The Long Road to Safety

The Long Road to Safety

It’s one of the largest mass migrations of people in history, a veritable exodus of people displaced from their homes in the Middle East and Africa. After much grappling and over the objections of some member-states, the EU has decided to relocate 120,000 refugees across the continent. There is discord on both sides, with some arguing that’s too many, and many others asking whether the Band-Aid is big enough. After all, conflict in Syria and Iraq continues, unabated, and some 8,000 refugees arrive in Europe every day, according to the U.N. Nearly half a million have already arrived. And thousands die or disappear trying to reach Europe’s shores; they are not counted. 

All of which is to say that the political wrestling will continue, and that the refugees, likely, will continue to come. These photographs by Pete Kiehart, a former staffer at the San Francisco Chronicle who is now based in Eastern Europe, attest to the drama of the journey — its scrum and discomfort, as well as its strange vistas. Kiehart reports police officers are directing migrants to circumvent border control, for instance, and there are some more mundane consequences, like strains on local services such as trash collection. But mostly, he’s been struck by the length of the migrants’ journeys. “They’ve all been traveling for so long,” Kiehart tells OZY — from Syria, of course, but also African countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan. His photographs appear here with some of OZY’s coverage of the crisis. 

Europe’s Gatekeeper

So far, the burden of the refugee crisis has fallen almost solely on the shoulders of Southern European countries like Greece, Spain and Italy, where most boats arrive. One of Europe’s gatekeepers is Giusy Nicolini, mayor of the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which regularly welcomes 2,500 arrivals a day. She has buried countless unidentified men, women and children and has turned her little rock in the middle of the Mediterranean into a save haven for all refugees. “The thing with human rights is that you can’t make exceptions,” she told me when I visited in the spring. Read more here.

When Italy’s Migrants Move In

Yet as the number of refugees continues to grow, Northern Europe has no choice but to get involved. And some are welcoming scared newcomers with open arms, offering food, shelter and moral support for refugees. In Italy, host families have begun to welcome the displaced into their homes. And the mayor of the small German town of Goslar is actually begging nearby cities and federal authorities to send refugees his way, in a bid to remediate the town’s shortage of manpower and excess of vacant apartments. Read more here

Refugees: Jihadi Pipeline? 

Still, “welcome all” solutions are still rare, as most European countries appear reluctant to resettle refugees, arguing that the “human flood” is too costly post-recession, or the threat of jihadis entering the country is too high. The same argument has been made in the U.S. After the Obama administration announced that it would increase its admission of refugees from Syria, Republican Rep. Michael McCaul called the idea “a federally funded jihadi pipeline.” Last week, the United States announced it would up the number of refugees it accepts from around the world, from 70,000 to 100,000. But so far, it’s accepted only 1,500 refugees from Syria. Read more here

The Human Trafficker

So while politicians try to play hot potato with the issue and humanitarian workers rush to build makeshift refugee centers across Europe, the only ones benefiting from this crisis are the criminal networks exploiting refugees’ desperation. Human traffickers like Ahmad, 35, are flourishing. This Syrian ex-doctor now crams hundreds of men, women and children into boats and sends them on a journey through the world’s deadliest border, the Mediterranean. He earns as much as $1,400 per refugee, whether or not they make it to the other shore — which they often don’t. Read more here.

 

The OZY Hunger Games: The Exorcism of Bobby Jindal

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Remember how The Hunger Games would honor its fallen tributes? In this occasional series, OZY predicts which presidential candidates will be the next to fall — whether they know it or not.

You weren’t alone at the “kids’ table” in the Sept. 16 GOP presidential debate, Gov. Jindal, but, as usual, your presence there was the most awkward. In politics, as in sports, there’s nothing more piteous than the fallen prodigy — the once promising phenom now shuffling around the minor leagues with a dead arm, hoping for one last shot at the show.

From the days of being hailed as the “GOP’s Obama” and a possible first Indian-American president of the United States, you’re now resorting to taking “Hail Mary” potshots at Donald Trump in hopes of raising your poll numbers above 1 percent — not to mention printing T-shirts with slogans like “Tanned. Rested. Ready.” Whatever possessed you, Governor? Your campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but we’ll hazard a guess.

