India: Model for a New Psychiatry?

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The following article contains information about depression and suicide that may be triggering for some readers.

It was the kind of television event that dominates dinner conversations for days, like the time Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn during a sit-down with Diane Sawyer. In this case, the star was Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. Her interviewer was nationally famed NDTV anchor Barkha Dutt, and the topic of discussion: depression. In a coming-out of sorts, Padukone, the sweetheart of India’s Hindi film bubble, told the world that she had suffered from depression for 15 years.

Padukone was not on camera alone. She sat next to her mother; her counselor, Anna Chandy; and her psychiatrist, Shyam Bhat. 

Which American film star would cart her therapists and her mom to a major TV interview? The trio of guests made for a bold narrative in Indian society: Depression is real, it’s not just sadness, it’s OK to ask for help. And parents, are you listening? Getting family on board to wipe away the stigma of mental health was crucial — but Indians also needed to hear from a doctor. Especially one with good looks and a cosmopolitan accent who was there to champion a cause. It was a distinctly Indian  approach to psychiatry, drawing on ancient Hindu texts, yoga and the strength of family — and standing in clear opposition to the school of Western individualism. (Padukone could not be reached for comment via her mental-health-awareness organization, Live Laugh Love.)

“Either you are depressed or you know someone in your family who’s depressed. It’s that common,” Bhat told Dutt, who cited the statistic that almost 40 percent of the country had depression. “In my opinion, this is the result of a fast-changing society, and if we don’t start learning how to prevent this or treat this, we are in for a huge problem in about 10 or 20 years.” Out came the numbers arguing that this is an epidemic, not mere malaise: India, with its massive population of young people — in 2020, demographers estimate, the average age there will be 29 — has the world’s highest suicide rate in the 15-to-29 age bracket.

As India attempts to rethink medical notions of the mind, could it introduce an alternate model for mental health around the world?

Staring down such an urgent timeline, and with a growing chorus of mental-health practitioners in Asia and the diaspora insisting the “Western way” just doesn’t fit, Bhat and a cohort of psychiatrists, researchers, spiritualists and therapists are digging into the cultural context surrounding mental health. New York–based psychiatrist Neil Aggarwal, for one, has studied Ayurvedic and Islamic medicine, which often tie health to diet, the humors and geography. He dislikes the binary of East/West, seizing instead on the intellectual heritage of psychiatry and psychology, which, he explains, “emerged from a secular, post-Enlightenment tradition where we really believe there are five empirical senses that allow us to perceive reality, and our sense of self is infinitely entwined with our ability to define reality amid those five senses.” Padukone’s therapist, Chandy, who is not an M.D., is more succinct: ”I think it’s very important to stress that all the medical interventions have come from the West.”

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Deepika Padukone is helping usher in a new narrative around depression. 

Source Ferdaus Shamim/Getty

But what exactly can these epistemic rejiggerings do to change society? On a macro level, the Indian government has stepped in, pushing to revive centuries-old medical practices like those Aggarwal’s investigated. The budget for the department supporting research and training in homeopathy, naturopathy and Ayurveda got a $30 million boost this year, bringing it to a healthy $200 million.

In practice, psychiatrists like Bhat and Aggarwal apply cultural sensitivities when evaluating, rather than pathologizing, say, a twentysomething kid still living at home (reasonable enough in Asian society). They may, in response to patients’ wishes, refrain from medical intervention: “Across the board, South Asians experience depression and anxiety as interpersonal stressors rather than genetic or biological results,” Aggarwal says. The psychiatrists may encourage open discussions around spirituality or practices that utilize meditation and yoga alongside cognitive behavioral therapy. Chandy uses body massage and refers to the Mahabharata or to Hindu concepts of leela,  nondualistic notions of the self, when treating someone in crisis. And Bhat, for his part, has developed a practice called Integral Self Therapy, which incorporates meditation and spirituality into psychotherapy. 

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Advocates of the new wave can sometimes sound indistinguishable from Western therapists who know their downward dog and deep breathing. Nations beyond India are increasingly gravitating toward so-called “mind-body” concepts of the self — spawning a $3.4 trillion market, from healthy diets to alternative therapies. Could these musings of South Asia and its diaspora stretch beyond the country of 1.4 billion, plugging into global discussions about the role of medicine versus therapy, human relationships versus prescription pads, and whether our existential angst, neuroses, distraction and discontent stem from modernity and isolation … or from the inescapable biology of our brains? As India attempts to rethink medical notions of the mind, could it introduce an alternate model for mental health around the world?

Statistics point to rocketing rates of mental illness: According to an April report from the Centers for Disease Control, the last 15 years saw a 24 percent uptick in the number of suicides in the U.S. — climbing at an even faster rate since 2006. The World Health Organization estimates around 450 million people in the world suffer from mental illness; by 2030, depression will create the second-highest financial burden on health systems in middle-income nations and will show up as the third-highest strain in low-income nations. Pair those findings with WHO data indicating that, in 2014, 45 percent of people worldwide lived in a country with fewer than one psychiatrist per 100,000 residents.

All of which confirms that depression isn’t a developed-country, white-person problem. A 2013 study showed that while Westerners were likelier to experience anxiety, depression had a higher prevalence in Asia and the Middle East. Soma Ganesan, clinical psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, treats lower-middle-class immigrants and refugees in a city where nearly half the population doesn’t speak English at home, according to Canadian government data. It’s tempting to treat their troubles as distinct from the issues facing clients willing to pay $200 for an hour of psychotherapy — but “if we don’t understand their cultural contexts, we would deal with them in a biological side only,” he says

The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V), the psychiatric bible, lists almost 300 conditions — nearly triple the number in the first volume. This DSM, published in 2013, covers familiar illnesses like eating disorders and schizophrenia. But it also refers to what psychiatrists call “culture-bound syndromes,” like the Malaysian and Indonesian experience of amok  (the basis for the English phrase “running amok”) — a furious and sudden emergence of anger (usually in a male), occasionally resulting in mass violence. Other culture-bound syndromes mentioned in the DSM include Korean shinbyeong, characterized by melancholy and loss of sense of self, and Haitian maladi moun, which refers broadly to mental troubles like depression or anxiety caused by interpersonal friction. 

Bhat, who trained in India, the U.S. and the U.K. and practiced in America before returning to his motherland, has seen some of these conditions up close. He describes an early day of his psych rotation in medical school when he witnessed a case of “possession” at a government hospital. The patient had arrived with her husband, who, it transpired, drank every day and hit her occasionally. He’d slapped her when his dinner arrived cold, and she’d responded by chanting lines from the holy Bhagavad Gita — and blessing him. Was she a goddess? He thought so — and treated her accordingly — for a few days, until she in turn slapped him … which brought them to the doctor. The husband reasoned she was a demon, not a goddess, and required an exorcism. Bhat watched as the attending doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant for the woman, to ease out the “devil,” and told the husband that women are kind when treated well and horrid when treated poorly. No lying on the couch to discuss feelings. In, out, and off they went.

Schizophrenics in California, Ghana and India each heard distinct types of voices.

