Dancing in the rain: encountering the strength of community weavers in Nepal

by: Brian Hickey

It started pouring. My teammate Belen and I had barely started our descent from a one-hour, strenuous hike straight uphill when the rain came. For obvious reasons, we stuck out as foreigners among the local Nepali population, even more so considering our unpreparedness for the fast-moving rain clouds amidst the start of Nepal’s monsoon season. Nepalis around us put on their rain jackets, walked around with umbrellas, or simply ignored the rain. Instead of cursing our luck, Belen and I decided to embrace the rain and smile at the locals trying to stifle their laughter at us soaked westerners. As we continued our descent, we ran into a group of young women walking and dancing with no rain gear. We joined the women reveling in the weather conditions.

Throughout our past month in Nepal, we have heard stories of resilience in communities recovering after natural disasters. We have listened to stories about individuals continually rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods four years after the devastating 2015 Nepali earthquake. We have heard these stories from grandparents who lost grandkids and widows wanting to serve us tea because we remind them of their kids who are now gone. I have witnessed the faith of the small Catholic community in Nepal reconstructing a beautiful church that was lost among the earthquake, bomb, and arson attacks. A community that passionately celebrates Mass and has formed a tight-knit parish family despite adversity.

A church in Nepal.
The Catholic church, once lost among the earthquake, bomb and arson attacks.

The person I have learned the most from in Nepal has been our translator, Ramchandra. Ramchandra is not too much older than me and is soon to be a father of two. He is a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to assist us in our research.  During one of our long talks about life and personal desires for future impact in our careers, Ramchandra began speaking about his efforts leading citizen initiatives in his community. Ramchandra, along with several other driven community members, was concerned by the distance people with debilitating diseases had to travel to reach medical care at a hospital. They are what bestselling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “community weavers.”

Ramchandra and Brian Hickey, a Notre Dame graduate student, standing in front of a Catholic Relief Services building in Nepal.
Ramchandra and I at the CRS building.

Ramchandra’s group, the weavers, inspired the community to give out of their valuable income (some living in poverty) to build a center for the sick to have proper rest and support during their journey to obtain medical care at the hospital. While these community members do not know the majority of the people who will benefit from the new community center, Ramchandra is proud to know he does not necessarily have to run for political office or have a position with a large NGO to see a need and do something about it.

Ramchandra and his fellow community members highlight a theme we have consistently observed in Nepal: communities are banded together by weavers like Ramchandra who assist fellow citizens in their time of need. They rejoice as others rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Nepali locals working on a project together.
Nepali community members working on a participatory activity with Ramchandra.

LEARNING TO EMBODY THE WEAVER SPIRIT

This month, we are continuing our research with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) through the Keough School’s i-Lab in a state in India that has suffered from recurring cyclones, floods, as well as attacks on minority religious communities. With our work, we hope to discover the effects of communities constantly having to grapple with devastating human-made and natural disasters.

A morning sunrise in the mountains of Nepal.
A morning sunrise in the mountains during our fieldwork.

As Belen and I seek to develop a tool for CRS to help households reconstruct shelter after major traumatic experiences, we must keep in mind the importance of community weavers. We must ask how organizations like CRS can assist households and communities in rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods so that when the rain, or oth­er difficult times come, community members can continue to dance knowing a brother or sister will soon come with arms open wide to help. Perhaps, when we come home, we can also look at our community and neighborhoods in the United States and discover how we can develop as weavers like Ramchandra.

How to evaluate success in development work

by: Joshua Pine

Youthful optimism. Eager expectation. Passion to learn and to serve. As I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, these were the emotions that engulfed me. Having lived for nearly twenty years as an American in China, I had never traveled to Latin America before and was excited to broaden my global horizon. While I knew the exotic appeal of a new country, replete with street tacos and mariachi bands, would eventually wear off, I did not expect a sobering reality check to set in on our first day of work.

My team and I are partnering with Habitat for Humanity International’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, exploring ways to increase the quality of homes among low-income communities through market-based interventions. Drawing heavily from our training in design thinking from the Master of Global Affairs’ Integration Lab, we set out the first day to engage directly with the marginalized communities we aimed to serve by visiting homeowners in Tláhuac, a poorer neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. Without any background in Spanish, my assigned role during these visits was to observe our surroundings and take detailed notes. After the interview, my teammate would provide me with a quick summary translation.

Joshua Pine visits a household to conduct interviews about housing in Tláhua, Mexico.
Visiting households to conduct interviews in Tláhua, Mexico.

When we entered the first home, I began furiously jotting down every detail into my notebook: a two-story home with multiple generations living together, several pet dogs, a Wii video game console, a tile floor. No detail was too small, and I was ready to do my part in contributing to the project! As the day went on, however, my inability to understand the language began to weigh more heavily as a source of frustration. Whenever someone would make a joke and the room lit up with pearls of laughter, I forced a smile even though I did not know what was happening. As that first week continued, my enthusiasm began to wane as I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity and question why I was even here. How was I adding value to the project when all I was doing was taking up team resources by having someone translate for me? How could I fulfill my role as the team’s leader with regards to communication and design thinking if I couldn’t directly engage or empathize with those we were seeking to serve?