It appears to be a matter of possession by a devil we all know in some form, but who in this case has consumed your soul almost entirely: ambition. And, as if spurred by some Faustian bargain struck deep in the swamps outside your hometown of Baton Rouge, that devil drove you to some remarkable early heights: an Ivy League graduate and Rhodes scholar at age 21, head of Louisiana’s Health and Hospitals department at 25 and of the entire University of Louisiana system at 28, before becoming an assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, a two-term congressman and, at 36, the nation’s first Indian-American governor. “If you cut that boy open from stem to stern,” a seasoned Louisiana lobbyist reportedly once said of you, “won’t nothing bleed out but ambition.”

Being possessed is nothing to trifle with, however, and in some ways, it’s lucky that this devil chose you. Most major presidential candidates have never participated in an exorcism — in fact, you appear to be the only one who has. Many of us have done some crazy things in college we choose to forget, but you, an “evangelist Catholic,” chose to write about that time you and other classmates, without the aid of a priest, exorcised a demon from your suffering friend “Susan.” (Luckily, a trained doctor later exorcised a cancerous lump from her scalp.)

 

It’s about time to dust off that crucifix and cast out another spirit, Governor. Please make yourself comfortable — we’ll need to secure your arms and legs for your own protection (and to ensure the demon can’t tweet anything about Donald Trump during the rite). We know that somewhere inside you there still exists Piyush Jindal, the 4-year-old who adopted the name of his favorite Brady Bunch character; the proud Indian-American, Reagan Republican teen in penny loafers whose ambition had not yet forced him into cowboy boots and inveighing against “hyphenated Americans.”

Somewhere, though, that cursed devil took the helm. Somewhere, a biology major who aspired to a career in medicine became a relentless politico whose classmates at Oxford had to ask him to drop coins in a jar every time he told someone he was a Rhodes scholar. Somewhere, a fast-talking wunderkind adopted a folksy Southern drawl and started being compared to Kenneth the page instead of the “next Ronald Reagan.” Somewhere, a wonky, technocratic governor watched (often from the campaign trail outside his state) as fiscal disasters in higher education and health care enveloped Louisiana. Now you’re less popular than President Obama in your own deep-red state. (You’ve previously said you were elected to do hard things and that you’re “leaving Louisiana in better shape” than you found it.) As no less an expert in ambition than Niccolò Machiavelli once observed of fates like your own: “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”

And that fall is nigh. Ambition, foul devil, from this creature of God be gone! In the name of the Father, the Son and the Marist Poll, we cast you out of this candidate. The power of Christ, and of electoral democracy, compels you … at least until 2020. Please join us in saying a prayer for the fallen, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

A Profoundly Strange Snippet of Forgotten Rock History

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Ask Mick Jagger to put on his dream concert these days, and he’ll probably hire Martin Scorsese. Forty-seven years ago, he could do even better: He put the Rolling Stones, the Who and a Beatle on the same stage and made a movie.

Unfortunately, the result was a trippy train wreck — and it ended so badly for the Rolling Stones that everyone forgot about it for 20 years.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was, in its peculiar ’60s way, the equivalent of giving Spotify the middle finger today. Fed up with record companies’ reactions to the post-Beatles rock ’n’ roll tidal wave, the Rolling Stones decided to bust up conventional ideas about how to put on a show. Their concept? A circus featuring some of the biggest acts in music.

Performers wandered across the stage, rock legends oddly diminished by the offhandedness of the increasingly long night.

Cut to a big top draped over a BBC soundstage, a sleepy, drugged-up invited audience draped in yellow capes, and the occasional clown and acrobat tumbling across a makeshift ring. Technicians struggled to get everything set up, pushing the start into the early morning. Performers wandered across the stage, rock ’n’ roll legends oddly diminished by the offhandedness of the increasingly long December night. Decked out in glitter and a clown ruff, the Who’s Keith Moon flashed cheeky grins at the camera; John Lennon and Mick Jagger drawled improv introductions in New York accents as Lennon ate dinner; Keith Richards sucked on a cigar while wearing an incongruous top hat and eye patch. They would be there until 5 a.m.

