Fear and Migration

The heart of anti-migrant discourse always traces back to fear, no matter the logic; it finds its roots in fear of Islam, fear that social and government aid will be usurped, fear of perceived inferior or unfamiliar ethnicities, and fear that a continued influx will dismantle existing government structures. Although many people are sympathetic to the causes that force political and economic migrants to seek asylum in Europe, the feelings of guilt, discomfort and tension create a much less accepting attitude. There are vast amounts of statistics that can be read in a way that fuel this resistance to change; but often the numbers are simply the faces we put on our fear, to present it as rational, as preservation. It is our own fear of the unknown and discomfort at the prospect of being confronted with abject poverty and need that drives much of the anti-immigrant sentiment. But when are these fears valid, and when are they based solely on prejudice, selfishness or indifference?

The fear and ignorance surrounding the Islamic faith pervades most European countries today. Although critics of immigration in Europe use the possibility of radical terrorism as the scapegoat for their anti-Muslim rhetoric, the reluctance to accept change and integrate a foreign religion is the driving factor for most citizens. The deep and widespread propaganda perpetuating a view of Europe’s traditional Christian heritage makes the accommodation of different religions appear to be an insult to European white culture and to God. The United Kingdom’s David Cameron declared that Britain should “feel proud that [it] is a Christian country” in an Easter address. Viktor Orbán of Hungary also frames the crisis as a religious one, since “those arriving have been raised in another religion… a radically different culture” and that they should be denied access because “European identity is rooted in Christianity” (Traynor). The implied message is that the two cannot coexist, and therefore protecting Christianity comes at the price of keeping out those that practice Islam. The threat of decline of Christianity is even less powerful the fear of terrorism that engulfs Europe periodically after crises that shock the world; there is no arguing that there have been acts of radical Islamic violence.  Many anti-immigrant supporters present the stories and statistics to stir up fear and to mask isolationism and exclusion of Muslim immigrants as “good decision-making” or “protecting our own.” Tragedies like the attacks on Paris and the fear they create have “moved the debate from a humanitarian to a security framework” by placing potential refugee perpetrators at the center of a perceived terrorism plot on Europe (Lahav).  Seizing the shock that follows acts of terror, the media and politicians alike cry out that “nowhere is safe from the malign designs of Islamist fanatics,” blaming the institutions that are unable to keep refugees out for creating the circumstances that allow Islamic violence to occur (Coughlin). One security analyst points out that people often “connect terrorist attacks to the refugee influx” without taking into account the fact that many nations like Italy and Greece with the highest numbers of migrants are “at low risk of international terrorism” (Crabtree). In 2016, there were 1274 documented acts of radical Islamic violence; only eight were in Europe. In fact, according to the CATO Institute, the chance of being murdered by a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion a year, including those refugees coming from Muslim-dominant and Muslim militant states. In no way should the rarity of Islamic terrorism excuse the level of disgust the public should have towards such acts of violence that occur, but it is simply illogical to correlate terrorism with the alarm associated with the spread of Islam.

Many Europeans view migrants as a “drain on the system,” fearing that they are coming across the ocean to take European jobs and benefits. The welfare state of Europe has been a hotly contested issue when it comes to migrants. In Sweden, which has absorbed many refugees and migrants in the past two years, much of the far-right rhetoric emphasizes the idea that migrants are taking the benefits and social welfare belonging to the native Swede elderly and poor. In the United Kingdom, politicians emphasize that “a disproportionate number [of migrants] are coming for benefits,” citing statistics that show a higher proportion of foreigners claiming child and housing benefits (Dalwar). These numbers are employed in attempting to prove laziness or loose morals of migrants, coming to leech from richer European states. This idea fuels the fear that there will not be enough to go around for European nationals, and that if they were to become elderly, sick, or unemployed that all of the benefits of the state of which they are legal members will be used up on these foreigners. Selfishness is a human state, and nations are easily led into it when they fear they will lose what they believe is rightfully theirs – especially in a time when generosity is viewed as a vice at worst and risky at best.

There is an attitude and a stigma surrounding economic migration from African countries especially, that people leaving their homes in search of a better life are not as deserving of European protection, aid, and opportunities as those fleeing persecution. But Europe has always been a country of movement when food and work were scarce. Even the smaller movement from rural to urban cities happened on a massive scale, and European immigrants rushed onto New World shores when Europe was overcrowded and out of work. Europeans should have a relatively recent memory of a time when the necessity to leave one’s homeland in search of a better life was urgently upon them. There are also multiple studies, including one done by University of Oxford in 2016, showing that migrants are more likely to be unemployed. This furthers the argument of anti-immigration groups that refugees and asylum-seekers are more a detriment to the nation than a benefit. However, when we examine the lengths to which migrants go to achieve better lives and attempt to find meaningful work, we can hardly describe them as lazy – in fact, they personify an extraordinary desire to be useful and an insuppressible work ethic. In an area where the “employment rate and relative wage of low-skilled workers have been declining for years,” the fear of losing jobs to migrants is a legitimate one, and the criticism of unemployment and benefit collection in migrants makes sense when work policy for refugees is ignored (Frum). Migrants contribute to the unemployment rate so highly because they are legally forbidden to work in most European countries until their paperwork is processed. This application process can take years, if it happens at all, leaving them with no other option but to collect welfare and other social services.

It appears that the existing governmental structures in place in Europe, particularly the EU, are increasingly unable to handle the added pressure that mass migration is creating. The countries most affected by migration are flailing under the weight of more people and not enough organization and funds – Italy and Greece both have undergone financial crises in recent years, with a crippling effect on their ability to absorb immigrants in mass amounts. Their southern cities have become home to migrant camps that resemble slums, and the administration of asylum applications is unacceptably slow and inefficient due to the lack of staff and funds. This creates the aforementioned issue of migrant unemployment, which fuels a whole host of apprehension on the part of EU nationals. Debates over migration have created polarizing lines in European politics and allowed newly formed radical right-wing parties like the Northern League of Italy and the National Front of France to overthrow traditionally powerful parties in their respective governments and gain momentum in policy-making. The Schengen zone, long praised as a hallmark of European freedom and mobility, is beginning to crumble as high-traffic areas reinstate border controls to prevent migrants from circumventing the Dublin regulations and applying for asylum in more welcoming nations. More and more, the unrest among all the European nations and the desire to keep people out is leading to the crumbling of the EU while national leaders bicker over ways to divide the burden and ignore the root causes. This instability is certainly a cause for fear among citizens, who rely on their national governments for basic rights and protections, and whose governments have usually worked in collaboration with the rest of the EU to present a united front. With the increasing skepticism of the Euro and the shockwave of Brexit, the immigration crisis presents one more terrifying factor threatening a fragile, teetering European state.

With the massive influx of foreign peoples also comes a well-founded fear of cultural dilution or loss of tradition.  There is a strong nationalistic sentiment that runs deep in European blood – that Europeans look a certain way, that the people have been there for centuries and that Christianity is intertwined with European history. Nationalism is not always harmful when it cultivates pride in one’s culture and heritage, but when it morphs into a fear of change and growth, or gives way to racism, prejudice, and close-mindedness it can be a powerful and restrictive force. While the numbers seem overwhelming in and of themselves, in comparison to the entire European population they are but a drop in the ocean – not enough of a force to overthrow longstanding culture, but enough of one to enact understanding and appreciation of a global culture. Even so, the rise of far-right populist parties and reemergence of radical nationalist and white supremacist parties points back to an inability to overcome perceived racial and ethnic differences or inequalities. These groups instigate and perpetuate fears and stigmas about the different nationalities entering Europe in the media. Through propaganda, and in public and intimidating displays of dissent, they contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy violence and hatred on both sides and perpetuate a mistrust of foreigners.

Not all people who oppose the mass migration into Europe have malicious intent, and not all of these fears come from a place of ill will or intolerance – history has proved that fear and self-preservation are powerful motivators. But when fear assumes the forms of ignorance, greed and prejudice it becomes a practically insurmountable obstacle, a hydra-headed problem preventing refugees’ assimilation into European culture.

Works Cited

Coughlin, Con. “Islamic Terror Could Drive Europe into the Arms of the Far-Right.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 26 July 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Crabtree, Justina. “Is the Threat of Islamic Extremist Terrorism Spreading to Central         Europe?” CNBC. CNBC, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Dawar, Anil. “Migrants ‘milking’ Benefits System: Foreigners More Likely to Claim         Handouts.” Express.co.uk. Express.co.uk, 20 July 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Frum, David. “Closing Europe’s Harbors.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 June 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Lahav, Gallya. “The Global Challenge of the Refugee Exodus.” Current History. N.p., Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Traynor, Ian. “Migration Crisis: Hungary PM Says Europe in Grip of Madness.” The Guardian.   Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

The History of St. Peter’s Basilica

One of the most impactful things I have seen in my entire life was St. Peter’s Basilica – my family is very Catholic, and I have always dreamt of seeing the Basilica in person. I read a long history of the Basilica’s construction and was absolutely fascinated by it. Here is a history of the architecture and building of the beautiful monument we see today.

The new St. Peter’s basilica took almost a dozen architects and 160 years to complete. From it’s conception to it’s completion, it was controversial, ahead of it’s time, the centerpiece of art and the faith, a bargaining chip, and a black hole for funds. It’s progress was always dependent on the artist and the patron, who also happened to be the head of the enormously influential Church. Nicholas and Rossellino, Julius and Bramante, Leo and Raphael, Clement and Da Sangallo, Paul and Michelangelo, Pius and Vignola, Sixtus and Della Porta, Paul and Maderno – these relationships and the goal of creating a formidable Rome, drove the creation of the most important basilica in the world.

The Old Saint Peter’s had been a landmark and a religious guidepost for centuries. It was built by Constantine in the 300s after the legitimization of mystery cults, to house the bones of Saint Peter. Peter was crucified upside-down outside of Caligula’s circus, on Vatican hill – Constantine’s choice of building was not only symbolically important to the Church but strategic, as he legalized these cults as long as they were outside city walls. Over time, it became decrepit, housing relics and art haphazardly throughout the building.  There was an atrium built outside the Basilica, and it was always full and busy. But when the seat of the church moved to Avignon, France, and fell into corruption and frivolity, the basilica itself rotted away too.

When Nicolas V was elected to the papacy, he moved the church back to Rome. He was a humanist, believing in the power of the individual, and breathed a new life into the church that had for so long been stuck in the middle ages. The basilica had been standing for over a thousand years, but Nicolas wanted to improve it: to hearken back to the glory days of classical Rome and make it beautiful and powerful again. He hired Rossellino as his architect and drew up plans for perhaps the remodeling of the Basilica – he kept the original shape, and preserved the building by beginning a new wall outside of the existing structure. He died soon after, and with him the momentum for a new saint peter’s stopped.

The next visionary Pope was Julius II. The name Julius holds a certain power in Rome of all places, and Julius II was certainly after the glory of the classical era. He was to become the Christian Caesar. The Romans named him Il Terribilis, for his legendary temper and impatience. He once excommunicated the entire city of Bologna for failing to follow his orders. And he addressed the problems of the Church the same way – with iron will and no mercy. He began with its infrastructure, and the first on the list was a symbol of power. He returned to Nicolas’ plan, hiring Bramante to be his architect. Bramante had just finished the Tempietta, after months of studying classical architecture, especially the Pantheon. The Tempietta is a miniature of perfect proportions, and that was exactly what Julius wanted – a perfect, grandiose symbol to replace the rotting Constantinian basilica. The two were a perfect match – contemporaries in age, and temperament. Bramante was full of energy and was constantly changing his ideas, and each newest idea was always the best. His plans are mostly lost, but  what we have remains emblazoned on memorial medals – you can clearly see the enormity of the plan, complete with dome and a four-sided central cross. T

he comparison between the Panntheon, crown jewel of classical architecture, and Bramante’s basilica is startling – the Vetruvian proportions, the classical columns, the looming dome.