Joshua Pine stands by a fiber cement sample house in Mexico City.
Exploring a fiber cement sample house that is the new type of disaster-resilient material that our project is encouraging lower-income families to adopt.

As I was reflecting on these questions, I heard one of my favorite Christian worship songs—“You Say,” by Lauren Daigle—on the speaker in the mall we were walking through:

“I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?

Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know”

These lyrics caused me to realize I had been evaluating my success precisely as the “sum of every high and every low” by asking myself whether I had individually contributed to promoting the goals of the project. This self-evaluation framework reflected the system utilized in academic classroom settings, where you have a fixed period of time (a semester) to achieve a set goal (learning the material), with frequent tests to ensure that you are making progress towards that goal. For my research project, I had a month to complete the first segment of our project in Mexico, and based upon my self-assigned midterm exam, I felt like I was failing.

PROCESS- AND TEAM-ORIENTED METRIC OF SUCCESS

As I discussed my feelings of frustration with my teammates, they provided invaluable encouragement and helped to point out areas where I had been able to contribute. Of more importance than this individual encouragement, however, was the realization that my metric for success had been based upon the fundamental fallacy that the success of the project depended on me as an individual.

Joshua Pine looks out at the Teotihuacan pyramids on the horizon.
Visiting the Teotihuacan pyramids.

A central question within design thinking encapsulates this form of communal recognition by encouraging us to always ask, “How might we…?” rather than “How might I…?” This seemingly simple insight was powerful in helping me view my worth less as an exam evaluating individual success, but rather as a relational perspective measuring my ability to add value to the team as a whole. Expanding the scope of “team” beyond my immediate teammates to include our partners in Mexico helped me develop a more communal, relational perspective. I did not need to solve the problem of inadequate housing in a month, but rather contribute to an ongoing process that had been happening before I arrived and would continue long after.

Rather than evaluating success within an individualistic, goal-oriented model, my experiences so far this summer have helped to focus more on a collective, process-oriented model of success wherein my goal is to help support my team and add value to an ongoing process.

Navigating Cambodia: Reflections from the first week

by: Theresa Puhr

While climbing through the ruins of one of the many temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park in the city of Siem Reap, I was taken aback by a large tree growing on top of the temple’s walls. It was striking—the tree soared into the sky at least 20 feet high, its roots sturdily straddling the wall. For the rest of the day, I continued to think about that tree. To me, it seemed to be a perfect metaphor for Cambodia: the ruins of the temples symbolized the country’s long history, while the tree was present-day Cambodia. Present-day Cambodia isn’t simply a remodeling of an old temple. Rather, it is a stark offshoot that is attempting to stay connected to its roots.

A tall tree growing off the side of a temple at Angkor Archaeological Park
Ruins from a temple in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The Khmer Empire emerged in the ninth century and ruled for five hundred years, bringing Buddhism and political and cultural development to Cambodia. This was evident at the archaeological park, where massive stone structures, full of intricate art, lay on top of human-constructed waterways. The area was bustling with tourists, and it was easy to get caught up in the awe-inspiring complex of temples.

However, small details remind you of Cambodia’s darker, more recent history. At several of the temple entrances, a group of musicians serenaded visitors with traditional music. They all had apparent physical disabilities—and signs next to their performance space confirmed this, describing how these musicians were all injured by landmines. While we ate lunch with our tuk-tuk driver, he explained to us that he was not a native of Siem Reap—rather, he used to live in the jungle, fleeing from the Vietnamese during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Remnants of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and its genocide of around two million people during the 1970s are ubiquitous in Cambodia. I see it on a daily basis—in the fairly young faces that surround me on the streets, in my struggle to figure out what Khmer cuisine exactly is since many recipes and culinary traditions were lost to the genocide, in the very visible survivors of the war who share their stories on the street.

At the same time, rapid economic development also dominates the landscape. High-rises are under construction, most being built by Chinese companies. Parts of the capital, Phnom Penh, are full of modern architecture and advertisements for Western luxury brands. These images of economic growth have brought to life everything I learned about Cambodia’s rapid rate of development in one of my macroeconomics class projects back in my first semester of the MGA program. Any observer can clearly see that Cambodia has made an impressive comeback over the last four decades. In reality, Cambodia’s development has only scratched the surface and has yet to reverse the damage done by the Khmer Rouge.

The city of Phnom Penh at night.
Nighttime near the center of Phnom Penh—this area is in striking contrast to the more populated areas of the city.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

According to official reports, the country’s poverty rate has experienced a massive decline and is currently sitting at 13.5 percent. However, poverty indicators that account for factors other than just income place Cambodia’s poverty rate at a much higher 35 percent. This is why NGOs like my i-Lab partner organization, Oxfam, continue to operate in the country.

Through the Keough School’s i-Lab, my team and I are working with Oxfam in both Cambodia and Timor-Leste to explore avenues to achieve financial inclusion. Inequality in Cambodia is growing: there are limited opportunities for decent work, and climate change threatens its most vulnerable populations. Thus, it is important to remember that, regardless of Cambodia’s ability to achieve remarkable economic growth in recent years, healing from trauma is a long and difficult process.

