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‘What’s in your mind and heart lasts forever’

Last update - Thursday, March 1, 2012, 15:08 By Metro Éireann

An activist and teacher turned diplomat, Peteris Karlis Elferts entered politics in the early 1990s with a stint in the Latvian parliament, serving as secretary for a variety of ministries, as well as an adviser to the prime minister. Now Latvia’s Ambassador to Ireland, he tells Chinedu Onyejelem about growing up in America, how he maintained his Latvian identity, and how immigrants in Ireland can achieve the success they crave

Metro Éireann: As Latvia’s Ambassador to Ireland, how would you describe Latvia to somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country?
Ambassador Elferts: First of all, any country is made up of its people. And the people of Latvia, they love to sing. That’s why wherever you would have Latvians, you will find them together in song.
Wherever they have been in the world, they have formed a community centre based on or around the local community and the church, and they would form a school, so education is very important. And Latvians have a passion for reading. We read books at bus stops, trains and buses, everywhere.
Latvia is a small country, only 2.2 million [people] and covered with forests, lakes, beautiful beaches that are frozen in winter. The winters are long and hard, but the summers are warm and the days are long.
The country lies at a religious crossroads, meaning that to the north we have Estonia which is almost all Lutheran, and then to the south you have Lithuania which is almost all Catholic. So Latvia’s five dominant religions are Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Baptist and Judaism. The ethnic makeup is about 60 per cent Latvians and 29 per cent Russians, and then the rest are Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and others.
Since most of the country is covered in forest, we produce a lot of wood products, and we also have a good history of pharmaceuticals. Latvia gets a lot of income from the transit of oil and gas. We don’t have natural resources as such, but we have a big neighbour – Russia – to our east.

You have been Latvian Ambassador to Ireland since 2009. How did you come to this position?
It is very interesting because I didn’t aspire to be an ambassador growing up. My parents were refugees in World War II, and when the war ended they were in displaced persons’ camps in Germany. They eventually migrated in the early 1950s to United States because they couldn’t return to Soviet-occupied Latvia. Other relatives remained in Latvia, some of whom where deported to Siberia. So I grew up in a family where my eldest brother was born in Latvia, my oldest sister was born in Germany and my other brother, sister and myself were born in the United States.
The first day of school, when the teacher read the list of students and he or she would try to think how to pronounce my name, you know the feeling. Then I’d say “Okay, you can call me Pet.” Already you realise implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, that you are different from the rest of the kids.

What made you feel so different from other children in the United States?
Growing up, we spoke Latvian at home, and on Saturdays my parents took me to a local Latvian school. It was important for them that they preserved the Latvian language and culture for their children. But I didn’t value it that time because on Mondays I wanted to talk with the other kids about what was on television, but I didn’t know what was happening because I was at a Latvian school.
The American children were always interested, asking me to say things in Latvian because they didn’t have a second language. ‘How do you say hello?’ and things like that. If my parents had not been doing [what they did], I wouldn’t be here today.
It’s very important that you instil into your children your own culture and language, and later they can do as they wish with it. I didn’t envisage myself as representing Latvia growing up. Of course I went to Latvian school and played on the Latvian sports teams, but I didn’t realise that time where life’s journey would take me.

Where did life take you from there?
After school I got my teaching certificate, and in the late ’80s I was working as a teacher and counsellor in West Germany at a Latvian high school. At that time I got more and more involved in Latvian politics and the independence movement. I also helped to organise a conference on human rights and the right to self-determination in Riga in August 1989, and was expelled from the country by the KGB. I was able to return to Latvia in 1991 when we regained independence, and at that time I was running the office for the World Federation of Free Latvians in Riga. Later I was elected to the parliament, and I held various positions in government.
The way I look at it, in 1991 I was returning to Latvia to help rebuild the country. I felt it was a kind of responsibility to give back to the country. Now 20 years on, it is a privilege and an honour. It was also difficult to agree to become an ambassador because I didn’t return to Latvia to leave Latvia.

You say it’s important for children of immigrants to learn their parents’ culture and language. But is that still important in an increasing globalised world where English is becoming the mainstream language?
If I didn’t speak with my children in Latvian, how could they speak with their grandparents back home? How can I take away my parents’ grandchildren from them? And also, for example if my parents had not taught me Latvian, I wouldn’t be representing Latvia today. I might have resented my parents later as an 18-year-old: ‘Why didn’t you teach me Latvian? You’ve taken away my potential.’
There is no reason why [immigrant children in Ireland cannot be ambassadors of their parents’ countries] in 20 years. Why not? It is possible. It presents them with a choice. So parents have to have enough confidence in themselves to give the children that opportunity.
It is a lot of hard work to speak with your children in your native tongue when all they hear around them is English. But with every language that you learn, the next language you learn will be much easier. I have seen it so many times; English they’ll pick up in school and everywhere easily. So don’t worry about that. Your teacher cannot pronounce your name – so what? It automatically gives you some identity.

Looking back at your background, your educational and professional achievements, what would you tell an immigrant who is aspiring for success?
To aspire, you have to be inspired – then you can inspire others. It is true for Irish people who have been abroad. It is true for my parents, and it is true for the new Latvians and immigrant community here. You have to work harder than the next person. You have to prove yourself. And that is a good thing. You have to prove that you have a work ethic, that you can compete.
The message I can give from what my mother gave me and my brothers and sisters is education. My mother and her family started their lives from scratch three times with nothing. Of course I didn’t listen to her much [back then] but I am very thankful for her now, may she rest in peace. But the message was education, education, education. Because your house can be taken away, your car can be taken away, but what is in your mind and in your heart is forever.

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