LATVIA: Interview with “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem” (“I want to help refugees”)

Read our Interview with Linda Jākobsone-Gavala, Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem” (“I want to help refugees”), one of the four laureates from the Civic Pride Awards 2023. 

Could you please introduce yourself and your organisation, and tell us how it started? 

We started in 2015 and we call ourselves a movement because we started as a movement. It started with a Facebook post by a businessman from Riga who saw that more and more people were arriving in Latvia and the institutions were not ready for that. These people had a lot of simple issues, not even on a systemic level, but with clothes, food, language, and many others. This businessman made a post on a Facebook group saying that if someone has food or clothes to share, then they can bring it to his shop. So that’s how it started. This Facebook group still exists and is a closed group for many reasons: so that people are able to express what they think and share the needs that they actually have.  

Personally, I joined a bit later as a volunteer and I was a volunteer up till February last year (2022) working mainly with communications.  

There were more or less 3000 people who were active between 2015 or 2016 up to the beginning of last year mainly through the Facebook group. At one point we realised that to be transparent and to attract funding, we needed to become a legal body and we created the organisation.  

What pushed you to get involved and to volunteer in the first place? And where do the refugees come from that you help? 

It’s similar to everywhere else in the European Union—we faced the exact same thing in 2015 and 2016 as other countries, but because of a variety of reasons Latvia is not the common destination for many people to come.  

In that period, the so-called “quotas” were decided by the European Commission about the share of people each country had to take in, and we did that. However, the majority of those people left soon after their arrival as there wasn’t a system for integration in place for them to stay in Latvia long term.  

That was not the only reason. Many people also wanted to go where the communities of their national countries are bigger, to unite with their family, or leave because of other reasons. Over the last decade, Latvia has not been a place where many refugees would go. Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we saw people coming from Belarus. Since last February, we have seen, not only in Latvia but, in the EU in general, the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. In Latvia, we have reached a point where refugees now make up more than 2% of our population. For my country, that’s a big number because we have very little experience in this. This was why the participation of active citizens in helping to receive people was so important because without this effort, it would have been impossible.  

I joined in 2015 because this was an important issue to me: I think that the people who desperately need help, have to be helped because they have nothing. Often, we are asked, “why don’t you help all the people in Latvia because they’re also in need?”.  

Unfortunately, we are not the richest country and we cannot pride ourselves on having an amazing welfare system and other things. At the same time, people in Latvia have their social networks so they know somebody to go to when they are in need, they know the language, and they know how the system works. The people who come here and ask for help have none of this. With the people coming from Ukraine, it’s a little bit different because there is a common language as many people here speak or have learned Russian. For example, I had to learn Russian in school and can use it as a language to communicate with the people from Ukraine.  

However, with some of the people who came in 2015 and 2016, we didn’t know the languages they spoke. Whether that was Arabic, Farsi or any other.  

To give you the perspective of what has happened with the organisation: last January there were only two people working in it. Now we have more or less 20 employees—that is how fast and how big the organisation has grown in order to help more people. It has also grown in a way that we do things on a systematic scale, not only on an individual level—the way we were mostly working before.  

What is the situation for refugees and asylum seekers in Latvia? What works and what doesn’t work? Is there a double standard of treatment with some nationalities compared to others? 

What we have seen with Ukrainians has somewhat surprised even ourselves. I wouldn’t say that Latvia is a closed community or society, but in general, it is not that open either. If anyone has visited Latvia, they probably know that it takes a long time to make friends. But, once you make friends, you are very close. 

On 24 February 2022, it was clear to everybody that they had to chip in, or at least that many people should open their houses. That for us is something that we hadn’t experienced before, but it was something that we had to help organise so that it wouldn’t be chaotic. That’s where our network came in, but I’ll expand more on that later. For the government and Parliament, it was clear immediately that we would do whatever we can to help the people coming and to stand for Ukraine to win. We have been working on a governmental level and Ukrainian refugees or Ukrainian citizens have basically had the same rights as Latvian citizens. Obviously with some exceptions, but for example, healthcare, education, access to services and many other things are exactly the same for them as for the locals. Even now, a year and a half into this, these conditions and rights are the same. 

