Ivan Blatný was a young promising Czech writer and poet. Then, in 1948, the Communists took over power and he escaped to England. Uprooted from his home, language, family and friends, he was completely lost, and he experienced recurring episodes of disorientation. The British National Health Services sent him first to a psychiatric hospital and then to a sanatorium. By the time he got to that sanatorium, no one around him knew that he was a published poet (although in another language).
His constant scribbling on any piece of paper he could lay his hands on was seen as part of his peculiar eccentricity. Many decades later, one of the nurses payed attention to his scribbles. Ivan was rediscovered as a literary figure. After many years spent in the sanatorium he remained there until his death, but he was able to publish two more excellent collections of highly interesting code-switching poetry (part Czech, part English).
When I came to Rutgers, there had been a homeless man sleeping regularly on the church steps. He was very shy. Not many people noticed him and even fewer managed to speak more than a sentence with him. He would come quite late and get up early and would always sleep right by the door. The custodial staff kept an eye on him, helped several times to store his stuff, and they protected him a few times. Our good-hearted accountant, Tina, gave him some warm clothing and one winter she bought him a sturdy sleeping bag. He did not take it right away, waiting for several months. He really was very shy. Once or twice, when it was bitterly cold, we had to call #311 for shelter responders, we were worried he might freeze on our steps.
Over the last summer an elder of our church started to bring him breakfast and established and built up trust and a relationship. Thus we learned quite a surprising story. His name was Mirumil (Not his real name, although also Slavic), and he was originally from the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at that time). He escaped to America shortly after the Russian troops crushed political hopes during the Prague Spring of 1968. At that time he studied mathematics at the university. Here in NYC he got by by taking some menial jobs. Uprooted, without family, or any close community or friends, something happened. He lost his documents, job and home and ended up on the street.
When I started to write about it, the church elder expressed it very nicely: “In reaching out and doing small things, we can individually make real differences in other people's lives. The first morning I brought Mirumil breakfast, I had just learned that my uncle had passed away after a battle with cancer. Events like this make you focus on what is truly important -- life is short and we have value through serving others and doing God's work... we have the power to take actions which can have real impact.”
In the autumn we celebrated Mirumil's 65th birthday. Our elder prepared a delicious honey cake. And while we ate it, we learned more helpful details. Mirumil was born in a small city in Moravia. I knew that place, because my best friend grew up there. Mirumil’s high school teacher, who inspired him to study mathematics, was my friend’s school headmaster. With a little bit of internet searching I was able to find out and communicate with the city registry office and soon we got a copy of Mirumil’s birth certificate. By that time he also agreed to go to a shelter without risking another winter on our steps. Meanwhile the elder initiated the process toward the recovery of his SSN and his immigration card. As soon as he had all the documents, we hoped to help him find some more permanent accommodations and work.
As uncommon as it might look, Mirumil’s American part of the story is unfortunately quite normal on several counts. As my friend Laura, who has been professionally serving and helping homeless people for many years, reminded me: 1) Wherever safety is found, that becomes ‘home’ (Rutgers Steps), 2) It takes months to develop trust and trust can only come with patience and kindness and no demands. 3) when trust is developed, there is always a thread of connection (in this case a skein) 4) It takes 6-10 people to house one individual who has been living on the streets.
And this observation clarifies why I intentionally built this column on the juxtaposition of stories of Ivan and Mirumil; they are similar, and they are different. Thankfully both have positive outcomes. But I still wonder: How is it possible that an episode of disorientation and vulnerability (Ivan’s case was actually medically more serious!) could have such diametrically different solutions?
Society becomes compassionate and humane in two complementary ways: by being composed of many dedicated and compassionate individuals, but also by putting in place adequate government-guaranteed social safety nets. As a person coming from abroad who still can claim a certain“outside” perspective, I have been always deeply moved and impressed by the American spirit of volunteerism, individual compassion and help. Similarly I have often been surprised and even shocked by how little attention is given to systemic social and medical matters.
Those two aspects are like two legs of our society: without training and using both of them simultaneously, our society cannot run or walk, it can only hop and hope. When I recently heard some presidential candidates seriously proposing to a innumerable claque that the social services should be built only on volunteer basis and available only to citizens, I realised that we might be hopping and hoping for a long time.
I sincerely wish that Rutgers will be a place where we learn to walk, run, skip, jump and launch ourselves into a positive future for all people, and especially those in greatest need of our compassion.
This was written in spring 2012
THE STORY CONTINUES
On Monday, the 2nd of December 2013, I received a check with a donation for our church. It was a personal check from Mirumil! I can hardly describe my emotions as I wrote him a thank-you card.
Mirumil now has a permanent resident card and got his SSN back. We keep in touch as he stays in WSFSSH transitional home at Valley Lodge waiting, any moment now, for his permanent home!
Thank you to Dermonte, Tina, Nancy, Laura, Lili and many others!
THE STORY CONTINUES FURTHER
On Thursday, the 20th of March 2014 Mirumil moved to his apartment in Euclid Hall, right on the Broadway and 86th Street - one of the WSFSSH houses. Today (Saturday 22) I brought him some basic homewars for an improvised homewarning party. Welcome home, Mirumil!