New York, where a heart gets wide open (remembering 9/11)

9-11 memorial

My article about travelling to New York and visiting 9/11 memorial was published on Finding Philothea, and I want to share it here with you as well.

Traveling helps me to get to know another piece of earth, with its beauty and its challenges. Earlier this year in April I visited New York for the first time. I was looking forward to a short holiday and to reconnect with a friend who lives there. Looking back, there were so many highlights that each day was a little lifetime in itself.

I traveled there during Holy Week, so while this big city was impressing me at almost every step, there was another layer that accompanied me over the five days.

I live in Dublin, Ireland, which is small compared to New York. The population of New York City is a little less than Ireland and my native Croatia combined. I’m talking about two countries that would fit into one city. Everything seemed BIG. My hotel room was on the 12th floor, with a view that stretched itself as the sun set over the horizon of tall buildings. I felt so little in New York, but not insignificant. I wanted to learn, I wanted to explore, I wanted to know more about the history of America, I wanted to see the sights, learn about its buildings, its art, its people. The city evoked a thirst I did not even know I had. This city is alive and it increased my own thirst for life and knowledge.

The first evening I went to Broadway. Being tired from a transatlantic flight did not stop me from enjoying the show, “The Great Comet of 1812,” starring my favorite singer, Josh Groban. There were parts in the show when my heart almost exploded wide opened with the powerful singing, and a story that touches one’s depths. Earlier that day my mum told me she baked lots of cakes for Easter, teasing me in a way because I wouldn’t be home with them. “Well, I’ll be in Broadway tonight. I think I’ll be alright.” My friend Christine organized this evening, and while we already have some wonderful shared memories of listening to Josh Groban live, it never gets old to create new ones.

Imperial Theatre, Broadway

However, that was not the only time that New York knocked my heart wide open. I was hoping to visit the September 11th memorial on Good Friday, thinking it would correspond well by bringing the pain of that memory to Jesus as we remember His death. But that day turned out differently, so I had to postpone it until Holy Saturday instead. It was just me that morning trying to find my way from the hotel into the city. It was supposed to be easy, taking a train from my stop all the way to the World Trace Centre. Yet, as it turned out, that train wasn’t running that day, so I had a full-blown New York experience of trying to navigate my way on the Subway. Soon I learned that this was a city below a city. People were helpful and kind. Half of the time they gave me correct directions, while the other half they were well-meaning and friendly but unfortunately their instructions were wrong. After some time I started longing for some daylight and I felt a great sense of achievement when I finally arrived at the World Trade Centre.

Leaving the station, I followed the signs to the 9/11 memorial. Just before the memorial I saw a street sign indicating ‘One way,’ and thought to myself, terrorism is really a one way street. No good comes out of it.

One way-NY

I did not know what to expect. I felt reverence coming to where the Towers were, walking slowly. A lot of people were there and yet it wasn’t noisy but rather solemn, perhaps even calm. And then, sadness overtook me. I simply wanted to cry. There were no words in my head that triggered this reaction. The memorial is dignified and it actually evokes healing. The foundation of the first Tower that I approached goes into the depths, and water gently washes it, like a fountain running deeper into it. Names written on the walls of the foundation gave victims dignity, each name remembered. Occasionally there was a white rose next to a name, and I did not know if seeing that made it more sad or beautiful or if their loved ones put it there. All I wanted to do was cry. But I did not. Not sure why, but I held the tears in, letting them gather like the water that is being gathered in the depth of the foundation of each Tower.

