Four myths to debunk about Syrian refugees

Syrian flagToday marks the one-year anniversary of an attack that killed 38 people, including many British tourists in Tunisia –  an attack that came five years after a street vendor, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest harassment by municipal officials and in the process sparked the pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa. The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Despite the tragedy, Tunisia stands head and shoulders above the rest of the region in terms of having the foresight to engage in a productive dialogue which, according to The Economist, of a “new, enlightened constitution.”

The Assad regime did not respond with a dialogue quartet when teenagers painted revolutionary slogans on a Syrian school wall in 2011.  According to unverified sources, they used torture. Another theory for the catalyst that triggered the Syrian war was that demonstrations mirroring those in neighboring countries triggered a violent response from the government.  Such a response was in keeping with the actions of past governments eg, in 1982 the Syrian army quelled an uprising in Hama, Syria, by destroying “half of the city with tank shellfire and killing up to 20,000 people.” Regrettably, this time government violence contributed to the descent into chaos where a genuine desire for freedom became conflated with the separate agendas of local tribes, military deserters, disaffected locals, and jihadists (see this article for a guide to the Syrian opposition).  Add Afghans, Iranians and air strikes into the mix and there seems to be no end in sight for this conflict. However, it is worth remembering that Assad is still supported by many Syrians who see him as a preferable alternative to ISIS and other groups in the region.

If only one could get a Syrian do-over where the opposition formed a unified coalition bargaining with the government for a democratic country aka Tunisian style. Alas, now the world has to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. Let’s examine some of the prevailing myths about them.

1.      All of Syria has fled to the EU

Up to 12.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes ie, less than 20% of the world’s 65.3 million refugees, but they have become indelibly etched in the public psyche because of seismic geopolitical shifts reverberating across the globe (2016 Pew report on refugees). Put another way, about 6 in 10 Syrians are now displaced from their homes. In addition, rising numbers of Somalis and Afghans are among the non-Syrian refugees who have applied for asylum in the European Union between July 2015 and May 2016. These numbers will likely increase as there appears to be no resolution to wars/perilous circumstances that forced people to flee in the first place. The European countries with the smallest percentage increments due to refugees were France and England, since they did not take in many asylum seekers. By contrast, Sweden saw the foreign-born share of its population rise from 16.8% in 2015 to 18.3% in 2016.  This rise of more than 2% in one year is astronomical when one uses the United States as a point of reference. Here, the immigrant share of the population rose by 1% over a full decade, from 13% in 2005 to 14% in 2015.

2.      The Syrians are taking our jobs

Refugees do not automatically become citizens stealing the locals’ jobs. Depending on the country and after satisfying entry criteria, they are granted residence permits and allowed to apply for legal residency after satisfying prerequisites relating to language, civic knowledge, financial independence and good conduct.

Given the heated arguments one hears about refugees, it may come as a surprise to many people to know that most displaced Syrians are not in the European Union. Over 3 million Syrians are in the countries bordering that once-proud nation: Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. One could argue that the presence of these refugees spells doom for the economies of these respective countries. However, according to the World Bank, the gross domestic product for the countries are expected to rise in spite of the influxes. Is this situation ideal? No. Would these numbers have been higher in the absence of refugees? Possibly, yes. Nevertheless, the anti-refugee economic portion of the argument does not hold up. Let us not forget that more than 6 million people continue to be displaced from their homes within the porous borders of Syria.

3.      The Syrian refugees harbor terrorists

In his 2014 Journal of Conflict Resolution article,” Are Migrants More Extreme than Locals After War? Evidence from a Simultaneous Survey of Migrants in Sweden and Locals in Bosnia,”Dr. Jonathan Hall coats his conclusions with the usual academic precautions before stating: “Under certain conditions, migration may promote inclusive and reconciliatory attitudes by improving access to coping resources and providing an exit from detrimental wartime and post-war conditions in original countries.”

It took an unfounded rumor that one of the Paris bombers was a Syrian refugee to set the Internet on fire, upset Dr. Hall’s careful conclusions and spook jittery governments coping with the influx of people. Adding to these fears is a recent report that ISIS has gained a foothold in Sirte, Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, an uncomfortable boat ride away from Europe. Unfortunately the unthinkable is always possible, but recent history has taught us that most of the terrorists were actually born in the countries where they perpetrated their acts.

 4.     The USA wants large numbers of refugees

According to the June 2016 Pew article, our views towards refugees have generally been opposition to “admitting large numbers of foreigners fleeing war and oppression, regardless of official government policy.” This antipathy towards refugees was on display as far back as 1958, when respondents were against Hungarian refugees fleeing a communist regime settling here and as recently as 1999, when two-thirds of the respondents were against settling Albanians escaping atrocities in Kosovo in this country. Although polling trends are useful in reflecting prevailing opinions, it will be heartening to humanitarians to know that programs such as “I was a stranger” exist in this country to help refugees.


