The kindness of strangers. That’s the point about charity, isn’t it? That you are giving to strangers, people you will never know. When you do something nice for a friend, that’s not charity, that’s friendship. But to give to strangers, that’s altogether different. Like giving blood. You give because you have something, and someone else needs it more than you do. But you never see them, you never meet them.
I was at my most politically active in the 1980s. Demonstrations against Clause 27, anti-racism demos, marches against the Poll Tax, anti-nuclear rallies, that kind of thing. I supported Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Amnesty International. A low-earner, working as an Assistant Stage Manager before the days of a minimum wage, I couldn’t send much but Amnesty International always got a few pennies. Perhaps the stark contrast between my luck being born in a healthy democratic western-European country, and the people fighting and dying for the right to education and a free vote in central-American dictatorships such as Brazil, Guatemala and El Salvador in the early 1980s struck some sort of chord. You can’t do much to help, but you can at least give financial support to the courageous staff and volunteers of Amnesty International.
Thirty years later and I still support Amnesty International. Their centres of activity have changed, mostly, but the work still places a priority on human rights – the rights to education, a vote, family life, the absence of slavery and torture, and freedom of expression. Fundamental to us, but still not available to everyone.
The other day outside a bar in Málaga with my friend G. we were having a bit of a moan. Spanish bureaucracy was causing him problems. His Canadian citizenship was making it hard for him to get his papers in order to get Spanish citizenship. “Oh it’s just a nightmare!” he exclaimed. Then he checked himself. “No, it’s not so bad” he said. “When I begin to get fed up with something, I remember that I am free and healthy, and it wasn’t always that way.” I knew bits of his history already, I knew he’d been a political activist, much more so than me. A native Spanish speaker I knew he had moved to Canada as a young adult and that it wasn’t his birthplace. I knew he’d been a political prisoner.
His ability to set aside daily obstacles is a remnant from those days. He’d been arrested many times as a youngster for organising protests against El Salvador’s right-wing dictators. He was imprisoned regularly. Later the military began to pick up everyone with views opposing the leadership, even if they weren’t protesting. Still in his teens, he was picked up off the streets one day and thrown into jail with a hundred other regular protestors. Under that regime more than 75,000 were summarily executed, many simply disappeared. In prison G. was visited regularly by Amnesty International volunteers who kept reports on the health and well-being of the political prisoners. They smuggled in cigarettes and candy. “That someone would bother to bring me candy ….” he said, his voice breaking as he remembered. “They were the bravest people you could imagine.” The existence of those reports kept the prisoners safe. The authorities were wary of pretending a prisoner had become ill and died, when the weekly reports said different.
Eventually when Amnesty International got G. released, they also put together a package of false documents and got him out of the country to the safety of Canada. Canada, avoiding the Daily Mail-type hysteria about refugees, took care of political prisoners and gave them citizenship. G. worked hard, paid his taxes, and feels an abiding love and gratitude to the country that gave him refuge. Finally settling in Spain he is back using his native tongue and feels at home, despite the frustrations of bureaucracy. “I remember that back then, each day I woke up felt like a bonus – I felt relief that they hadn’t killed me in the night.”
In the early 1980s thousands of British people like me gave what little we could to Amnesty
International, never knowing who might need their help. In the early 1980s, unbeknownst to me, my friend G. was waking up a prisoner, jailed for standing up for justice and democracy, praying for the visit from Amnesty International, praying for the day they would get him out of El Salvador to a new life. Here in Málaga, thirty years later, G. and I unravel our unexpected, bizarre, tenuous connection. Sitting together under the Spanish sunshine we share a smile, and raise our glasses to freedom, democracy, Amnesty International, and the kindness of strangers.
© Tamara Essex 2014
THIS WEEK’S LANGUAGE POINT:
I have been trying (and failing) to find a good equivalent to “I’m looking forward to it.” When you’ve made an arrangement to see someone, and you want to emphasise that you’re glad, but without going over the top. But it really doesn’t seem to exist in Spanish. Ask Google Translate or Tradukka etc and they either get too literal and think you want to say that you WILL see something in the future tense, or they offer “Tengo ganas de verte”, which is best not to use for a friend or a colleague. Some translators offer “He ansiado a verte” but that’s a bit OTT as well. In the end several Spanish friends said I just had to settle for “Nos vemos” which seems to me to be a bit factual, and doesn’t indicate that I’m, well, looking forward to seeing someone. Seems a little impersonal. Any better suggestions?