I carried those tears with me the whole day. That evening, full of impressions and tired after walking a lot, I went to Mass. I was meeting a friend at her church far from where I was that afternoon, so I was a few minutes late. The church was in the dark, because at the Easter Vigil on Saturday the light comes in gradually while the readings are being read, signifying the light of Christ’s resurrection coming into the darkness of this world. I found a seat at the back of the church, sat there and finally I wept. I wept at the loss of life, the wound that this city experienced during the terrorist attack. I wept at what we people sometimes do to each other. I wept because Holy Saturday was a day when shattered hopes were mixed with Jesus’ redeeming work; while the Resurrection was happening, the disciples were in grief. I wept because the Alleluia that we would sing that night comes out of such deep sadness, as the one that New York experienced. Alleluia does not come out of joy, but out of pain as it is being redeemed by the Lord. I wept because all of this, both out of gratitude to the Lord for new life, as well as the pain. I wept for this city, for its needs, for America and all that needs to be put right. As I wept I offered silent prayers, beyond words, to the Lord, and I thanked Him for the light that conquers death, for hope that rises out of despair, for love that is stronger than hate.

Today as we remember 9/11, I am not in New York, but my memory of that city, of its vastness, its beauty, its story that touched me, stays with me in such a way as if I have met a person whose scars are part of their wisdom. There are more memories from my trip to be told, but New York certainly knows how to touch someone’s heart.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 10th September 2017; first published on Finding Philothea)
Photos by © Iva Beranek


When Jesus was a refugee

Yesterday was a feast of the Flight into Egypt, when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to a foreign land in order to save their lives. I never knew we had this feast or how it’s marked, but what I do know is that it reminds us that Jesus, the one who came that we might have life, had to escape from his native land and became a refugee. Imagine the terror, Herod asking for all the little boys to be killed in Bethlehem and Mary and Joseph, being warned in a dream, running away to escape. I know they trusted God, but they must have been terrified. Now, imagine further what would happen if when they approached the new land, alas the borders were closed? ‘Sorry, no escape, go back into death’.

Instead, thankfully, they managed to run away and they lived in a foreign land, to us a hidden life, and probably ordinary in many ways. But Jesus knows what it means to be a refugee, a foreigner, and even though he was but a child when they escaped, I believe he knows even the fear, uncertainty. Not only because he is God, but because children soak up everything and remember more than we would ever think. Jesus understands how it is to be a refugee. And what about us? It’s something to think about…would we let Jesus into Egypt, or would we tell Mary and Joseph they are not welcome, they should go home. ‘There is no room in the inn, not only in Bethlehem, but also closer to home’.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 17th February 2017)

What I would pray today

Today on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi I would not pray “Lord make me an instrument of your peace” (even though I like that prayer), because I have to keep renewing that peace in myself (I am not a constant ‘carrier’ of it). I would rather pray,

Lord bring yourself and your peace to all the wounded parts of the world that are crying out for it. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, everywhere. Bring it to every heart that needs you – there is not one person on the planet that doesn’t need God’s peace, and bring it soon, now. Tell the noise of wars to shut up, calm them like you calmed the storm, change our hearts, into darkness of this world, bring your light.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 4th October 2016)

Experience from the refugee camp in Greece – unedited diary

Recently I spent a week in a refugee camp in Greece. Four of us from Dublin joined Remar S.O.S. in their work in a camp outside of Athens. In our prayer group we kept the refugees in prayers over the last year, and especially the countries they come from. Sometimes you have to bring your feet to where your payers were. Personally I wanted to go and see what the situation was like, away from the news clips, but in a real day to day life.

Just a day before the trip I celebrated eleven years of living in Ireland; coming to Ireland was my biggest ever dream come true so far. It took around ten years of longing, dreaming, waiting, praying, wondering, before the dream came to be. I am glad it was not quicker than that, because it makes me appreciate some of the feelings others might be having as they wonder about their future. As I was travelling to Athens that Sunday morning on 28th August, I was acutely aware that for every dream come true there are probably at least hundred shuttered somewhere else in the world.

Every day during the trip I was writing my row, often emotional, thoughts on Facebook about how the days went, and  I want to share some of it here.

28th August 2016 (Sunday) 

I want to share some of my initial impressions. You have to bare in mind I am still fairly ignorant, at the end of the week I may have other things to say, but this is raw, unprocessed, honest.

