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An ‘Appeal to Affection and Empathy’: Barcelona's Mayor Wants Spain’s Cities to Welcome Refugees

Ada Colau during an act in Barcelona for the election campaign in May 2015. "A la plaça! Guanyem Barcelona (17926559575)" by Barcelona En Comú - A la plaça! Guanyem Barcelona. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -!_Guanyem_Barcelona_(17926559575).jpg#/media/File:A_la_pla%C3%A7a!_Guanyem_Barcelona_(17926559575).jpg

Ada Colau during an election campaign act in May 2015. By Barcelona En Comú – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau's idea to create a network of refuge-cities amid Europe's refugee crisis has become a real-world plan after a Facebook comment went viral.

On August 28, after waking up to the disturbing news of two more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, Ada Colau, who became Barcelona's mayor in May 2015 with the independent citizen platform Barcelona en Comú, shared an emotional comment on her Facebook page. 

Colau's text was a personal reflection on the tremendous influx of refugees that Western Europe is receiving due to political conflicts, violence, and instability in the Middle East and Africa, and ended with a proposal to create a network of refuge-cities:

Aunque se trata de un tema de competencia estatal y europea, desde Barcelona haremos todo lo que podamos para participar de una red de ciudades-refugio. Queremos ciudades comprometidas con los derechos humanos y con la vida, ciudades de las que sentirnos orgullosos.

Even if this is an issue of state and European jurisdiction, from Barcelona we will do as much as we can to participate in a network of refuge-cities. We want cities built on human rights and life—cities we can be proud of.

The idea was welcomed by citizens, and Colau's post soon gained viral popularity: 103,507 people have liked it, and it has now attracted more than 7,100 comments and 68,900 shares so far. Other cities, like Madrid, Valencia, and various smaller towns, have expressed their interest in joining the discussion to see what measures could be introduced to assist refugees.

Like many other European citizens, Colau expressed her feelings and concerns about the humanitarian tragedy that is taking place in Europe:

Antes de ayer 50 personas murieron asfixiadas en la bodega de un barco. Ayer más de 70 muertos en el interior de un camión. Hoy nos despertamos con dos naufragios: puede que más de cien muertos. Tenemos un mar que se llena de muertos. Unas fronteras que se llenan de alambres, pinchos, cuchillas… y de muertos. Hombres, mujeres, niños y niñas, muertos.

The day before yesterday, 50 people suffocated in a boat's cargo hold. Yesterday, more than 70 dead people were discovered inside a truck. Today we wake up to two shipwrecks with maybe more than 100 dead. We have a sea that is filling up with corpses. Borders that are being filled with wires, spikes, blades… and dead people. Men, women, little boys, and girls—dead.

In her comment, Colau compared the fear of immigrants and refugees, who are striving for survival, to the panic of Europeans, who are afraid to “live in slightly worse conditions.” Of the two kinds of fear, she says, “theirs is stronger,” and they are not going to give up, no matter Europe's response.

O abordamos un drama humano desde la capacidad de amar que nos hace humanos, o acabaremos todos deshumanizados. Y habrá más muertos, muchos más. Ésta no es una batalla para protegernos de “los otros”. Ahora mismo esto es una guerra contra la vida. Que los gobiernos dejen de amenazar con el “Efecto llamada”. Lo que necesita Europa, urgentemente, es una “Llamada al afecto”, una llamada a la empatía. Podrían ser nuestros hijos, hermanas o madres. Podríamos ser nosotros, como también fueron exiliados muchos de nuestros abuelos.

Either we address a human tragedy from the ability to love that makes us human, or we will all end up dehumanized. And there will be more dead people, many more. This is not a battle to protect us from “the others,” this is a war against life. Governments need to stop threatening with the “beacon effect.” What Europe needs, very urgently, is an “appeal to affection,” an appeal to empathy. They could be our children, daughters, or mothers. They could be us, like many of our grandparents that were exiled, as well.

On September 1, four days after her first Facebook post, Colau published a follow-up comment, where she shared her excitement about the success of her “appeal to affection” and reminded the public that “the right of asylum is a human right, expressed in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this second post, which has already more than 21,400 likes, 7,200 shares, and 1,000 comments, she also thanked all the families who offered their homes as shelters, whose solidarity “dignifies our city,” and announced that her council will start working on a project very soon, creating “a volunteer families database” and “organizing networks for sheltering and assisting refugees.”