Watching the 1968 footage today — restored after the Stones binned it, and left undiscovered until 1989 — some of the performances flicker as weird gems or dire omens. Lennon, looking tired and thin, is with Yoko Ono, quiet and alert in an all-black witch costume. Shaggy Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson rocks like a budget Rip Van Winkle who’s been asleep since the Summer of Love. A one-off supergroup called the Dirty Mac — Lennon, Ono, Richards, Eric Clapton and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience — rip through the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” and an instrumental jam featuring Ono’s wails.

But the Stones suffered their attempt at self-promotion. “That plan just blew up in their faces,” classic-rock writer Jen Cunningham explains.

 

The Who, she tells OZY, were “really on fire.” Despite being a few years behind their hosts’ global success, they’d just been on a rocking tour, and it showed. Their performance of the wicked mini-rock-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is a blistering, high-energy rumble featuring frenetic guitar windmills, broken drumsticks, roaring bass and raw vocals from the whole band. Even watching decades later, they visibly shake the night awake — and they’re having a great time as they do it. “You’re all forgiven!” Pete Townshend proclaims triumphantly at the end of the song, repeating the chorus, while the audience exchange wide-eyed looks, like sandblasted converts. Keith Moon, who’s dumped water on his drums and been smashing up a wall of spray, bares his teeth in a delighted feral grin like he knows he’s won.

In a way, he had. The Stones delivered a lackluster performance even of their new hit, “Sympathy for the Devil” — so much so, says Cunningham, that “it’s not surprising that the film magically ‘vanished’ for years to hide their flub.” Jagger’s contortions are forced, songs start in wonky keys, and Charlie Watts looks ready to fall off his drum stool. “You can even see a kind of disconnect in [guitarist] Brian Jones’ expression, and it wasn’t long after that he would leave the band,” notes Cunningham. Jones, who spent the evening in a drugged daze, drowned less than a year later. 

There’s no denying Rock and Roll Circus is a cool, profoundly strange snippet of rock history. It’s also a little like watching a late-night fever dream — and glimpsing a surreal alternate universe where the gods of rock ’n’ roll get no satisfaction.

The Virginia Couple That Gave Birth to the Billable Hour

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Being an associate at a large law firm is not designed to be easy. To amass the roughly 2,000 billable hours required of associates each year, they pretty much have to work 60 or more hours per week for at least 50 weeks per year. The entire crazy system — fueled by the all-powerful billable hour — has long been criticized as nightmarish for attorneys, with partners being the only ones who truly benefit in the wealth department.

And yet the billable hour was not inevitable, nor has it been around that long in the big scheme of things. If you happen to be an associate looking to assign the blame for your particular set of circumstances, or to kill 1/20th of an hour before you return to billable work, may I propose a Virginia couple named Ruth and Lewis Goldfarb. Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a case brought by the Goldfarbs that minimum-fee schedules for lawyer rates violated antitrust law, an act that effectively spurred the growth of the billable hour — and sealed the fates of countless young lawyers.

Throughout the 19th century, legal fees in the U.S. were largely capped by state law with the costs of litigation footed by the losing party. More adventuresome billing methods, including retainers and contingency fees, began to crop up in the early 20th century. But, as litigation, corporate transactions and other legal work grew more complicated and expensive, many lawyers found themselves working harder and longer for the same standardized fee and, perhaps more importantly, falling well behind the pay scales of fellow professionals such as doctors and dentists.

It did not take long for the lawyer’s time sheet to go from a record-keeping tool to a record-breaking profit generator.

In a 1958 pamphlet titled “The 1958 Lawyer and His 1938 Dollar,” the American Bar Association (ABA) attributed the sinking fortunes of the profession to the fact that lawyers were sloppy businessmen who kept poor records and undervalued their services. (That same pamphlet also proposed a 1,300-hour workload for associates!) “Lawyers have slowly but surely been committing economic suicide as a profession,” the Virginia State Bar’s committee on economics concluded around the same time, proposing a solution embraced by state bars across the country: minimum-fee schedules.