We went to the camp straight from the airport, helped until the evening and then back to Athens. We are going there again in the morning, every morning. Even before we were told that we cannot take photos at the camp, I decided I won’t, at least initially. It just didn’t seem respectful, and also I have a tendency to find beauty or to turn ugly into beautiful, but here it would give a wrong impression. The conditions are just so bad. My unedited thoughts about the camp are, “this is a place where dreams die”. If I had a family, I mean if my family was a refugee family, I would not stay there longer than a day; but I probably wouldn’t have much choice. And then I would probably die inside, or something would. Unless you are really a surviver type and tough situations make you dream more, but I suspect in general those people are exception.

People smile at you as you walk past them, they are absolutely beautiful, almost like their soul opens up with a smile; children run, play, guys try to flirt with you, even if they don’t know your language. That’s kind of normality and I think I would cling onto that normality for dear life if I had to be there, ‘stuck there’, as I’d say most are. I don’t know what gives them hope. I haven’t spoken to a lot of them, but one other volunteer said things that resonated with my first impressions.

I heard there is a poet in the camp, and he wants to write a book. Well, he seems to be keeping his dream alive. I hope to look for him tomorrow and talk to him. I don’t know how to finish this, as I said it’s raw, unprocessed, unpolished.

A few weeks on, I still don’t know how to gather my thoughts properly. I was reading an article ‘Prisoners of Europe’ about the bad conditions that refugees encounter in Greece. Many of them “said that the limbo they are trapped in – which has left them far from loved ones, without access to work and education, and without any clarity on their future – has led to a wave of depression and mental health problems”. I did not see that when I was in Greece, but I could ‘feel’ it.

31st August 2016 (Wednesday) 

Every morning I pray through St. Patrick’s breastplate. It focuses my mind in the right way and I come to the camp ‘clothed’ in God’s presence. One image that I remind myself in the morning is of a small bucket of water that I can use for watering a few ‘plants’; in other words I remind myself that I have only a small bucket of water with me (what I can do is limited), so I will not attempt watering the whole desert as that would be futile, but I can always bring blessings (water) to a few people.

Yesterday I wanted to bring joy, today in the morning I thought I wanted to bring life. Pretty soon after we came to the camp I deserted that idea. The place is so desolate that if I thought ‘I want to bring life’, the task would overwhelm me and I would fail at every step. I decided just to do what needs to be done and meet people with kindness, joy and hopefully love. Through the day I would remember occasionally that I have water to give, ‘bringing life’ would come into my mind now and again, but I didn’t stress over it.

One thing in particular struck me today. As I was walking in the camp I noticed that one of the families had a pet bird; most of you would know birds are my favourite animals. Normality of life again, having a pet. But the bird was in the cage, not just any cage, a very small cage. I think it was a goldfinch, so a beautiful little creature totally unable to fly. What is even more heartbreaking about it is that this bird in the cage is like a symbol of this camp. These people are all beautiful but their freedom is limited. They are allowed to come and go from the camp, spend the day in Athens, and many do, they don’t have to stay in the camp all the time. But they cannot leave Greece. Not legally anyway. If they try to leave illegally and they are caught, they will be sent back to their own country. And you don’t escape your home for no reason. What choice do they really have? What freedom? Same as that bird in the cage, their freedom is .. hm, I don’t know whether to be blunt or not, but their freedom is a fake freedom, it’s an illusion. It’s sad, really.

Another thing that struck me was during the conversation with someone, they mentioned ‘home’ and first I thought they meant their own country, but they actually meant the tent here in the camp. I know that when I go on a holiday, or I’m travelling somewhere, wherever I am staying I soon start calling it ‘home’. But this is different. What kind of ‘home’ are these tents for these people? They don’t deserve that name. If I think about it for even a little bit, I find it quite disturbing.

1st September 2016 (Thursday)

Today was a hard day. I don’t even want to write about it. I cried after lunch, though I felt like screaming. And then I cried some more in the van on the way to Athens. I find it hard to see where the people in the camp live, it’s not good. Not good at all. There were good things today too, don’t get me wrong, ….  I don’t like writing negatively here, I’m sorry. I’m used to using this space to encourage and inspire. But the desolation of the camp gets to me. And I wonder, what’s the use of my tears?

