At the beginning of any refugee crisis, host communities often receive those forced to flee their homes with an open embrace and a heartwarming outpouring of sympathy and compassion. This was also the case in Romania where so many kind people came forward literally opening the doors of their homes to receive Ukrainian refugees. There was an extraordinary surge in volunteering, and the society really pulled together in a beautiful and exemplary way.
However, as months pass, especially if refugees are perceived to be receiving more resources and support than local people, it is typical that attitudes begin to shift. Divisive voices start to express resentment and empathy can be overshadowed by negative and even hostile attitudes.
Proactive planning for social cohesion
Already, in the early stages of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, in April 2022, I had a planning meeting with representatives from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to discuss the direction of AMURTEL Romania’s project that they were about to fund.
They introduced me to the concept of “social cohesion.” This is a proactive approach to build the sense of solidarity between host communities and refugees, and in a broader sense to build inclusive, resilient societies. The OECD 2012 Perspectives on Global Development: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World describes a cohesive society as one that “works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward social mobility.”
Anticipating the typical evolution of refugee crises, NRC encouraged us to already design special events that foster friendship, understanding, cultural exchange and solidarity between Romanians and Ukrainians. The impact of such events would be increased if highlighted in the mass media, thus providing an important counterbalance to negative attitudes that are likely to appear in time.
Although it was only one, relatively minor, aspect of the NRC funded “Site Management Support and Community Based Response” project for Ukrainian refugees in Romania from April 2022-February 2023, the social cohesion events we organised reached a total of 1996 participants. Two of the events in particular also appeared in the mass media, including in the Libertatea – one of the most popular national newspapers – and on several of the main Romanian news channels, including ProTV, TVR1 etc, thus impacting many more besides those that were able to attend directly.
Neohumanist solidarity to overcome in-group / out-group sentiments
In Neohumanist philosophy, Shrii P.R. Sarkar many times reiterates the need to foster universal brother and sisterhood amongst human beings, to overcome divisive tendencies and to celebrate unity in diversity. The sense of “us” vs “them”, also known as “in-group” / “out-group” thinking is generated when socio-sentiments and geo-sentiments are inflamed. Once such sentiments are whipped up, they can easily spiral out of control and lead to discrimination, persecution and conflict. To overcome the powerful and pervasive influence of such sentiments, Neohumanism proposes the cultivation of “rationalistic mentality” founded on the principle of “sama samaja tattva”, a recognition of the inherent oneness of all beings on the spiritual level. Although many people may give lip service to the idea of universal human rights, in practice, when sentiments are stirred up, it is easy to fall back into groupist patterns of protecting one’s own group’s self-interests at the expense of others. To be able to resist the overwhelming magnetic pull of divisive sentiments requires an even stronger force of conviction and sentiment.
When the experience of inner oneness moves from the level of theoretical platitude towards a deeply, personally felt realisation of truth, this gives rise to a powerful sentiment of universal love, which has the potential to become stronger than more limited sentiments. This realisation of oneness combined with the direct experience of a more expansive love then gains enough strength to resist the tides of limiting sentimental strategies.
One of the most direct ways for this experience to gain such strength is through the continuous effort of spiritual practice to attempt to align the mind with the deeper truth of unity. In Neohumanist philosophy, this dynamic effort of the mind to move towards a spiritual outlook is called “proto-psycho-spirituality“. In the meantime, creating opportunities for human beings to bridge differences and have meaningful contact where they can personally experience oneness while simultaneously appreciating differences is an important step in that direction. It is also more easily accessible for people who are not yet attracted to inner transformative practices.
Ek Manav Samaj = One Human Society
Shrii PR Sarkar actually created his own social-cohesion program called “Ek Manav Samaj”, meaning “One Human Society” that similarly aims “to promote the ideals of human unity and to build one united human society”. He envisioned this program encouraging “all factors that encourage fundamental human ties and discouraging all those factors that create fissiparous tendencies in human society.” There is also specific mention of “encouraging common festivals, common social functions and observances” as well as “encouraging one religious group of people taking an active or a leading part in another group’s social function”.
Keeping this in mind, we organised seven social cohesion events, including a concert, several craft fairs, a photography exhibition, a therapeutic story telling performance, a Christmas carol exchange and an autumn festival at our Neohumanist kindergarten in Bucharest. I will highlight two of these events as specific examples of encouraging social cohesion and Neohumanist unity building:
Social Cohesion with Ukrainians and Romanians
Autumn Festival Unites Romanian and Ukrainian parents
Late November, on an unbelievably warm, sunny clear Sunday, our Neohumanist Kindergarten in Bucharest, “Gradinita “Rasarit”, organized an Autumn Festival. Fifty-five parents and young children from both Ukraine and Romania gathered together with their young children to celebrate the harvest season and share traditions and fun together, while getting to know each other.