This is a cutaway of the pantheon, and it is important to note that the dome itself sits on a solid cylinder of columns. The massive dome becomes an inspiration to Bramante, as well as Brunelleschi’s masterpiece glittering over Florence.

What you can’t see from this medallion is the openness, the light, that Bramante wanted to create within the Basilica. The crossing was to be open, with arches towering above you, and the four arms of the church all flowing into each other. This requires a different plan for setting the dome – Bramante began with absolutely massive piers, setting them first, and this determines the ridiculous scale of the rest of the building for all of the architects to come.

It is lucky that he did this, for Julius died soon after, and Leo X, a Medici prince took over. He had none of the imperative that Julius possessed, and preferred to spend his money on painting and fine dinners and other luxuries. The building of the Basilica stalled, especially when Leo put Bramante’s old rival as second-in-command. When Bramante died, Leo selected the legendary Raphael Sanzio, Rome’s golden boy, as architect. He was young and inexperienced in architecture, and much of the gold that flowed out of Leo’s hands went to waste in the years he was architect. But the scale of the building was done and the plans did not change much. When Raphael died tragically young, Antonio da Sangallo, who had spent most of his life working as an engineer in the Basilica, returned to Bramante’s design.

He expanded the side arms quite a bit and kept in place decorative but light-choking structures. Although he was not an artist, he was a prudent and savvy engineer, and he quietly accomplished quite a bit of building before his death.

When Paul III learned of da Sangallo’s death, he had only one option in mind: the brilliant and strange Michelangelo. Snubbed by the papacy from the earliest days and confined to the Cappella Sistina, kept from building the tomb of Julius II, Michelangelo was now very old. He refused the position of capomaestro, and it took much cajoling to get him to return. But return he did, and brought his impossible and irascible personality with him. He refused to divulge his full plans to his foremen, sketching only the important piece and explaining the details. He criticized da Sangallo’s work for being too dark and Gothic. He demanded that Paul III give him supreme authority over the building of the basilica, with no one to answer to but the Pope himself. With this granted, he ordered much of da Sangallo’s building demolished, and drew up new plans. In these, he shrank the side arms, freed it from the circle that the cross was bound in and eliminated corner chapels, brought down bell towers and overall just simplified the design.

Vasari, of course, praises this as “increasing its grandeur by decreasing its size,” and returned it to classical grandeur. He insisted on the traditional Greek cross and the shape of the dome that mimicked the pantheon.

Michelangelo began to tackle the problem that had been looming over every other architect: the dome. No one knew quite how to begin such a project. Michelangelo deemed the piers too weak to hold a dome of the prescribed size, and fortified them another eight feet thick. He then began work on the drum, which supports the concave part of the dome.

When he died at eighty-five, his plan remained in placewith the divine authority that Paul had granted it – no one could change it. Pius V, his successor, in fact hired another architect, called Ligorio. When Ligorio dared to deviate from the plan Michelangelo had drawn up, he was promptly disposed of. They then turned to Vignola, one of Michelangelo’s old students, in hopes that he would have a glimmer of what Michelangelo had planned. He continued it according to Michelangelo’s design, but left the dome untouched.

By setting the piers first in building, Bramante had created an unchangeable monster. There was no way to deviate in size or scale of a dome that now seemed foolish and impossible. Although it had remained in every design since Bramante, no architect had been able to tackle it. At this time, sciences of engineering and physics were still vague theories, and the technology that built the vast Pantheon dome was lost. The pantheon’s dome itself, like I mentioned earlier, is basically a semicircle sitting on the ground – because the columns form a solid cylinder, the only thing to offset is the downward thrust of the shallow dome. In Bramante’s plan, however, the base is not solid – the dome must precariously balance on a series of arches slanted inwards. If you can visualize this, there’s really no diagrams to this effect, the bottoms of the arches forming the crossing create an octagon, with the tops caving inwards a bit. This creates a far more unstable environment – a semicircle balancing on eight points, instead of a solid surface.

Although Michelangelo had fortified the piers and set the drum after studying Brunelleschi’s dome in Santa Maria della Fiore, the placement of the arch to ensure its balance was still infathomable. This would be the case until Giacomo della Porta strayed from Michelangelo’s divine inspiration.

Sixtus V was a machine. Elected as pope in 1585, he would probably have been great friends with Julius II. He was one of the greatest builders in the shortest time: he created roads, organized the city, cleared Piazzas, constructed acqueducts, and funded architecture. He had no time for the impossible. In fact, one of his first acts as pope was to hold a contest to see who could engineer the movement of the obelisk. The winner was Domenico Fontana, who raised the obelisk in its new home in the center of the Piazza San Pietro to cheers and trumpets – it was an engineering breakthrough. His next problem to tackle was the dome, whose drum had become overgrown with weeds and decaying throughout the years of no work. According to legend, he used to complain that the basilica looked “headless.” With this, he decreed that the current architect, della Porta, design an achievable dome.

This, which had seemed easily as impossible as moving the obelisk, was done by a petrified Della Porta by changing both Michelangelo and Bramante’s plans. He took the shallow dome of the Pantheon, which they had both used as inspiration, and turned it into more of a half ellipse. Its design was 100 feet higher than the Duomo of Florence, and three times the size of the Pantheon. Nothing of this scale had been built before. When Sixtus saw it, his only question was, “how long will it take?”

Della Porta answered ten years. The building of the drum itself had taken more than that time, and Michelangelo himself had engineered it.

Sixtus gave him thirty months.

Shocked, della Port set out with his men working twenty four hours a day, seven days a week – except for Sundays, when they got an hour off for Mass. With this exhausting schedule, the dome was completed in only twenty-two months. Sixtus V finally died a few weeks later, his life achievement being the beautification of Rome.