For the Virginia State Bar, the minimum fee schedule was just good business, and lawyers found to be charging less than the suggested fee for a service would be presumed “guilty of misconduct.” For Ruth and Lewis Goldfarb, and the class of Virginia plaintiffs they headed, however, the minimum fees charged by the legal profession constituted price-fixing and were therefore — rather ironically — illegal. In 1971, the Goldfarbs had contracted to purchase a home in Reston, Virginia, and as part of securing a mortgage, were required to hire a local attorney to conduct a title examination of the property. To their horror, and after calls to several dozen attorneys in Northern Virginia, the Goldfarbs discovered that the minimum-fee system made bargain hunting for legal services a rather pointless exercise.

Four years and no doubt substantial legal fees later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling in Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar that minimum-fee schedules violated federal antitrust law. Many law firms had heeded the ABA’s clarion call before Goldfarb and started billing by the hour (and keeping better records), but when the Supreme Court kicked the minimum fee crutch out from under the ailing profession, it was clear that the billable hour was the way forward, and by the end of the decade the system was firmly entrenched.

Hourly billing also pleased clients, who received a clearer look into the services provided them, though it did not take long for the lawyer’s time sheet to go from a record-keeping tool to a record-breaking profit generator. This was accomplished in large part on the back of associates’ labor — billed out to clients at two to five times their own compensation rate, which meant that hiring legions of young lawyers became, as one big-firm managing partner once admitted, “like owning a printing press.”

Or put another way, from the vantage of those being pressed into service: “The profession’s obsession with billable hours is like drinking water from a fire hose,” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once observed. “The result is that many lawyers are starting to drown.” Consequently, lawyers are routinely among the most depressed, overworked and substance-abusing professionals around, and chasing the almighty billable hour has led many to pursue other callings. And even though the Great Recession did lead many firms and their clients to pursue alternative fee arrangements, the billable hour is still alive and well in 2015.

Would it have been any different had Ruth and Lewis Goldfarb decided to rent instead of own their home? Perhaps not. But young lawyers today have little time for such musings. The clock’s a-ticking, and it’s high time they get back to work.

 

The Rise of Europe’s Unlikeliest Tax Haven

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Two hundred miles off the coast of Morocco, the Canary Islands remain among Spain’s farthest-flung territories, appearing as a few specks of volcanic rock against the endless Atlantic blue. Tourists roast on its beaches, and everything moves at a snail’s pace.

That includes, unfortunately, the economy, which suffers from high unemployment and the highest child poverty rate in Spain. But while some regions might rely on building a tech industry or boosting tourism to recover, the Canaries have created a different lure: low taxes. Very low. Indeed, looking to places like the British Cayman Islands and Switzerland, the Canaries (despite its population of just 2.1 million people) are hoping to unseat Ireland, Europe’s best-known mecca for corporations with allergies to taxes. The islands’ corporate tax is now just 4 percent — a third of Ireland’s and the lowest on the continent, according to a report from advisory firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Its standard VAT, or value-added tax, is 7 percent, whereas Ireland’s is 23 percent, which makes the day-to-day running of a business cheaper. 

Being a European outpost gives the Canaries these unique financial advantages, which, until this past January, were almost inaccessible to foreign companies. After the latest reform, however, the so-called special economic zone (SEZ) is free game for everyone. According to Beatriz Barrera, president of the Canary Islands SEZ, the low-tax haven has already attracted more than 425 companies, about a third of which are foreign.

Even if the Canaries manage to attract foreign companies, there’s no guarantee this will help the local economy.

Enticing businesses with super low taxes is a counterintuitive move at a time when tax havens are getting a bad rep, and the European Union is cracking down on corporate tax evasion by planning to force all EU countries to share details of every tax ruling they grant to multinationals. And the Canaries are certainly not an obvious location. The islands’ remoteness can, in fact, be a deal breaker, since getting down there from London requires a four-and-a-half-hour flight. (Istanbul is closer.) Its infrastructure is also heavily oriented toward tourism — which employs about a quarter of its working locals — with far more hotels than universities, business centers or startup incubators. And the red tape — forms and papers that require stamps and signatures — doesn’t help either. “The bureaucracy is time-consuming and not English-friendly,” says Karen Floyd, the chief brand officer of intraHouse, a Norwegian mobile software company that opened a branch in Gran Canaria more than a year ago.