The great jobless economic recovery

In May 2016 the American unemployment rate was 4.7% and the consumer price index rose by 0.2%, building on an increase noted in April. This would be cause for celebration if one overlooks another number, the proportion of Americans participating in the labor force, which stands at 62.6%. According to The Economic Policy Institute’s flagship publication, “The State of Working America,” this country’s low- and middle-income families have suffered a lost decade, in which the median family income was 6% lower in 2010 compared with 2000. Despite a 22% increase in productivity, typical wage-earners made about the same amount per hour as in 2000. While the bottom 60% suffered a decline in wealth, almost three-quarters of the wealth went to the top 5% between 1983–2010. In fact, if one looks back over a span of more than a decade, productivity grew 69% and wages grew just 7%.
Once upon a time, if you went to college, worked hard and paid your dues you were virtually guaranteed the American Dream. There was an inextricable link between hard work, economic growth and falling poverty. Today that is no longer true. Over 46 million Americans live in poverty, according to 2010 statistics. More than half of them were African-American or Hispanic. Nearly half of black children under the age of 6 years old lived in poverty compared to 14.5% of white children. Digging deeper into the numbers, 44.3% of poor people are in deep poverty (living on half or less of the official poverty line; this deep-poverty threshold stood at $11,057 in 2010 for a family of four). This number could in fact be higher, since experts think that the official estimates understate the number of actual people living in poverty. In their book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, noted that nearly 1.5 million Americans lived on $2 a day, including about 3 million children.
Changing racial compositions, code words for immigration or instability in some political quarters, account for only a 0.9 percentage-point increase in poverty rates, according to the Economic Policy Institute study spanning the 1979–2007 period. The most significant contributor, income inequality, contributed 5.5 percentage points to increased poverty rates. The Pew Research Center’s recent analysis on the shrinking middle class builds on this theme, while a brief from the UC Berkeley Labor Center fills in the details on declining manufacturing wages and the proliferation of temporary staffing agencies in this document: Producing Poverty: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Production Jobs in Manufacturing. When a day’s wages can no longer feed your family, the default action is to rely on government programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, to survive.

In addition, the 2009 median age of an American was 36.8 years old, with researchers agreeing that the country is becoming a nation of older people. In an evolving job market, where sought-after skills in green energy and engineering may be the prerogative of a select group of highly-educated younger people and, yes, immigrants, room will have to be found at the table for these older Americans. This means foregoing the piece-meal block grant approach, dreaming of transforming everyone into entrepeneurs and facilitating a long overdue inter-generational conversation on what it would take to match existing skills to available/new jobs and ultimately steer the economic ship back into clear waters of progress.

So the systemic economic issues plus or minus security/nationalism/radicalism/jihadism/-fill in any other -ism are here to stay and will not disappear through rhetoric alone. Is anyone listening?


Amendment II to the United States Constitution:
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Twenty-seven words have the country locked in a stalemate. At least 82 mass shootings (more than three times the number of the amendment’s words appearing in the constitution; see Mother Jones) have taken place in the United States between 1982 and 2016. Fort Hood, San Bernadino and Orlando stand out in recent memory as terrorist-inspired attacks. Passions have been stoked on both sides of the aisle as the country grapples on how best to move forward. In the process, numbers are being strewn like confetti to buttress opposing points of view. In this climate, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the data to see if teaching moments can be gleaned from innocent lives lost long before their time. A snapshot of the tragedies can be seen below (note the highest bars for the Orlando [more than 100 wounded or dead], Aurora Theater [total number of victims =70] and Virginia Tech [more than 50 wounded or dead] shootings), while a complete breakdown of the Mother Jones data can be viewed here:

Mother Jones data on Mass Shootings and Fatalities between 1982 and 2016.

Most of the killers were white males and the most frequently used weapons were semi-automatic handguns, used either alone or in combination with shotguns, revolvers, derringers or other weapons. In more than half of these tragedies, the killers showed prior signs of possible mental illness.

Scout around on Google and you will quickly find bar charts and numbers vigorously driving home the point that, when adjusted for population size, the US lags behind other countries in the European Union, in terms of mass public shootings ie, one event in which four or more people are injured. This type of tit-for-tat analysis misses the point that the killing of one innocent civilian regardless of geographic location, is one death too many. The fact is that Orlando and Fort Hood and the Virginia Tech Massacre and the DC Sniper (who does not even make the list, because the victims were killed one at a time) happened on US soil. That makes it a national issue to be discussed and debated and acted upon by this nation. Let us hope that some action will come sooner rather than later.