When Paul V was elected pope, he turned his attention to the practically finished Basilica. He worried that even this basilica was not grand enough, not spectacular enough, and definitely not big enough for the influx of pilgrims that its construction was bringing in. So, in a stroke of highly contested blasphemy, he ordered a new plan be drawn up. He hired Maderno to expand Michelangelo’s Greek cross, and expand he did – the design became a Latin cross, with an extended nave reaching out into the square to hold more congregation. He designs the façade for the building, deviating again from Michelangelo’s simple and classical one, moving towards the more decorative and busy Baroque. It was highly criticized, both now and at the time, for its height compared to its width, and many say that it obscures the masterpiece of the dome. But still, when the façade goes on the basilica and the exterior is deemed complete, there are bells ringing throughout Rome, almost 160 years later.

Experiences in Italy

…. A year later, I finally got around to discussing the volunteering I got to do with Italian migrants.

L’Associazione Culturale del Bangladesh Arezzo began as a way for the Bangladeshi immigrants living in Tuscany to connect with each other. In 2014, however, when the migration crisis facing Europe reached its peak, the Bangladeshi association began housing and feeding Middle Eastern and West African migrants. Since many Malians, Ghanians, Libyans and Ivoirians speak French in addition to their native language, L’Associazione Culturale del Bangladesh recruited me to translate between French, Italian, and English to coordinate relief. It is impossible to live in Italy today without observing the helplessness of the thousands of displaced people crowding European streets. There seemed to be few options for offering meaningful help to these people, until I came across the Associazione, who needed help just translating between volunteers and migrants. I was deeply moved by the stories I was told and repeated – the desire to flee danger and seek refuge that overcame the knowledge of deadly accidents by sea and dangerous trafficking circles. Many people simply wanted to be heard, and I was grateful for the ability to do so. Sometimes, meaning is lost as a story is translated – some words and feelings simply cannot be equated to each other. It was beautiful to be on the receiving end of the stories that were told, but also very difficult. There was very little I could do after hearing their trauma.

But it was also incredible to see that amongst all the ignorance in Europe surrounding the immigration crisis, there were people who were dedicating their lives to coordinating assistance and lobbying for change for these people. And although we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of displaced and distraught people, even just a few willing to help can make a big difference.

Remarkable Resiliency

In the orthopedic surgery clinic, we see a lot of pain. We see physical pain: blown-out shoulders in gymnasts and oilfield workers, worn-out knees in former marathon runners and nurses on their feet all day, painful and tired hips in dancers and the elderly. But we also see another side of pain, in parents forced to take off work due to disability, scrambling to buy their kids new shoes, in new widows now coming to their bimonthly appointments alone, in veterans who have gone ignored and untreated for what seems like ages. All this pain means we are very busy, and for some people, that would be exhausting. But for Dr. Kirkpatrick’s team, that means that we get a front-row seat and an opportunity to give relief to some of the most resilient and positive people on the planet, whom we affectionately call “rock stars”. It also means we never stop learning.

When people began to ask me what I wanted to do with my life, I never knew what to say. I told them that I just never wanted to stop learning; I never wanted to sit down at my desk and realize that I already knew everything that I was going to need to know to complete my tasks for the day. It wasn’t until mid-high school, after falling in love with the brain in my first biology and psychology classes, that I realized that the best way to ensure a lifetime of learning would be to study medicine. What captivates me about the brain is its plasticity – its ability to heal itself, to overcome obstacles and mend after trauma. Neural plasticity is a subject on which our knowledge as scientists is growing exponentially every day. Stroke, diabetes, trauma, cancer, injury, and mental illness all affect the wiring of the brain and the delicate functions and memories it houses. And yet, as battered as the brain can become, we see over and over again the ways that memories endure, that function is regained, that what is lost can be found again.

People fascinate me in the same way. The same rock stars that we treat every day leave our clinics and return to lives that are often far from glamorous and fraught with difficulty for someone who is not readily mobile, or who lacks resources, or insurance, or human support. And yet, we watch patients in our clinic – and countless others – display incredible resiliency.

I witnessed another example of human resiliency during my seven months abroad, when I got the opportunity to volunteer with a refugee organization helping provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of migrants flooding the Italian shores. Proficient in English and French and conversational in Italian, I was recruited to help translate between the French-speaking West African populations and the Italian volunteers. These people had overcome impossible odds to reach Europe – most had voyaged in lifeboats across the Mediterranean, paying their entire life savings to human traffickers to secure a spot in an inflatable raft. They have fled disease, terrorism, rape, violence and devastating poverty and arrived, penniless and hopeful and utterly unwanted by the European population. Yet we watched as, with a little help, some migrants flourished – procuring jobs, reuniting families. Incredibly, people learn to adapt, to bounce back, even in the worst of circumstances.

I believe that because people are remarkable, our healthcare and communities should be remarkable as well. My passion for medicine lies not only in the sheer awe I have for the way that humans function; it also finds its roots in my deep discomfort with the issues that our rural and impoverished communities face. For as long as I can remember, I have seen and interacted with the poverty that afflicts my hometown of Tulsa. Unfortunately for the residents of the poorer areas of Oklahoma, healthcare is hard to find and even harder to pay for. This results in the staggering levels of diabetes, obesity, addiction and mental illness that plague this corner of the world. We see these issues especially clearly in some of the medical fields I have experienced: diabetes and obesity are direct causes of joint and bone deterioration, and my time helping run clinical trials at Laureate Institute for Brain Research irreversibly stamped on my memory the effects of addiction and mental illness that result from homelessness and poverty.

I believe that today’s doctors have to be planners if they want to maximize the technology and knowledge available. They have to see both the big picture to aspire to change the climate of healthcare, and the very small, day-to-day, unglamorous picture, the parts of being a doctor that are tiresome and stressful. The remarkable human race deserves physicians that care about both the body and the brain, about treating both symptoms and root causes. That is the kind of doctor that I aspire to be; one who is compassionate and dedicated in the small things and the everyday cases, and one who is inspired and undaunted when looking to change the way that community and healthcare interact.