Dancing Romanian Hora, Singing Chernova Kalyna
The day began with an easy, festive Romanian “hora” circle dance with all of the children and parents. The Ukrainian mothers and children then sang the patriotic “Chervona Kalyna”, a touching song from the 17th century about the Red Viburnum berries, which are bent with hardship at the beginning and then rise up with new life and confidence by the end.
We then unfurled a big, rainbow-colored parachute in the middle of the circle, inviting everyone to hold onto the edges. Some children, too excited to await directions, had already eagerly run underneath the vibrant colorful undulating canopy it formed. When the parachute could finally settle all the way to the ground without giggling moving lumps, I explained that I would ask a question, and whoever it was true about, they could come under the parachute while everyone else waved it above their heads, until it settled back to the ground. It is a way to discover things that are the same and different in the group. First, all of the Ukrainian children came to the center, then the Romanians, then everyone who loves dogs, and everyone who loves cats. Then those that liked vegetables – a surprising number – but possibly because they simply loved being under the parachute. Everyone, of course, loved ice cream. Then when mothers and afterward fathers were called to the center, there was a suspiciously high number of impossibly young parents,confirming the previously mentioned hypothesis about loving vegetables.
Crafts and Gingerbread
The children then went inside to participate in workshops. The Ukrainian parents had organised a workshop frosting gingerbreads with the colors of Ukrainian and Romanian flags. The Romanian kindergarten teachers had prepared traditional autumn crafts, making layers of colorful spices in glass flasks, or gluing seeds, bark, star anise onto wooden spoons.
Mystery Shopping at the Farmers Market
The children then took turns in the role of “sellers” in our harvest farmers market which was piled high with baskets of fresh autumn vegetables and fruits. The Romanian children listened to the lists read out and repeated by Ukrainian parents and children, and then the Ukrainians took over the market and filled up bags of fruits and vegetables according to the lists that the Romanian parents tried to pronounce. It was a fun way to learn words in a practical context, and experience what it is like to navigate not only a different language but also a different script.
Festive, Memorable Experience, Building a Sense of Community
One of the Ukrainian mothers said, “Thank you so much, this was such a lovely holiday – not just for children, but also for us!” Kateryna, one of the Ukrainian volunteers was very touched, hugging Didi and expressing her thanks and delight many times throughout the day. The Romanian parents were also really pleased with the whole event and the opportunity to make new friends in such a unique way. The atmosphere was festive, friendly, and full not only of fun but also of a lot of opportunities for meaningful cultural exchange and community building.
One Hundred Ukrainians and Romanians Unite their Voices
In December, our team organised another larger social cohesion event, bringing together one hundred Ukrainians and Romanians in an exchange of Christmas Carols held at the National Music University in Bucharest. This was not an ordinary concert with performers and listeners, rather it was designed to be a sing-along. Our team had prepared a booklet with all of the songs, with not only the meanings translated, but also the words transliterated phonetically into the alphabet of the other language so that everyone would be able to sing together.
When many voices join together to sing in unison, it creates a powerful feeling of oneness, celebration, and joy. Both in Ukraine and Romania, singing carols is a favorite Christmas custom. One of the participants came to me afterwards, eyes brimming with tears, “Thank you so much, this means so much to us Ukrainian people. We were feeling sad to be far from home, we miss our also be part of Romania’s traditions too.”
When I was at the Romanian border with Ukraine at the outset of the war, we became friends with a very dedicated volunteer from the paramedic team, Bogdan Oprea. He was very active in facilitating communication between the government and NGOs, and we became close allies in that effort. He had been the spokesman for the president of Romania in the past, and is a well-known journalist and professor. He joined the exchange of carols and wrote this very eloquent Facebook post, reflecting the Neohumanist spirit that we had aimed to transmit, in his own words and language, without ever having encountered directly the philosophy of Neohumanism:
“It was an evening full of emotion, tears and a special spiritual charge at the Exchange of Romanian and Ukrainian Carols, an event organized by the beautiful people I met at the Siret border in the early days of the war in Ukraine.
We sang together ten Romanian and ten Ukrainian carols with the performers on stage thanks to the booklet received by all participants that contained the transliteration of each carol and its meaning. I think this is what made joining our voices together in a foreign language, at first timidly but as the night progressed, give us such a feeling of closeness. And not just with those in the hall, but perhaps especially with those less fortunate than us who are preparing for Christmas in loneliness, poverty or even in mourning and war.
And as if all this were not enough, the evening also had a special spiritual force because, although it was dedicated to a Christian holiday, it actually spoke in a universal language about love, about what unites us as people and about the beauty of humanity and solidarity. We saw the Buddhists [here he is referring to me and the other yogis present] in the hall singing Christian carols in Romanian and Ukrainian with us, and they did so with the same joy that proclaims the birth of the Saviour, the Light, the Dharma, or what brings everyone, in their faith, Peace and Goodness.”
It was so rewarding to see that the message of “Ek Manav Samaj” (One Human Society) and the spirit of universalism shone through our actions of honoring the spiritual traditions of others in this way. During the darkest time of the year, it was a reminder of the eternal return of Light and hope, that both Christmas and the solstice symbolize.