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Slovakia once spurned refugees. Now we're welcoming them.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — When I read the news in the American press about what was happening in Ukraine, or talk to my friends in Western Europe, I can always tell that despite the shock and horror we share, they’re detached from what’s going on. The war is dangerous and anything can happen, but it’s a war in a distant place. 

That’s not how we feel about it here in Slovakia. We’re constantly being assured by our leaders that NATO will protect the countries on its eastern flank, but that’s not always as heartening as they intend it to be. Shortly after the invasion, there was panic. First people started inquiring about the nearest shelters (there aren’t enough, and they’re in desperate condition), then they made a run at the passport offices, and then some even started buying iodine pills in the hope they would protect them from a nuclear attack.  

While I find it very heartwarming that so many of my fellow Slovaks are welcoming now, I’m aware that it’s likely not going to last.

That panic now seems to be over, but there’s still a lot of background fear we’re living with. My kids come home from school asking me all kinds of questions I never expected to have to answer, and it’s terrifying. And while the bullets and bombs might not be crossing into Slovakia, thousands of Ukrainian refugees are. For Slovakia, a country of some 5.4 million inhabitants that shares a border with Ukraine, it is the refugees who have brought the war home. In many cases into people’s literal homes.

So far, more than 62,000 people have asked for temporary protection, a special asylum regimen for Ukrainians that makes it easier for them to have access to health care, the education system and the labor market. Ukrainians can also enter Slovakia without a visa for 90 days. Many are here “visiting” their relatives, as there was already a large Ukrainian community in Slovakia before the war. 

For those who don’t have acquaintances here, local residents have stepped up. One of them is my brother. For nearly a week, he and his wife hosted a Ukrainian woman, Vita, and her three children, ages 15, 10 and 5. Vita arrived by train from Bratislava late one night. Her husband had to stay behind for the war effort. But she decided to flee with her children after three weeks of hiding in their basement in Kharkiv while the Russians shelled the eastern Ukrainian city. It took them three days to cross Ukraine while avoiding Russian tanks, reach the Slovak border and then travel by train all the way to the capital. When they arrived at the train station’s information point for refugees, a volunteer picked my brother’s phone number from the list of people offering shelter in their own homes.

Businesses stepped up, too. I’m in contact with a hotel in the city near me, Trnava, that started housing refugees and has now built a whole organization around it complete with rooms, food, even a space for online classes — some kids still have classes with teachers who are in the war zones in Ukraine! Meanwhile, a group of volunteers searches for homes, organizes transfers, helps people register with the immigration authorities, search for jobs and more. 

For all the Slovaks involved, this chain of events would have seemed like sheer fiction only a few weeks earlier. Now, thousands of families have a tale like my brother’s to share. Amid the anger and the terror of the war, a wave of compassion and solidarity has washed over my country and changed it.

In 2015, Slovakia was among the E.U. member states that rejected the redistribution of refugees from the Middle East and Africa around the E.U to alleviate the burden overwhelming Mediterranean countries. When Slovakia was assigned to take in 802 asylum-seekers who had arrived in Italy and Greece, the country sued the E.U. 

After the Russian invasion, Slovakia has finally understood what it means to be a good neighbor and applied an open-door policy. It’s a declaration echoed in every speech of every member of the government, and it stands in sharp contrast to what politicians across the ideological spectrum were saying seven years ago.

What has changed? The most straightforward answer is that the Ukrainians are “people like us,” which prompts Slovaks to help them more than they would ever dream of helping, say, Syrians. But it’s clear the change of heart also goes beyond the issue of racism, in part because negative attitudes toward Ukrainians have themselves undergone some alteration.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukrainians were mostly perceived as seasonal workers in automotive plants, agriculture or construction. Now Slovaks have a chance to get to know them. Many have new Ukrainian colleagues and their children have Ukrainian classmates, and they are finding common ground and overlooking some of the differences they disparaged before. 

The outpouring of assistance is also helped by the way Ukraine evokes our own history. For one, there is the persistent, if somewhat inaccurate, memory of ”Russian tanks,” a reference that stands for Soviet-allied nations’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the country that Slovakia was a part of during the Cold War. The invasion, which was carried out by more than just Russian forces, ended the Prague Spring democratization movement and cemented the power of the totalitarian regime here for another two decades, prompting tens of thousands of people to flee their homeland.

Most important, when Slovaks see the videos of shelled Ukrainian cities, the neighborhoods with destroyed communist-era prefabricated apartment buildings looking exactly the same as their own, when they see the kids crossing the border wearing clothes from the same retail chains, they cannot help but think: “It could be us.”

But while I find it very heartwarming that so many of my fellow Slovaks are welcoming now, I’m aware that it’s likely not going to last. The darker forces in society are already hard at work. Disinformation outlets, internet trolls and the far right have swiftly recovered from the initial shock of the invasion. Refugees, and the efforts to help them, are one of the main targets of the propaganda. Vitriolic articles and Facebook posts that depict refugees as criminals are sprinkled with various versions of “What about helping Slovaks first?”

Whatever dangers are lurking, though, the experience of the past few weeks has the potential to give a long-lasting boost to Slovakia’s burgeoning civil society. Being a good citizen now means offering tangible, practical help. Most people who are aiding the refugees now had never done anything like that before, had probably never even met a refugee. They didn’t know they had it in them, but now that they do know, they will never be the same people they were before.

Indeed, the whole country will never be the same. Now we know we are capable of a communal effort that goes beyond ourselves. The challenge for the country is to turn this into a story that we can build our collective identity on. This, too, is who we are.

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