Switzerland is everything that the rest of the world is not. Clean, organized, cheerful, well-educated, modern but still holding on to history. It is gorgeous. Even the little bit I got to see of Switzerland made it obvious why the rest of the world comes here to solve their problems.


We somehow got the hookup in this town outside Lausanne, in someone’s vacation home — the whole thing was floor to ceiling windows with the spectacular view of Lake Geneva greeting us with our morning coffee. We took a day to explore Lausanne, and one to explore Geneva.

The only flaw in Switzerland is how expensive absolutely everything is. If you ever get the chance to go, I absolutely recommend it: however, go grocery shopping. Eating out, even eating fondue, is overrated. We bought enough bread and brie to feed a small army and ate that for the entire weekend. It was fabulous. We took trains all over and got to see the Olympic Museum and the Red Cross Museum, both of which were interactive and fascinating.

The Olympic museum walked us through the history and origins of the ancient and the modern Olympics, as well as giving information about the preparation required for each. Everyone from the athletes to the administrators put in a monumental amount of effort to make each Olympics a success, and when you get to look at the climate of the Olympics against the backdrop of world affairs, you see something that can chart the history of the world through sports. Incredible.

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The Red Cross museum featured humanitarian crises from natural disasters to internal displacement of peoples. It managed to be both very detailed and still convey information from dozens of sources all around the world. Everyone should go. It was a very short weekend, but we crammed a lot of living in.



Education Abroad

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for several weeks now. It’s been an interesting few months here in Italy, and I absolutely adore Europe – I would do it a thousand times over. But when people ask me how study abroad is going, I can’t wholeheartedly say that it is all incredible.

When people describe Europe to you, they never fail to talk about how beautiful it is: there’s everything from snowy peaks to rolling green hills to dramatic cliffs ending in bright blue beaches. They describe the shopping, the tucked-away trattorias, the incredible wines and buttery pastries. When I told people I was going to study abroad, I got a thousand glittering recommendations and reviews. I didn’t get a single account of the millions of people sitting outside of train stations with nowhere to go. Nobody mentioned the slums you drive through for miles on your way into Naples. No one talked about the fact that when you sit outside one of those beautiful cafes in Rome, someone will approach you selling tissues or friendship bracelets or umbrellas. I was never told to appreciate the fact that I can present my passport, that traveling for me never means dodging the authorities. No one complaining on the flight over realized that I paid a few grand to sit in an uncomfortable plane seat for 10 hours, instead handing over my life savings to sit below decks in a hastily repossessed fisherman’s boat, shivering, caked in someone else’s vomit, and praying that we’d make it to the other side. Nobody seemed to have any idea about these people, like they didn’t exist. Or at least they didn’t notice.

I want you to notice. I want this to be a quick education on the hundreds of people flooding Italy’s shores every day. Because when I got here, I had no idea. I wasn’t expecting it. It made me uncomfortable to tell people selling things on the tourist streets no thank you. I cringed when I had to interact with them and I wondered why they couldn’t just leave me alone, not make me feel so guilty. It seems to me like even the Europeans don’t understand why they’re here, or how they arrived, or where they want to go. So I promise to keep my emotional rhetoric in check from now on and offer you a lesson on the refugees that just keep coming, that are a part of Europe, that you will certainly meet if you come here.

So, who is coming?

Afghans, who for the most part have been in Pakistan in refugee camps for the last two generations, fleeing conflict at home. Pakistan is not home, and they are not welcome there. Pakistanis are leaving anyway, because of the astonishing levels of violence; not to mention the overpopulation and poverty.

Syrians, if you have paid attention to the news at all, who are leaving whole cities at a time to escape the three-way civil war in their homeland. These are generally the only people who fit the UN description of “refugee”, making them incredibly lucky, but more on that later.

In East Africa, Somalia’s massive civil wars powered by clan-based militias left the country in mass starvation. Rape and murder are part of everyday life. In Eritrea, of which we know practically nothing except from refugees themselves, the war of independence from Ethiopia gave way to the leadership of a dictator. The only way to leave your house is to be a student in school, or to be a military conscript. Absolutely everyone is forced into unpaid military service work, although there is no war; therefore, the conscripts are essentially state slaves.

From West Africa: Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso. As for why they are coming, it varies: there are no jobs, death is rampant, Nigerian parents sometimes sell their children to human traffickers, disease riddles everything, AIDS is unstoppable, rape is used as an ethnic cleansing tool… and just straight poverty motivates many. When I worked with Yaya, from Senegal, who looked about 18 or 20 (although he told me 28), he told me a bit about his journey in immaculate (and very very fast) French. From what I could put together, I believe he is one of few who survived the shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in 2014 (if you research the movement of refugees, you will find this summer as the one that their numbers doubled and thousands died in a series of fatal sinkings). I asked him if he knew how dangerous his journey would be, to which he laughed and told me of course he knew. Shocked, I asked, “And why on earth would you leave if you knew?” He stopped laughing, and for a moment was quiet. “And why would I stay?”

And this is the reason they will simply keep coming, no matter how long the EU wants to pretend they won’t or that they aren’t here. They come despite knowing what the journey has in store.

There are two main routes to Europe at this point in time. From Libya to Italy, and from Turkey to Greece. In case your sense of geography is as bad as mine, here’s a map.


Those landing in Greece are more likely to be Syrians or other Middle Easterners (southern Asians to be perfectly correct). By the time they reach Izmir or other port towns in Turkey, they have likely trekked several hundred miles in buses, crammed in the back of smuggler’s trucks, and on foot. They have crossed through dozens of borders, likely in secret or at night. Most are not allowed into Turkey without papers and must be smuggled in, or wait in camps outside the border to petition for entry. Once in Turkey, they tend not to linger. Clothing stores in Izmir have mostly been transformed into lifejacket stores. Smugglers for the sea passage are not difficult to find, and their prices are high: there is beachfront property to be used and its owners to be paid; government officials to be kept quiet, and fuel supplies to be purchased. These supplies are almost never enough for the people crammed onto inflatable dinghies to reach their destinations; once the boats reach international waters, they are instructed to place an SOS call. Maritime law dictates that passing ships must rescue drowning ones; but the limited patrol program in place by the EU is not enough to help every boat crossing. And often, because they are patrol and border control boats (not search and rescue) they are close to the border (obviously) and to reach the marooned boats takes too long. This is how boats sink.

