criminalization of solidarity.” But throughout history, whenever governments take a turn to be more oppressive, they have never held back on using the law to persecute people for acts that would ordinarily be considered expected, if not praiseworthy, in civilized society.

Today we applaud the Gieses, the Voskuijls, Victor Kugler, and Johannes Kleiman for the risks they took to help the Frank family and others. In hindsight it is completely evident that the persecution of Jews was wrong, the Nazis were villains, and those who stood up to them were heroes; today it is unthinkable to see it any other way.

But nevertheless, it appears that the cases cited above with regard to migrants, refugees, and displaced Lumad show us that even with this historical “clear-sightedness,” we are still repeating what we have, presumably, vowed never to repeat. The conditions that have caused the Franks to be murdered and their friends to be persecuted persist – and I am not just talking here about how institutions (the law, the courts, the police, indeed, the whole government) are weaponized but how the moral compasses of ordinary citizens somehow shift their reading in order to accommodate injustices that occur before their very eyes.

It thus sadly seems that re-stating the lessons of history is easy only if done in the abstract, or in the cool reiteration of “objective knowledge.” Likewise, expressing shock at these historical events also do not seem to be a guarantee that we won’t repeat them. People may weep at “Schindler’s List” and be touched by “Quezon’s Game,” and yet still be on the fence about the outcasts that our own present contexts have created.

This could point us towards the limitations of both an “Enlightenment” approach (simply imparting facts or knowledge), and emotional appeals to a moral standard – though both are still important, they do not seem to be enough. And this is a formidable challenge for educators and progressive forces who aim to foster change through argumentation and persuasion. It is a challenge to better hone the particular prism through which we analyze and remember.

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