Even for global disorders like schizophrenia, we have seen evidence of specific cultural contexts: A 2014 study by Stanford psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann found that schizophrenics in California, Ghana and India each heard distinct types of voices — in general, Americans experienced threats, Ghanaians heard sounds of the divine and Indians spoke casually with their ancestors and deceased family members. But many fear a respect for the vernacular nature of the mind is fading. Bhat is, in some ways, standing athwart history shouting “Stop!” as the tech workers in his cosmopolitan home city of Bangalore cart rapidly Westernizing ideas into his office.

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Speaking to 37-year-old Rohan Sabharwal over coffee one afternoon, I thought things looked bleak. The mordant-witted, pierced and tattooed filmmaker has been diagnosed with a soup of conditions since he was a teen, but mostly he seems to suffer from bipolar disorder. He’s OK right now. But not always. 

He’s spent time in mental hospitals, where the medication gave him diarrhea and he couldn’t go to the bathroom without an orderly present. He’s seen his parents shell out for overpriced rehabilitation facilities. He’s undergone elective electroconvulsive therapy and, as a result, says he can’t remember anything that happened to him in 2014. He’s seen some 15 shrinks and even tried hypnotherapy, which was basically an expensive nap. (Bhat notes that a lack of cultural awareness regarding mental health can leave Indians vulnerable to snake-oil peddlers.) Sabharwal swallowed rat poison and had it pumped from his stomach. He bears scars from when he locked himself in his apartment and slashed his arms nearly to the bone. His partner has the key to where knives are kept at his house, and she forbade him from moving into an apartment on the tenth floor. “I feel like killing myself a lot,” he says. “It’s been the No. 1 thing on my Google search for the past eight or nine years.” 

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Boys play in New Delhi.

Source Manan Vatsyayana/Getty

After years of living through and meeting others in the belly of India’s mental-health system, Sabharwal refuses to adopt the mantra of family first. He’d rather take Western individualism over parents who don’t talk to their kids about sex, force them to marry by 24 and believe they can flush homosexuality out of them. “In India, we have this notion of the family being the center — but I feel honestly that all our problems are rooted in the family.” Asked about Padukone’s appearance on national TV, he’s willing to acknowledge there’s been a shift in the conversation since she spoke up. But he’s quick to follow with a caustic reference to the “1,000-word statuses people post on Facebook about mental health.… Everyone’s romanticizing it.” 

India is undergoing a romantic era of rewriting its identity, one in which the intellectual narratives of mental health could fit, for better and worse. The nation is nearing 70 years from independence and decades from economic liberalization. At last, much of the country seems interested in, if not eager to define itself on, its own terms — from Narendra Modi’s government harkening back to the glory of Vedic times to the wave of left-wing activists resisting what they see as Western-imported capitalism.

Perhaps India could offer the world some new models for governance in the Gandhian tradition, for integrating science and religion, for concepts of the mind. Listening to Bhat, who quotes Émile Durkheim, Plato and Hindu Vedanta, that hope seems more promising to many — in the East and West alike — than a Prozac prescription.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Rohan Sabharwal’s name.

I Dined in One of North Korea’s Restaurants

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With her porcelain skin and glazed eyes, the stiff hostess at the Hae Dang Hwa Restaurant nearly blends in with the decor, until I notice her hand slowly beckon me from above. Upstairs, the massive interior has all the usual trappings of an upscale eatery — polished plates and Botoxed smiles — except the noodles are cold and the waitresses are even colder. This is my short sojourn into North Korea.

Well, almost.

I’m more than 500 miles away from Pyongyang in one of Beijing’s finest North Korean restaurants. Hae Dang Hwa is a favorite haunt for visiting diplomats hailing from the Hermit Kingdom, since the brooding Embassy of North Korea is located just around the corner. Even more unsettling, it’s owned and operated by the world’s most shunned government and sworn mortal enemy of my own mother country. Apparently, the North Korean government runs more than 130 restaurants like Hae Dang Hwa to remit revenue back to Pyongyang. So, before I peer inside, I put away my capitalist, freedom-loving American arrogance for now and venture inside this small slice of North Korean life. Overpriced chaperoned tour not included.

Do you take check or credit? How are you plotting your escape?

Getting here was not straightforward. I wandered in circles for an hour before I found the Korean signage for Hae Dang Hwa, foregrounded in Communist red and sandwiched between two blue stripes — an obvious nod to the flag of the isolated nation. There, I meet up with my friend who’s been reluctant to enter on his own. My friend can’t help but gawk at the glossy waitresses, who are allegedly handpicked by the government, escorted to work every day and rotated out every three years. By day, they stomp around in 3-inch heels, primped and polished in formfitting dresses. But by night, they double as performers and dancers who belt out karaoke lyrics and play traditional instruments for all to enjoy. I resist the strong urge to request “Gangnam Style” before I place my order.

 

Waitress Clone No. 1 guides my friend and me to a table and gingerly places a white napkin in my lap. Nearby, a group of stern black suits, all sporting red lapel pins that bear the face of their fearless leader, Kim Jong-un, get up to leave. Yes, those are dignitaries and everyone here is North Korean, the waitress tells me with a pained smile and in perfect Mandarin (not a lick of English is spoken here). But I don’t hear her at first. I’m too busy trying to decipher the menu full of “Steamed East Ocean Hairy Crab,” “Bullfrog With Pickled Pepper” and “Dog Meat Hot Pot” — so-called delicacies that are all fermented, braised or steamed by a master chef in the back who honed his cooking chops in Japan. I opt for the slightly safer choices of deep-fried shrimp balls with tea leaves, black and slimy Pyongyang noodles and the classic spicy kimchi. The fanciest schmanciest dishes here easily hit the $90 range — about three times more than the average monthly salary back in North Korea.

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Hae Dang Hwa Restaurant

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Waitress Clone No. 2 brings out the dishes in haste, which were less than stellar in taste and presentation. But no matter, I’m not here for the cuisine. I hear that the staff is tight-lipped about anything that’s not on the menu. So I ponder which sensitive question could cross the line: Do you recommend the pork or the turtle? Do you take check or credit? How are you plotting your escape? I spend the rest of my meal chewing slowly and mustering up the courage to ask. But after 40 minutes, I instead inquire — “Where is the restroom?” — which Waitress Clone No. 3 must escort me to.

It’s all too creepy for me to bear, so I pay the check and scurry out the door. But not before the stiff hostess murmurs goodbye and asks where we are from. “America,” my friend blurts out before I can stop him. “Oh,” she says, taken aback. It’s the most emotion she’s probably allowed to show.

I take it as my cue to leave.

 

The Ballet Girls Who Burned to Death

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Le Papillon, in which a kidnapped princess is transformed into a butterfly, is sillier than your average ballet. It’s not even scientifically accurate — the climax involves a butterfly’s wings burning after it flies into a torch, even though, unlike moths, butterflies aren’t attracted to bright lights. In fact, the most significant thing about the production was that its star, Emma Livry, became famous for playing the flame-injured butterfly. And for dying when she drew too close to an open flame.

The young ballerina wasn’t the only one; scores of dancers are believed to have died after gas lighting became popular in 19th-century theaters. A gas light, a flimsy tutu and — bam! Ballerinas in Philadelphia, London and Paris perished in what was referred to as a holocaust. But Livry stands out, both as a defiant voice against change in the ballet world and as a catalyst for it. 