The human spirit: Story of a lung cancer survivor

The Hollies may have serenaded “The Air that I Breathe”, but polluted air can be detrimental to the lungs.  According to Kurt Straif, head of The International Agency for Research on Cancer’s section that ranks carcinogens, the risk of cancer (depending on location and level of exposure) was found to be similar to that of breathing in second-hand tobacco smoke. Add air pollution to other known risk factors predisposing individuals to lung cancer, and one begins to understand some of the possible reasons why non-smokers such as Dana Reeve, activist and wife of Christopher Reeve, perished from this disease. Treatment strategies have been outlined by the American Lung Association and recent discoveries on ways to break through cancer’s shield have led to the development of promising immunotherapies for lung and other cancers.

However, these facts may provide little comfort to a patient diagnosed with an illness that accounts for about 27% of all cancer deaths (American Cancer Society). An initial shocked reaction may eventually be replaced by proactive participation in disease management, scouring the Internet for newsworthy clinical trial results, and cooperating with the FDA to create better treatments for lung cancer. Survivors may also seek social support online via sites such as On the other hand, they could channel their inner adventurers and ski to the North and South Poles.

Lung cancer survivor, Barbary Hillary, decided to defy the odds and undertook these arduous Arctic journeys in 2007 and 2011. Barbara’s preparations and trip to the North Pole were vividly recounted in a 2007 USA Today article. Successfully crossing the same regions as the polar adventurers, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, placed the retired African-American woman in a league of her own. Her tenacity in the face of medical challenges and age can serve as an inspiration to everyone.

Why names matter in the wake of Orlando

Omar Mir Seddique Mateen was a 29 year-old US citizen of Afghan descent living in Orlando, Florida. Because of his actions, 49 people are dead and 53 were wounded.

Centuries ago, his namesake and companion to the prophet shepherding the world’s youngest Abrahamic religion, Islam, lived an ascetic life in Saudi Arabia. Omar, also spelled Umar Ibn Al-khaṭtāb, was a fierce leader widely respected for his justice and authority (read more about him here).  Some of his thinking, steeped in religious belief is worth revisiting. Here are some examples culled from different sources on the Internet:

“May Allah show mercy on the man who shows me my faults.”

“Fear your sins more than you fear the enemy as your sins are more dangerous to you than your enemy.”

“Let not your love become attachment, nor your hate become destruction.”

As we try to make sense of the unthinkable, it is worth wondering what may have happened had the Omar of Orlando truly understood the meaning behind the words of the Omar of yesteryear.

Nuclear relationships

Commuters from Connecticut to Cape Town have usually gained impromptu insights into different cultures by reading books written by brilliant wordsmiths. For example, the Russian writer, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, was masterful at translating everyday life in the Ukraine in a manner understood beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. His work was also used as a literary device by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, in her novel, The Namesake—a tale that focused on identity and the complexities of cultural assimilation into America.

Gogol’s childhood, filled with the Cossack traditions and rich folklore of his Ukrainian home, provided creative impetus for short stories that would form “the foundations of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism.” Using humor and a beekeeper as a narrator, Gogol introduced the reader to Ukrainian customs and folklore in Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka. In another book,Diary of a Madman, the hero is an office drudge who ultimately ends up in a lunatic asylum. Such stories may also have resonated with the Indian-American author, Lahiri, in crafting a pivotal train scene in The Namesake.

However, the young woman on the train from Stellenbosch to Cape Town had no pretensions of seeking literary or cinematic fame by invoking Gogol’s name. She was far too caught up in her daydreams about a fellow commuter. If one could imagine a cross between the Hollywood actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Vin Diesel, the sensitive-looking soul with the biceps of a football player was her dream man. He usually sat across from her on the lengthy journey from South Africa’s wine heartland to the University of Cape Town. His nose was often buried in fictional books (mainly Gogol) or incomprehensible scientific texts. When she finally summoned the courage to talk to him, he told her that he was a physicist. The young woman, a humble secretary, was star-struck and tongue-tied at the same time. She did not wish to pester the young man with tales about her boring life where the only recent thrill was watching the formation of a new bee hive on the family farm. Besides, how could occasional intellectual spurts such as listening to the South African opera tenor,Gérard Korsten, compare with the sophistication of this smart man?

