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Why Migrants Are an Undervalued Resource

By Shlomo Maital


   My mother and father, grandmother, aunts and uncles, all were migrants. They came from Bessarabia, now Moldova, escaping pogroms, grinding poverty, and seeking a new life in Canada and America  a century ago.  Canada’s relatively open policy gave them new lives and eventually made Canada prosperous, through their energy and the energy of other migrants.   And their offspring have done great things for their country.  My father, for instance, built low-cost houses for working people.

   Today, Europe faces one million Mideast and African migrants during 2015. Public opinion has largely turned against them.   The brutal homicidal use of ISIL of the Syrian migrant pipeline to smuggle in a terrorist has done enormous damage to a great many peaceful Moslems, but what does ISIL  care?

   What evidence is there that migrants are constructive?  NYT columnist David Brooks draws our attention to an essay by Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, Aug. 24 2015 (awarded Brooks’ prize for one of the year’s best essays). It’s called Starting Over. It’s about sociologist David Kirk, driving around a very poor neighborhood in Post-Katrinia hurricane New Orleans, and wondering:

   “As Kirk drove around the Lower Ninth, however, he realized that post-Katrina New Orleans [Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans in late 2005, a decade ago]  provided one of those rare occasions when fate had neatly separated the two variables. In the course of bringing immeasurable suffering to the people of New Orleans, Katrina created what social scientists call a “natural experiment”: one day, people were in the neighborhoods where they had lived, sometimes for generations. The next day, they were gone—sometimes hundreds of miles away. “They had to move,” Kirk said. What, he wondered, were the implications of that?

In other words: How productive are migrants who get up and move, far away, compared to those who stay, in New Orleans? Simple answer. Migrants do far better than those who stay mired in the same poverty context.

   Kirk’s idea was to look at convicted criminals from New Orleans who had been released from prison after Katrina. As a group, they were fairly homogeneous: largely black, largely poor. For years, their pattern was to return to their old neighborhoods after they were released: to their families, homes, social networks. But for some, by the most random of circumstances, that was now impossible. Their neighborhoods—the Lower Ninth, New Orleans East—had been washed away. How did the movers compare with the stayers?

   Gladwell cites distressing evidence that black Americans born in poor neighborhoods are stuck there, contrary to the ‘American dream’ of upward mobility: “Over the past two generations, 48 percent of all African American families have lived in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods in each generation. The most common experience for black families since the 1970’s, by a wide margin, has been to live in the poorest American neighborhoods over consecutive generations. Only 7 percent of white families have experienced similar poverty in their neighborhood environments for consecutive generations.”

   One of the researchers, named Graif,  found compelling evidence that those who moved from New Orleans poverty did far better than those who stayed, despite the traumatic circumstances.

   “I think that what’s happening is that a whole new world is opening up to them,” Graif said. “If these people hadn’t moved out of the metro area, they would have done the regular move—cycling from one disadvantaged area to another. The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape.”   That is, more neighborhoods in better shape than those of New Orleans, which is a crucial fact. For reasons of geography, politics, and fate, Katrina also happened to hit one of the most dysfunctional urban areas in the country: violent, corrupt, and desperately poor. A few years after the hurricane, researchers at the University of Texas interviewed a group of New Orleans drug addicts who had made the move to Houston, and they found that Katrina did not seem to have left the group with any discernible level of trauma. That’s because, the researchers concluded, “they had seen it all before: the indifferent authorities, loss, violence, and feelings of hopelessness and abandonment that followed in the wake of this disaster,” all of which amounted to “a microcosm of what many had experienced throughout their lives.”

Here is the surprising conclusion. We can learn about Mideast and African migrants from similar American migrants. They are resilient. They overcome the enormous trauma of their original homes. They do better than if they had stayed home, because nearly any place is better than that. And, they contribute massively to their new homes, as productive energetic families desperate to build better lives for their children.  Like my family did.

     In America, people can move anywhere they wish. In Syria, they risk their lives to get to Europe, where they are herded into camps for years, even though no native Europeans will do the kind of hard labor these migrants gladly seek.

     Will anyone pay attention to sociological evidence? Or will Europe listen to the hate-mongerers on the right, and vote their emotions and fears.   Can anyone translate Gladwell’s essay into language the Europeans will read and listen to?



