The Lion King

I had the wonderful experience of seeing Disney’s The Lion King live today. And can I just say – wow! It was absolutely amazing and I honestly wish it had lasted forever. Now, I normally wouldn’t write about stuff like this on here. An American musical written by American writers, preformed in Oklahoma of all places! But I think The Lion King is a worthy exception.

Working under the assumption that everyone (and their brother) has seen The Lion King Disney animated film at some point in their lives, I’m not going to summarize it. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Right now. Turn off your computer, find a copy and watch it.

Instead I want to take about the stage performance, and how it was different from the Disney movie. First of all Rafiki – played by a woman!!! – spoke most of her lines in an African language. Sorry, I don’t know which one, and I don’t want to guess the wrong one! It was gorgeous, and unlike anything I’ve seen in a musical before. The performers really embraced the African culture they were trying to convey.

My favorite part of the musical, however, was the songs “One by One” and “He Lives in You Reprise.” Obviously the vocals and music were amazing but, in those two songs, some of the actors left off their animal costumes and just sang, danced, and dressed as they would if they lived in Africa. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it was breathtaking. I feel like I got a glimpse into African culture from seeing this musical and I know that I want to learn more. I’ve already started reading and researching, and even planning and saving for a trip to Africa. What better way to learn about a culture than to see it for myself? I haven’t decided where to go specifically, and it probably won’t actually happen for a couple years, but if you have any suggestions, please let me know!

Travelings is supposed to broaden your understanding of the world and of different people. So far this has proven true in my experience, and I can’t wait to learn more about the many different peoples who call Africa home!

Modern-Day Slavery: In Ghana and the World

At the beginning of this year, I was given the opportunity to attend a 4-day seminar with the leading expert in modern day slavery Dr. Kevin Bales. I learned an extraordinary amount about modern-day slavery from Dr. Bales, but what I found most interesting was the many forms that slavery currently takes in the country of Ghana.

Slavery is commonly taught in the United States as a historic system that began with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 17th century and ended following the US Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, slavery pre-dates the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by thousands of years. In fact, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire made slavery integral to their social systems.” What many people don’t realize is that slavery is still alive and well today, it has simply taken a new form. Unfortunately, although the delusion that slavery is simply an atrocity of the past pervades many of our modern societies, it couldn’t be further from the truth – slavery still exists in the 21st century. In fact, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people are still enslaved around the world today. That means that there are more people enslaved today than there were during the entirety of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Unlike Antebellum Era slavery, modern-day slavery is far more difficult to detect, and often goes entirely unnoticed (or unacknowledged) for extended periods of time. According to Kevin Bales, in his book Disposable People, “even when shown photographs and affidavits, nations’ officials deny [modern-day slavery’s] existence.”

commonly referred to as “human trafficking” in the last decade, and the majority of coverage is in the form of sensationalist writing about the atrocities of sex trafficking. It is unfortunately common for organizations – especially those with Christian affiliations – to “employ enslaved people’s narratives as illustrations, while they provide their own philosophy,” thereby using slave narratives to further their own agendas. (Murphy 98). Also common in the media, is the portrayal of slavery survivors as victims, helpless to save themselves, who are in desperate need of our assistance. The results of this are perhaps best described by Dr. Kevin Bales: “When we typecast freed slaves as pathetic victims, however well-meaning that action might be, we deny the unique truth of each lived experience of slavery.” Furthermore, the mainstream media’s obsession with sex trafficking results in a lack of public awareness of other prominent forms of modern-day slavery. Certainly, sex trafficking is a severe issue that plagues our societies, and we must work diligently to abolish it. However, equally important, and yet often forgotten, are the atrocities of labor trafficking around the world. In fact, a larger number of people are forced into labor trafficking than sex trafficking, and yet it remains widely unreported on.

Of the 45.8 million people currently enslaved globally, there are an estimated “5.6 million people currently enslaved in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.” Many of these slaves can be found in Ghana, forced to work in galamsey mines or required to fish on Lake Volta. Both of these involuntary occupations prove to be incredibly hazardous for the men, women and children trapped in servitude due to their deplorable working conditions, and their lack of advanced tools. Galamsey mines are particularly dangerous “due to frequent mine collapses, poisonous dust inhalation, and exposure to toxic chemicals used to extract gold from ore.” This is because it is cheaper to simply replace a slave, than to provide safe working conditions and adequate medical access to insure their health and well being. Whereas in the past, slaves held a relatively high monetary value, following the exponential increase in the global population in the years following World War II, the price of slaves plummeted and now they are worth very little. Paired with the “rapid social and economic change” that the developing world was undergoing post-WW2, the conditions created a heightened level of vulnerability to trafficking in many third-world countries. Whereas in the past a slave was worth approximately $40,000 US dollars, in the modern world a slave is, on average, worth about $90. Slaves are especially inexpensive in the developing world, and can be sold for as cheap as $10.

In order to fully understand modern-day slavery, it is essential to first understand how people come to be enslaved. After all, slavery is illegal in every country, and yet it still exists – to some extent – in nearly every corner of the world. One of the most common forms of trafficking is debt bondage, and it begins with one simple question: “Want a job?” Debt bondage allows traffickers to deceive victims into believing that their predicament is their own fault by using victims’ “pride and honesty to manipulate them [and] by appealing to their sense of fair play.”  The debt trap is precisely how Ibrahim and his Uncle were first trafficked into slavery in Southern Ghana to work in an illegal gold mine. Ibrahim was born in a small village in Northern Ghana that he describes as “very poor…the land is poor, there is little water. There are lots of people, but little work” (“Blood” 128). After his mother and father died, Ibrahim and his uncle decided to travel South, “following a trail of stories of the golden south where there was plenty of food and good jobs.” However, upon their arrival, they quickly realized that the “golden south” was simply a myth – there were no jobs for them.

Displaced and desperate, Ibrahim and his uncle “met a man who said he could get [them] jobs in a gold mine” (lbid). After following the man to his gold mine, Ibrahim and his uncle realized that it was not a legal operation, and began to question their new-found “employer”; however, by that time it was too late to escape – “there were guards to keep [them] from leaving” – but the two men still remained hopeful that they would receive the payment they had initially been promised after three months. Ibrahim describes the working conditions that he was forced to endure as nearly unbearable, and explains that – although his uncle tried to protect him – “any mistake [he] made would bring a beating” (lbid). After the three-month period had elapsed, Ibrahim, his uncle, and the other workers were expecting to be paid, but their trafficker (still masquerading as their legitimate employer) informed them that they hadn’t earned any money. Instead, they were told that they now owed even more, and would have to repay it with interest before they were allowed to leave the gold mine. Of course, the sum was entirely unattainable to the men, and so they remained enslaved under the pretense of debt. Ibrahim realized that “they were stuck,” but also “assumed that it was their own fault” (“Blood” 131). Thus began Ibrahim’s enslavement, although he was not fully aware of it at the time. Now, as an adult, Ibrahim continues to work in the same gold mine under the watchful eye of his “boss” who “encourages him to work harder with blows and abuse.”

The obvious question is: “why don’t victims simply run away?”. The answer, however, is far more complex. Initially, victims of trafficking are not fully aware that they are actually enslaved. Instead, they simply believe that they have accumulated great debt and, most often, they have a “very strong sense that a debt must be repaid, and that a person wo does not pay their debt is a thief and a sinner.”  Furthermore, their trafficker will maintain the charade of intending to pay them for as long as possible, so slaves continue to work with the hope that they might eventually get paid enough to fulfill their debt and move on. Of course, the charade eventually expires and victims come to the unfortunate realization that they are trapped in slavery. However, at this point, victims are keenly aware of the constant, and very real, threat of violence that hangs over their heads if they attempt to escape. Much like in the Antebellum South, runaway slaves in the modern world are hunted down by their traffickers and are punished with violence. The high level of political corruption in the developing world aids in the tracking down of slaves; it is all too common for corrupt local police officials to track down runaways, knowing that they will be paid off by the traffickers. On the off chance that an escaped slave is brought before a judge to plead for freedom, traffickers will simply pay “another bribe to secure a conviction for defrauding the gold buyer (in his role as lender)” (“Blood” 147). Even if an individual dies while enslaved, still their debt does not disappear; the burden is simply passed down to his or her next of kin, thereby shackling the entire family line.

