Belarusians abroad: bound by a common goal

2 October 2020 | Yanina Melnikova, Green Belarus
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Source: Green Belarus

The election campaign and the peaceful protests that followed changed the political and social landscape in Belarus and at the same time affected the Belarusian communities all over the world. The famous “We didn’t know each other till this summer” song line of an already-classic Russian rock band seems to be the best refrain for the movement.

Scattered all around the globe, Belarusians who used to be total strangers before, now are connecting to each other eager to help their motherland and themselves.

Green Belarus has talked to some of the fellow citizens who now live abroad and has found out what has affected the Belarusian community the most, why people have chosen to get united, and what the country’s embassy’s reaction to such activity was. Spoiler alert – everyone has been paid up, they say.

For those who hear only orders, it’s hard to understand

“The Belarusian Diaspora in the Netherlands has never seemed to be large and united,” says Daria Slabchenko who has been living abroad for many years. “But the situation in Belarus has shown how many of us really are there! We are very concerned about everything that’s going on back home, about our family and friends.”

Today the Belarusian Diaspora in the Netherlands is probably one of the most active.

“We hold several solidarity rallies every week, work closely with local politicians and the mass media, we inform ordinary Dutch people about events in Belarus. This is not the easiest task since the people here have never been much interested in Belarus. And, of course, we help financially, through funds and directly to those in need,” says Daria.

Solidarity rally in the Netherlands
A solidarity rally in the Netherlands.
Source: Green Belarus

The Belarusians in the Netherlands started self-organizing and meeting early summer, so by August most of them had turned into really good friends.

The self-organization and creativity level here is truly amazing and inspiring, just as everything Belarusians have been doing this year. Right away chats were created, roles assigned, and the teams started working and coordinating the activities with other Belarusian communities abroad.

“One of the most conspicuous collaborative projects was the exit poll at foreign polling stations. For that, a strong international team was built, and we continue working together. The communities have also been creating their own emblems, following the example of the Minsk districts.”

Such activity of the Belarusians could not be overlooked by the country’s embassy. However, the diplomatic reaction was rather astonishing, to put it mildly.

“The new ambassador of Belarus to the Netherlands told the rally participants they were being paid up. Apparently, the regime henchmen find it hard to believe that we love our country so much that we are ready to spend our time and money, that we do not have any leaders or puppeteers,” says Daria Slabchenko.

“Both here and in Belarus everything is about self-organization and private initiative. All of a sudden it turned out there were so many motivating and motivated compatriots! The ideas that might be hard to grasp for those who hear only orders.”

“We were about to found a Belarusian organization

“When we arrived at Tbilisi, we planned to be back in Minsk for the elections, and we already got the tickets. Once in Georgia, there were not so many chances to get to know local Belarusians as everyone was burrowed in their little dens because of COVID. The highlight of the day was grocery shopping before the curfew,” says Marisha Korzh, a Belarusian who went to Georgia to study. “We started joining our forces when the election campaign was launched. Our goal was to include an independent Election Committee member to the Embassy’s Election Board.”

Little by little, several WhatsApp and Telegram groups appeared, with 50-150 subscribers each. The Belarusians in Georgia were taking part in rallies, organizing the exit poll during the elections.

“It was just amazing! We forced the embassy to count the votes correctly!” says Marisha. “Of course, the election day brought us all together, we’d been summoning everyone to come to the embassy and vote. The embassy naturally did not expect such a burst of activity, they’d hoped this coronavirus summer no one would come to vote in Georgia.”

“Rumor has it, the embassy could not even imagine Tsikhanouskaya might win by a landslide, so the ambassador invited us to meet him as he was sure we were the main coordinators. He asked who was paying us up. After that, they had some kind of a scandal at the embassy. Someone is said to have been fired.”

Solidarity rally in Tbilisi
A solidarity rally in Tbilisi.

After the elections, the Belarusians were rallying in front of the Parliament of Georgia for two weeks and were writing letters urging Georgia not to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate President of the Republic.

Our people truly impressed me, we were making gigantic, ten meters long national flags, interlocking arms in solidarity chains, got in touch with the Belarusian communities in Ukraine and Lithuania. We were lecturing on the history of Belarus, were giving interviews to Georgian mass media… We were about to found a Belarusian organization, but then slowed down a bit.