She finished by highlighting the human lives behind the refugee quotas with which European governments seem to be bargaining, and the responsibility of cities, families, and citizens to take action:

En Turquía, Grecia o Líbano están acogiendo millones de refugiados, España apenas 2.000, a pesar de tener muchos más recursos. No son “cuotas”: se trata de vidas humanas. Y si los estados se resisten a entenderlo, aquí estamos las ciudades y la ciudadanía dispuestas a pasar a la acción. Porque sí se puede… y se debe.

In Turkey, Greece, or Lebanon they are taking in millions of refugees, [but in] Spain [it's] barely 2,000, in spite of having many more resources. These are no quotas: they are human lives. And if states refuse to understand this, [then] here we are, the cities and the citizens, ready to take action. Because yes, we can… and we must.

Colau's comment and initiative also received considerable attention on Twitter, where many tweets expressed surprise and excitement about her proposal. For instance, Héctor Alonso, a journalist and editor of the site, and Sergi Pompermayer, a theatre author and scriptwriter, shared their support:

@AdaColau Ada, you are one of the few politicians who has expressed herself about this tragedy, and I say so in my article

Seeing that governments don't do it, cities should do all they can to open the doors to refugees @AdaColau. For dignity reasons

Others, however, have been more suspicious and skeptical, like photographer Jorge Sanz:

@AdaColau solidary. But you didn't do any numbers. Not how many refugees, nor how or when. Neither what will happen with all those that stay at home

It is indeed true that refugee policies and procedures are a matter of state and European jurisdiction, as Colau herself mentioned, but it is true as well that while waiting for officials who are slow to take action, local governments can help visualize and channel citizens’ eagerness to help. And that will put some pressure on the national government to make an effort to welcome refugees and do so by cooperating with civil society.

Update: On September 5, one week after the first post on Facebook, Barcelona en Comú published a video on its Facebook page in which Colau shared an update on the issue during the public meeting with other Spanish cities #CiudadesEnComún (cities in common). She rephrased a sentence of the popular Catalan song “Qualsevol nit pot sortir el sol” (“The sun could rise any night”; there is also a cover of the song in English by Irish singer Halldor Mar), released in 1975 by Catalan singer and songwriter Jaume Sisa:

La nostra casa és casa vostra, si és que hi ha cases d'algú

Our home is your home, if there can be someone's home

She went on to say that it's not her nor her governing team, but the people who are sending this message, and then read extracts of letters that the local government has been receiving in the last weeks from citizens like Guillem, Maribel, María and Ana:

Guillem: no tenim gaire lloc, però alguna persona la podríem acollir. Som matrimoni amb nena de dos anys

Guillem: We don't have much space, but we could take someone in. We are a married couple with a 2-year-old girl

Maribel: somos una familia mixta árabe-española y creemos que podríamos ser de ayuda en el acogimiento de refugiados al compartir cultura, religión y lengua

Maribel: We are a mixed Arabic-Spanish family and we think we could be of help to shelter refugees as we share culture, religion and language

María: ahora mismo estoy en el paro y embarazada. No tengo un lugar para darles donde vivir, pero sí tengo algo que creo que es valioso: tengo tiempo

María: At present I'm jobless and pregnant. I don't have a place for them to live, but I do have something that I believe it's valuable: I have time

Ana: Quiero colaborar con los refugiados, puedo acoger en mi casa a una o dos personas. No les faltará comida, cariño, ropa, higiene. Pero sobre todo, comprensión. Tengo una minusvalía del 46%, tampoco os quiero engañar, soy pensionista (…), pero puedo colaborar, y además necesito hacerlo.

Ana: I want to collaborate with the refugees, I can shelter one or two people at home. They won't be lacking food, love, clothes, hygiene. But over all, understanding. I have a disability of 46%, and I don't want to fool you, I receive a pension (…), but I can contribute and I need to do it.

The video ends with Colau stating:

Si Ana puede colaborar, ¡cómo no lo va a hacer el estado español!

If Ana can contribute, how could the Spanish state not do it!

Read more of our special coverage: Streams of Refugees Seek Sanctuary in Europe

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