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In Catalonia, we guarded the ballot box with applause

North London psychotherapist Olga Rabasso Newman went to back to Barcelona to vote in last month’s outlawed independence referendum. She recounts her experiences and reflects on the events that followed.

    Olga's 'Yes' ballot in Barcelona
    Olga's 'Yes' ballot in Barcelona

    “Did you know that the Catalan people are known as the Jews of Spain?” This is what one of the rabbis in my Beth Din told me when I converted back in 2004. This has stayed with me ever since and I often reflect on what that meant.

    The feeling of being Jewish has grown in me in ways that I could not have predicted then. I have a strong feeling of belonging and connection to the Jewish community just like I have the same sense of being Catalan.

    Being Catalan has always been important to me. I am Catalan first and never quite Spanish. I speak Catalan to my kids. The importance of protecting my language and my culture is a precious part of who I am. I was born a year after Franco’s 1975 death, just as Catalonia was just coming out of a very long and dark dictatorship in which the language, culture and political life were repressed and persecuted.

    We Catalan people are open, warm and welcoming. We share many values with the Jewish people. We are entrepreneurial and hardworking. We value family and education and we respect others and their differences. We are an open and progressive nation which, unfortunately, collides with right wing Spain. The Spain of the Partido Popular hasn’t yet condemned the damage that fascism did to the Spanish and the Catalan people and has yet to dig up the mass graves on the side of roads.

    Spain needs Catalunya — we represent 20 per cent of their GDP — but sadly Spain does not love Catalonia and never allowed us to choose if we want to be independent. The Catalan people felt repeatedly disrespected and undermined by the Spanish government.

    So when the independence referendum was called for October 1, we were determined to vote. But the atmosphere got more and more heated: police searched everywhere for ballot boxes; Catalan newspapers were warned of lawsuits if they printed anything to do with the referendum; my 70-year-old Mum was caught up in a group taken into the police station for hanging promotional posters.

    When I boarded my EasyJet flight on September 30, the day before the referendum, I knew I was voting for the independence of my county, but I was also going to defend my democratic right to vote. I was going to do it for my kids, for my father and my grandparents and so many generations before me.

    With my mother, I went straight to my primary school, which was where I was allocated to vote. Parents there had been sleeping in tents in the playground since the school day finished on Friday afternoon: we were instructed not to leave the building unattended because the police had been ordered to close down any polling stations.

    The following morning, we formed a human chain to guard the school. We had been trained in ways in which we can resist peacefully. When the first policewomen from the Catalan force turned up at 7am, we tightened closer together and broke into applause. We knew how hard it was for them to have to do their job that day; one officer, moved by this gesture, couldn’t contain her tears.

    But I could see from Facebook that there was violence elsewhere, with the Spanish police beating innocent people.

    Since then, the repression has only escalated. Two of our main civil leaders, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, have been imprisoned on charges of sedition. Spain has disbanded the Catalan parliament and President Carles Puigdemont is now in Brussels.

    There is a lack of separation of powers in Spain and our representatives are being persecuted for their ideals. To us Catalans, it is very important that this is condemned and exposed.