At the moment, the community’s intensity has winded down a little, but nevertheless, the local Belarusians have not just participated in the rallies, but also launched in Georgia a rehabilitation campaign for the activists from Belarus who suffered from tortures. The program application process is already open.

“It was truly awesome! I just brought up this idea, and immediately there came people asking where and who they could send money to. We have been donating to the BYSol Fund, but it is not always that obvious who you are helping in the end, and here we know we are inviting an exact person to rehabilitate in Georgia,” says Marisha.

Starring in a partisan movie

“I have lived in several countries, in Holland and Ireland the longest. Neither country could boast of having a united community of Belarusians. Once in Amsterdam, I met a girl from Belarus, and we got talking about why Ukrainians herd together, but we don’t. She said that, well, are Belarusians, where we were planted, there do we grow,” says Maria Falaleeva, a Belarusian who now lives in Ireland. “And it is true. Until recently, I was not involved in any diasporas, and to be honest, the idea itself of ‘diasporing’ did not seem that attractive to me. I have wonderful and close friends from Belarus, but being from Belarus is more of a bonus, rather than a reason to make friends.”

But things have changed a lot in recent months.

“When we organized the first information campaign in Cork, we decided not to invite anyone on purpose (well, the behavior of a typical Belarusian, in fact…). We just wanted to get together, because, since it was important to us, we were to do it all by ourselves. And then suddenly, some people we didn’t know started getting in touch, there were about 15 of us at the first meeting, and for Cork it is really a lot! More and more people were joining, all at once it turned out there are our people in Dublin, in Belfast, well, literally everywhere!”

“In Dublin, more than 100 people came to one of the first rallies. It was something of a holiday – everyone was smiling, looking around, ‘Oh gosh! There are so many of us!” It felt like starring in a movie about partisans – somewhere in deep, dense woods, nothing is going on, just leaves are rustling, but then all of a sudden, friendly faces are emerging in between these trees,” Maria laughs.

A solidarity rally in Dublin.
Source: Charter 97’ Vimeo channel

Now the work of the diaspora continues, the people are getting to know each other, organizing some events together, thinking about creating an official Belarusian organization.

“Not even for political purposes, but with the aim to continue doing something together both in Ireland and Belarus. It’s incredibly inspiring what other communities are doing, for example, in London or in Germany. You see what actions people are taking, and realize that yes, that’s right, we are a true nation, with our own approach to business, our own ways to communicate, our unique ethical principles, values and sense of humor,” says Maria Falaleeva.

And then she says that the Belarusians of Ireland, just like other Belarusians all over the world, were told they were being paid up.

“Now you hear it less often, but it did happen at first. Most of the people who go to rally are people who are pretty well-off, they have their own opinions, they are real professionals whose time costs so much that I can hardly imagine who and how could afford to pay them for their rallying hours,” Maria Falaleeva admits.

Everything but duel for the opportunity to help

“It seems that there has never been such unbelievable uplift and unity among Belarusians in the United States and Canada, such eagerness to help their fellow citizens in Belarus,” says Nikolai Shchetko, a Belarusian. “I can’t say for the entire community, but the North American Belarusians I know and come across online are against the violent dictatorship, against unrestrained lawlessness and outright lies.”

For sure, for Belarusians living in Belarus these overseas activities might not be so apparent as that of the Belarusians in Poland or Lithuania, but, according to Nikolai, the hustle-and-bustle of the Belarusian community in the United States hasn’t been petering out at all since August 9, 2020.

People are sleepless at night monitoring the situation at home, we are worrying, trying to find ways to help. And is it possible for anyone to stay away from WHAT is going on back home? Besides, some of us are just temporarily here, we have families, relatives, and friends there in Belarus…

“Even those who moved decades ago and became citizens here, are actively involved too. The other day, I was discussing some initiatives with a Canadian Belarusian (she immigrated from Belarus in 1999) and she told me she would like to retire in Belarus,” says Nikolai.

“Belarusians abroad but duel for the opportunity to help. For instance, in the INeedHelpBy group that supports with groceries the Belarusians who find themselves in dire straits, those willing to help heavily outnumber the families seeking such aid. Sometimes it is just hilarious – it takes potential helpers less than a minute to respond to such a post, so the rest of us have to jokingly ask not to jump the queue or to go find their own ‘clients’.”