It may take generations for Cambodia to recover from its painful history and reestablish roots in its traditions. As our team works with Oxfam to improve the status of women by examining programming which addresses gender norms and researching market access opportunities in Cambodia, we will continue to be mindful of the fact that these goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Context matters, and we must not forget Cambodia’s complex layers of history and tradition in our work to address gender inequality.

Kenya: An Opportunity to Learn Adaptability and Effective Engagement in Foreign Spaces

by: Loyce Mrewa

Working in Nairobi, Kenya, has been a unique experience with challenges I had not initially anticipated, but it has exposed me to various nuances which will be helpful in the future. This experience enabled me to travel to Kenya for the first time and to work in a country other than my own. It has also provided the opportunity to learn and witness firsthand the implementation of the peacebuilding concepts and tools I have been learning in class. Since I am a foreigner with limited familiarity with Kenya, its culture, and the local language, Kiswahili, I have been observing this implementation process from an outsider perspective.

A bottom-up approach

Being in Nairobi, Kenya, for five months has enabled me to witness and learn about the importance of having long-term engagement. My perspectives about how to engage Kenyans in peacebuilding work have shifted over time, with greater exposure and interaction with locals. Working with a local partner has provided space for interrogation and inquiry about the dimensions and nuances that influence peacebuilding work. It has made me realize the importance of engaging in peacebuilding work with the aid of locals who are more familiar with cultural and social practices that are important to analyze. The significance of the local turn in peacebuilding is being put into practical perspective during this field experience, at least at the individual level where, as a foreigner, I am working and being guided by a local partner with vast local knowledge and experience in the peacebuilding field. A bottom-up approach is an essential skill in the field, because at one point or another you will find yourself in a foreign land or space where you will have to learn from others. In such situations, one has to learn to support and trust in the capability and knowledge of persons from that particular context, and abandon initial assumptions one might hold.

I believe this process of trusting and supporting existing local structures and persons is what is meant by accompaniment and a bottom-up approach, concepts that I am currently learning firsthand in Kenya.

My trip to the coast of Mombasa, Kenya.

The immersion process into Kenya, its culture, and the peacebuilding interventions implemented by our partner organization has also provided space to practice accompaniment by learning from others through observation and providing assistance with projects. This has exposed me to strategies for effectively engaging in foreign spaces and working with persons from varying identity groups to enhance adaptability, social bridging skills, and cultivate an acceptance of differences. These traits are vital for relationship building and working in foreign environments, particularly since soft forms of power such as relationship building (social harmony) are utilized in making societies more peaceful and just.

Me, admiring the beauty of Naivasha.

Although immersion has been challenging for various reasons including language barriers, I have acquired valuable skills and have come to understand the practical importance of a local dimension in implemented interventions. Additionally, I am realizing the importance of working in foreign environments where one has limited familiarity and discovering the strategies for navigating these spaces. I now understand what Susan St. Ville, the Director of the International Peace Studies Concentration, meant in her advice to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the field: the lessons learned in the field make the awkwardness of initial engagement all worth it.

 

i-Lab Update: Students Return to Campus

by: Mark Stevens

How do you sum up a year-long experience where you’ve worked with a team of others, traveled to multiple countries, and examined solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the world today? This is exactly what we asked the students in the i-Lab to do on September 13—in five minutes or less, in front of the entire Keough School.

Over the summer the i-Lab sent 23 Master of Global Affairs students, in 7 project teams, to 14 countries across 5 continents, to work with organizations on the frontlines. Upon their return to campus, we gathered in the i-Lab space to let students tell their stories, explain why their projects are so important to their partner organizations, and discuss what they learned in the field and the impact they hope to achieve.

Our students were, in short, extraordinary. Here is a brief recap of their projects and stories:

Continue reading i-Lab Update: Students Return to Campus

Reflections on a field excursion to Bantayan Island in the Philippines

by: Jenna Ahn

Master of Global Affairs student Jenna Ahn is working with teammates Steven and Juanita, in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International, on a project to design and test a pre-crisis market analysis toolkit for the shelter sector. A better baseline understanding of local markets can guide both pre-crisis programming to build resilience and post-crisis interventions for shelter in sustainable and scalable ways. The team spent two months in Cebu Province in the Philippines conducting interviews and gathering data.


“Hello mamser!” We turned around to see who was calling us with what came to be my favorite gender neutral and delightfully formal Filipino greeting.

It was the woman we interviewed earlier that day. She was grinning and waving at us.

“Hello, Ma’am!” We called back.

As we continued on the dirt road, we encountered other familiar faces from our previous interviews: a husband and wife at dinner who greeted us, counter managers at neighboring hardware stores, and a few friendly nods in the street. We were a motley crew—four Filipinos, two Americans, and a Colombian—and I assumed news of our arrival had spread through the small neighboring barangays of Santa Fe and Pooc. In just five days conducting over 70 interviews, we were still very much foreigners, but I couldn’t help feeling that in our five days in Bantayan Island we had glimpsed a tiny part of the integrated ecosystem of the shelter market.