She fluffed her skirts too close to a gas lamp and went up in flames. As Livry ran in circles around the set screaming, fellow cast members and the audience watched in horror.

Livry was 16 when she made her Paris Opéra debut in 1858. Plain but captivating, she swiftly became a huge star. Livry was a prodigy, to the extent that a notoriously territorial prima ballerina known as La Taglioni came to Paris to see the upstart for herself — and, stunned by her dancing, immediately took the teenager on as a protégée. Ballet was a deceptively dangerous profession. Not only were dancers at risk of death by fire, they were sometimes killed by overambitious stagecraft or crushed by falling sets. In 1859, imperial decree demanded that all sets and costumes be flameproofed as best they could via a process known as carteronizing: Tutus were immersed in a chemical bath before being worn onstage. But the process left the delicate skirts dingy, and the ballerinas — the very people at risk of public immolation — fought the safety measures. “I insist, sir, on dancing at all first performances of the ballet in my ordinary ballet skirt,” Livry wrote to the Paris Opéra’s director in 1860 in a formal declaration of independence — one that would result in her death just two years later. 

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Emma Livry (right), before her corset melted into her ribs.

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Today’s ballerinas are expected to starve and punish themselves for fear of being pushed off the assembly line, says Deirdre Kelly, dance critic and author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. But with Livry, “the directors said, ‘No, please, you’re our labor force, we want to preserve you,’ ” Kelly says, noting how Livry’s refusal to wear the chemically treated tutus, while tragic and unwise, showed a certain admirable willfulness. It was an example of a dancer setting her own priorities and seizing authority as an artist, Kelly believes, rather than as the embodiment of a choreographer’s vision.

Forty percent of Livry’s body had been burned, and her corset melted into her ribs.

Unfortunately, it ended badly for Livry. On Nov. 15, 1862, she fluffed her skirts too close to a gas lamp and went up in flames. As Livry ran in circles around the set screaming, fellow cast members and the audience watched in horror. Another dancer and a fireman tried to save her — the emperor later rewarded them for their bravery with cash — and managed to smother the flames by wrapping her in a blanket. But 40 percent of Livry’s body had been burned, and her corset melted into her ribs. She spent 36 hours wrapped in bandages in her dressing room, then another eight months recuperating, before dying of blood poisoning. Many dance scholars pinpoint Livry’s demise as the end of France’s dominant role in ballet. But her death also inspired safety measures: new designs for gas lamps, the invention of flame-retardant gauze and wet blankets hung in the wings just in case. 

Though Livry is not remembered today, even by many in the dance world, her story, and those of other dancers like her, touch a nerve. When the skirt of French ballerina Janine Charrat caught on fire during a rehearsal and burned more than half of her body in 1961, she reportedly said, “Comme Emma Livry!” after the fire had been extinguished. Luckily for Charrat, she lived, and returned to ballet. But the idea of being consumed, literally, by your art has a romantic connection to ballet, an art that over the last 100 years has become deeply dedicated to what Kelly calls “the cult of thin” — the stripping down and distilling of a dancer’s physical presence to fulfill a romantic ideal.

Dancers in Livry’s day, for all the dangers, enjoyed more autonomy. While ballerinas in the 18th and 19th centuries endured plenty of hardship, “a 20th-century ballerina could envy them,” says Kelly, “because they were much more in control of their artistic destinies.”

The Vatican’s In-House Astronomer

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To get to Brother Guy Consolmagno’s office, you take a train heading southeast from Rome. It winds its way away from Vatican City for an hour, into a bucolic setting that holds Lake Albano and the tiny town of Castel Gandolfo. Once you get off the train and walk through the streets, you look for a little bronze plaque whose Latin simply reads “Specola Vaticana.” Open the doors and you’re in the Vatican Observatory — a secret lab in a volcanic crater, just what every budding scientist dreams of.

And Brother Guy is a scientist, in addition to his work with the church. The Detroit native holds two degrees from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona. In another life, he made theoretical computer models of various bodies in the solar system — models that turned out to be right (even though, he says, the data he was basing them on wasn’t quite so spot on). But a crisis of his faith in research sent him to join the Peace Corps and then the Jesuits — which led him to his current calling: science in the name of God. He’s been working at the Vatican Observatory for 23 years, and last year was named its director. 

We have this enormous freedom to go wherever we think is interesting.

Brother Guy Consolmagno

In the U.S., science and religion are often cast as two sides in a Holy War, and, indeed, scientists have often bumped up against Catholic doctrine — 400 years ago, the Church deemed Galileo’s heliocentric teachings “formally heretical.” But by then it was already key for the Catholic Church to have scientists at its call. Astronomers created the calendar for Gregory, and the Vatican still has a small stable of eight or nine Jesuit scientists busily thinking and researching, their funding steadier than most of that available in the academic world — especially since their vow of poverty makes them cheap to keep. Meanwhile, Pope Francis, himself a trained scientist, has brought scientific concerns like climate change to the forefront along with his much-lauded social-justice focus. “I think [Pope Francis] has made a difference to how science is perceived,” says Celia Deane-Drummond, a botanist and professor of theology at Notre Dame.

“We have this enormous freedom to go wherever we think is interesting,” Brother Guy says. While NASA will fund a spacecraft mission or a big telescope, it can be hard to convince Congress to fund the day-to-day research that most scientists actually work on. However, that research work is what helps us interpret the data the spacecraft collects. At the Vatican, the small team doesn’t have to worry that the money will be cut off, even though the million-euro budget’s pretty small when compared to the rest of the Vatican pie. With that million euros comes a certain freedom to study what they find interesting, leading to a far-ranging slate of topics — how galaxies cluster, how the universe formed and where the next interesting exoplanet might be.

 

It can be difficult to find scientists to fill the Observatory, since you must hold two advanced degrees: one from the academy and one from the Jesuits. Chris Impey, head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona at Tucson, where the Observatory built their new telescope when Castel Gandolfo’s light pollution became too distracting, served on the advisory board that selected the program’s new director. Though he was personable and had a résumé filled with distinguished research, there were two things working against Brother Guy: He wasn’t a Jesuit priest — he’s a brother — and he was American. The Vatican doesn’t want the Observatory to seem too American, especially when their recruitment is focusing on Latin American and Asian countries where Catholicism is building. But “you pick the best one for the job,” Impey says. “And he was the best one for the job.” 

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Guy Consolmagno with large Zeiss optical telescope from1935 in dome roof of the Vatican observatory.

Source Annette Schreyer/Laif/Redux

Michelle Francl, a theoretical chemist at Bryn Mawr, first met Brother Guy at a conference at Google. “He was wearing a shirt that said ‘Ask me about my vow of silence’ while talking loudly on the bus,” she says. They bonded over finding a place to attend mass together. As a woman of faith and a scientist, she sees a lot of common ground between the two disciplines, quoting Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt’s description of religious contemplation as “a long, loving look at the real.” Put that on your grant application.

While Brother Guy acknowledges the perceived culture war between religion and science, for him there’s no conflict. “In some ways, scientists and religious people are the last people who say, ‘There IS a truth,’ ” he says. While he has met believers who think they have to reject science to stay true to their faith, he sees no inherent battle between God and Galileo — just with some of their followers. That’s where he comes in.    