Still, being so far south does provide the ability for logistic companies to gain quick access to fast-growing markets like Nigeria, while remaining inside the EU. That’s been the case for the Norwegian company Otech, which operates from Gran Canaria and maintains Nigeria’s many offshore oil rigs. According to Jaime Cavero Gandarias, from the business consulting firm Dyrecto, companies value being able to provide their employees with “health, education and security at a European standard, but at a fraction of the cost.”

When it comes to the lifestyle, Ireland or Luxembourg can hardly compete with these laid-back nature-centric isles. “It’s a great place to live if you like the ocean,” says Peter Fabor, a user experience designer from Slovakia who moved here to surf two years ago. He’s since started his own company, Surf Office, offering accommodation and co-working spaces to professionals.

But even if the Canaries manage to attract foreign companies, there’s no guarantee this will help the local economy. After all, Ireland’s tax honeypot hasn’t really worked to uplift the crisis-stricken country, because it was an ad hoc model for multinationals that did not create jobs in the industries that needed it most, according to Nicholas Shaxson, a journalist and researcher for the Tax Justice Network, an expert-led group focused on tax and tax havens. This clientelist style has led the European Commission to accuse the Irish government of giving special treatment to Apple, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

With the EU strapped for cash and cracking down on corporate tax evasion from Ireland to Luxembourg, one might think it isn’t too keen about this latest development. Yet it’s the EU that approved and guaranteed the Canary Islands’ friendly tax regime — until 2026, which means it can’t be revoked until after then. For her part, Barrera says the islands have no interest in luring greedy corporations with shady deals, or having tax breaks that benefit only a few foreigners. That’s why they have certain requirements for companies wanting to benefit from the special tax rate here, such as needing to have at least five employees and one manager living in the Canary Islands.  

Talk to some Canary Islanders, though, and you’ll find more than a skeptical few. Some think the tax breaks aren’t enough to attract foreign companies, while local economist Jorge Dorta fears they’ll “only serve for companies from the mainland to colonize us.” Then there’s the whole image problem: “Nobody likes being identified as a ‘corporate tax haven,’” says 29-year-old teacher Pablo Gonzalez. Unless, that is, these forsaken islands succeed in creating a new breed of fiscal paradise — the sustainable kind.

 

Bruges: The Better Alternative to Brussels

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Medieval times are synonymous with war, plague and religious fanaticism. Yet that doesn’t stop us from romanticizing them. Renaissance fairs and Game of Thrones have made us yearn for horse-drawn carriages, echoey castles and mysterious encounters in dark pebbled alleys. But fear not: There’s no need to build a time machine to make your dream come true —  just visit Bruges instead.

This medieval marvel is only the sixth-largest city in Belgium, and yet it gives poor Brussels a run for its money in both looks and charm. Brussels might be home to some big-league European institutions, famous sculptures and a zoo, but otherwise it’s kinda boring. Whereas Bruges, well, it’s just so charming. Imagine an endless spiderweb of alleyways opening to squares flanked with gorgeous medieval buildings, and a circuit of canals and mossy bridges that once granted the city the title “The Venice of the North.” The serpentine waterways are the most picturesque way to discover the city.

The city is renowned for its cafes and chocolate, with dozens of meticulously decorated chocolatier windows.

Once you’ve gotten your aquatic bearings, you can visit the major landmarks by foot or bike. “What strikes you the most is the architecture,” says Skaistė Aleksandravičiūtė, a visitor from Lithuania. “It seems too pretty to be real.” The beating heart of the city is the Markt — a busy square lined with gabled guild houses. The 13th-century Church of Our Lady is also a must-see, with its tall medieval brick tower and hidden treasures, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child

And Bruges is not only a feast for the eyes. The city is renowned for its cafes and chocolate, with dozens of meticulously decorated chocolatier windows. But chocoholics be warned: Some sellers are tourist traps flogging cheap imported chocolate. For the real deal, make sure the sign says “homemade.” Bruges is likewise heaven for beer snobs. Most of the city’s breweries are open to the public and offer generous tastings of their local brews; otherwise, be prepared to pay around $5 a beer — and you may want to grab some Belgian fries beforehand, to line your stomach. Hidden among chocolate shops are vintage stores, hipster coffee bars, music bars and artist squats. It’s also legal to possess up to five grams of cannabis (but we didn’t tell you that). An average stay costs $120 per night.