For other asylum seekers or refugees, or the people with what we call an “alternative status”, there is not so much help or access to services, or there are more delays with these things, compared to how it is for the Ukrainian refugees. This is one of the directions that we are advocating for: the level of help and rights given to the Ukrainians should also be given to other refugees. They should be provided with more help. 

Last but not least, our organisation is also advocating for the fact that the people who need to apply for asylum, have the right to apply for asylum, and that the pushbacks that people are facing now doesn’t allow people to exercise that right.  

Can you tell us more about the pushbacks observed on the border with Belarus and about the state of emergency? 

Yes, the situation developed two years ago. As an organisation, we have been advocating very strongly that the human rights issues and the legal perspectives from both the UN conventions and the European Union have to be taken into account. We have been helping people who have been admitted to the country and who have had serious health and mental issues after spending time between the two borders, one can say. It is completely unacceptable that minors and other vulnerable groups are also subjected to this kind of treatment, and it doesn’t matter if it is in winter, summer, spring, or autumn. The weather conditions are only one thing that are influencing the situation, but they shouldn’t be stuck somewhere on the border, and let’s face it, on the border of the European Union. 

What would you say are the major victories and impacts achieved by your organisation? 

I myself work more with the Ukrainian issue and, as I said, I joined full-time last year in February.   

It was a coincidence that we had already planned the first coordination meeting with other NGOs on 24 February last year. The situation was already escalating, and we had had conversations with other NGOs that it’s to be better safe than sorry, so we need to be ready even if nothing happens. So, we had scheduled a meeting the morning of the 24th of February, but when we woke up the situation had changed and we had to start the conversation right away. It was with our experience in working with refugees and with some systemic issues that made it clear that we will be the ones coordinating the network for the others. We don’t have any formal agreements, neither with government institutions, municipalities, nor with other NGOs. We work with more or less 25 NGOs, some of them are also umbrella NGOs, so we’re also working with the NGOs in their network. In the beginning, we were meeting on daily basis several times a day to coordinate our actions better. We still meet weekly to discuss issues. Depending on what is happening, sometimes the meeting is an hour long and other times it’s only 15 minutes.  

In the first days, as I said, everybody wanted to help in the best that they could. I guess it was a little bit chaotic because people didn’t know how to help exactly. Some people wanted to go to the borders with their cars but in some cases it was counterproductive, because it blocked the roads.  

Straight away, we created a questionnaire. In one form, people who wanted to help could put down the ways they could help. That applied to volunteers, for the people with the cars, who could go and pick somebody up, and for enterprises that could donate something. In another form, we had a questionnaire for people who needed help. Either with transportation or anything else. In the beginning, people needed a lot of help with transportation, and we calculated that with the help of volunteers over this period of time we helped more than 2000 people to get to Latvia. In addition, with the cooperation from bus companies and from the donations, we were able to help another 2000 people. The second thing that we realised was that there was a vacuum of information about the situation. So, in cooperation with the organisation “Tech Chill”, we created a website that had the two questionnaires mentioned above, but also contained basic information, like, the things you need or don’t need to cross the border and other steps. All of this had already happened by the 27 February, and today the website is still running. However, after a couple of months, “Tech Chill”, which is an IT organisation, didn’t have the resources to run it content wise anymore. Therefore, we took it over and it is still run predominantly by volunteers and the content is created by our organisation. To this day, it remains the informational website that our government uses and promotes. The government doesn’t have its own website with information for people coming from Ukraine, so up to now it has been relying on our volunteer efforts. 

As far as my knowledge goes, we are the only country in the EU that still has this system in place. The website is in four languages, and during the first year, it was quite popular and was visited one million times. I think that one can say that it did provide and still provides the information people are looking for. It has information on different aspects of life in Latvia because there are many different things from Ukraine to Latvia that one needs to know about, such as, changing a vehicle plate, going to school, applying for social benefits, and more. Whatever it is, you can find it on our website.  