We had planned to track the supply chain backwards: from households accessing the local market to reconstruct their homes to the hardware stores, construction laborers, and NGOs who aided them in the process. While a relatively linear strategy, our interviews elicited a much more complex reality of relationships, motivations, and obstacles that left us with more questions than answers. What follows is a brief snapshot of just a few of the people we met along the way. *

Habitat for Humanity TCIS Philippines
One of our translators, Miguel, leading a household interview in Cebuano using questions programmed in a data collection app.
Household

Despite the blaring speakers next door playing “Despacito” on loop, Ma’am Castillo was calm and thorough as she told us her house was the only one in the neighborhood that had survived Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It wasn’t because her house was particularly durable, she admitted— her house was a mixture of recycled plywood, woven bamboo, and corrugated iron—but because her family had been the only to remain in her neighborhood despite the evacuation warning so God had protected her. She had tried to make some improvements to the house, but her limited budget and compounding loans made things difficult, especially when the price of materials and construction workers skyrocketed after the disaster. How was she supposed to hire a skilled mason if NGOs were willing to pay their masons 150% of the pre-typhoon daily rate?

Construction Laborer

Around the corner at a construction site, we met with Cuya Jason as he took a short break from laying concrete blocks. A hardworking mason and father of four children, Cuya explained that he had learned his trade by shadowing his father as a helper, and eventually took on the title of mason himself. After Typhoon Yolanda decimated many of the homes in his community, Cuya helped to rebuild using the same construction techniques used before the typhoon. He hadn’t changed his building strategies, but why would he? He did what all the other masons did, and ultimately they were all limited by budgets. If anything, Cuya had to explain to households that forgoing reinforcing steel bars altogether would be unethical. When asked if he would be interested in training workshops to improve his trade, Cuya smiled—perhaps assuming I was searching for a “yes”—and shook his head. Maybe, but he didn’t have time and couldn’t lose out on his daily wage. After all, he needed to get food on the table.

Hardware Store

I stood at the counter of RJ’s Hardware and I could tell Até Maria was still convinced that we might sell her business secrets to the other stores in town, but she spoke to us anyway. Like any good business manager, Até closely observed changes in customer behavior and demand when ordering stock. It’s not that she wanted to sell substandard materials, she said matter-of-factly, but it’s what the people could afford. It’s what they wanted. She hoped another typhoon wouldn’t hit the community, but we both knew that it would significantly benefit her business.

An inside view of a local hardware store in Bantayan displaying its stock.

We interviewed many others along the way—some with similar stories and still others with different experiences. Ultimately, we found that 60% of households we spoke with did not believe their house would withstand the next climate disaster. And though we must acknowledge there are no easy solutions to the fragile and interconnected relationships within the shelter market in places like Bantayan Island, I do know that the need to act now to benefit people like Ma’am Castillo, Cuya Jason, and Até Maria is central to a commitment to human dignity.

In the end, a home is not simply four walls and a roof where families are forced to live in fear of devastation. Lives are not worth saving only after inevitable climate disasters strike. If we take seriously the Keough School’s mission towards integral human development and protecting the inherent dignity of all persons (especially vulnerable persons), we must work before the next disaster to increase access to dignified housing.

Habitat for Humanity Philippines
Team photo after our presentation in the Habitat for Humanity International office in Manila.

*all names have been changed for confidentiality

Contemplating a Country of Immigrants and Anti-Immigrant Policies

by: Shuyuan Shen

“A closed country is a dying country.” — Edna Ferber, American novelist


This summer, three Master of Global Affairs classmates and I traveled for eight weeks to investigate immigration enforcement in the United States, Germany, and Greece, partnering with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services. Unexpectedly while we were in the field, stories of family separation swept through the US. The heartbreaking experience and brutal reality along the US-Mexico border shocked many Americans and stimulated protests across the US to call for more humane border enforcement or even alternatives to enforcement.

Immigration El Paso Ciudad Juarez
US border patrol agents stand on a bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the port of entry.
IMMIGRATION’S DIFFICULT HISTORY

Many people argue that America has always been a country of immigrants and was built by immigrants. These people do not understand how a country of immigrants could implement seemingly merciless immigration policies, separating children from their parents, prosecuting migrants who do no harm to national security, and deporting people whose entire family and lives are in the US.

To some extent, they are correct. Despite the fact that many countries, such as Argentina, Austria, and France, welcomed large flows of immigrants in history, none of them have developed a collective cultural identity of “nation of immigrants” to the same extent that the US has. People believe in the American Dream that, no matter who you are and where you come from, you can achieve success if you work hard.

However, people who believe in the immigrant ethos of the US often neglect the fact that, although the US is indeed a nation of immigrants, at the same time, it has always been harsh on immigrants. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act implemented in 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, and the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted migrants from eastern and southern European countries as well as most Asian immigrants. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement exposed the discriminatory and unjust nature of the quota system, which led to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Although it terminated the quota system, it was still quite restrictive and maintained the per-country-of-origin limits.