As it turned out, the pair shared a fascination for Korsten. The physicist analyzed the tenor’s performance as Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s Pagliacci and she told him about her love for Korsten’s role as a family patriarch in the long-running South African soap opera, Egoli: Place of Gold. Over time the physicist told her about his admiration for Sergey Korolyov (1907-1966, head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s). She listened to his scientific tales and reciprocated with gossip stories she had read about famed South African heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, in the Afrikaans tabloids.

Finally he revealed the top-secret research he was conducting at a local nuclear power plant (Koeberg, 30 km north of Cape Town). In addition, he confirmed reports about negotiations with the South African government to supplement the country’s growing demand for electricity by building more nuclear power plants. He explained that Russia has about 10% of the world’s reasonably assured uranium resources and considerable expertise in the generation of nuclear power (employing 200,000 people in this industry). Furthermore, the export of nuclear power and expertise were major economic objectives. To him it seemed like a match made in heaven. While a decision was still being weighed by the South African government, the physicist was excited at the idea of having more nuclear power plants on the continent and elsewhere. He viewed nuclear power as a “clean,” energy source and a means to offset the interminable energy blackouts that had become the bane of South African consumers’ existence.

Unfortunately the young woman did not share his feelings. Koeberg had opened in 1984, two years before the disaster at the Ukrainian power plant, Chernobyl. Radioactive fallout had spread several thousand square miles, driving more than a quarter of a million people permanently from their homes and causing numerous deaths. Her pessimism increased after reading reports about a faltering cleanup following a subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

It would be up to the physicist to convince her that the Russian government had learned lessons from the disaster. He would wax lyrical about improved crisis-management practices, cost-effective and safer nuclear reactor designs (citing innovations by TerraPower as an example), and also mention the possibility of using different reactors in the future. Although real-world applications were still decades away, he felt reasonably confident that he could assuage her fears and change her mind.

The next morning the ardent suitor decided to hedge his bets by presenting her with a list of alternative, climate-friendly energy sources which he knew would be more suited to her beliefs. Armed with both plans of action, he boarded the train and mentally rehearsed his request to resolve their debate over dinner later that night. He suppressed his excitement by feigning indifference, looking down at his briefcase, before settling into his usual seat near the window. He looked up expecting to see her face. Her seat was empty.


Are we doing enough to prevent treatable tumors?

Bob-MarleyAs we enter the season of sun-kissed and beach-ready bodies, it is hard to concentrate on the “buzz-kill” words “skin cancer,” especially not the rare, but frequently-fatal form of the disease called melanoma. Sure, one has heard that Senator John McCain has had to battle the illness, but we are lulled into a false sense of security that early diagnosis and the wonders of modern medicine is a cure for everything. After all, everyone can tell a story of dermatologist’s removing other, treatable skin cancers with simple, in-office procedures. Surely, all skin cancers are alike.

In the case of melanoma, the answer is “no” and sometimes it takes a mother’s heart-wrenching quest to remind us of that fact. Claire Marie Wagonhurst, the apple of her mother’s eye, died from melanoma at the tender age of 17 years old. Sometimes it takes stories to inspire action. A mole was present on the bony part of her ankle for the longest time and it was never thought to be worrisome, until it turned out to have dire consequences. Reggae superstar, Bob Marley, had a dark spot on his toenail. Nothing to worry about. Right? The spot turned out to be a rare form of melanoma.

What does the theme of aggressive skin cancer in a white girl and a black man have in common? Delayed diagnosis. The question then becomes if we can do more to catch a disease in its early stages when the relative 5-year survival is more than 90%. The answer is “yes.” The next question becomes “how does one tell the difference between a mole and melanoma”? Check out the American Academy of Dermatology’s mole map for their “Spot Skin Cancer” resources, including a step-by-step guide on skin self-examination. Depending on race and the type of melanin in your skin, the pattern of a spot may differ, but it serves as a useful starting point for discussions with a doctor. Clinicians may also take the opportunity to enlighten patients about services offered on a community-wide basis, as suggested by the CDC, with their “Let’s Start Now” program on the prevention of melanoma and other skin cancers. Bob Marley’s disease and premature death at the age of 36-years old serves as a lesson that darker-skinned races are not immune from melanoma.
Your doctor may also take the time to explain that UV rays from the sun or tanning beds are not the only ways to get melanoma. Race, genetics and environment or combinations of these risk factors play important roles.
Melanoma is also not just confined to the skin. Melanoma of the eyes and mucosal surfaces eg, nasal passages, oral cavity, vagina and anal area has also been reported in the literature. Check out the CDC’s June 2015 issue of Vital Signs for an easy-to-understand infographic on what can be done to prevent the disease.
What happens if you arrive in the doctor’s office and hear the dreaded words that the beauty spot that made you feel like a Cindy Crawford-wannabe has morphed into cancerous cells? All may still not be lost, as the National Comprehensive Cancer Network points out in their 2016 update of the melanoma guidelines for healthcare professionals. Interestingly, research breakthroughs harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer has been very encouraging in advanced melanoma among other solid tumors – a fact not lost on President Obama, as he announced his National Cancer Moonshot initiative spearheaded by Vice-President Joe Biden. It took 8 years between President Kennedy’s 1961 speech and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Given the exponential progress that has been made between 2011 and 2015 in applying cancer immunotherapies as single agents or in combination with other treatments, we may get closer to tailored answers for patients with advanced melanoma over the next decade. The research arc is finally bending upwards.