Brother Guy brings religion into the scientific conversation in unexpected ways, showing up at sci-fi conventions — he’s a longtime fan who’s written some “dreadful” unpublished science fiction — and scientific conferences around the world. But that’s not his biggest battle: He’s got to bring religious groups around to the stars, liaising with religious fundamentalists who, he says, are often fearful of the unknown while at the same time curious to find out more. Luckily, astrophysics is the best possible science for that. “Astronomy is the great gateway drug to science,” he says, and anyone who’s walked outside on a dark clear night and tried to number the stars knows he’s right.

Giusy Nicolini: Governing at the World’s Most Dangerous Border

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The sun sets slowly over the Mediterranean and, leaning on a small fishing boat, Giusy Nicolini looks nervously at the horizon. She is not waiting for a ship to appear; rather, she hopes that none will. “We live in a constant state of fear here,” she says. “I never thought, when I took this job, that I would have to count so many bodies.”

Nicolini is the mayor of Lampedusa, a quaint little island at the southernmost tip of Italy that has become the front line of Europe’s war on migration. In October 2013, more than 360 would-be immigrants died trying to reach Lampedusa, and the deathly tide hasn’t stopped: Thousands of people have drowned in the surrounding waters since, including the 800 men, women and children who died in April when their ship capsized.

Just 70 miles from Tunisia and less than 200 from Tripoli, Libya, Lampedusa has long been a life raft for migrants trying to reach Europe. But in recent years, the numbers of would-be migrants has surged, as poverty and instability escalate in the Horn of Africa, the crisis in Syria worsens and Libya, once a kind of refuge, itself descends into chaos. During the first four months of this year, 40,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — almost four times as many as in all of 2012, the year Nicolini became mayor. In response to the surge, Malta has cut back on rescue operations, while Spain has erected miles of fence. 

It’s here that Lampedusa’s mayor has made her stand. Even as her European coastal counterparts have scrapped lifesaving programs in favor of closed borders, Nicolini has pushed hard for a more compassionate, humanitarian approach. Not only does she welcome the migrants to the island, but she also demands that more be done for them — including, for example, establishing humanitarian corridors that would make their passage safe. “The thing with human rights is you can’t make exceptions,” she says. “We Europeans can’t expect to have ours respected until we acknowledge theirs.”

In saying this, Nicolini has made herself a continental lightning rod. The EU is based on the idea of free movement of people, goods and currency within Europe’s borders, but many have grown queasy about opening the gates to others. Generally, the rule is that the farther north you go, the queasier the Europeans get. Germany, for instance, recently witnessed huge protests against immigration, and even in Sweden, the anti-immigration party is fast gaining political momentum. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, on the other hand, has advocated more spending on search and rescue and for better coordination of asylum provision. 

An aerial view of Lampedusa.

An aerial view of Lampedusa, Italy.

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Even as Nicolini helps define the European debate on immigration — and wins accolades from Amnesty International and the pope — her future on Lampedusa is uncertain. Some residents accuse her of turning their 8-square-mile island into a free port for migrants. Lampedusa can’t afford it, they say: It needs to invest in things that pay off, like tourism, instead of devoting its resources to refugees. 

But today Nicolini is not on Lampedusa. She is on Linosa, an even smaller island where she is also mayor. She’s been stranded for three days: This patch of cacti and volcanic rock has no airport, and boats will not make the passage back to Lampedusa if there is too much wind. She does not mind. The enduring quiet of this sunny little seaside town reminds the 54-year-old of the Lampedusa she grew up in, before the planes full of tourists and the boatloads of immigrants began to pour in. “I am loving the forced vacation,” she says. “I am always saying I need a break and here, I have no choice.” 

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Except for a few fishermen, most of Lampedusa’s 4,500 inhabitants live off tourism. A glance at its stunning beaches and shimmering turquoise waters explains why. The way the sunlight falls on sandstone imparts something of an African feel, and closing your eyes and breathing the hot salt air, you might easily imagine yourself on the coast of Tunisia. You wouldn’t expect a humanitarian crisis here, but the black bodies regularly wash up on its pale shores, and the fishermen go out to sea every day dreading the prospect of returning with shipwreck survivors rather than sardines.

The Mediterranean is the world’s most dangerous border. Since 2000, some 23,000 people have died trying to make the crossing, and these days, some 2,500 migrants arrive on Lampedusa by the month. Just last week a boatful of migrants from Libya, who’d survived a gas tank explosion onboard, arrived, many of them badly burned. In response, Nicolini has welcomed them, sheltered them, lobbied the Italian government for them. She’s also organized more funerals than she can remember. She works all the time and systematically refuses social invitations and press visits.

That is why I’m surprised when she finally rides into the interview on a bicycle, looking pretty relaxed. Nicolini is blond, petite and modish, wearing a trenchcoat and hiding her bird-like features behind a pair of Emporio Armani sunglasses and a thick layer of makeup. She’s married but doesn’t have children, which she says is “a good thing because I haven’t had to sacrifice them to this job.” She speaks a lot and loudly, stopping only to sip espresso or pull on her cigarette.

Migrant men from Nigeria relax by the sea after taking a swim on April 22, 2015 in Lampedusa, Italy

Migrant men from Nigeria relax by the sea after taking a swim on April 22, 2015, off the coast of Lampedusa.

Source Dan Kitwood/Getty

Nicolini grew up in the days before Lampedusa was on anyone’s radar. She’d spend carefree summers on the beach or exploring the island’s cliffs and caves with her siblings. As a leftist teen, she studied political science in Sicily, and after graduating, began to work for Lampedusa’s nature reserve. She ended up directing it for more than two decades.

When she ran for mayor in 2012, it was at her friends’ urging, she says — the island had suffered an epidemic of corrupt mayors, including one that would be sentenced to a five-year jail term — and she did not expect to win. But upon taking up the small, battered-looking city hall in 2012, Nicolini did not imagine she’d go from protecting migratory birds to migrant people.

Under her leadership, Lampedusa has become one of the Mediterranean’s most efficient migrant ports — able to process and shelter up to 700 migrants at a time (though its center has often seen as many as 2,000). She’s had to beg Rome for money to build and fix infrastructure, and she has had some success there, including a recent $22 million appropriation. She’s also won praise from human rights organizations, even the pope, as the awards that cover her office walls indicate. The UNHCR refers to “the Lampedusa model” for sheltering refugees and is trying to encourage other towns to adopt it. “The island’s administration could not do any more to help these people,” says Alessandra Romano, Lampedusa’s UNHCR representative. “It’s truly exemplary.” 

 

Some of Lampedusa’s residents, however, hate all this — that their island’s name has become synonymous with poor huddled masses, and they resent Nicolini for it. Many feel their mayor puts the needs of the newcomers before their own — and their own needs are plenty. Unemployment is high. Infrastructure is weak: Since the island doesn’t have a maternity ward, for example, women must pay thousands of euros to give birth in Sicily. Worse, many believe that the migrant crisis will threaten the island’s biggest revenue source: tourism. “Nicolini doesn’t care about our problems,” says Salvatore Cappello, a local restaurateur who heads Lamepedusa’s businessman association. She basks in the international attention on her fight for immigrants, he says, “but what about us?” 