Besides organising the volunteer work, transportation, and the informational website, we also tried to coordinate on the advocacy side. We are the organisation that represents NGOs on all levels of decision-making. Even though we don’t have a formal agreement with the other NGOs, that’s what we’re doing. There is an operational level meeting which is called Operational Management Meeting in Latvia that is led by the Ministry of Interior and consists of all responsible ministries. We have the same opportunity to bring up or comment on issues there as everybody else present. Of course, on a different level, but we still have that opportunity and have never been declined to have make a statement in these meetings We are the only organisation there from the NGO side, so from the civil society perspective and the government perspective, we had the capacity to accumulate the knowledge. So, how do we accumulate the knowledge? In addition to collecting information from other NGOs, we have our own information centre in the so called Riga Refugee Assistance Centre. Riga, our capital, has taken more or less half of all the refugees in the country and this Information Centre is in the assistance centre that has been provided by the municipality. It has a lot of state run institutions and municipal institutions so people can find everything in one place.  

We have been there since 4 March 2022 to provide information on the assistance that can be provided by NGOs. If somebody comes and no state-run institution is helping them, we would provide information, which was very practical to have in the beginning. Now, we also provide information about leisure activities and language classes, and we coordinate with other NGOs to provide that information. We also learn more about what is going on with the Ukrainian refugee population in the country by visiting accommodation centres for Ukrainian refugees around Latvia. We have a good network of people working at the centres, so we can also get information from them. As I said, this is something that is new for Latvia, because before, with some exceptions, asylum seekers and refugees were predominantly in or close to Riga. Now, they are all over the country. We have 43 municipalities, and 43 municipalities now have refugees, which is new for us. So, this is how we coordinate and how we know what is actually happening, and this is how we can bring up the issues systematically up to the government level.  

There are two more things that I want to say. One is about our advocacy work. In the beginning, it was clear that we have to work together with the government, municipalities, businesses, and other NGOs, otherwise, we cannot pull it off. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that we’re not addressing the government when we see that things have to be improved, changed, or done differently. So, we have kept a very strong stance in that regard. Another thing that I would like to mention is about coordination issues that we have been trying to solve with other NGOs. We realised that some people were looking for basic things but did not know where to find them or even in which city. So, we decided to create this map, which currently has information on 145 assistance points in the whole country. If, for example, you live in the city of Ogre, you can look at what assistance is available in Ogre or if you need to travel to another city for assistance. We are still coordinating together with other NGOs, and I have to say that we have been lucky that we have been trusted by other NGOs. Trust in giving us access to information and trust that we can pull it together in a format that works for everybody. 

It is so impressive to hear about the solidarity towards Ukrainians. You also mentioned in the beginning that it has been more difficult towards other nationalities. Has the increased solidarity towards Ukrainians spilled over to increased solidarity towards all asylum seekers and refugees? 

I would say that there’s more understanding now, but I can’t say that we can necessarily see changes in a systemic approach or even on a personal approach. But I think that we can say that gradually there is a greater understanding of the needs of those people. Otherwise, we still have a long way to go. 

How do you manage to get so many volunteers and people, in general, involved in this cause? 

In general, many people have been involved by donating. I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that everybody wanted to do something. Then it became important to help people find the best way to do it or have it in an organised way so that it would be easier for people to provide help, which is what we did. 

I mentioned the transportation issue, but there have been many other issues, such as the housing issue. A lot of people, especially in the beginning, opened their doors. We ourselves have not been doing that much in that field because we are not a humanitarian assistance organisation so we don’t, for example, gather donations ourselves, neither to send to Ukraine nor to distribute here in Latvia as this is done by other organisations. What we can do is to provide the people with the information on ways to assist. One example of this was starting the map of assistance points which we developed for people who looked for assistance, but also for those who wanted to donate.  

When we started the map, it was in four languages, Latvian, Ukrainian, English and Russian. Later on, we saw that the conditions this last winter were also quite harsh on Latvians, so we promoted the map through the social services of different municipalities so that it isn’t only seen as a Ukrainian map, but as a map to help everybody. From that point we worked more on the map and it is now accessible in six languages—we realised that there are some asylum-seekers and refugees, who do not speak neither of the four languages that I mentioned before, so now the map is also an Arabic and in Dari.  