While this situation seems almost-entirely hopeless, there are many ways to reduce the amount of slavery on Ghana’s “gold coast.” For instance, governments of developed nations can crack down on slavery by forcing corporations to better regulate their supply chains. Great Britain is doing just that with the “Modern Slavery Bill…which will require businesses with over a certain level of turnover to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement.” With this Bill, the British Crown hopes to reduce the 11% of UK businesses that currently “think it ‘likely’ that some sort of modern slavery exists in their supply chains,” by requiring a higher level of transparency. However, although supply chains seem like one of the best ways to eradicate modern-day slavery because they are our most direct link to the atrocity, they are not the most efficient way to combat slavery because most slave outputs never actually reach the global market. Instead, slave-made products are most often produced, bought, and sold at the local level. Fortunately, many NGO’s like Free the Slaves are dedicated to ending modern-day slavery through other – more effective – methods. Free the Slaves works with local-partner organizations in Ghana to help spread awareness about the threat of slavery, and provide at-risk communities with preventative measures to shield them from traffickers. Since entering the fight to end forced mining in Ghana, Free the Slaves has taught communities how to identify a legitimate job from a debt trap, and the percentage of people “who could identify suitable work rose from 5 percent to 93 percent.” Furthermore, the organization has also given communities more information on government assistance for survivors of slavery, and “The percentage of people who had knowledge of government agencies to contact in cases of child exploitation rose from 25 percent to 61 percent.”

One of Free the Slave’s oldest partnerships is with a Ghanaian-founded organization called Challenging Heights that works to “rescue children in forced labor,” and “offer continuous survivor rehabilitation and recovery support” (“James”). Since its founding, Challenging Heights has managed to rescue over 1,500 children from traffickers on Lake Volta, and have put over 400 children through their survivor rehabilitation center which provides much-needed medical care, education, and support as children are reunited with their families and reintegration into their communities. In addition, Challenging Height’s is also in the business of slave proofing communities through education and economic empowerment programs that provide legitimate jobs to those in need. The founder of Challenging Heights, James Kofi Annan, is actually a survivor of child slavery on Lake Volta himself. Mr. Annan was trafficked at age six, and was enslaved for seven years before he escaped and went on to pursue his education. Today, Mr. Annan uses his powerful personal narrative to raise awareness on the issue of modern-day slavery around the world. Most recently, he addressed the United Nations assembly on December 2, 2016 which marks the International Day for the Abolishment of Slavery.

Child trafficking is the most common form of enslavement on Lake Volta in Ghana. In fact, an estimated 4,000 children have been trafficked into the fishing industry on Lake Volta. Due to the lack of education opportunities in Ghana, many parents are often persuaded to send their children (Some even as young as four years old) to receive a “proper education” in return for what they are told will be “a few hours of work.” However, in reality, “Ghanaian children are sold into a life of forced labor, malnutrition, and abuse,” and are forced to work long and strenuous hours in life-threatening conditions. Although the children are forced to work in rickety boats on Lake Volta, many of them are never instructed on rudimentary water safety skills, and lack even the most basic swimming abilities. As one would imagine, this results in many unnecessary child deaths; furthermore, many children also get tangled in underwater nets and, unable to escape, drown in the lake. Aside from the danger of drowning, children are also forced to struggle with severe malnutrition since they are provided with only one small meal a day. In addition, much like Ibrahim in the Ghanaian gold mines, James Kofi Annan recalls: “Each time I made a mistake as a child fisherman, I was tortured.” Unfortunately, many young children like Mr. Annan endure his same fate.

Fortunately, Free the Slaves, Challenging Heights and their partners have a plan that could end child slavery on Lake Volta in the next five years. Using modern surveying technology, anti-trafficking workers plan to use spatial recognition technology to identify trafficking site on Lake Volta, that will allow them to better coordinate their extraction methods for rescuing victims of child slavery. Furthermore, they hope that this new technology will soon be adapted to help identify other forms of modern-day slavery – such as the trafficking that takes place in illegal Ghanaian gold mines like the one that Ibrahim was enslaved in – as well. Surprisingly, the cost of eradicating slavery is relatively low on the global scale. In fact, it only costs $400 US dollars to liberate and completely rehabilitate a slave. On an aggregate level, that means that we can end slavery for 18.3 billion dollars. At first glance, that seems like an unachievable sum. However, Americans spend $18 billion on video games annually; $18 billion also the annual amount of accrued credit card late fees in the United States. According to a recent study done by the Washington Post, President Trump’s incredibly-controversial border wall is estimated to cost approximately $25 billion dollars. If President Trump chose to use that money to eradicate modern-day slavery, we could liberate 45.8 million people, save $7 billion dollars, and avoid the environmental disaster that the border wall is sure to create.

The eradication of slavery is within reach – it can be achieved in our lifetimes – but first we must expand our efforts to spread awareness, rescue and rehabilitate survivors, and take preventative measures to ensure that now-vulnerable communities are slavery-proof in the future. After all, although there are 45.8 million people currently enslaved, that is the smallest percentage of slaves to be represented in the global population to this day. Furthermore, the collective revenue created by slavery also accounts for the smallest percentage of the global economy in all of history. We have made tremendous progress in the fight to end slavery, but the war is not yet won. If we are to truly eradicate slavery in the 21st century, we must continue on diligently, remembering the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “No one is free until we are all free”

Laura-Kate Seitsinger 2017-05-17 18:49:33

Over the past school year, I have walked past the statue that sits outside of the newly renamed Farzaneh Hall, and wondered who the statue depicted and why it had been placed in front of the College of International Studies.

However, until April 21st I had never taken the time to find out — content to continue on with my normal schedule.

Fortunately, on April 21st I decided to attend  the second annual Khayy’am Day — created to celebrate the life (and many accomplishments) of a prominent Persian poet and mathematician named Omar Khayy’am. You guessed it, the man portrayed in the statue!

Khayy’am Day was an incredibly immersive experience, and I learned a lot about the Persian culture (which I previously knew very little about).

While listening to Persian-language students recite the beautiful poetry written by Omar Khayy’am, I was able to try an array of traditional Persian foods and watch a Persian calligrapher as he created his artwork.

As I said before, I have very little experience with the Persian culture, but Khayy’am Day allowed me the opportunity to interact with and learn about the culture.

After attending  Khayy’am Day, I am excited to continue to learn more about the Persian culture!

Sanitation Solutions in Haiti

“Sanitation Solutions for Haiti” // Nick Preneta, Deputy Director of SOIL // April 19, 2017

Sanitation standards in Haiti are some of the worst in the world. In fact, only 26% of Haitian citizens have access to clean water, and 40% of urban residents in Haiti don’t have access to a toilet – private or public. During his presentation, Mr. Preneta explained that these two issues are highly interconnected. Due to their lack of access to toilets and the severely limited sewage sanitation system, many people in Haiti resort to disposing of their waste in local water sources. Given the fact that Haiti has a high water table and flooding is extremely common, this polluted water carries human waste into huge intersections where it collects indefinitely. Furthermore, there is only one functioning waste treatment facility in Haiti, which means that a mere 4% of waste is treated. The lack of sanitation in Haiti continues to cause a multitude of health problems for the Haitian people – and especially those living in urban areas. Diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, chronic diarrhea, and other waterborne diseases are spread via these waterways and cause mass-infections. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti only worsened sanitation conditions as millions of people were displaced and took up residence in public areas like parks and golf courses. Following the earthquake, water conditions deteriorated rapidly and a massive Cholera outbreak plagued the Island.

Fortunately, Mr. Preneta and his organization SOIL are actively assisting in implementing sanitation solutions in Haiti. SOIL was first established in 2006 after the founders designed and developed their first “Ecosan” toilet – similar to a port-a-potty – and tested a number of prototypes out in various places throughout Haiti’s two largest cities – the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in the South and Cap-Haitian in the North. However, much like in the United States, the public bathrooms were not properly cared for in the communities and became incredibly dirty within short time periods. It soon became clear that SOIL did not have adequate funds or staff to efficiently maintain the bathrooms, and so they were all closed within 5 years of their creation. This presented a major setback for the SOIL team, but they learned from their mistake and soon began devising a new in-home toilet prototype. By 2009 they had developed a new strategy that enabled them to improve sanitation by working from the micro level of individual households and out through the entire sanitation chain. The first step was to build a waste treatment facility which would be used to cleanse the waste of any bacteria and then transform it into compost – the facility was completed by the end of the year. The second phase of this new sanitation strategy required slightly more time, but by early 2012, the SOIL team had installed 140 “trial” in-home toilets in a certain community for a three-month period, and had remarkable success.

Today, SOIL provide sanitary in-home toilets to over 1,000 families in the two urban areas that they serve. These toilets are extremely efficient for a number of reasons. First of all, they only cost approximately $25.00 to produce (a cost which is nearly offset by the $3.00-a-month fee that clients pay to use the toilet service). Secondly, the toilets are designed to separate solid and liquid waste immediately into 5-gallon and 1-gallon buckets – thereby expediting the composting process. Unfortunately, the SOIL team has not yet found a sanitary way to dispose of the liquid waste, but the team is currently in the process of exploring sanitary (and cost-effective) options. Finally, and probably most important to users, the SOIL toilets emit almost no odor. This is primarily due to a certain type of sawdust that SOIL includes with the toilets that absorbs the odor almost entirely. Furthermore, SOIL also provides a weekly collection service that picks up the waste-filled buckets (replacing them with clean, empty buckets) and transports them to the SOIL waste treatment facilities.