Indeed, outside of July and August, the town looks a bit deserted and sad, like the set of an abandoned Wild West movie. Most hotels are closed, and postcards and souvenirs gather dust in kiosks while journalists huddle on terraces awaiting the next boat. Migrants walk up and down the main street in small groups, trying to score free cigarettes or SIM cards. The island’s big yellow church is often empty, except for a few Eritreans thanking God for helping them reach Europe or mourning those they lost along the way.

Nicolini says she is trying hard to change Lampedusa’s image from a migrant destination to an unspoiled nature reserve, a place where visitors can see sea turtles laying eggs on the beach or dolphins surfing the waves, or simply lounge by the sea. She points out that TripAdvisor just named Lampedusa the third-best Italian island in its Travelers’ Choice picks. But to succeed, she says, she needs all of Europe’s help. “If Northern European countries really want to help us deal with immigration, they should send their tourists here,” she says. Nonstop humanitarian efforts require a strong economy, she says. 

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Mayor Giusy Nicolini.

Source Daniel Mendez/Redux

Northern Europe, however, has other plans. After April’s record number of deaths, the EU responded inadequately, in Nicolini’s opinion. Yes, it tripled the funds for its new sea patrol mission, Operation Triton, but Nicolini points out that Triton is a border control task force, not a search and rescue one. The mayor wants the EU to restore Operation Mare Nostrum — an Italian-led yearlong search and rescue mission that saved thousands of lives in 2014.

The European Parliament has granted her an audience, but for the most part, the EU has doubled down on border control — keeping immigrants out instead of taking on a humanitarian burden and distributing it across states. The Dublin Regulation is a prime example: It states that new arrivals must seek asylum in the first country in which they register (by fingerprint), instead of where they hope to end up. The system puts a huge burden on southern countries and small nations like Malta. If migrants arrive in Italy, for example, but have family in the U.K. or Sweden, they try to escape. Some even cut their fingertips with razor blades.

Instead, Nicolini says all European countries should help to create humanitarian corridors and then distribute the newcomers among them. Right now she is designing a way to bypass some of the European red tape: a Lampedusa-led coalition of borderland locales, from Lesbos in Greece to Calais in France to Ceuta in Spain. The goal is to unite forces, share resources and lobby the European Parliament for immigration reform.

“If we don’t change, we are sentencing all these people to death,” says the environmentalist turned migrant advocate. Her voice, usually composed and stern, cracks when she speaks about the parade of pain visiting her island — the burned men who arrived last week, the shipwreck survivor who still calls for her husband in her dreams, the children whose little floating bodies are the first to be found. Nicolini sighs. “The same Mediterranean that gave birth to the European civilization is now witnessing its destruction,” she says.

***

The wind has died down and it’s time for Nicolini to return from her forced vacation. When the first glimmer of rose appears in the sky, Nicolini gets on the big rusty ferryboat. Her expression hardens as the vessel enters Lampedusa’s harbor. She is thinking of the pile of to-do’s waiting in her office. She is thinking that it’s a crucial time, what with the world’s spotlight on the immigration issue. Other countries are promising help and support, and the recent speech she gave to the European Parliament on refugee policy was much lauded.

Change may be on the horizon, but only distantly. The same boat that brings her to Lampedusa from Linosa will later today take 40 migrant minors to Sicily and then the mainland. Many of those kids will end up living in the streets of Rome or Naples, undocumented and uncared for. “Until Europe finds its humanity,” she says, “it’s just a matter of time until the next tragedy.”

When the Best Part of Your Meal Is the Plate

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Like a box of Cracker Jack, Ethiopian food reveals its prize when you get to the bottom. Greasy, goopy and falling apart, you massage it into a ball and drop it down the hatch where, miraculously, there’s always room. It is in the base slab of injera bread where the glorious mélange of flavors — of sour and salty and back-of-the-tongue spicy — unite on a simple canvas. Dig in.

That’s when you’re going to get a little messy.

Harry Kloman

For centuries Ethiopian people have been mixing the sand-size grains of teff with water, fermenting it for a couple days and then baking up spongy injera bread. Traditionally, it’s made on a heated clay mitad, but electric cookers now are widely used. The gluten-free teff is expensive, so you’ll often find injera made with wheat or barley mixed in, though more American farmers are growing teff in response to rising demand.

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Injera is your new favorite bread. 

Source Toby Adamson/Getty


Injera
 is the meal’s primary carb, utensil and plate. Ethiopian restaurant dishes typically come family style on a massive disc of injera, with the dishes ladled on in a dotted rainbow — greasy beef tibs with sliced jalepeño, spicy auburn doro wat with a chicken drumstick and hardboiled egg, vinegary tomato and cucumber salad, savory mustard-colored lentils. You tear off a small piece of injera from a side basket and use it to grab the morsel you want, jousting with your neighbor for the choicest bite.

 

A proliferation of Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. are now packed with white diners who don’t always approach the meal the same as its originators. Ethiopians eat only with their right hands, as the left is considered unclean or disrespectful, tearing a piece of injera single-handedly before using it to snag a bite. They are also more fastidious, their hands staying clean by touching only the bread and not the food itself, says Harry Kloman, a University of Pittsburgh professor and author of Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. (The moist towelettes are more for the rest of us.) But at the end of the meal, those rules break down. The bottom injera remains, infused with the remnants of the meal it once supported. “That’s when you’re going to get a little messy,” Kloman says.

Still jonesing the morning after? Put together a bowl of breakfast fir-fir — shredded bits of slightly stale bread mixed into leftover stew — a soggy injera meal unto itself that beats the hell out of Cheerios.

If She Has Her Way, the Next Bill Gates Will Come From Lagos

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Electronic music is blasting, and in the dim green light you can barely make out the hoodies and startup scruff. The vibe at TechCrunch Disrupt, an annual Silicon Valley geekfest where the shiniest new startups compete for glory, is pretty male, pretty hacker and very trade show. All of which makes the next speaker quite the outlier. Crisp, eloquent and attired for the boardroom, Christina Sass is an island of poise in a sea of techie awkwardness.

She’s got to be. Unlike most of the other entrepreneurs at the event, Sass has an extensive career in nonprofit education work, and she’s not trying to sell anyone on the latest gadget or software solution. Rather, Sass is selling talent —  to the tech founders, recruiters and HR managers who can’t seem to hire enough, or good enough, developers. Her company sources “world-class talent in untapped markets,” she says through her mic headset. That untapped market? Africa.

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Fadekemi Ogunwa works on a project at Andela’s Amity campus in Lagos, Nigeria.

Source Courtesy of Andela

Sass, 37, is the cofounder and COO of Andela, a two-year-old company with outposts in Nairobi and Lagos and a very grand plan: cull the best and the brightest throughout a continent where even electricity is still sparse and, over four years, turn these developers into the next cadre of CTOs and global tech leaders. While plenty have tried to bring coding academies to developing countries, Andela stands out, and not just for its infinitesimal acceptance rate: In June it was handpicked by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to receive its first major investment, leading a round that totaled $24 million. Now sprinkled with Zuckerdust, Andela has turned from high-potential startup to veritable tech darling.