This is something that we also worked on: how to make things sustainable and how to make them inclusive for all groups. To go back to the previous question, I think that this is one of the things that we are most proud of, that we have managed to build stronger relationships with other organisations, but also to make things self-sustainable in a way. 

You spoke about trust with other NGOs but what about trust with the Latvian government and authorities? What is your relationship with them? Are they supportive or do they accept any critical views?  

This is not an easy relationship. In some ways we work very closely together as there are some instances when we get calls from the border guards asking for some practical assistance. Whenever we can, we try to help.  

But on the other hand, there are some things that we are very critical about. We go to demonstrations, we speak openly about the things that we do not agree with, we go to government and Parliament committee meetings, and we express our opinions strongly. Additionally, we write a lot of letters to them and to the Members of the Cabinet to explain our stance. So, I think that the question is what is it that we want to reach, where should we go together with the government institutions, and where can we simply see that what they are doing is in agreement or is not in the way how we go about the civic rights, human rights, or whatever the issue would be.  

I want to bring up another example. It is not directly linked to this conversation, but this happened a couple of days ago in Latvia and it is an example which shows what we have learned over the last year and a half. “I want to help refugees” has not been a close cooperation partner with the government on many issues because we have been extremely critical of them up to the last year. We have been probably one of the most critical NGOs in many ways, at least in the questions related to the policies that we have been following. The situation in the world is changing, there is no going back to what it was. So, we have to look at some of the learnings and one of the issues that has not been discussed enough in Latvia, in my opinion, is civic protection. 

Two days ago, there was a huge storm in one part of Latvia, and it was the one of the biggest storms that we have ever had. It was short and luckily almost no people were injured, but in this particular region, it was extremely critical and damaging not only to crops, but to houses, windows and roofs. To our knowledge, for “I want to help refugees” there were no asylum seekers or refugees involved.  

During the last year and a half, we have learned a lot about civic protection and the power of civil society. So, we called the State Rescue Service and said that the least we can do is pull together information from the municipalities that have been affected, ask them if they need any volunteer help, and post it on social media. We did this in less than 24 hours. We posted it on social media and it was taken on by the news.  

This shows that even if we work with refugee issues, we can do other things—we are not limited. Because we have worked, in what could be called a crisis situation, we have learned a lot. In addition, we want to show that this is what we can do more of in the future. Not only continuing with the issues that we have been working on so far, but that we can also be a good partner in many other ways to the government on several issues. 

I think that seeing how civil society was able to mobilise and reach people is also something that we very clearly saw during COVID. Our last question is what are your hopes for the future and your vision for a better society? 

If I can make a comment on COVID, it was obviously very tragic for many people, but it also brought some learning experiences. For example, in the ways that we can use Zoom to communicate and do work despite distance, but also in the ways in which we can cooperate better. Now, with the full-scale invasion in Ukraine, we also learned a lot about us as humans, as organisations, as countries, and as the European Union. In the future we should learn how to use these lessons better. To write them down to think about them, to discuss them. Of course, over the last year, it was impossible to think about anything additional. Sometimes people ask me how they do it in Estonia, and I don’t even know how they did it. We were so overwhelmed with what was happening here that we didn’t have time to think about anything else.  

Now I think we are at the stage where we should think about how to take these lessons forward and that is very much related to civic protection and trust in the other NGOs. More specifically: how to share information, show that we’re not competitors, and how to work better, together.  

Similarly to businesses, NGOs are not always very good in finding good ways on how to cooperate with businesses. Sometimes they do have very divergent views, but other times, they can have very similar points of view and work very well together.  

Also, I would expect and hope that we will learn how to accept and include our differences better, learn that these differences are not an enemy, and that we can do things better, if we do things together.  

I hope that the victory of Ukraine is very close and that the people can return home. For the ones who want to stay, I hope that they will find a way to stay in Latvia also because it is clear that some people have already found their new homes here. This is something else that we have to take into account in our work, to help people move in that direction if that is something that they envisage for themselves. So unfortunately, there is a lot of work ahead of us. But I also think that we are on a good path in the sense that we have learned a lot, and we are also getting better in organising ourselves.  

Find out more about the Civic Pride campaign here!  

Read more about “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem” here!