My mother was only a little Basque girl of seven when General Franco and his troops rebelled against the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic. It was 1936 and the Spanish Civil War would go on for almost three years with a death toll of half million and further 450,000 fleeing into exile.
Thousands of children fled Spain duirng the 1936-39 Civil War. Photo: Culture Ministry archive
My mother, along with her family, who at the time lived in Bilbao, escaped to the family farm in Bakio, as Bilbao was becoming increasingly more dangerous because of Franco’s bombings.
In Bakio they thought they were safe, and they also had food, which was scarce in Bilbao. Bakio is only 13 kms from Gernika, and my mother always remembered how on April 26th 1937, dozens of planes passed over their heads with a deafening noise. They all ran for a place to hide.
After the Gernika massacre, my grandmother, my mother, her eldest sister and some siblings were sent by the Basque government to the city of Pau in the south of France, far from their beloved, but insecure farm.
Some time later four thousand Basque children, aged between five and 12 were sent to the UK, this time without their parents. They set off from Santurtzi and docked in Southampton 48 hours later. The Conservative party was not very convinced by the idea, but people in England and Wales welcomed the children with open arms.
For eight months my mother and her sister went to school in France, they learnt French, took piano lessons, played with the local children and most of all tried to put all the suffering they had gone through behind them.
Eventually they chose to return home. They did not want to leave their father, and decided to share the coming difficulties together. Even though it had been a short stay of eight months those days were very much treasured in my mother and her sister’s hearts. France was the best country in the world and its citizens the nicest. Nobody could dispute that.
Now I see the Syrian refugees in the media, and can’t help thinking of my family; tired, scared, hungry with a look of incredulity in their eyes, as though they were not able to grasp their new reality from a year earlier. They had families, jobs, houses, schools, and dreams. Now very little of those remain.
Syrian childen fleeing Syria and crossing the Turkish border Photo: Bulent Kilic /AFP
Some of the European governments have been extremely intolerant of the refugees. Callous and lacking in empathy, they have seen the refugees as a problem rather than human beings with problems. Fortunately more and more people are reacting and trying to give them back the dignity they deserve. The same happened 80 years ago.
Despite all the hardships she had to face in life, my mother never lost faith in her fellow human beings. Perhaps that was the supreme lesson she learnt when she was still a child. It is time for us to learn it too.
Alberto Letona is a Basque journalist living in Bilbao. He is the author of Hijos e Hijas de la Gran Bretaña - Sons and Daughters of Great Britain – in which he delves into the psyche of the British in an attempt to explain them to his own countrymen.