Take home message: What you know about melanoma may help keep you alive, especially in the summer. Even if you do get bad news, it may not necessarily be dire, as research developments are ongoing and knowledge of people that responded very well in the advanced stages of the disease gives us all “clarity and hope,” to quote the Claire Marie Foundation.

Of Nehru and Norwalk

The sweltering heat can shorten anyone’s temper. Ask Mr. Singh (a fictional name). His temper tantrums when people dared park longer than fifteen minutes in front of his Norwalk store were legendary, and vagrants decided that they were better off rummaging through the garbage of the Chinese restaurant next door. His attitude towards customers veered from cloyingly sweet, if you were a curvaceous young girl, to patronizing, if you were a homeless person trying to buy batteries for a CD-player you found in the dumpster next door. Yet once upon a time he had been a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngster fresh off the plane from India with his wife and young sons. America was the land of opportunity and, armed with stories of relatives who had struck it rich in Connecticut, he came searching for his dream. An Indian community would be waiting to welcome him and his family into their temples and homes.

The years passed in the blink of an eye and the vigor of youth faded. Mr. Singh invested in the stock market and paid the price. The tax man put a lien on his business and he had to figure out creative ways to pay for the college education of his sons. Mr. Singh kept going, in part because of his delusions.You see, dear reader, everyone else was always to blame for every calamity in his life. The fact that he did not fill out the proper paperwork to have a lottery ticket machine in his shop became the fault of the government. The fact that dear Mrs. Singh’s samoosas landed me in bed with a serious case of food poisoning was the fault of the dough he had purchased at Costco. For a second I found myself more annoyed at the fact that she had not made everything from scratch, before arguing with Mr. Singh about his irresponsibility.

However, Mr. Singh always managed to wiggle his ample girth out of tight corners. When his belligerent explanation that office workers who had purchased the same savory delicacies seemed just fine fell on deaf ears, he tried a different tactic. The heat outside was merciless and he swept away my defenses and a potential lawsuit with peace offerings of Haagen Dasz ice cream and the latest copy of the National Enquirer. Having honed in on my vices, Mr. Singh felt secure that he would not be losing a customer. I could not let him off that easily.

“So,” I interrupted sweetly (as he railed about the indiscretions of American stars discussed in theEnquirer),”Is it true that the first Indian prime minister (Jawaharlal Nehru), had been in love with the last British viceroy’s wife (Lady Edwina Mountbatten)?”

Mr. Singh was thunderstruck. He demanded to know if I had read it in the free copy of “that dirty rag” he had just handed me. No. My source was impeccable. I had googled the information and if anything appears on Google it has to be true. Mr. Singh was quick to set me straight. Nehru was revered in India and, according to Mr. Singh (who had it on good authority from an uncle who had been Nehru’s personal photographer), nothing happened. His opinion that revered men were obliged to have no flaws was not that far removed from our pre-Clinton (or was that pre-Kennedy?) view of charismatic leaders.

The conversation eventually drifted to more neutral terrain. One of his sons was getting married. The kid had been a straight A-student. Thanks to Mr. Singh’s sweat equity, or perhaps in spite of it, the younger Singh had graduated top of his class at Yale University and now held a prominent position at a local investment firm. Mr. Singh informed me that there would be two weddings. One would be held in India and then all the relatives would be shipped over here for a mega-festival that would last a couple of days. Mr. Singh had taken out a loan to foot the bill. I kept my opinion about a son allowing his parents to take on an added financial burden to myself. My ice cream was beginning to melt and there was no need to anger Mr. Singh again.

Summer means vacation time. So I did not see Mr. Singh for a few months. When I returned to Norwalk, I was surprised to see that Mr. Singh’s store had closed. I heard via the grapevine that he was broke and had decided to return to India with his wife. A part of me was sorry to see the old rascal leave and the other part felt happy. Hopefully he found that mythical retirement sanctuary that we all long for, aka the Marigold Hotel. Hopefully he will at long last feel at home.