EXILE exhibit in Geneva
EXILE, a temporary exhibition on migration at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.

Occasionally, there were pro-immigrant laws and policies carried out thanks to pro-immigrant advocates, and the University of Notre Dame played a significant role in that. Father Theodore Hesburgh, then-President of the University of Notre Dame and former head of the Civil Rights Commission, chaired the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP) in the late 1970s.  The Commission was set up by Public Law 95-412 (passed Oct. 5, 1978) with the mission “to study and evaluate…existing laws, policies, and procedures governing the admission of immigrants and refugees to the United States and to make such administrative and legislative recommendations to the President and to the Congress as are appropriate.” The SCIRP report produced by the Hesburgh Commission helped establish an expansive framework for immigration policymaking, and its central ideas were largely codified in the 1986 and 1990 immigration reforms. Despite some restrictive features, the Immigration Reform Act in 1986 created one of the largest amnesty programs for undocumented immigrants at that time, with a seasonal agricultural program offering legal paths for migrant labors to become permanent residents and citizens, and various protections against discrimination (Tichenor, 2002).

Unfortunately, the pro-immigrant atmosphere changed quickly in the mid-1990s when California’s Proposition 1994 stripped undocumented immigrants of a wide range of social services, including educational benefits for undocumented children. Then, in 2005, Operation Streamline was started, and the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach that aimed to prosecute every migrant crossing the US border without authorization. Recently, the family separation scandal broke out, exposing the ignominious immigration policies and enforcement to public scrutiny and criticism.

Me in Geneva, Switzerland, where I conducted interviews with staff at intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations about migrant issues.
IMMIGRATION POLICIES: LAGGING BEHIND THE TIMES

The purpose of listing the restrictive immigration laws of the past is not to justify the current administration’s immigration policies. Many of them were implemented when racial discrimination prevailed and universal principles on human rights were not recognized. Sixty years have passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many other international or domestic documents that advance the interests of the migrant population have also been established. The rights of migrants and refugees ought to be better protected.

Nevertheless, during our field observation at the US-Mexico border and in Germany and Greece, we questioned our progress since that time. The enhanced border enforcement on the US-Mexico border pushes migrants and asylum seekers to more rugged and dangerous routes. The criminalization of migrants, especially treating illegal re-entry as a felony, punishes those people who have the strongest ties in the US the most, as typically people whose families and social networks are in the US are those willing to risk crossing the border again after deportation. It is the same group that receives the toughest punishment. How could this be just?

Collecting artifacts left by migrants in the desert on the US-Mexico border.

In the field, we learned that a grandpa, who was also an undocumented immigrant, was arrested when he was taking his grandchildren to school. Would there be better occasions to arrest him rather than when he was with his grandchildren? We also learned that the Border Patrol adopts a strategy called “dusting” in which a helicopter flies over a group of migrants, raising a dust in the desert and dispersing and disorienting the migrants. Hence, many migrants get lost and die in the desert. There are many more examples of inhumane law enforcement practices like this, casting doubts on the nature of law enforcement.

US-Mexico border El Paso meeting
Meeting with the Hope Border Institute at El Paso, Texas.
BUT WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT MIGRATION?

We still don’t know the answer after our two-month fieldwork. Maybe there is no definite answer to this question. For many people in society, law and order is their most important concern. In their minds, undocumented migrants deserve retribution for their illegal act, and the law enforcement practice on the border is just and well-founded.

Critics of immigration may not reflect on the law itself and debate whether it is just or not. Some may ask how to decide whether certain laws are just or not. To be honest, I don’t know. I am not a legal expert. But I know that, if laws and policies punish humanity and undermine human dignity, there must be something wrong.

Shuyuan Shen and Kathleen Kollman in the roundtable discussion on immigration enforcement and migration in Washington, D.C.

One blog post cannot show the complex picture of the whole immigration enforcement system. This is not the intention of this post. Nevertheless, it sheds some light on the restrictive nature of immigration law and the brutal reality on the ground facing migrants.

It is clear to us that, not only is more humanitarian assistance needed, but also more research on immigration laws and enforcement are in great need to protect the rights and interests of migrants in the US and other parts of the world.

My classmates and I will continue to strive to advocate for migration rights and interests. It is our hope that migrants, regardless of their origins and status, can be better protected and their human dignity can be fully respected.

Baby Steps in the Field: Field Site Two in Bangladesh

by:  Jamie McClung and Chista Keramati

Master of Global Affairs students Jamie McClung and Chista Keramati are currently working in Bangladesh with their global partner, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. Below they reflect on their most recent field site visit and their experiences interviewing rural community members in the southwest part of Bangladesh, the Satkhira district.


Jamie McClung: Deep Tracks

This week, Chista Keramati and I traveled to villages on the edge of Bangladesh where people’s livelihoods rely on the resources of the Sundarbans—the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Bangladesh Fish and Shrimp
Fishermen throwing their nets to catch fish and shrimp for future sale in the market.
Bangladesh climate change Sundarbans water
A boy stands pensively with land on one side and water on the other, a daily reality for the people near the Sundarbans.

En route to the villages, we confronted slick and muddy roads, where one wrong step meant the difference between staying upright or falling into the rivers and ponds used to hold drinking water. The challenge of navigating these roads was actually quite enjoyable, as it gave us the opportunity to connect with locals, who graciously helped us make our way safely.

Chista and Jamie in Bangladesh
We smile as we try not to slip on the road.

Our deep tracks in the mud, and our presence in the villages, seemed to leave a meaningful impression on the communities, as NGOs and even government officials do not seem to visit here often, especially not during such wet weather conditions.

Bangladesh climate change villagers
I stand with villagers who helped us trek down the road to their homes.

Most meaningful to me was all the people who helped us—each day, and in each community—so that we did not fall. Seeing how adept they were at navigating these treacherous conditions left me with two thoughts: 1) the very location of their homes leaves the entirety of these communities vulnerable; and 2) the sheer strength and resilience within these communities is why they are surviving on very little outside support.

Much of this strength comes from traditional and indigenous knowledge. Most people still live in traditional homes, which are intentionally built with locally grown materials and methods to withstand floods or other climatic hazards.

Bangladesh rainy season plinth
Near the Sundarbans, a traditional home built on a mud plinth (the raised ground) to keep the home from flooding during rainy season.

Through our interviews, we discovered that international trade and the strength of multi-national companies are threatening these ways of life and contributing to many of the development challenges we are witnessing today, from malnutrition to lack of housing. Local communities are quickly losing access to the resources they have depended on for generations, as multi-national companies and NGOs introduce services and materials that don’t align with traditional ways of life. The question for me now is: how do we create locally innovative development that delivers sustainable services in line with traditional ways of life?


Chista Keramati: A Humble Reminder to Self

I wrote my first blog post after I had spent barely ten days in Bangladesh. My research partner Jamie and I had not yet interviewed many people. Dhaka, the capital, and its busy streets and narrow pedestrian areas were the only places we had seen of this geographically and ethnically diverse country. Simply put, I knew not what to expect.

This past Friday—fifty seven days into our stay, and at the closing of our second field trip in rural Bangladesh—we gathered in the local restaurant below our hotel to have our last breakfast in Shyamnagar, a small coastal town in Southwest Bangladesh. While waiting for our now usual “Naan roti and eggs,” we chatted about the past week’s experiences interviewing rural communities, local government officials, and NGOs about their work and life in coastal Bangladesh.

Jamie and I were baffled by what we had heard, observed, and experienced during the past week. Just one day prior, we were on an island where people had lost their land and livelihoods to river bank erosion, and lost family members to cyclones.

Bangladesh climate change women fishing
Women fishing at the bank of Kholpetua River during low tide. They earn somewhere around $1-3 per day selling their catch to local traders.

We walked some of the most difficult hikes of our lives where the seemingly trivial task of going from one village home to the next was a huge challenge in and of itself. Constant heavy rain turned the island’s dirt roads into little (or big) pools of sticky and slippery mud. At every step of the way, I tried to remind myself that, while this was for me a perhaps one-time hardship, it was an everyday routine for local habitants.

Bangladesh Monsoon Muddy Roads
A local woman walking on the muddy village road, which also serves as the river embankment. Storm surges present difficulties in commuting and threaten access to their only roads in and out of the village.

Of course, locals are much more skilled at handling rain and mud than we are. I was reminded of this fact when Shahrbanu—a local woman who had patiently guided the two of us through the mud—bid farewell to us and turned to go home to prepare her family’s lunch. Once assured we were standing on a safe spot, she broke into a sprint towards her home, not minding the slippery road, the heavy rain, and the mud splashing all over her bright red sari. She ran cheerfully and freely as though all the hardships that nature was imposing on her at that very moment were nonexistent. We watched in awe as she disappeared into the mangrove trees and bushes in the distance.

Now silently sipping our sweetened coffee, Jamie and I contemplated what could be done to help. We agreed that it was both humbling and ironic that the locals, in all of their modesty and generosity, did the most to make our experience in Bangladesh, in their villages and homes, pleasant. At our final breakfast, Jamie and I never reached a concrete, satisfying answer. It was like walking through slippery, sticky mud again—toddlers trying to learn how to walk, taking small unsteady steps. We will continue to contemplate. And to this day, the voice of one female participant from a community focus group will continue to echo in my head: “We told you about our lives, don’t forget about us.”

“Somos Red”: A Recap of Nine Weeks of Education Research in Chile

by: Sonia Urquidi

Thirty-three interviews, three focus groups, and eleven classroom observations later, the Enseña Chile team’s eight weeks in the field has come to a close. I write this from my host family’s house as my host dad watches rugby in the living room, both of us bundled in our jackets, as the house is nearly the same temperature as the winter air outside. As I sit down to write, I realize that I’ve barely had a second to myself to reflect on this experience; I’ve been too busy working and exploring Chile with family or friends. Despite the exhaustion, I feel incredibly fortunate for this busy yet fulfilling experience I’ve had here. As I think about what to write, I feel I should address three major things: Our project, of course, some things I’ve learned about education, and the thing for which I am most grateful—the people.

OUR MASTER’S PROJECT

To provide some context, Enseña Chile is an organization modeled after Teach for America in the U.S., and is part of the Teach for All network. This organization selects talented university students (who have not studied pedagogy) to spend two years as teachers in vulnerable schools across Chile. Our work, in particular, relates to a relatively new project, “Colegios que Aprenden” (“Schools that Learn,” in English), in which Enseña Chile hopes to create a consultancy model that helps schools achieve continuous improvement based on concrete evidence.

Therefore, our fieldwork is centered on the following question: How might schools achieve continuous improvement, using data and evidence, to enhance student learning? This is a broad and daunting question. Where would we start?

With the help of our dedicated and kind Chilean team members, Trinidad and Francisco, we began by visiting schools and talking to relevant stakeholders to learn about current feedback systems in Chilean schools.  Based on our conversations and observations, we gathered ideas about how to improve these systems. We visited schools in three major cities: Valparaíso, Concepción, and Santiago (our home base) in order to gain perspective about distinctive regions in the 2,653-mile-long country. The interview questions changed throughout the process as we uncovered major themes or discovered new questions, and the Spanish became a little less daunting as I gained practice. I was delighted by the enthusiasm and openness of the teachers and school administrators who carved out anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours to talk with us.

Education
A focus group with the mentors in the Santiago region of Enseña Chile. Mentors visit classrooms and give feedback to Enseña Chile teachers. We realized they could teach us a lot about how to conduct effective observations and give constructive feedback, so we decided to gather them for a focus group.

THE URGENCY OF EDUCATION

As was the case for some of our classmates in the master’s program, our team’s research didn’t require us to confront overly sensitive or urgent topics. Our questions were along the lines of, “What is your relationship like with other teachers?” or “How do you know that your students have learned the class material?” While these questions didn’t seem pressing, I was reminded in each interview of the fact that every student’s future depends on the quality of his or her education. From this I began to comprehend that this work should, indeed, be approached with a sense of urgency. Many of the schools where Enseña Chile teachers work have a high percentage of students from vulnerable communities. For many of these kids, when home doesn’t offer a safe, loving, or stable environment, school offers solace.  As science teacher, Sebastián told me, “My priority [is] to construct a safe place for them…to form a family.” For these kids, ensuring—as soon as possible—that school is a place of caring and love, and that their education can give them the power to transform their own lives, is urgent. It’s urgent in Chile and around the world. For those of you from the U.S., I ask you to think about the impact of gun violence in our schools, for example. Where do we expect our children to learn if they feel unsafe at home and at school?

Me, giving a very brief overview of our research to the teachers within the Santiago region, essentially advertising the project in hopes of gaining interest for interview and focus group participants.

FROM FOREIGNER TO FRIEND

As interesting and challenging as this research has been, what is most imprinted in my memory are the people I’ve met here in Chile. Just the other day, Enseña Chile celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a day-long celebration. Teachers, school administrators, and funders from all over Chile gathered to converse and attend workshops. As I glanced around the auditorium at the event, I realized how many people Ikrom and I have had the fortune of meeting—teachers with whom we spent hours chatting in Concepción, a school administrator from Viña del Mar who invited us into her home, several mentors who let us spend the night in their apartments, and all the Enseña Chile team from Santiago. In two months, I went from feeling a foreigner to a friend. And when Enseña Chile uses their slogan “somos red,” (“we are a network,” in English), I feel that I am a small part of that human network.

A fantastic hike up Mount Manquehue in Santiago with our kind and adventurous coordinator, Trinidad.

The Beauty of Diversity

by: Dorcas Omowole

Dorcas Omowole interns at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya. With Master of Global Affairs teammates, she assesses the implementation of devolution in Kenya, gathering data and interviewing county officials, civil society organizations, independent commissions and other devolution stakeholders.

A RICHNESS OF FLORA, FAUNA, FOOD, AND GEOGRAPHY

A variety of gourds at the Nairobi National Museum
A variety of gourds at the Nairobi National Museum.

Not only is Kenya home to more than 42 communities, with an estimated 6,506 higher plant species, 359 mammals, 1,079 birds, 61 reptiles, 63 amphibians, and 34 fish species, it has the second highest population of bird and animal species in Africa (Survey of Kenya 2003, World Resources Institute 2003). It’s been interesting and awe-inspiring to experience this diversity, filled with the richness that Kenya represents.

From the community of Somali traders in Eastleigh, Nairobi to the Asian community, most cities in Kenya can be rightly defined as cosmopolitan.  Our taste buds were not left out of this interesting experience as they savored Italian, Indian, Somalian cuisines in Nairobi. Of course, our tongues did not escape Ugali, a staple food made with maize and eaten with vegetables, respected in word and in deed by Kenyans.

Our eyes were also not left out, especially on meandering roads as we climbed the mountains on our way to Kabarinet, Baringo County headquarters and Iten. Iten is the headquarters of Elgeyo Marakwet County. It has very high altitudes and is a training ground for many national and international athletes. Iten is also tagged “home of champions” because many of the medal winning sprinters from Kenya are from Iten.

