Have respect for other cultures, you may even learn something

We sometimes write people off because they speak a foreign language, or they look different, so says Trevor Laffan in his weekly column, as he reflects on his charity trips to Belarus
Have respect for other cultures, you may even learn something
Trevor Laffan and stefan, one of the many adorable children in the orphanage in Belarus.

MANY years ago, I was in Belarus doing some work on behalf of the Chernobyl Children’s Trust.

Back then, I was a regular visitor to that part of the world and one thing I learned is that dealing with officialdom over there is a unique experience and it takes a while to get used to the bureaucracy.

You have to go through it to fully appreciate what it’s like, but it helps if you consider their history and where they’ve come from.

They got their training from the old Soviet Union, so they love forms. The smallest transaction will involve a ton of paperwork, a bit of shouting, lots of banging of official stamps and a lifetime of waiting around.

In the early days, when we were bringing out humanitarian aid convoys, we must have destroyed several forests to generate the volume of paperwork that was required to travel with us. Every truck, ambulance and van had to have a mountain of documentation for the customs officials.

Exact details of the trucks, certificates of insurance, tax, certificates of roadworthiness, proof of ownership, details of cargo, itemised manifest of goods... all had to be provided. Individual certificates were required for some goods, especially food stuffs but also for medical supplies including the likes of crutches and walking aids.

In many cases, we were dealing with items that were donated so this certification wasn’t always available. This regularly created problems because every single item would be examined by customs officials, either at the point of entry into the country or at subsequent checks when the items were being unloaded into hospitals, orphanages or day-care centres. It wasn’t easy.

There was as much paperwork again required for every individual making the journey. Personal details of the drivers and volunteers, including passports, visas, driver licences, Garda clearance and reams of health insurance and medical certs, added to the pile.

Multiply that by thirty or forty vehicles and seventy or eighty people, depending on the number of vehicles in the convoy, and we ended up with a shed load of paper.

Entering Belarus from Poland presented the first real hurdle. Just trying to get into the country was complicated and we often spent a couple of days there trying to get everybody cleared.

Once clearance was given, we were then allowed to go on our way, but we were only given three days to travel the country and deliver the aid.

This process was frustrating for everybody, but particularly for the new volunteers. They couldn’t understand it and no matter how often we explained it prior to leaving Ireland, seeing it in action was soul- destroying.

The fact that we were all in Belarus for the benefit of their own people didn’t seem to make too much difference to the officials and they didn’t ease our passage any.

In each town and village where aid was being delivered, there were local customs to be navigated. It was always a slow, tedious and frustrating process but it had to be done and it was at one of these customs posts that I had an unusual experience.

It was a customs post like any other and, as usual, it was crowded with truck drivers who all wanted to get their paperwork cleared.

These places were usually old buildings that weren’t designed for comfort and they tended to be hot and poorly ventilated. Tempers were often short and stress levels were generally on the high side.

A Belarussian driver approached one of our interpreters and explained that he had a problem with his truck. He had seen us pulling up earlier and he figured that we might be able to help him.

We always travelled with a mechanic, so I called him and asked if he’d take a look and it wasn’t long before he had the problem sorted.

By the time the Belarussian driver returned to the office, it had become full to overflowing. We were all shoulder to shoulder and there was a bit of jostling going on. I was standing just inside the door and I was making slow progress.

When the driver saw me, he started chatting away in Russian and then stepped into the already crowded room. There was no space for him, but he squeezed in anyway and stood in front of me until we were almost touching noses. Then he shook my hand vigorously and stepped back into the hallway. I decided at that stage, that he was a bit unhinged and I just wanted him to go away.

As soon as he was gone, an interpreter explained to me what had happened. The driver was very grateful for the assistance and he wanted to thank me for helping him. There was a door saddle between the two of us which he saw as a barrier. The kind of thing you see under the door as you go from one room to another.

Because it is considered bad manners in that part of the world to shake hands over a barrier, he stepped over the saddle and squeezed himself into the room to avoid insulting me by shaking hands over the barrier.

This guy probably realised that he was going to look like a bit of an idiot for behaving like that, but he was more concerned about my feelings than his own.

He was determined to thank me, and to hell with the consequences for him. That made me feel a little guilty and I wanted to run after him and give him a hug.

We sometimes write people off because they speak a foreign language, or they look different. Anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be gathering momentum too, but we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn others.

They might even teach us a few things.

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