Riga offers a lesson in peace building
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The 'Common Ground' project, in which Latvians and Russians help Ukrainian refugees to hope for a better future, has been in action since March. Many volunteers have arrived from Russia.




Moscow (AsiaNews) - A unique project of its kind has been in operation since March in Riga, the capital of former Soviet Latvia: it's called "Common Ground", in which Latvians and Russians help Ukrainian refugees to hope for a better future. The Meduza website reported on how this 'cultural centre' works, where one can not only find food and clothing, but also listen to lectures, study the Latvian language and enjoy board games.

Before 24 February, the centre used to run the contemporary art biennale in Riga, which was cancelled this year due to the war near its borders. Journalist Irina ŠÄ¨erbakova visited the premises where the activities take place, a building that was abandoned until recently, where now everything is neat and colourful and delicious ice cream cones are distributed. The director of the Biennial, Inessa Dabola, was absolutely convinced that 'in the 21st century, all conflicts can be resolved peacefully', but from time to time she posed the question: what should we do if military actions erupt in our part of the world?

The most obvious answer was that 'I would gather my loved ones and go as far away as possible, but when Russia invaded Ukraine, I realised I wasn't going anywhere'. As she and the whole team went to work, they realised that they could no longer deal with exhibitions and exhibition materials, so Dabola started Common Ground together with two other women, the Petersburg painter Anastasia Blokhina and the orchestra conductor Ieva Irbina, preparing a place 'to be together in peace'.

Since the first days of the war, activities have been frenetic, exchanging phone numbers with groups of people evacuated from Ukraine, sending hundreds of messages on Telegram, where many asked under what conditions they could move to Latvia, one of the most open and peaceful countries in Soviet and later history, with great integration between Baltic, Slavic and other nationalities, including many Asian labour migrants. Already at the end of February, the dedicated website was opened on the Internet, and the community came to life.

The idea was to create a structure 'that would complement what the public institutions do', Blokhina explains. After the visa and document procedure and enrolment in schools and health services, 'we thought of something socio-cultural'. Inessa adds that 'this is very important, people suddenly arrive in a foreign country, with another language, even if you had the humanitarian package, then what do you do?' Common Ground renovated a century-old railway station building on Andrejostas Street, a 15-minute walk from the centre of the capital, restoring it with the help of friends and acquaintances.

On 1 March, as many as 80 people, Russians, Latvians and Ukrainians who had been living in Riga for a long time and had just arrived fleeing the war, showed up under the large windows of the ruined building. "We don't know how they knew about the place and wanted to help". Anastasia recounts that 'we did in three hours what we thought we could do in one day', and the technical director complained that his people were not yet ready to repaint everything, so someone got out brushes and paint cans and 'it felt like a miracle'.

In a fortnight, working from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., everything was properly prepared, 'we spent almost nothing', Blokhina explains, 'people brought us everything, and when we thought about plants and flowers, after two days 50 ready-made plants and arrangements arrived from the Botanical Garden'. Neighbours brought an avalanche of children's books, an elderly lady showed up with a fig tree she had grown herself on her terrace. The sofa beds arrived free of charge from a city furniture company.

Dabola explains that 'in reality it was a selfish gesture: we wanted to show ourselves stronger than the terror that was thrown at us'. Many volunteers came specially from Russia, having heard about Common Ground in the still-accessible media. Torn by guilt, but eager not to fall into apathy and depression, to try to create Common Ground together.