They should be living in better conditions. I could not get my head around that they were living in tents that were very much unsuitable for living, and this reality would get me down on most of the days. In this camp, in Malakasa, they have toilets and showers, they are not hungry, they can even cook for themselves, which gives them some dignity, but the conditions where they sleep are so poor that it makes the place really desolate.

I will write more in the next few days about my experience, but for now I want to say that Europe should do more. The people we were with are mainly from Afghanistan, wonderful people, but there are other nations among the refugees in other camps, people from Syria, Iran, and other countries. We cannot abandon them in Greece. They have nowhere to go, they have to stay there, and it does not seem like a good solution for all of them. It is good that Greece took them on board, perhaps generous even considering the problems they have anyway in the country. Yet certain things could definitely improve in the camps there.

I am not a politician, so I do not know what exactly needs to be done, but opening up some of the borders again, and providing an organised help, a thought-through project, may be part of the solution. As well as raising awareness about racism and trying to counter-act it with real human contact which has a potential to remove barriers. People we met were wonderful people, and same as you and I they simply want a better life.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 15th September 2016)
Photo ‘Longing for freedom’ by © Iva Beranek


The refugee crisis – some things that we can do

refugee is not a migrant

“You have to understand, no one would put their children in a boat
unless the sea is safer than the land.”
(Warsan Shire)

Perhaps like me, you have been wondering what to do as a response to the refugee crisis. The images and stories inform us about the reality of what is the worst humanitarian crisis since the second world war, and yet they also have a potential to paralyse us, making us feeling helpless in the light of the crisis. In the last days a few articles popped up inviting us into action: 5 practical ways you can help refugees trying to find safety in Europe (from the UK perspective) and 5 Practical Things You Can Do About the Refugee Crisis From Ireland.

Here I will offer a few suggestion also. My list is not going to be exhausting. I will narrow it down to three things: pray, contact the government and donate.

Pray. When he was still a child, Jesus was a refugee himself. Mary and Joseph had to take him to Egypt, because their homeland was not safe for them. Jesus knows all the pain the refugee are going through, he aches for them. We will never know how our prayers may help, who they may comfort, what doors may be opened due to them. A heartfelt prayer often inspires action, so don’t think that if you pray that you are taking an easy way out. Thomas Merton said that the “root of war is fear”, but fear also comes as a result of war. Many people fleeing their countries do so in fear, and that fear is very much justified. Praying for the refugees might bring them some comfort, however small. Also, maybe our prayers will sustain the volunteers working on the ground or inspire a political action that will be crucial in helping the people in need. But we don’t need to worry what our prayers will do, we can leave that to God. What is important is to keep the whole situation in our daily prayer, make it as specific as the Spirit leads us, and be open if prayer moves us to act.

Contact the government. Just last week I thought I could only pray, and while I believe prayer is essential as I wrote above, it did not seem enough. I wrote a poem Refugee crisis but I had no idea what else to do. Thankfully there is something we can do: we can be proactive. If you live in Ireland, you can contact all TDS here. You can also write to the Minister of the Foreign Affairs. I did both. In Europe the response to the crisis has been mixed. While some countries have responded generously, others have built walls, either the barbed-wire walls, or the invisible ones that are equally damaging. Most of these countries have experienced war in some shape or form, and no matter which side they were on at the time, they know how shattering the effects of the war are. One would think that this knowledge would inspire a compassionate response, but not necessarily. We can challenge that by contacting the government.

Donate. There are people in direct contact with the refugees who need resources in order to be able to provide much needed help. You don’t have to donate much, if you are not able to. You can decide to skip dinner one or two evenings a week or have one less coffee and put the money you saved towards a donation. If thousand of us donated 5 euro that would be 5000 euro. You get the picture. Little can be a lot. One possible organisation to support is MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station). They are a family business helping to save people in the Mediterranean. Alternatively, you may want to support the The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). You will find more options on the two links provided above.

As I said, this is not an exhaustive list. You are probably already doing things that are not on this list. None of us will do all that can be done, but if we each do our little bit, and keep doing it, a lot can be done. I wish I could say it is not a matter of life or death, but it is.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 4th September, 2015)

I bow to your sorrow

winter leaf simple, by Iva B.

I bow down to your sorrow
but words
they fail me
only an echo of hope
that came from
your release
and the memory
of terror
that brings shudders
to my knees

I bow down my head
and my heart
I genuflect with my
whole being
before you soul
your story has to be told
through those who live on
but words fail me
so I stand in silence
listening to the heartbeats
of your heart
as it died
in the night
and was born from this
into the eternal

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 27th January 2015, Holocaust Memorial Day)

Even You

See with your heart-woman

If you, even you
Would let a soft voice
of God
Come through to your heart
Silencing the noise of your drums and missiles
For a while
Thick lies that pretend to make who you are
Might dissolve
And reveal the beauty
Hidden inside your soul

If you, even you
Would let love inhabit
The wells of your heart
In which hatred
Found its home
Thick walls which stand around your soul
Might break loose
And show that you are human

If you, even you
Would decide to stand still
And just once
Look into my eyes as if they are yours
Take them as a door to my heart;
Inside of me
You might see desires
That fear
Did not want our hearts to nurture
And maybe for a moment
You would see that
We are but the same

Then, perhaps
The thick clouds of confusion
Might disperse
So we can recognize
Each other as friends
And not claim
To be enemies

If you, even you
Would let a soft voice
of God
Tell you who you
Really are

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 12th July 2011)

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.” And Jesus wept…

Morning ponderings on life in peace… and the lack of it

Sunset-rises by Iva B.

Sometimes I think I could write a few books just from the thoughts that come to me in the morning hours, walking through the town, observing, remembering or pondering about the world, people living in different places, the same Earth and yet the reality of each country’s circumstances often makes our lives world-apart.

Dublin is a pretty pleasant place to live, for me it is. People are friendly, streets are vibrant and beautiful, while parks, flowers, trees  and the sea help you relax amidst the busyness of life. Sure, Dublin has its problems, every city does, but at least we live in peace.

The other day as I was looking through the kitchen window, beautiful scenery spread itself in front of the house, fields, richly green moist trees, flowers, lilies and roses in bloom, swallows flying around the house, it all looked so peaceful, calm, and yet my thoughts went elsewhere, to places around the world where peace is but a distant dream, places of distress where people have same desires for a fulfilled life as you and me, and yet they live in constant fear because they live in a  country where there is no peace.

When you think of it, life is filled with imbalance. While beauty is a huge part of life, for those of us at least who constantly are on the look out for it, there are realities of less pleasant colours, realities of pain and grief, that make our life on Earth what it is. Sometimes even painful experiences can have hidden beauty in them, they help us grow, show us the strength hidden deep in our core, yet for me there is absolutely nothing beautiful about war.

Enjoying coffee peacefully in one of Dublin’s streets, grateful for graced moments of calm that often touch my heart, I think of the people around the world, people I got to know through the years, many of them now inhabit my heart, from different backgrounds and walks of life; knowing some of the struggles they each face, I wish for more just world, more joy to fill their lives, laughter of children not afraid to play outside, I wish for beauty to bless their hearts, ease their struggles, sooth their pain, I wish for each and every one of them to at least live in places where they are safe.

And so I leave my thoughts unfinished, knowing that in the life’s flow ‘unfinished’ plays integral part; I walk out into the streets of Dublin carrying each of these people in my heart. Know that people you hold dear too, each one of us on this Earth, are held gently in the heart of God, who watches over our stories through His grace, fills the cracks of life with love, and my wish is that we would all know, that His love makes the difference, I wish it would soften the hearts that are cold, and bring more peace to you, to me, to the countries that so deeply long for it. Pray with me for peace….

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 10th July 2014)
Photo by © Iva B.