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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Student Exchange Reaches out to Chechnya

Sign and Sight reports on a student exchange program that seeks to reach out a helping hand to the youngest victims of Russian oppression in Chechnya (translated from the original German):

"Man does not live by bread alone. What I missed most in the basements of Grosny, as the hail of bombs fell, were my school books, my films, and all the things that would have freed my soul from this hell." Milana Terloeva is 26 years old and Chechen. In Russia, that's a crime. And for us in France? In September of 2003, she left the rubble of Grosny and came to Paris. Three years later, she finished a journalism degree at the Institute for Political Sciences in Paris (Sciences-Po), published a wonderful book ("Danser sur les ruines, une jeunesse tchetchene" Hachette Litterature, Paris 2006) and is now getting ready to return to her homeland. Milana epitomises the success of Etudes Sans Frontieres (Studies Without Borders).

"Man does not live by bread alone." How many boys and girls have been deprived of an education by the countless wars and dictatorships that cover this planet with blood? In the face of the current threat of international terrorism, could there be a more worthy goal for Western youth than helping students from decimated countries to gain access to knowledge and culture? What undertaking could be more effective in countering these merchants of hatred who exploit the desperation of those who have been forgotten by the West? The handful of French students who grouped together in March 2003 to found Etudes Sans Frontieres had precisely this in mind: extending a hand to those who have been sent into exclusion by the insanity of human history.

They were at a demonstration against the war in Chechnya (200,000 dead in a population of one million), which drew no more than a hundred people onto the streets of Paris, and they asked themselves the obvious but nonetheless unspoken question: "What can we do to rescue young Chechens of our age?" Because foreigners are not allowed to work in Chechnya, they couldn't act locally, so they decided to adopt some Grosnian students and offer them the opportunity to study in Paris. The sceptics and "realists" laughed sadly: impossible! And yet it became reality. In September of 2003, the first generation of students supported by Etudes Sans Frontieres were taken on.

Our treasured and much missed friend Anna Politkovskaya was a believer in the project from the very beginning and understood its significance immediately. A droplet in an ocean of indifference? Nobody understood better than she the decimation of this merciless war, nobody had risked his or her life as often in order to meet the shadow-dwellers of Grosny. In her upbeat way, she said that ten, twenty, thirty or fifty students who go to Europe are equally a sign of hope for those who stay behind in the ruins. No, they are not alone in the world. No, the word Chechen had not been completely forgotten. The "ghetto" opened a crack. The murderers worked through the night, burning libraries. It's up to us to build moral bridges. The enemies of freedom murdered Anna but her fight for truth continues. For example, with the young people of Etudes Sans Frontieres, with Milana and the Chechen students who are being invited to Paris and Lille, to Rome, Montreal, Barcelona…

Chechnya was the first task that the group set for itself, and it has remained their main one so far. Rwanda came next. More young people from other countries are waiting. Should the project become financially and political secure and gain widespread acceptance, there seems no reason not to invite young people from Darfur and Iraq to our schools and universities.

A war ends when educated people are free to work on building peace. Finding a way out of a crisis involves creating a democratic balance between power and force. And this balance can be learned in inter-cultural exchange. The murdered Chechen president Aslan Maschadov (the only one to have ever been freely elected) understood this and rallied Western countries to allow Chechen students into their universities. He dreamed of liberally oriented leaders who would be capable of rebuilding a society that had been destroyed by war and annihilated by violence. The West played deaf. Chechnya remained isolated and the factions sowed further chaos. In the meantime, the Wahhabi received scholarships in countries well known for their liberalism and secularism, places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Terrorism is not just an issue for those networks that are supposed to eliminate it. It is fed by an ideology of isolation, hopelessness and hatred. And this ideology cannot be combated with military-police cooperation alone. The psychological straight jacket in which the victims of the political and social plagues of terror and isolation are constrained, must be torn apart.

There are two kinds of engagement. The first seeks to change the world according to a pre-determined dogma. The second, more modest, seeks to bandage humanity's bleeding wounds. The failure of the first must not prevent young people from applying themselves to the second. Sartre was familiar with both. Towards the end of his life, the member of the communist party who had loudly called anti-communists dogs, supported anti-Soviet dissidents as well as the Boat people who were fleeing Vietnam's communist dictatorship. He renounced dogmatism and committed himself to the principle of unconditional solidarity with those who enjoy freedom as well as those from whom it has been stolen. Etudes Sans Frontieres follows in this philosophical and practical tradition.

On November 8, 2006, the group celebrated the founding of its Italian branch at the Palazzo Farnese under the umbrella of the French ambassador Yves Aubin de La Messiziere and in the presence of the economic minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa as well as the senator and winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine Rita Levi-Montalcini. It provided a fantastic example for all of Europe. If our flourishing continent doesn't help the young victims of wars and dictatorships, then it shouldn't hope to be saved from catastrophes, in fact it can only expect more of them. No civilisation has been able to survive long in a state of wealth and peace without being overtaken at some point by the chaos of the world around it. Since 9/11, we know that problems in Kabul can have an impact on Manhattan. The centre and the periphery are inextricably bound to one another: there are no islands left in this world.

A few dozen students overcoming the general chaos is not a huge deal, but nor is it laughable. Because this is what Europe means. Voltaire ended "Candide" with these words: "Let us cultivate our garden" (Cultivons notre jardin). Many commentators linger for far too long in the garden, forgetting that the task at hand is in fact the cultivation. Cultivating means building cultural communities. In his day, this was the intention of Benedictus (whom the last Pope venerated), who founded several monasteries from his base in Monte Cassino, gentle islands of knowledge and debate where the foundation stones of our culture were preserved.

Our garden has become the world. Let us follow in the footsteps of the anti-clerical Voltaire and the Christian saints. Etudes Sans Frontieres can act as a collective movement of spiritual ecology and solidarity against the theoreticians of the culture wars. Much is being said about planetary dangers threatening our "environment" and rightly so: the over-logging of forests, global warming, endangered species. But let's not forget that the first human environment is made up of humans. And in the future, the greatest threat to humanity will remain the destruction not of nature but of culture. Of critical importance will be our ability to lend an ear to others and to try to understand.

1 comment:

La Russophobe said...

Reader Mitchell comments:

Etudes Sans Frontieres has also considered starting programs for Chechen students in the U.S., but they have been concerned about both the expense and potential visa hassles.