You’ll pay $25 for a box of chocolates. And the Markt square shops, canal restaurants and charming gondoliers will happily help you empty your wallet. For locals, avoiding this touristy, “expensive, Disneyland side of the city” can be a bit of a “nightmare,” says Yvannoé Kruger, a French art curator who has lived in the city for a few months. When he first moved, he required the help of a friend to steer clear of potential tourist traps.

But if you arecrowds and all? Splurge on a 30-minute horse-and-cart ride (about $30 for 30 minutes) and take a step back in time to a medieval wonderland.

Five Controversial Parenting Tips You Need to Know

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Everyone says parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love. The truth is that if you pay attention, try your best and follow good advice (such as your mother’s), you and your kids will likely end up fine and happy. But sometimes it’s good to go a bit against the grain and that’s where OZY’s reporting comes in. We’ve talked to some of the leading researchers working today and asked them to recommend unusual bits of parental advice for our readers. The resulting list is not shocking but it is definitely different from what you’ll hear at a regular clinic. For example, did you know that having a child later in life may actually help women live longer? It’s true. Check out the following list to find this and other ways to ensure your parental responsibilities are top-notch. 

Have Kids Later in Life

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The next time a nosy relative says you should start a family as soon as possible, just smile and say: ”Gurl, waiting might be the best thing for health!” According to a study out of Boston University’s School of Medicine, women who put off having kids may actually live longer. Those women who gave birth to their last child after turning 33, the study found, were twice as likely to live to 95 or older than mothers whose last child was born by the time they were 29. This doesn’t mean you should completely ignore your biological clock, but it suggests it may be ticking a lot slower than you think. Read more here

Pay Kids to Eat Their Veggies

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Begging your children to eat the healthy stuff on their plate is a fairly unsuccessful and pathetic practice. And tricking them into drinking a kale smoothie also isn’t the answer. The solution, it turns out, could be found right inside your wallet — in the form of cold, hard cash. Researchers recently found that 80 percent of American kids will forgo junk and eat their vegetables is they’re offered a real financial incentive to do so. Do you think you’d be able to do this if you could afford it? Read more here to help you make up your mind. 

Let Your Kids Sleep In

You know that kids need extra Z’s but maybe you don’t know how really life-changing they could be. A study out of the University of Kentucky recently showed that starting school an hour later led to improved performances and boosted attendance rates. Changes to school schedules may not happen overnight but the data certainly gives educators — and parents — something to sleep on. Read more here

A Little Junk Food Today Makes for a Balanced Diet Tomorrow

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Depriving a kid of an occasional indulgence can result in overindulging when Mom’s not around. So rather than tell children that cake is evil and happiness is a handful of quinoa-and-flax chips, top scientists are now saying you should teach them about moderation instead. So let Junior have his cake — just not every day. Read more here

Don’t Let Your Kid Have Smartphones

Today’s kids will grow up surrounded by technology and electronic gadgets – but what will that do to their brains? Experts in child development are now saying disconnecting from electronics may be be beneficial for developing creativity. Games and applications, it turns out, can be engaging limiting to your child’s imagination due to preset rules and defined worlds. So do your kid a favor: power down your devices and tell him a great story, unplugged. Read more here.  

Oh, the Places You’ll Go — With Oprah and OZY

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All summer long, we’ve told you about some of world’s most fascinating travel destinations, from Valparaíso, the bohemian town in Chile, to Australia’s Enchanted Cave. Now the Oprah Winfrey Network and OZY have teamed up to give you the chance to go to one of them — in Costa Rica, a naturalists’ paradise. Click here to learn more about how to win a vacation to Costa Rica — and one of the most acclaimed wellness retreats in the world.