Since 2009, the SOIL team has built and currently runs two composting waste treatment facilities that they use to compost thousands of gallons of waste over the past eight years. In fact, SOIL is now one of the largest waste treatment operations in Haiti. Mr. Preneta and the SOIL organization take great pride in their composting facilities because the vast majority of sanitary development projects “start and end with toilets.” The problem with this, Mr. Preneta explained, is that the human waste still eventually ends up in the public water system, spreading deadly pathogens to everyone in a community. Water-borne pathogens can cause severe damage in a society; according to Mr. Preneta, in Haiti – an island with the relatively-low population of 9 million (roughly equivalent to that of New York City) – 10 children die from water-borne illnesses each day.

The process required to transform human waste to usable compost is rather complex and requires multiple steps: First, after arriving at the treatment facility, the human waste must be tested for pathogens. In the past SOIL partnered with the US Center for Disease Control to test the feces for various pathogens, but they now operate out of a local lab that uses E. Coli as an indicator of pathogens – the pathogen-removal process typically takes 5-6 weeks. After the waste is processed and cleansed in the lab it undergoes thermophilic (“hot”) composting during which soil microbes slowly decompose and produce heat so that thermophilic microbes can thrive. During this process, the intense levels of heat kills pathogens and expedites decomposition. Finally, the finished compost is tested for pathogens once more, packaged in 40 pound bags, and sold to local farmers and larger corporations. Per Mr. Preneta, one ton of SOIL’s compost costs approximately $300.00, and the organization currently has a waiting list of individuals and businesses that want to purchase their product. Not only does the composting method of disposal significantly decrease the amount of human waste that infiltrates public water stores, it also helps revitalize soil that has been eroded or lost nutrition due to extensive deforestation on the island.

In my opinion, one of the most unique and admirable qualities of SOIL’s operations is that they largely employ internally. According to Mr. Preneta, apart from the few US founders of SOIL who now largely work on advertising and fundraising abroad, the entirety of the SOIL team (approximately 30 full-time employees) are native Haitians. Not only are these employees highly qualified for their positions but, being natives themselves, they are also acutely aware and sensitive to the sanitation situation in Haiti and the many ways in which it negatively affects Haitian citizens – especially those living in poverty. In addition to SOIL’s 30 full-time Haitian employees, SOIL also employs a significant number of “daily workers” at their composting facilities. Per Mr. Preneta, each morning, large lines of Haitian citizens hoping to earn a day’s wage form outside of both SOIL composting facilities. In this way, SOIL also assists in the reduction of poverty in both Port-a-Prince and Cap-Haitian (both of which are hosts to high levels of unemployment) by way of job creation.

Despite all of the excellent work that SOIL does in Haiti, there are multiple ways in which the operation could be significantly improved. Based upon the information provided by Mr. Preneta, SOIL faces numerous economic shortcomings that severely inhibit their productivity. For one, the $3.00 monthly fee that SOIL charges for their toilet services does not quite cover the cost of toilet production and waste transportation to and from users’ homes. After a thorough cost-analysis, the SOIL team came to the realization that their costs were $1.50 more than their profits. However, Mr. Preneta is confident that with a few modifications to the current process (such as outsourcing transport in order to avoid unnecessary costs like vehicle repair), in the near-future, this portion of their operation – the “front end” – will soon be a money-making business venture that will be extremely attractive to private-sector corporations. Unfortunately, the “back end” of the operation – testing human waste for pathogens and subsequently composting waste – is a far more expensive endeavor. According to Mr. Preneta, SOIL’s average costs currently outweigh their profits by approximately $8.00 (a far larger gap).

Of course, there are certain actions that the SOIL team can take to reduce the current back-end costs – for example, employing new machinery to make the composting process more efficient. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to the team that they will require some level of public funding by the Haitian government in order to continue operations sustainably. Unfortunately, there is a high level of political turnover in the Haitian government that makes it difficult to build and maintain government relationships. Furthermore, much like in the United States, the environment does not take top priority in Haitim so the DINEPA (the Haitian equivalent to the US EPA) does not have adequate resources to allocate to SOIL’s project. That said, during one of SOIL’s meetings with the DINEPA, the agency made it clear that they are willing to provide some level of funding to SOIL when the team presents them with a self-sustainable business model. Mr. Preneta was adamant that SOIL is on the verge of developing such a business model, and is hopeful that it will allow the public and private sectors to work together in solving Haiti’s sanitation problems.