Those landing in Italy likely came from Libya. Libya’s government is completely collapsed and smuggling gangs and militias run the coast. Before reaching Libya, though, most people have to cross the Sahara desert.

In case you forgot how eternally big the Sahara desert is (I did) here’s a map.


It is 9.4 million square kilometers in area. Agadez, a city in Niger that is on the border of the Sahara, receives most of the Subsaharan immigrants. Why go out of your way to get to Niger when you can just cut across, I wondered? Well, because literally no one can cross the Sahara desert except for the people that have mostly spent their lives learning the dunes inside and out. Any given moment, a sandstorm can transform the way the desert looks. There is no road. Getting lost in the Sahara is certain death by thirst. Most people argue the Sahara is more dangerous than crossing the sea. Truthfully, we will never know if it is or not; we have no idea how many thousands of people have died in the Sahara on their way to Tripoli. Once in Libya, if it is reached, dodging the civil war is its own hell; once you find a smuggler to take you across, you wait to be snuck out of compounds called “mazraa” (mostly just places of torture and rape for vulnerable migrants waiting). Then, refugees are loaded on an inflatable dinghy meant for 30 people or on a wooden fishing sloop meant for maybe 60-75. Usually, they hold anywhere from 3 to 5 times their capacity. The same process happens here, but for far longer and usually in much more dangerous waters. Most smugglers appoint a captain from among the refugees to hold the rudder steady, in order to avoid losing one of his own men. This, naturally, leads to being lost or stranded; if inflatable dinghies spring a leak, they sink in minutes; and capsizing is easy when there are 300 people on a boat in a storm.

Once they arrive, they are registered by the state. If they do not have documents, they are required to apply for asylum. This system is very slow and inefficient, and usually people are not granted visas for work or given refugee status (unless they are Syrians). Most people wait in camps all across Italy and Greece for months or years on end. They cannot work without documents, and so relying on charities or aid associations is the only other option. This is why many peddle little things on the streets. Although the aid workers valiantly take in hundreds of refugees and work them through the legal process, the best they can do is usually less than 5 euros a day for living money.

Yaya and Fanny laughed at the bracelets on my wrists from my conversations with as many refugees as I can talk to (many speak perfect English and far better Italian than I will ever be capable of). At this point, I simply can’t settle to say no thank you and turn someone away. They asked me who gave the bracelets to me and Fanny told me that they have gone from having no work in Africa to having no work here. They told me they would have loved to go to America, but without papers here any country under EU jurisdiction will simply send them back to Italy, where they applied for asylum. No country wants to take a share.

There is so much more to say, but mainly I just want people to notice. If you finished this, I salute you. It is much easier to turn away and return to your life. It’s what I want to do most of the time people approach me at lunch. I don’t want to notice them, I don’t want to feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to be faced with the fact that there isn’t much I can do. But I can notice, and I can give what I have, and I can petition for safer and legal routes of passage around the world to take in those who no longer have a home. Europe has a long way to go, and the States could and should certainly do more. In the meantime, my heart is heavy here. As much as I love study abroad, I am constantly faced with something I now notice. We have to remember that generosity is not a vice, but indifference is. Something I saw the other day read, “If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table, not a bigger fence.”

I’ll be finished for now; but know that this is something I am passionate about. I welcome any theories, suggestions or questions!


Yaya and I post Big Event in Arezzo (We planted an herb garden in a school courtyard. Any time I wanted to sit down, he would pick up another trash bag and fill it with weeds. He did absolutely all of the work and told me to stop whining about it being hot.)

Austria deserves its own post

Midterms start this week, so naturally I’m writing this instead of making study guides for Italian history. I know it’s been a solid three weeks since the last time I documented my trips, so I’m going to throw Salzburg up quickly and people can get a feel for all the magic I’ve gotten to see.

I just got off the phone with my mom, during which said call I bawled my eyes out until Cara heard me and came to give me a hug (on this subject, I’m not sure if I go to school or if we all just kind of live together and hang out. The main form of faculty-student communication is GroupMe). It’s easy to get overwhelmed here, by all the bad things but especially by all the good things and sometimes I just cry.

One of those moments was during our Mozart and Vivaldi symphony in the Mirabell Palace in Salzburg. I wish I could convey in words how beautiful it was. I haven’t stopped listening to classical music since. I suppose the best I can say is that if you ever get a chance to hear an orchestra play, always, always, always go. I’ve never forgiven my parents for not putting me in violin lessons. I didn’t take my camera into the palace because a) you’re not allowed and b) as if that ever stopped me before, I couldn’t figure out a way to snap photos incognito when my tickets were in the fourth row. But anyway, here’s a photo of the Marble Hall that in no way does the place justice. It was two hours of bliss, and we all geeked out about classical music for hours afterwards.


Afterwards, we headed to a traditional Austrian restaurant to try schnitzel. I have two groundbreaking things to say about schnitzel.

  1. You actually cannot order schnitzel with noodles. I know, I was heartbroken too. The Austrians simply do not do noodles. They serve schnitzel with roasted potatoes. The Sound of Music used noodles because it sounds more melodic. Don’t believe me? Try singing “schnitzel with potatoes.” Yeah, that’s what I thought.
  2. Schnitzel is literally just a giant chicken nugget. It tastes like one, it looks like one. Don’t get your hopes up about schnitzel. (Do, however, get your hopes up about strudel. It’s incredible.)

Speaking of schnitzel and its various ties to the Sound of Music, now we’ll get to the root of the trip: yes, we went for the Sound of Music tour; no, I am not ashamed. We actually got to see a lot more than I thought we would, although it was spread out much more than I figured – you don’t realize how much of the movie was filmed on a set and how much movement was required between scenes. For example, the front of the Von Trapp house and the interior were filmed in a different mansion than the scenes involving the back of the house. We were taken up to the lake country to see the areas where the panoramic scenes were filmed – on the day of our tour, it was snowing and gray, with blustery wind (typical of Austrian winters). It was stunning, with the lakes glittering and iced over and snow blowing over the trees. But it was also really damn cold.



Anyway, our adorable tour guide Rosa Maria let us listen to the movie soundtrack the entire four hours. The poor woman does this every day for a living. Unsurprisingly, the Austrians are not fans of the Sound of Music.

On day two, the sun came out in Salzburg and gave us a little slice of heaven. Somehow managing to be a bustling modern city in the middle of a traditional Old Town, Salzburg is truly something – hundreds of people hiking up and down the foothills of the closest mountain range for walks through castle ruins, teenagers and the elderly perched on the cliffs above the city drinking hot mulled wine and enjoying the sunshine, street violinists enchanting the tourists on foot and in horse drawn carriages. Photos don’t do it justice, but I’ll attach them anyways.


We took our night train home, which was an experience in and of itself. The way home, we at least had an idea of what it was going to be like, but I’d be lying if I told you that our time on the night trains weren’t absolutely disturbing. Something that will likely become a theme in my writing if you decide to keep up with my disjointed ramblings will be on the question of forced migration and refugeeism. I’m in a class on the current state of Europe’s migration crisis, which has really raised my awareness of the issue; but more than anything, it is the endless numbers of obviously struggling refuges that I encounter on a daily basis here that have drawn me to their suffering. Perhaps it is because they are so obvious in Europe, sticking out far more than they would in the states with its considerable diversity; or perhaps it is the arms-length distance every European puts between himself and the Nigerian selling umbrellas or friendship bracelets, that draws my attention to them.

I have learned about the difficulty of their journeys. I have learned about the dangers of human trafficking, of beatings and imprisonment, of soul-crushing boredom, of endless waiting for legal authorization, of poor sanitary conditions and loneliness and inability to speak the language and lack of sympathy from citizens. But I have also learned about their homelands: and truly, they are not leaving just to make everyone else’s life more difficult, which seems to be a common misconception of those of us lucky enough to be legal everywhere we go. They leave only because their homes are un-liveable, their governments crumbling, their neighborhoods violent, their children hungry.

I wrote a post about the night train on Facebook (probably an unwise decision, as I have trouble filtering my opinions):

“On my train from Austria this weekend, I had three different Europeans bring up the subject of Donald Trump’s presidency to me.
One was hesitant to ask me, afraid to offend me. One outright attacked me, assuming that each American had voted the same as the electoral college. And finally, an older man asked me what my generation thought of our country’s chosen leader and his blatant intolerance (those were his exact words).
Each European, whose memory of facism is much clearer and more recent than our own, shook their heads at our country’s current situation.
I listened to a pair of German teenagers who told us that four Pakistani refugees were pulled from their train car in the night for not having appropriate papers at the Austrian border.
I observed the troops and the military border police walking in and out of various train stations and shining flashlights in our cars in the middle of the night.
I never once had my passport checked. I never once had my status questioned. When the border patrol shone their lights in our car, they didn’t even open the door. I am so, so thankful for the fact that I am an American today and every day and for the safeties – privileges – it affords me.
But today, I read that the Trump administration wants to repeal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that allows children whose parents migrated from other countries to the states to apply for work permits and defer deportation for two years (I know, the time difference makes me slow to the news). My heart sank. Because I’m studying refugeeism here in Europe and I know the heartbreak it brings and I cannot imagine being pulled off a train in the middle of the night and sent back to a place that I can no longer call home. And it makes me sick to think that our country, the place of endless opportunity, is turning away those who have none. It makes the rest of the world sick, apparently, too.” 

I’m not sure if this entire post made sense or followed any logical order, but whatever. My main takeaway from these past few weeks was a startling, deep gratitude for everything I have and everything I have been able to see. And even when I worry and my heart breaks and I call my mom crying, she reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 5: 16 -18 and that “the best defense for worry is continual communication with [our Father], seasoned with thanksgiving.”

Catch up part three + four

Weekend 3:  Siena + San Gimigniano

We spent the whole day calling San Gimigniano “San Jimmy John’s” or “San Chimichanga”, if that tells you how good our Italian is getting after all this time. Or how much we miss Mexican food. Which is a lot.

Siena was gorgeous, in a completely different way from San Gimigniano. Similar to the other big cities we visited in Italy so far, Siena is a hodgepodge of centuries’ worth of architecture, and when the sun came out, it was dazzling. Honestly. It was really bright. We saw some more churches in Siena – you’d think we’d get sick of seeing churches, but we don’t. They’re all beautiful, and very different, but there’s so much to describe I don’t even want to get started. Reference Florence.


San Gimigniano was my favorite part though. The place was two hours from Arezzo, deep in the heart of Tuscany, and looked pretty much just like a green screen. It was amazing. It looked exactly like what you think of when you think of Italy – green, rolling hills, the trees that look like bushes on a stick, orange farms and vineyards everywhere, steep, windy and narrow streets lined with enotecas and gelaterias. And a giant well that actually never pumped out water, the fascists just put it there in the thirties.


Weekend 4: Cortona

Well, Cortona, but mostly home. Even world travelers have to sleep, you guys. But anyway, my roommate Sally and I took an afternoon trip to Cortona, about thirty minutes from where we live. Sally is the most pure soul I’ve ever known, with the ability to make even the most ordinary things sound beautiful. She also can booty dance like nobody’s business. It’s always the quiet ones.