Cross-Border Gaming for Peace in the Caucasus

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Most teens know discontent and boredom like they know their own Instagram accounts. Ennui … c’est la vie. But 16-year-old Maria Cherkezia, in the nation of Georgia, has that sense of disconnect for starker reasons: She and her friends have all grown up amid war. The conflict, for now, is frozen, even though parts of the country have broken away. Thank goodness, then, for her favorite park, which is beautiful and brightly colored. And entirely virtual.

From the declarations of independence in the 1990s to the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, tensions between Georgia and its territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have barely had a chance of abating. Determined to combat this deepening divide, a local nongovernmental organization called Elva set out to show Abkhazian and Georgian children that they’re not so different after all. Since travel restrictions and language barriers made it difficult to start a dialogue, they reached for an unorthodox solution: cross-border video-gaming sessions. 

There’s no doubt that games are increasingly influential — the sector is expected to grow 9 percent from 2014, to $91.5 billion this year, according to industry research firm Newzoo. While the medium may seem an odd choice for a peace-building project, the reach of so-called “serious games” — those that exist not just to entertain, but also to educate — is likewise on the rise. And many see gaming’s advantage in how much it lets players feel they have control, since, unlike with books or films, they’re often forced to make decisions. “It’s really, really powerful. You can almost literally walk in someone else’s shoes,” says Drew Davidson, the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.

It would be absurd for my boys to grow up without ever having had a conversation with an Arab citizen, and I thought, ‘Why not use the fact that we’re all online to create a bridge?’

Uri Mishol, co-founder of Games for Peace

Gaming for peace isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. After all, the idea predates the Internet, and play has long been a vehicle for peace — from the Olympics to one-off football matches. The United Nations actively promotes the use of sports in peace-building; among several other projects, it once organized a football tournament to improve relations between the Ivory Coast’s military and paramilitary forces. And Elva wasn’t the first to recognize the potential of online gaming. A decade ago the World Food Programme launched Food Force, a game in which players had to help a famine-ravaged country recover. Two years later, PeaceMaker, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, became one of the earliest serious games to become popular. More recently, festivals and competitions have sprung up to promote the concept of gaming for peace. 

Yet these initiatives tended to explicitly link the gaming experience to real-world politics. Since the situation in the Caucasus remains delicate, game developers in Georgia are keen to stress that their project has no political elements, and that it’s just about fostering interaction. “It’s important to promote any kind of interaction, because right now there is none — zero,” says Mark van Embden Andres, a director at Elva. “They don’t know anything about each other.” The group’s initiative is twofold: The NGO organizes cross-border Minecraft sessions, in which Abkhazians and Georgians work on virtual projects together, such as building houses or restoring villages. And, in April, it launched its own game for children called Peace Park, where players must ensure the atmosphere in a communal park remains safe and calm; a Google Translate-based system allows them to chat with one another. 

Inspiration for this game actually came courtesy of the Middle East, where the organization Games for Peace aims to create trust and dialogue between young Israelis and Arabs with the help of cross-cultural Minecraft sessions. Uri Mishol, Games for Peace’s co-founder, had no clue about gaming when he started the project two years ago, but he realized the medium’s potential when he watched his sons play computer games. “It would be absurd for my boys to grow up without ever having had a conversation with an Arab citizen, and I thought, ‘Why not use the fact that we’re all online to create a bridge?’” he says. Minecraft, he thought, was ideal for peace-building, as it was already popular and had no elements of politics or competition. Games for Peace focuses on creating positive interactions rather than digging into details of the region’s conflict. 

However, even enthusiasts accept that there’s a limit to these games’ potential. That’s why both Mishol and van Embden Andres help organize meetings between the players, believing that face-to-face interaction remains irreplaceable. Niels Scott, the head of Georgia’s U.N. mission, is confident that projects like Peace Park will “break a vicious circle of hatred and ignorance” in the region, but whether gaming can actually make a dent in a long-frozen conflict bogged down by stereotypes and nationalist rhetoric remains to be seen. It’s far from certain that players can transfer skills learned in a game to the real world. 

Despite their limitations, these kinds of games hold hope. Cherkezia, for one, says it’s already changed her life. “I’ve met people I would never meet otherwise,” she says.