Prior to attending Mr. Preneta’s lecture, I had never heard of SOIL and was relatively uninformed about Haiti’s poor sanitation. Truthfully, upon hearing that 40% of urban residents in Haiti do not have access to a single toilet, I was racked with guilt over the fact that I myself have three toilets in my own apartment – all of which I take for granted. After hearing Mr. Preneta speak about the work that SOIL is doing on the ground, I am of the belief that their operations are paramount to improving sanitation conditions in Haiti. I am especially impressed by the holistic approach that SOIL takes to solving sanitation problems – not only providing access to toilets, but also repurposing human waste as compost in order to revitalize soil and employing local Haitian residents at composting facilities in order to reduce unemployment (and in turn, poverty). I am curious to know if it would be possible for the SOIL team to somehow implement a device into toilets that could detect pathogens on a house-to-house basis, thereby enabling Haitians to recognize their illnesses and better treat them. I wonder if, additionally, a pathogen-detecting device would also be beneficial to the Haitian government in accessing public health. It will be interesting to see if, as their operations continue to grow, SOIL eventually begins to repurpose liquid waste as well as material waste – especially seeing as numerous studies have proven that it can be used as an excellent fertilizer.

Seeing as the situation in Haiti is so deeply complex, there are a number of interconnected “geographic standards” that create the conditions in which the poor sanitation conditions are allowed to thrive. However, I would say that at its core, the sanitation problem essentially boils down to overpopulation in urban areas (Element 3, Standard 6). According to Mr. Preneta, the population of Port-au-Prince is nearly 1 million and Cap-Haitian’s population is approximately 250,000. In both of these cities, poverty is rampant and Haitian citizens live in extremely close quarters that promote the spread of various pathogens. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti severely exacerbated this situation due to the migration of thousands of displaced families to cities in order to gain better access to resources. Upon their migration, thousands of people set up temporary settlements in public places, worsening the already suboptimal sanitation situation in the highly urbanized areas.

As I mentioned before, the Haitian people are extremely impoverished and so over 40% of the urban population in Haiti does not have access to a toilet and so they dispose of their waste in local water sources. This disposal method is worsened by the fact that both Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian are coastal cities prone to flooding. When these cities are flooded, the waste-filled water flows through the cities narrow streets and collects in major intersections where it remains. Since these intersections are so heavily trafficked by city-dwellers, the pathogens contained in the waste are spread rapidly throughout the city. These diseases lead to high death rates on the Island, but the CDR is far outweighed by the extremely-high birth rate in Haiti which is causing the population to grow exponentially. Since children are far more susceptible to disease, Haiti’s high CBR also expedites the spread of deadly pathogens.

Populism: Into The Mainstream

Prior to attending Professor Heinisch’s lecture entitled “Populism: Into The Mainstream” about the many diverse forms that populism can take, I was largely unaware of the extensive spectrum that Populist parties can span.  Of course, I knew better than to believe that “populism” fit perfectly into the single homogeneous categorization like the media attempts to portray. However, the extent of difference between the European Populist parties is quite shocking. For example, as Professor Heinisch explained, the distinction between populist parties in the East, West and South are significantly different from each other – varying along the lines of style, scapegoat, etc. Furthermore, even the public’s reactions to these populist parties vary geographically; in the West, traditional political parties attempt to isolate populists and refuse to cooperate with them, while in the East traditional parties shift their alliances to benefit from the populists.

That said, I was equally as surprised by one of the similarities that European Populist parties have in common – “the Putin connection.” As Professor Heinisch explained, populist parties across Europe have continuously received financial aid and media support from Russia. Initially, it seemed odd that Europeans were not more outraged by this connection – attempting to use it against the populist parties. However, after Professor Heinisch explained the division between populist voters and traditional-party voters, it became clear that the Russia connection would make little difference in political elections.

Given the number of varying strategies that have been used to eliminate populist parties in Europe, my question to Professor Heinisch would be which strategy he believes is most efficient, or if there is no single strategy for combating Populism that can be universally applied seeing as populists adapt to the current political climate of a given country. I was particularly curious about Professor Heinisch’s comment about traditional parties that have allowed the Populist party take power, fully expecting them to flounder and thus lose public support. From my perspective, this strategy seems like a rather uncertain gamble but, if it is common for populist parties to fail after taking office, perhaps the risk is worth it? I would like to know the percentage of populists that thrive while in power, as opposed to those that fail.

Summer in Stuttgart

Hey, guys!

It’s been a while but I have some exciting updates! After months of forms, waiting, more forms, tons of web research, and three thousand signatures, I’ll be spending this summer in Stuttgart, Germany! I may have exaggerated the process a little bit, it’s just hard to be patient when you’re excited. ? Anyway, Stuttgart is in southern Germany and I will be heading out in only a little over a week, which is crazy to think about.

In Stuttgart, I will be taking intensive German classes to build on my two semesters here at OU, as well as a course on international business. The international business class looks particularly interesting since it includes expeditions. Stuttgart is known as the home of the automobile and houses the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. To my understanding, my business class will analyze the operations of these companies and take field trips to their headquarters. Classes are every day but we get out early on Fridays which means it will be easy to explore Stuttgart and the surrounding areas. I am going as an exchange student through the University of Stuttgart and they are placing me with a host family for the duration of my stay. I’ve emailed them a little bit to arrange a few details, but I’m excited to get to know them this summer. I will be the fifth exchange student they’ve hosted but the first from the United States.

A major reason that I came to OU was the availability and accessibility of study abroad programs, but now that it’s coming up, I can’t help but be a little nervous. I’ve never left the States before and spending weeks by myself in a different country is a little daunting. Fortunately, I will have my host family and the University of Stuttgart to help me adapt and I can’t wait to overcome my trepidations and enjoy the first of many adventures to come!

Different state of mind

A lesson I learned in Ireland: you can't escape your own head.

As much as you may wish that the presence of fresh baguettes or drizzling rain or cafes on every corner will free you of worry and woe, the truth is that it may - and probably will - not. I had this mindset. A change of scenery does you good, they say. And though this is certainly true for those who are simply bored of their well-traveled circumstances, it is not for those whose discomfort arises from their own inner demons. Maybe I didn't realize it till I was on the plane. Or till I laid in bed for three days straight during winter study week, surviving on biscuits and water.

This new bedroom, this new city, this "new me" (I had chosen a brand-new nickname with which to call myself) was not doing the trick. I still had the same negative thoughts as before, the same self-punishing mental tendencies. Just in a new place.

The world - in its purest sense, as a malformed sphere on which to exist - can't save you. Moving away and coming back nine months later helped me realize what I really needed to thrive. Motivation, companionship, sunshine. Talking out my thoughts on forums such as these (I'm bad at keeping a journal), decorating my room with everything that represents me (I couldn't accumulate stuff abroad - that would be silly), going for late night drives with an epic soundtrack (I didn't have a car in Ireland).

Distancing myself from what I thought were causes of my restlessness and lack of motivation also left me stranded from the very things that made me happy. And I was left a little bit broken, of my own doing. I suppose the lesson here is to firstly, count your blessings and secondly, realize that being in a new place will change you - just perhaps not in the way you expected or hoped for. Which is not to say you shouldn't do it; quite the contrary. Leaving parts of myself behind in Oklahoma meant I learned more about myself abroad than I thought I could've. And those parts were still waiting for me when I returned, ready to be pieced back together to make me whole again.

Islamaphobia and the West

Throughout the past several months, I have been disheartened to see that the fear of Islam, and of its practitioners, seems to be getting stronger and stronger in the United States. We like to think of our country as a cultural melting pot, accepting of people from all races and religions. Anyone willing to work hard who dreams of a better start will be embraced. Except that they definitely won’t, especially not if they’re wearing a hijab, it seems.

In reality, Islam is quite similar to Christianity. In my eyes, the moral basis of both religions appears to be very similar, and the Qur’an contains much of the Bible within it. Much as Christianity considers itself to be a continuation of Judaism, Islam considers itself to be an extension and perfection of Christianity. All three of these religions are Abrahamic, and I believe that if you look their past practices and into their specific beliefs, you will find many similarities – I certainly have.

None of this is to say that two groups need to be similar in order to get along. Mutual respect should not hinge upon similarity. However, it does make it look to me as though Christians and Muslims have much more to commune about than to fight about. It feels as though it should be easy for the two groups to get along, considering how much they have in common.

And yet. So many Americans, many of them Christians, fear and are threatened by Islam. More and more lately, I’ve been pondering this and questioning why. Part of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that people feel comfortable pitting another group against their own – you feel closer to your ingroup when you belittle an outgroup. However, I think that a lot of it comes from politicians and public figures playing up the fear of Islam in order to make themselves seem more powerful and to get themselves elected.

I’ve had several conversations with a professor of mine, and we both agree that there’s more here than even meets the eye. I do not believe by any means that these politicians are creating this fear of Islam in many Americans. I think that this fear has existed all along, and they are simply stirring it up. Mistrust of Islam runs very deep, and I would like to investigate how exactly it all began. Because of this, I have decided to conduct my honors research project next semester on the roots and contemporary manifestations of Islamaphobia in the west. I would love to educate others, and myself, on the fact that Islam should be respected, and not feared, and that Muslims are just as valuable a part of this American melting pot as everyone else.

With many good books and articles by talented, engaged people, I hope to get at the roots of this problem. Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge, I can put a good foot forward and start combating Islamaphobia in any way that I can.

4.1 Miles: The Modern Refugee Crisis

Sorry for the radio silence! This semester has been a bit of a beating, but I’m learning some awesome things and staying busy! Tonight, I had the immense pleasure of attending a screening of the documentary “4.1 Miles” and the panel talk that followed. “4.1 Miles” is a documentary about the refugee crisis in Europe, focusing on an island in Greece that sits just 4.1 miles across the sea from Turkey. The main focus of the film is one Greek man who takes several trips by boat into the see each day to rescue refugees.

This film brought tears to my eyes. The refugee crisis is often on my mind, but as a westerner with little actual exposure to it, it’s often easy to forget just how horrific the crisis is, as awful as that sounds. While watching this film, it was impossible for me to feel anything but deep sadness: sadness for the refugees fleeing brutal civil wars and losing family members in the process, sadness for this Greek man who is bearing so much of the weight of this crisis on his shoulders, and sadness that my country, like many others, is so apathetic in the face of this tragedy.

The film took place mainly on the man’s boat during rescue missions. It was harrowing to watch the soaking and terrified refugees flood the boat, clinging their children to them, crying for people that had drowned. It was heart-wrenching watching the Greek man’s eyes fill with tears as he lamented the world’s lack of response in the face of this tragic situation.

The film left me, understandably, shaken, but the three speakers did a magnificent job of transitioning from the emotional to the more analytical side of the crisis in a way that was tactful and engaging. Dr. Mitchell Smith, Dr. Mark Raymond, and graduate student Stefanie Neumieir all spoke eloquently about different facets of the crisis. Dr. Smith outlined the fact that, in the West, this crisis is often framed as a security issue, rather than a humanitarian crisis. Populist politics shape peoples perceptions, and nationalists play to people’s fears. All of this means that people view refugees as threats, rather than human beings who need help. Dr. Smith also spoke to the EU’s values of peace, tolerance, and rule of law, and of helping refugees. Some EU member countries, such as Germany and Sweden, have taken these values to heart, but many others are avoiding helping.

Dr. Raymond spoke about the fact that in the past, there were no such things as tightly controlled borders. Immigrants to the US simply had to cross the border. Sometimes, he said, if things were really strict, some immigrants might have been asked their names. He gave an impassioned speech about the fact that the world is NOT sharing the burden of this crisis equally – the countries accepting the most immigrants are often the poorest countries who are least equipped to help them. Many rich countries sit by and let them bear the burden themselves. This apathetic attitude forgets the fact that if the extreme influx of refugees becomes too much for these fragile countries to take and they fall into chaos, the problem is further compounded. Wealthy countries have the ability to do so much more than they are doing, but we seem so often to turn a blind eye.

Ms. Neumieir spoke specifically about the reception of refugees in Germany. Under Angela Merkel, Germany has been the most accepting European country toward immigrants, but that even their generosity is straining. Most notably, she mentioned the fact that most violence related to refugees is actually violence AGAINST refugees. This number, of course, is rarely reported on – people are much more content to see refugees as the enemies.

It is hard to find the words to describe how moving this film was, and how inspired I now feel to do everything I can to help refugees. These are people fleeing for their lives, relying on the help of strangers, losing friends and family members on their journey to safety. And they are facing slamming doors everywhere they go. I refuse to be afraid of them, and I refuse to turn a blind eye simply because I am far from most of the action. I am a citizen of the world first and a citizen of the United States second. Refugees, from any country, race, or religion, are people who desperately need our help. I’m going to do my best to lobby hard for the United States to provide that help.