Solidarity rally in New-York
A New York rally.
Source: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) via Green Belarus

The largest Belarusian Facebook group in the United States is bubbling with emotions and projects. In many American and Canadian cities, massive solidarity and car rallies are being held, there was even a mini-congress in Florida not so long ago! The Belarusians are donating to the funds or providing financial assistance directly to those in need, contacting their Congress representatives, participating in awareness-raising activities, sewing national flags and masks with national symbols, renting billboards along the highways.

And there are dozens of such initiatives all over the US.

This new sense of unity of Belarusians abroad is astonishingly inspiring. It seems that this year, just like our compatriots in Belarus, we all have been sharing the feeling of being truly incredible, being part of the nation and belonging to the community.

By the way, partly due to the pressure of Belarusians and the Bloomberg articles, the supply contract on Internet blocking devices between Sandvine and the Belarusian authorities was terminated.

“So we are all together and we are with you, my dear friends, even if we are far away. And we really want to return or at least visit our beautiful free Belarus of the future,” says Nikolai.

What was deeply hidden before, finally emerged

“There used to be just 5 or 6 of us from Belarus in Bonn and Cologne. We met before for some events or rallies. For instance, we got together when Sviatlana Alexievich visited Cologne. Bonn is Minsk’s twin town, which presumably can mean there are tons of events here. But the truth was we hardly ever met,” says Natalia Vasilevich, who is working on her research paper in Germany.

They were mostly students or professionals working for the DW Media Corporation.

“We usually met each other through some political or civil activities in Belarus. Such meetings usually drew in just a few Belarusians and a bit more of Ukrainians. We were going out for a beer or just hanging out together. But never ever could we get such a large-scale format,” says Natalia.

And she admits that if she wanted to hang out with her Belarusian compatriots, she’d rather go to Belgium, to Brussels or Antwerp where the community was far more active.

“This was true right ‘til this summer, but even when the protests sparked in Belarus, it looked like there were so few of us here, literally 2 or 3 Belarusians, and nothing really conspicuous seemed possible in Bonn or Cologne.”

But a true miracle happened. Telegram channels and FB groups let those who had never before been involved in politics, never rallied or met their fellow citizens, unite.

“The first event was in Dusseldorf. That was a rally of solidarity with Viktor and Eduard Babaryka. And back then I was genuinely surprised at how many people with white-red-white flags came to the meeting, how many socially and politically active Belarusians live in our region,” says Natalia Vasilevich. “In fact, Telegram channels helped us a lot to make up our minds, determine our political standings, find the leaders and be creative.”

Solidarity rally in Düsseldorf
At a rally in Dusseldorf.
Source: Green Belarus

“One of the most significant solidarity demonstrations for me personally was a joint prayer. At one of the rallies I was approached by several people I didn’t know before and offered to host a religious event to pray together for our Belarus.”

“People got actively involved – the prayer was attended by the theologians who study or work in different German cities. The local Belarusians did just incredible things! For instance, we came up with the idea to decorate the cross with cornflowers, so a woman named Olga delivered the cornflowers right from an auction in Holland.”

“Someone embroidered a rushnik, our national ritual cloth, with cornflowers, the others were making posters and banners. Everything was organized at the truly German level – here in Germany, people are taught to do everything beautifully, professionally, highly responsibly and promptly, to allocate tasks clearly and efficiently.”

And the German Belarusian community sparked to life – people not only meet to rally, but go for a drink together, have picnics, and take their dogs for walks.

“People who didn’t know each other till this summer, are now helping one another, investing family money to high-level events to be noticed by the Germans.”

“Before, I used to hang out with Russians or Ukrainians more, I knew them better. But it turned out there are people all around you who know our folk songs, can play the cimbalom, our national string instrument, and have white-red-white flags at home. What was deeply hidden before, finally emerged.”

Solidarity rally in Cologne
A solidarity rally in Cologne.
Source: Green Belarus

Natalia admits that she and her friend, who also lives in Bonn, used to complain all the time about how unenthusiastic the Belarusians were.

“Our rare events were more often attended by Ukrainians or Italians who were learning the Belarusian language, but not by Belarusians themselves. And then everything changed all at once!”
“I don’t know how strong and lasting these relationships are going to be. It is just natural that people get tired of information overload, of too much interaction. Our rallies now seem not to gather that many participants as they used to. But much of the groundwork has already been done – we got to know each other, we are able to solve our problems and discuss issues with one another.”

“I am sure that there will be some romantic stories, too! Anyway, we all met, we talked, we cooperated and shared. And from now on, we are going to help each other as much as we can.”