Keough on the mountain of Iten,Kenya
Keough on the mountains of Iten.

Virtually every curve met my awe as we faced the deep valleys on either side of the road. I was transformed to that experience where your whole life flashes before you and you wonder what if it all ended now. I had to close my eyes and hum some soothing lyrics to get my mind off the road. It was a relief that the journey from Nairobi to Kisumu was through relative lowlands and straight roads – or, maybe my eyes and heart had become immune.

A BUSINESS LESSON FROM A HIPPO

Our visit to the Masai Mara Game Reserve is in the offing, most likely post fieldwork in July when we may also get to experience the great wildebeest migration described by maasaimara.com as the “The World Cup of Wildlife.” However, we have experienced snippets of the variety of wildlife in Kenya through the monkeys and birds on our street, pictures and carvings in the museum, elephants at national parks, and zebras, baboons, camels sighted during our inter-county field travels, and the near sighting of a hippopotamus on Lake Victoria.

The ambivalence that accompanied the desire to sight the hippopotami by those who had seen them before was at first confusing. Hippopotami are herbivores but, in an effort, to protect their territory can overturn boats and provide food for crocodiles—intrinsic division of labour in nature. On hearing this story, although I still verbalized interest in seeing the hippos, I silently prayed that they do not show up or show up at a far distance.

It is this diversity of wildlife and landscapes that makes Kenya a beautiful sight to behold and compels tourists who bring with them 60 percent of government revenues. It is this diversity that people travel from far to experience. It is this diversity that has made Kenya famous. It is this diversity that Kenya cherishes and protects. It is this diversity that Kenya keeps seeking opportunities to maximize.

BRANCHING OUT TO DO GOOD AND BE MORE

Our discussions in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties had been along similar lines. Having both highlands and lowlands within the county, these counties plan putting in mind the unique needs of and benefits from both terrains.

The great wildebeest migration
The great wildebeest migration.

Nature is full of images that aim to instruct us that branching out is a means to be and do much more. A river that branches out does more good compared with a river with one branch, which tends to become a deluge that drowns some and starves others. It is the same reason that we use a comb with multiple teeth to comb our hair. It is the same reason that we prefer a rake to a stick when clearing our garden and prefer a watering can or sprinkler to a bucket. Not only would a bucket be of no help, it would be cumbersome to use and there is the risk of hurting or killing the plants. For this same reason, Kenya wisely branched out into 42 counties with a decentralized system of government in 2010.

Training and retraining the next generation
Training and retraining the next generation.

As we cherish and protect the varieties of wildlife, we should cherish and protect even more the variety of peoples that make our country what it is. Our common history and future binds us. Every tentacle or part of the body has a role to play especially in providing support to the other parts, helping it play its part better. The beauty of diversity is the multiple blessings that diversity offers when the benefits from all parts are acknowledged and maximized.

TRULY AFRICAN

I am proudly Nigerian and have lived the most part of my adult life in Lagos. In my opinion, Nairobi is a milder version of Lagos. I get more frustrated by the complaints about traffic or mosquitoes in Nairobi than by the traffic or mosquitoes. So far, I am loving Nairobi. I am also loving Kenya. Kenya is calm.

At Kisumu, the owner of the venue we had rented for our Focus Group Discussion—an ArchBishop—thought I was Luhya. When I told him I was Nigerian, he said, “Nigeria!” with an accent, saying, “that was how Nigerians say Nigeria.” I smiled. He was indirectly saying Nigerians are sassy, and was referring to our country with some sophistication and class by stressing the “er.” The ArchBishop even had a pose and accompanying head movements as he said, “Nigeria.”

Back in Nigeria, I get comments that I must be Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and it’s hard to place the tribe I am from. I just tell people I am Nigerian and I am pleased with any tribe I am placed in. Nowadays, my conviction (that God created the earth) override and I see myself as a global citizen—although, I have only travelled the world in my dreams. By close of day I was christened “Nanjala,” confirmed in the mouth of three female witnesses (participants at the Focus Group Discussion) and no male protesting. It is interesting that these women were not there in the morning when the Archbishop said I was Luhya but thought a Luhya name was best.

Nanjala means rainfall, and is the Luhya name for a girl born during a time of hunger/famine, as a prayer for the rains to come. Although my given ancestors are of the Luhya tribe, I would rather also just be proudly Kenyan.

Nanjala, –

as the rain falls,

may it wash away every filth and pain, make us see and know the things that really matter,

may the rains become a river that branches out and feeds all,

may the words of the Kenyan national anthem resound in sonorous unity and supplication.

“O God of all creation

Bless this our land and nation

Justice be our shield and defender

May we dwell in unity

Peace and liberty

Plenty be found within our borders.

Let one and all arise

With hearts both strong and true

Service be our earnest endeavour

And our homeland of Kenya

Heritage of splendour

Firm may we stand to defend.

Let all with one accord

In common bond united

Build this our nation together

And the glory of Kenya

The fruit of our labour

Fill every heart with thanksgiving.”

A pose with past presidents of Kenya
A pose with past presidents of Kenya.