Andela isn’t based on principles of naive do-gooding, Sass insists. It’s “unabashedly for-profit,” with a business model that puts its fellows to work, full-time, within their first few months — remotely, and usually for the likes of name-brand companies like Google and Microsoft. Companies pay Andela a fee for each fellow. By graduation, the plan goes, the developers have learned a combination of coding and softer skills and are free to work wherever they want. Judging by the competition for spots, it’s a good deal for them: Two years in, some 45,000 applicants have vied for about 200 positions, an acceptance rate of less than 0.7 percent.

The idea of making money while doing good is not, of course, new. But in the realm of social entrepreneurship, Andela has a leg up — thanks largely to off-the-charts demand for software engineers, whatever their provenance. Already the ranks of top-flight companies in Silicon Valley are filled by engineers from China, India and Eastern Europe. Why shouldn’t African coders be there too?

***

It’s lunchtime at the “Dojo” in Nairobi, Kenya, Andela’s second African hub. The low-slung concrete building has brightly painted walls and conference rooms with names like Narnia, Hogwarts and Oculus (a new addition: fingerprint entry systems, to keep crucial IP safe and secure). In an outdoor courtyard, 66 fellows sit down at long wooden picnic tables to take the meal together, as they do every day. One woman, in her twenties, stands up to give a PowerPoint presentation about her passions (in this case, her family and cooking), to the cheers and teasing of her peers.

But beneath the smiles is pressure to perform. Every fellow will have his turn at the lunchtime presentation — it’s part of a philosophy that prizes emotional intelligence. After all, software developers work in teams, often remotely, which requires extreme attention to detail and to teammates. Should fellows fail to “level up” into a new skill set, even a soft-skill set, by a certain time, they’re cut. Andela is not a charity, after all.

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Lunch at the Dojo in Nairobi, Kenya. Andela coders come from six countries, including Togo and South Sudan.

Source Mohini Ufeli

The summer-camp gloss, though, is signature Sass — an effusive onetime teacher and camp counselor whose first job out of college was at the YMCA in Athens, Georgia, heading up youth programs. She spent the ensuing years working in schools in southeastern China and the Palestine territories, and even when she served as a high-powered foundation official in New York, she hung a sign inside the door of her Brooklyn apartment that read “How does this decision help young people?” Says Joshua Neckes, a friend and Andela adviser: ”In speaking with her, you’re able to connect with a part of you that wants to be driven by your virtue.”

Which is one reason those close to her believe that Sass could be headed for even bigger things: politics, heading up education policy or running a billion-dollar foundation. She’ll have “many more chapters, adventures, careers ahead,” says Reeta Roy, head of the MasterCard Foundation and Sass’ mentor. For her part, Sass says she plans on building Andela for “years and years and years.”

Sass cites her late father as the inspiration for her career; he was a German immigrant who came to America with $200 in his pocket and a single suitcase, and he spent 30 years working for IBM. He propounded the value of education to Sass and her brother, arguing it was the best investment they could make for themselves and for others. “It’s come full circle, because now IBM hires Andela developers,” she says.

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Tolu Komolafe is among Andela’s star developers.

Source Robert Opiyo

Sass cofounded Andela after years of searching for the “right” way to do education, she says: “The idea was to find who was doing it best and who overlapped with my passions and skill sets.” After teaching all over the world, Sass worked on education for the Clinton Global Initiative for three years; then she moved to the MasterCard Foundation, where she spent two years working with African entrepreneurs and CEOs to rethink education. But at the “50,000-foot level” those foundations gave her, Sass failed to find what she was looking for. So, she says, she decided to help create it herself. 

***

The sub-Saharan tech landscape barely existed a decade ago; today its features are made and remade every day. The first African “unicorn” is a Nigerian e-commerce company, and the country now has the world’s second-best Ruby developers, after Finland and above Switzerland, according to HackerRank. Zuckerberg just completed a whirlwind tour of Lagos’ tech hubs; Y Combinator is incubating three Nigerian startups. For Sass, Andela is a catalyst and beneficiary of all this movement, which, she hopes, will “lead to the equitable, responsible spread of the internet across the continent.” Already, the internet, and new jobs in coding, are erasing traditional employment barriers and knocking out some of the earlier prerequisites to the middle class — i.e., a traditional university education.

Case in point: Tolu Komolafe, a petite 26-year-old whom Sass calls Andela’s star developer. We meet at Philz Coffee, in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco. Komolafe recounts how she graduated university with a degree in computer science, but like many CS programs on the continent, it was heavy on theory and very light on coding skills; she was told she didn’t have enough experience to land jobs at mega-corporations. She applied to Nigerian startups too, but the CEOs asked her about her relationship status instead of her CV.

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John Kariuki, second from left: “You’re looking at the next Bill Gates!” 

Source Andela

But at Andela, Komolafe excelled: Within three months, she had leveled up enough to start teaching the incoming cadres. The startup where she worked remotely as a developer invited her on-site, in New York, to help with a major code push. (The customs agent at JFK couldn’t believe that a tiny Nigerian woman was a coder, Sass and Komolafe each tell me, separately and pointedly.) Now, back in Lagos, Komolafe runs She Codes, an all-women outreach group at Andela to change perceptions of female coders. And, of course, to recruit.

Sass envisions a sort of exponential self-perpetuation, where Andela graduates like Komolafe become agents of technological growth. They’ll work to scale Andela, or advise government ICT ministries, or lead tech companies, or launch their own startups. Some believe that over the long run, Andela could spawn a massive pool of African tech talent, spurring tech giants to open engineering offices in Africa, not just sales offices. The coders seem to believe in Sass’ #culturesofexcellence and big dreams. “You’re looking at the next Bill Gates, the next Sheryl Sandberg,” says John Kariuki, a 23-year-old Nairobi-based fellow, gesturing toward himself and another fellow seated next to him.

And yet, some in Lagos’ burgeoning tech scene feel deeply disappointed about Andela: Even though it was launched in Nigeria and cofounded by Iyinoluwa “E” Aboyeji, a sort of startup king in Lagos, Andela is based in New York. Listen more closely to these concerns and you hear something like injured national pride, a barely missed opportunity to claim that Mark Zuckerberg invested in a Nigerian startup. And even beyond the nationalism, you’ll hear an anxiety about the effects of Andela’s money and connections on Lagos’ nascent tech sector. It’s great that African talent is getting exposed to the “global startup standard,” says Oo Nwoye, the Nigerian founder of Fonebase Labs, a Twilio for Nigeria. But there’s also “this worry that we would not be able to afford our own home-based talent. Right now we’re competing with the U.S. for our own talent,” he says.

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Source Robert Opiyo

Then there’s the problem that nearly every startup struggles with: retention. Four years is a long time in the startup world, and Sass worries that as fellows acquire more skills, they’ll be tempted to jump ship for Silicon Valley and its even higher salaries. To be sure, Andela is a great gig for a young Nigerian; he or she can make an income comparable to what the top global consulting firms, like KPMG, pay in Lagos. But it’s pennies put next to averages in Palo Alto or Mountain View or London. For now, Andela’s retention rate is around 88 percent, but the first class of Andela fellows doesn’t graduate until May 2018.