Globalize Misery? Or Love?  What Riace Teaches Us

By Shlomo Maital      



 Pope Francis recently captured a bitter world dilemma in just a few words.  We need to transform the globalization of misery, he said, into the globalization of love.  What he meant was, the globalization of misery sends migrants from countries where they are oppressed, persecuted, killed, jailed and tortured, to countries where they have hope for better lives.  The journey is perilous, across tossing seas in tiny boats, and many die on the way. But still they come.  When they do survive, and arrive at places like the Italian island of Lampedusa, they often meet not love but hatred.  Pope Francis believes the migrants should be treated as human beings, with love. 

   In the BBC Program Heart & Soul, John Laurenson visits Riace, Italy, to explore the Globalization of Love, in a small but significant case study.  A report in The Guardian offers further details.

    Riace is a small village in Calabria, Italy,  sited 5 miles inland from the coast for safety from pirates, right at the ‘instep’ of the boot of Italy.  Its mayor Domenico has spent a decade trying to help African migrants. In doing so he has greatly helped his village.  “We need to show it that it has touched us all,” said  Lucano, “but we mustn’t just weep – that is not enough.”

  What Riace does is offer African migrants homes, jobs, and financial aid. The aid comes from the EU.  But it often comes late. So Riace prints its own money, with Gandhi and Martin Luther King on the face, gives it to the migrants, they buy food and shelter, and then, when the EU aid arrives, shopkeepers exchange Riace money for real euros.  Why does Riace welcome migrants when other countries and cities reject them?  Riace’s young people have left.  Industry has gone.  People are not having children.  So the migrants have revived Riace’s economy and social life.  Many of them (some are women from Afghanistan, who fled when the Taliban wanted them to marry off their daughters, at age 12!) learn crafts and revive Riace’s craft industries.  Muslims and Christians get along perfectly and together celebrate the Festival of “Id” (marking the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham).     Riace, in short, has done good, but has also done well for itself.   The sign, shown above, by the way, says, Riace – a Place of Welcome. 

    I was born and raised in Canada.  Canada was built by immigrants, including my parents.  I then moved to Israel. Israel exists because millions of Jewish immigrants came when they faced persecution, or survived the Holocaust and had nowhere to go.  A million immigrants from the former USSR built Israel’s high-tech industry.    

      Why do countries fail to understand that immigrants bring energy and aspiration, seek to do jobs that locals would never touch, and bring vibrant new cultures and customs?   If Europe has stopped having babies, the only alternative to becoming a huge Old Folks’ Home is welcoming migrants. 

Horn of Africa Migrants: Does Anyone Care?

By Shlomo Maital     


Again – a line of body bags.  No, not from Syrian Army poison gas attacks.  This time, an estimated 300 or more migrants from Africa’s Horn, who perished on a leaky ship bound for Lampedusa, an Italian island,  from Libya. According to the BBC  the ship’s engine failed.  Someone on board lit a fire to attract help. The fire then raged out of control. People on the ship fled the fire, too many moved to one side of the ship, and it tipped over.  Many drowned. All this took place just one kilometer, or 0.6 miles, from shore!    Italy’s conscience was aroused – the Italian Prime Minister declared a day of mourning.

       The migrants were mainly from Somalia and Eritrea.  Somalia is a failed state, has been for years, suffering from drought and famine, and is often in the news. Eritrea, on the other hand, is nearly invisible, run by a brutal dictator who does not allow journalists into his country.  The result:  Eritrea is rarely in the news, despite the brutal violence imposed against its citizens.   Until Israel built a high fence along its long border with the Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, many Eritreans fled to Ethiopia, north to Sudan, thence to Egypt, from there to Bedouin smugglers across Sinai, to Israel.  They suffered enormous hardship, extortion, blackmail and much worse.

      Total annual world military expenditure amounts to $1.75 trillion.  Suppose just five per cent of that amount,  $87.5 b.,  were allocated to programs that helped Horn of Africa migrants study and resettle in Western countries.  Ultimately, Somalis could return to rebuild their country.  Eventually, when the murderous dictator is removed, Eritreans could, too.   These migrants are full of energy, hard work and the desire to contribute. All they seek is a chance.  We have more than 50,000 of them in Israel, mostly in South Tel Aviv.   Why do 300 of them have to die, in order to arouse the world’s conscience, for an Andy Warhol 15 minutes – only to be forgotten again in no time?

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital