Source : Google photo of xenophobia in South Africa
Synopsis : Xenophobia is the baseless fear of other people who are not like you but it can be overcome with knowledge and understanding of others and their culture. Xenophobia is a crime against humanity.
I had a very interesting experience in Sicily once when I walked into a campsite by mistake near Messina that was for the Italians. Naturally they were surprised to see an Indian like me with a back pack just walk in so it was a first for them. They had never seen a real Indian up close. The children were the most curious and they swarmed around me and started chattering in Italian which I do not speak so all I could say was non parlare italiano but it did not stop them.
I noticed that there were a lot of kids of various ages starting from very young to may be a few in their teens who looked at me curiously while their mothers and grandmothers kept an eye on them and sweetly smiled at me. There were no adult males that I could see anywhere so I figured it was a baby-sitting camp for the kids while their fathers went somewhere to soak up the night life or play with their steel balls.
I also noticed that they were extremely friendly and they all wanted to know all about me which was hard for me to explain but finally a teenage girl of about 12 or 13 years of age came forward and shyly said that she spoke a bit of English and could be of some assistance so I was greatly relieved because my Italian was going nowhere.
Once they learned that I was really an Indian from India and not a tribe found in the Amazon, their curiosity peaked because none had ever travelled anywhere and had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about another country so it was a very first for them. I also noticed that they needed attention which was in short supply because the mothers and the grandmothers were busy chatting or doing other things.
So an idea came to me and I thought I could teach these kids a new game that was simple to learn and play. I explained to the teenager that this game was very simple. First we should all join hands and form a circle and then sit down on the ground. She explained this to the kids in rapid fire Italian so their eyes sparkled in excitement not knowing what will come next.
After they all sat down, I got a handkerchief and placed it secretly behind one unsuspecting kid and continued to circle them until I came to the kid, picked up the hand kerchief and hit him with it signaling that he was out of the game. If the kid found the kerchief before I could reach him, I was out of the game and he continued running behind the kids and placed the kerchief somewhere.
Now the kids understood the basics and were thoroughly excited so the game continued to the cheer of everybody. Now the kids understood that they were not supposed to look behind them to find the kerchief but no one told them that they could not feel so everyone started to feel behind them if there was a hand kerchief.
The game was fun and hilarious so the kids enjoyed it tremendously. The women looked on and smiled and one of them asked me to take off my shirt so I was a bit surprised but took it off and gave it to her. She had noticed a few missing buttons in my shirt so she brought out her sewing kit and put on new buttons for me very lovingly.
I was totally amazed at their friendliness and so welcoming nature. Needless to say I had never experienced such welcome in any foreign country except in Japan and in the United States. I should also include Algeria.
But the kids were not finished with me and asked me to play with them more but I did not have the unlimited energy of kids so I sat down under a tree in an easy chair and closed my eyes for a minute or so. Now the kids brought all kinds of food from their tents and started to stuff it into my mouth. Someone put cheese in my mouth while others put grapes or other things. I mean there was this tussle among them to feed me.
Finally it was time for me to move on so I got up and said good bye. Now the kids started to shed copious tears and pleaded for me to stay because they had opened their heart to me and would not let me go. Believe me when I say that it was very hard for me to leave so I left with a heavy heart and still remember their tearful faces. When they knew that I had to go, they all started to kiss my cheek one by one.
I had to tell you this story here because my topic is Xenophobia or fear of strangers that I saw in many countries during my years of travel. It is perhaps the human nature that we are afraid of the unknown and are fearful of what the unknown may portend. You may be afraid to explore an unexplored cave deep underground not knowing the dangers that may lurk there. You may be afraid to try a new kind of food or a drink you never had before. You may be afraid of heights or haunted places.
But these are normal fears we all experience sometime or other. Xenophobia is the fear of people that is the strangest of all because it is not only based on ignorance; it is often deeply rooted in the culture where you come from. Xenophobia is based on a deep sense of malaise about strangers who are very different from you and who represent someone whom you had no previous experience with.
But those Italian kids were not xenophobic at all so they were very friendly to me and shed tears when I left. The older women accepted me with a smile and repaired my missing buttons. What then makes people xenophobic in some countries?
I used to think that the language barrier is a hurdle we all face when we travel abroad but those kids loved me even if I did not speak their language because I taught them a new game and played with them. So language is not necessarily a barrier as I learned in Japan.
The adults are far more complicated than the kids because at a certain age, the kids are very innocent but the adults are not so they start forming their own opinions about strangers and absorb all the negativity they receive from their friends and relatives who are xenophobic.
This is the dark side of us all that some politicians exploit to gain an audience and their support to gain a few votes. Hitler could put a huge crowd into frenzy while shouting from his podium reading from Mein Kampf who would then go on a rampage through the Jewish quarters and maul them physically. This was an extreme example of Xenophobia.
Remember the pogroms in Russia in the movie Fiddler on the roof? That was xenophobia. Often it is related to religious intolerance so Hitler said that the Jews were bad because they were not Christians so they should be literally eliminated but when the Khmer Rouge killed their own people in Cambodia in 1974, what do you call it?
It is also xenophobia based on political ideology so there are many kinds of xenophobia. I gave the example of the Italian children who were innocent and had no knowledge of racism or xenophobia but later in their life who can tell what they would become? The Italians supported Mussolini who persecuted Jews in Italy and was in cahoots with Hitler.
I have written about people in many countries where they treated me well and were friendly and in others not so friendly. When someone exploits this fear in people of others to gain political advantage like Hitler and makes people xenophobic then the result can only be catastrophic as the history teaches us.
What surprises me the most about people is that this fear of people is baseless because it is based on certain assumptions that are false. People may be different from you and me but that does not make them inferior to us in any way.
I will mention a tragic example of xenophobia in India that some Moslem politician stoked to create a Moslem state of Pakistan where he would be the President. This led to a massacre of hundreds of thousands of people both Hindus and Moslems during the partition of India in 1947 because someone sowed the seed of this hatred among them using religion as the basis for political gains.
Interestingly the Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs and Christians all fought together under the banner of the Indian national Army led by Netaji Bose who became the first Prime Minister of Independent India in 1944. That independence did not last but people of all religions fought as one under Bose whom they all revered. There was no hatred between them because Bose said that we are all Indians first.
Now some politicians are at the dirty game once again and are trying to sow the seed of hatred and intolerance for the immigrants among their rabid supporters who are bent on taking xenophobia to the next level. You will see the resurgence of xenophobia in some parts of Europe where the skin heads routinely beat up African migrants or war refugees because they do not want them.
The migrant caravans of thousands of South and Central Americans pressing against the barbed wire fence of the United States are greeted with tear gas and water cannons because they do not want them. It does not matter if there are women, children and people in wheel chairs seeking asylum because they are fleeing their homeland due to persecution and violence. They are met with violence at the border because of xenophobia.
The Moslem villagers are killed and their villages are burned to the ground by the mobs in Myanmar because of xenophobia. The UN estimates the number of refugees fleeing their homeland due to war and persecution in millions who have nowhere to go. Nobody wants them.
I always write that the ignorance based fear of other people can be remedied through education but who is to provide that education to people who have made up their mind? Who is to bring knowledge about other people to them and show them that all people are wonderful? I have written many blogs about the Africans to show how wonderful they are and how wonderful their culture and traditions are.
To give up your fear of others, you have to learn about them. You will find that such fears are baseless. I have lived and worked in many Moslem countries where I found them so nice to me. Their mind was not poisoned by the politicians there about me being a Hindu so they welcomed me and invited me to their festivals, to their homes and showered their hospitality on me but sadly such things could not happen in my own country.
Once I was on my way to Mascara in the Mostaganem province of Algeria when the rains came soaking me thoroughly so I sought shelter under an awning near the road. A couple invited me to their home and offered me hot coffee and later food because they saw that I was getting wet. It did not matter to them that I was a Hindu and they were Moslems. We were just people. I was overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality although I was a stranger to them.
So the key is to remember that we are all human beings and respond to kindness and generosity. It is the human nature to smile when someone smiles at you even if you do not know that person. That show of kindness and smile breaks down all barriers so you gain a new friend.
When we remember that after all we are all brothers and sisters, it goes a long way to overcome the initial fear that leads to xenophobia so smile at a stranger, give him or her a helping hand, show your generosity by offering food and drinks . You will be pleasantly surprised at the results.
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