Of course, Andela’s draw to fellows isn’t just salary or the promise of social mobility; it’s also the camp camaraderie that Sass creates. As in Silicon Valley, the structure is flatter, more collegial and more meritocratic than at traditional corporations. For some, it feels much more like a community or a family than a job. Komolafe describes Andela as “a company where everyone believes in you and your ability. People are looking after you and making sure you are growing,” she says.

So Sass, for now, will keep moving among Nigeria, Kenya, New York and Silicon Valley. Soon, Andela will open another academy, in Ghana, Uganda or South Africa. The longer term raises different questions: “Is she going to be in politics? Run a foundation? Be a high-powered executive running a for-purpose company? It doesn’t really matter,” says Neckes. Whatever she’s doing, he says, Sass will probably still be asking: How does this decision help the next generation? 

Your Next Car Could Be Made In Africa

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The gleaming white arms of the machines move massive amounts of steel through a vast, brightly lit space. Near the end of the line, the metal begins to take shape — a chassis here, a door there. Workers in crisp jumpsuits solder the last parts together.

This is auto manufacturing at its sleekest and shiniest — and it’s all taking place in Tangier, Morocco. Some of the workers are wearing hijabs, and nearly all of them are speaking Arabic. The factory, owned and operated by the French company Renault, didn’t exist four years ago; today, it’s the single largest car factory in all of Africa, producing some 229,000 vehicles last year. To some, it’s also a shining example of a different kind of revolution in the region, one that proponents hope will boost living standards, bolster stability and turn this North African country into a modern-day Motown.

In recent years, carmakers like Renault and Peugeot have poured billions of dollars into Morocco, which, in turn, has grown its auto exports to almost $5.3 billion, up from nothing just a few years ago. Automaking has edged out agriculture and phosphates as the country’s largest industry, and economists believe it’ll drive real GDP growth of more than 3 percent a year. Morocco has become to France what Mexico is to American companies like GM and Ford, says Peter Hertenstein, a Ph.D. candidate on the global auto industry at the University of Cambridge.

What’s, um, fueling this trend is a combination of factors, some more likely than others. The cost of labor is relatively cheap in Morocco — a worker there makes several times less the going rate in poorer European countries. Meanwhile, the government has invested mightily in infrastructure for foreign manufacturers, too; a special train takes Renault cars assembled in Tangier to a massive port. Meanwhile, history “plays a greater role than people think,” says Jostein Hauge, a University of Cambridge scholar who focuses on production networks and industrialization in Africa. The tight relationship between Morocco and its former colonizer, France, doesn’t fit squarely into economic theory, but it matters.

Of at least equal consequence is that the Arab Spring largely spared Morocco. Five years ago, revolts spread across North Africa and the Middle East, toppling governments in some countries, setting off wars in others and sparking economic downturns almost everywhere. But Morocco, a relatively stable monarchy, had already begun pivoting toward the auto industry. Seeking to emulate success stories like South Korea — once a poor, agriculture-based economy and now squarely in the first world — Morocco had rolled out special economic zones and other incentives for foreign businesses. Thus far, it’s worked: Foreign direct investment grew a whopping 15 percent for each of the five years through 2015. Between 2010 and 2015, Morocco’s share of regional FDI swelled from 12 percent to 31 percent.

But how much mileage will Morocco gain over the long run? Car assembly is not necessarily a stepping stone to a more lucrative future.

Its own citizens could be the first wave: Morocco’s highway network grew 16 times over between 1999 and 2014. Several years ago the government instituted a cash-for-clunkers program aimed at buying back old cars, with Renault offering a cash credit toward the purchase of one of its new cars.

But how much mileage will Morocco gain over the long run? Even though the auto boom has created 100,000 jobs, according to the government — no small feat in a country where youth unemployment stands at 20 percent — critics point out that car assembly is not necessarily a stepping stone to a more lucrative future. After all, most automotive research and development is concentrated in Detroit and Stuttgart (Germany), far from Africa. It’s also not clear that manufacturing jobs alone can ensure stability: While the environment for foreign investors is relatively free, other aspects of society are far from it — Reporters Without Borders considers Morocco less free than Algeria or even Afghanistan.

Still, for Moroccans wanting more than a 21st-century maquiladora, there is reason to hope. The government is emphasizing a sustainable auto ecosystem, aiming to ramp up its share of locally produced auto parts from 40 percent to 65 percent of assembled cars. And while most of its cars are exported to European markets, Morocco is also trying to position itself as a hub for companies looking to do business in Africa, with firms leveraging Moroccan companies already operating in African countries. The pitch might be working: Last summer, PSA Peugeot Citroën signed a $600 million-plus deal to open an auto plant in the seaside town of Kenitra, which, it hopes, will be a springboard for selling a million cars in Africa by 2025.

To be sure, Morocco isn’t the only African country with its sights set on a slice of the car market. South Africa still leads the market with a production count of more than 617,000 cars last year. The industrialization 5,000 miles north may be a source of “bad news” to some, says Nimrod Zalk, an automotive advisor in the South African government. But over the long term, he says, a more vibrant sector will benefit everyone on the continent.

Is This the Next Major Refugee Crisis?

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It reads like an espionage novel: Hell-bent on a deadly mission, she bribes an immigration official to slip out of the country under the radar. From there, she fakes a passport and gets on an international flight. And then another, at which point she vanishes. But not before a terrorist attack that devastates the City of Light.

This scenario, of course, is not fiction. Some time before terrorists slew their way through Paris, Seham Al Salkhadi bribed a group of immigration officials and members of the judiciary police in Colombia to the tune of $1,500 and boarded a flight to the French capital using a fake Israeli passport. From Paris, the Syrian woman boarded a flight to Stockholm and vanished. Authorities from Colombia and France are still trying to track Al Salkhadi down, uncertain as to what role, if any, she played in the attacks in Paris last November.

Certainly, the route to France from Syria via Colombia is convoluted, but it is not all that uncommon. In 2015, 28 Syrians were found to be in Colombia illegally and were quietly deported, according to information released in November by government authorities. Such numbers are too small to be really noticed among the 6,600 people the South American country deports every year. But Colombia, and other countries in Latin America, are now paying more attention to patterns and the flow of people that may have gone unnoticed in the past.

These pockets of radicalism are out there, and it is [imperative] to keep them monitored.

Roman Ortiz, founder and director of Decisive Point

Most illegal migrants who make their way through the region are en route to the U.S., typically looking for whatever work they can find. Increasingly, however, Colombian authorities worry about people (including some with links to extremist groups) from Nepal, India, Pakistan or Syria using these flows to move through the region or make contact with sympathizers without attracting notice. More and more, there are concerns that terrorists, affiliated or not with the Islamic State, could move through Colombia, as well as places like Venezuela and Guatemala, ending up in Mexico and then crossing into the U.S., or head elsewhere in the world the way Al Salkhadi did — all with relative ease.

 

ISIS dominates the fears of many, but amid blanket fears, not everyone recognizes that terrorist groups like it strategize territories in chillingly savvy ways. “Islamic State is clearly trying to build structures in the United States, but clearly this has nothing to do with the Mexican border because they do not need it,” Roman Ortiz, the founder and director of Decisive Point, a Colombian firm that works with governments and major corporations and provides national security and defense consulting services, told OZY. “The Mexican border obviously is a door, but I don’t think it’s the most important.” There are indications that in some areas of Latin America, such as Trinidad and Tobago, there is a growth of Islamic radicalism, adds Ortiz. “It is local people who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS … These pockets of radicalism are out there, and it is [imperative] to keep them monitored.”

Unchecked migration could make the monitoring of radicalism’s growth very difficult. Colombian authorities, which did not respond to requests for comment, say it can cost as much as $12,000 to reach the U.S. through Central and South America. In some cases, migrants might be involved in prostitution or drug smuggling to pay off the debt to the individuals or cartels that facilitate the migration. And links between these cartels and extremist groups are a cause for concern, particularly since they are not without precedent. In 2011, for example, the FBI uncovered a plot between the Los Zetas drug cartel in Mexico and extremists in Iran to kill Saudi diplomats. In another incident, U.S. authorities dismantled a Colombian-Lebanese money-laundering organization actively working for Hezbollah.

For now, the world is more focused on the refugee crisis in Europe. It’s a good thing to be focused on, but there’s a sobering downside: Very little attention is being paid to this particular route. That includes people of any stripe — from hardworking families in search of a better life to terrorists looking to move undetected into countries they may be targeting. This may be a dangerous mistake. There are countless migrants stranded across Latin America and the Caribbean. At this very moment, there are several thousands of Cubans looking to make their way to the U.S. who are stuck in one country or another as they flee the Castros’ regime, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Some 43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. in 2015, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data that Pew acquired after a request for records. That figure is up 78 percent from the 24,278 Cubans who entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2014. Figures from Migración Colombia, that country’s immigration agency, show that 3,194 Cubans were caught in Colombia illegally during the first eight months of 2015.

And the numbers are still rising. According to Migración Colombia, from January to May, 2016, about 6,000 illegal immigrants were detected by authorities in the South American country. More than 3,800 of them were located in the town of Turbo, the last checkpoint before the border with Panama. Today, more than 100 Cubans are stranded in a warehouse in Turbo waiting for a solution so they can continue their journey to the U.S. “From the beginning, we have respected the rights and integrity of each of these migrants,” Christian Krüger, head of Migración Colombia, said in a press release. The release adds that Migración Colombia and the national government do not provide transportation to any location other than the border where they entered Colombia or their place of origin, “because otherwise we would be contributing to these criminal gangs.”

Although this crisis is under the radar, not everyone has ignored it. “I urge the countries of the region to redouble generously every effort to find a rapid solution to this humanitarian tragedy,” said Pope Francis late last year as he called on Central American countries to assist migrants, especially those fleeing Cuba. Two days later, a group of governments in the region reached a deal to fly 8,000 Cuban migrants out of Costa Rica and into El Salvador, from where they could conceivably make their way to Mexico and the U.S.

The flow of people remains — and remains virtually unchecked.

The Heist That Broke Pinochet’s Back

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Hands Up: A look at history’s greatest heists and most intriguing robberies. Read more.

The alarm blared at the state bank in the northern town of Chuquicamata, Chile, on March 9, 1981, prompting police to check the vault. They found it slightly ajar but nothing missing, so they locked it back up and went home. But by the time they returned the next morning, $1.1 million had vanished, along with bank guard Guillermo Martínez and cashier Sergio Yáñez.

A three-month nationwide hunt ensued, until early June, when Chile’s regime unexpectedly announced that the suspects’ dismembered bodies had been found in the Atacama Desert. Officials blamed the murders on corrupt secret police and promised that justice would be served. But those officials were lying to cover up a government-linked theft aimed at lining the coffers of the secret police.

Habits of repression are [still] visible in parts of the country, especially if you’re a member of the underclass.

Kenneth Roberts, Cornell University

Fabrications, kidnappings and other atrocities were common in Chile at the time. Under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, DINA, the state-sponsored secret police force, systematically captured and killed perceived enemies. The U.S. turned a blind eye to the violence because it had helped facilitate Pinochet’s rise to power, but that grace period ended when regime critic Orlando Letelier was assassinated in a Washington, D.C., car bombing in 1976. The U.S. responded with calls for restraint, and DINA was subsequently shut down. But that didn’t mean it vanished — like a ravaged Hydra, it grew new heads, and by the time of the ’81 bank heist, Chile’s streets were teeming with government-bought goons.

The government tale went that Chilean officials Eduardo Villanueva and Army Maj. Gabriel Hernandez had staged the robbery, framed the bank employees and then killed them to cover their tracks. Another government investigator, Maj. Juan Delmas, was subsequently found dead with a bullet in his head in an abandoned car. Officials said it was suicide, but few believed that: No bullets were initially found, and the car was dust-free despite being in the desert. 

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Protestors of the Chilean government under General Pinochet are arrested and hauled off the streets in May 1983.

Source Carlos Carrion/Corbis

Alarm bells were ringing about the whole mess. Pinochet’s regime was known to have used the pretense of maintaining law and order to hide atrocities connected to copper robberies, so reporters had every reason to be suspicious. In 1973, for example, engineer David Silberman, who managed Chile’s copper mines, was tortured to death as the result of “an apparent effort to find copper company funds [the regime] falsely believed he had taken after the [Pinochet] coup,” according to Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File. The $13 million that Silberman was accused of stealing was not found but was probably pocketed by the government, says Spanish attorney Almudena Bernabeu, who has been working to extradite Silberman’s likely abductor from the U.S., where he currently lives.

 

Questions about the ’81 heist started to pile up. A magazine published an interview with Hernandez, who claimed that he was being “sacrificed” and that police members had ordered him to murder the bank employees. Around the same time, a recession was inflicting hardship nationwide. Pinochet’s privatization reforms backfired, squeezing the regime’s funds, according to University of Calgary associate professor Pablo Policzer. Foreign loans that supported trade agreements froze, debtors who borrowed foreign currencies on fixed exchanges began to sell, and residents feared that banks would close. The regime’s financial concerns led, according to Mary Helen Spooner, author of Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile, to the secret police’s upper echelon planning the heist in response to cutbacks. And while Kornbluh says there’s no way to know for sure how much money was stolen by the regime — owing to a “vast repressive network of people” — 120 of Pinochet’s secret bank accounts, containing a whopping $28 million in stolen funds, were uncovered after he was deposed.

Pinochet’s downfall, says Cornell professor Kenneth Roberts, was brought about by the combination of economic uncertainty and national terrorism that pushed opposing political parties into a common alliance to challenge the dictatorship. This led to an uprising, and in 1988, Pinochet accepted and lost a referendum to consolidate his power; he was then relegated to a role as Chile’s head of security until the late ’90s. But to this day, the “habits of repression are visible in parts of the country, especially if you’re a member of the underclass,” says Roberts.

By the time Hernandez and Villanueva were executed by firing squad on Oct. 22, 1982, the public knew the two men were most likely just the fall guys for a rotting regime. Chilean journalist Rubén Adrián Valenzuela witnessed the executions and noted how riflemen hit both men in the heart. When one of them moved, an officer shot him again at close range, guaranteeing the man’s silence in an extraordinary cover-up that ultimately would not stay buried.