We basically got to Cortona with every intention of exploring the city. But the city is on a massive hill, see, so when we got there we decided we wanted to climb up a little bit and get a good view. Every time we would make it up a little ways and saw how close it looked like we were to the top, we would keep going – it went along like this for almost three hours. But man, was it worth it. When we got to the top, we found the real gem of the region: Cattedrale de Santa Margherita. She’s the patron saint of the city, and it turns out that most of the townspeople climbed the mountain for years to pray every day and to attend mass on Sundays. It was beautiful. Perfectly restored paintings and frescoes covered every inch of the walls. The ceiling was painted like a glittering night sky, and a statue of Madonna, looking every bit angelic, stood in the center of the cathedral with dozens of lit candles at her feet. When we walked in, the organist was practicing – magic.

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Then we sat on the very tippy top of the hill for almost two hours. The birds were singing, the sun was setting, and everything looked like it had gotten covered in gold fairy dust or something. My descriptions are getting more ridiculous as the night goes on, but it’s late here, okay. It really did look fairy-dust-ish. Anyway, if you get the chance to randomly hike somewhere, just do it. It’s always worth it. Honestly, if you get the chance to do anything out of the ordinary for you, you should always do it. That’s been the moral of my trip so far. Just do stuff – straying from the itinerary is hard for me, but I’ve been so glad I did every time.


I promise to be better about this, and hopefully with more photos each time – but if you’ve actually made it to read this whole thing I’m impressed and you’re probably just my mom. Hi, mom. I miss you.

A doppo, Emily

Catch up part two

Weekend 2: Verona 

Verona, the city of loooooooove! Shakespeare’s telling of the story of Romeo and Juliet (they were real, and they lived in Verona, and yes most of that stuff happened) made this city famous. We went a few weeks before Valentine’s day, and the place was nuts. Libby is a huge sucker for this stuff – there was endless angsty teenage graffiti sharpied on the historical walls and letters to Juliet stuck between the stones. Some were even glued to the door with pieces of chewing gum. There must have been a few thousand letters in the wall that day.


We saw some of the most beautiful views from yet another place we almost passed over. The city is also famous for its Roman theatre, which is still in great shape for its age (ha). The theatre itself is super cool – you can see the stones worn down from the feet of thousands of people walking up and down it, and you can really see the shape of the thing – can really picture what might have happened there. But the coolest part was the museum. Set up on the hill, the museum overlooks most of the city and is full of most of its history. We saw room after room after room of restored and recovered sculpture, art, and ancient artifacts. And then this.


Libby videoed me the whole time. She’s fabulous. Watch it here to get a good feel for the weekend because I’m running out of words and I have like three weekends left to describe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4Kp0OpXu2c

Also, I ate the best ham of my life in Verona. That was the main attraction. I have dreams about the stuff.

Catching up part One

I really, truly, honestly meant to get around to writing down things about Italy before now. But here we are a month and a half in and I haven’t written anything yet except a few notes about good places to eat in Florence (there are tons).

I’ll try to sum up all of my weekends really quick then, except for Austria which needs its own post, and maybe I’ll be better from now on (but probably not).

Weekend 1: Florence, or if you’re an Italian, Firenze

The first three friends I made in Italy I made at the airport in Philadelphia on the way here. We had a six hour layover and we were mostly freaking out about moving away from everyone we know and the fact that you have to pay for water in Europe. You bond over things like that. Anyway, the three of us decided that on our first free weekend we would hop over to Florence for a night and see if we could get a feel for Italy on our own.

Ryan is a human GPS, honestly, it’s bizarre; he looked at the map for five minutes and for the rest of the weekend knew exactly where we were. Emily and I spend way too much time together here, we’re known as the Terrible Twins by our Italian professor mainly because we sit together and it confuses the hell out of her to call on one of us and both of us answer. Trace is the single funniest person I’ve met and is absolutely unafraid to make fun of himself. We called him Buzzcut Bandcamp Backbrace Trace the whole weekend (say that ten times fast) because he told us about high school. We learned about each other over endless glasses of wine – or in Ryan’s case, beer – at our favorite spot, Bevo Vino. It was the cutest little aperitivi bar that we went to twice in one weekend. It was that fabulous. We made friends with a waitress who told us about the best hidden places in Italy to visit and eat.

We hiked to the top of Piazza San Michaelangelo to find the most beautiful views of a Florence sunset. The rest of the world had the same idea – we were surrounded on all sides by locals and tourists alike, listening to someone singing acoustic versions of popular nineties songs in English. It was nostalgic and brand new and magical all at the same time.

But honestly, absolutely nothing will top the magic of seeing the Florence Duomo for the first time. It was the first thing we really saw in the city. We had just stepped off the train and meandered through the streets for a while heading towards the river when we started to hear music – violins. And as we turned the corner, following the music, we saw this. This enormous, intricate, imposing white marble cathedral. It’s the tallest building in the city by far – at the time of its construction, it was illegal to build something taller than the duomo of the city. Damn incredible.

We ate at a couple of trattorias hidden away from the city center, mostly full of groups of older Italians. That’s how you know you’re eating the good stuff. When you walk in and you don’t hear any English – you’ve hit the jackpot. We shopped, and by shopped I mean we stared in the windows of Dior, Valentino, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and the infinite gold shops lining the Ponte Vecchio. Our second day was full of gelato (gelato for every meal!! Florence is the birthplace of it, after all). We visited the outdoor leather markets and the food markets; those are some of my absolute favorite things to do here in Europe. They’re amazing. They’re noisy and smelly and bright and overwhelming and absolutely so cool. You can find the most incredible things there, and people are always talking to you. Mostly cause they want to sell you things, but also because they’re absolutely the centers of culture and tradition here.

Without a doubt, however, my absolute most favorite part of Florence was the Basilica Santa Croce. It’s bizarre, because we almost walked right by it. We walked up to the piazza it was set in, assumed it was just another church, and were on our way to find more gelato when a couple of Americans stepped out and stopped us. They told us we couldn’t miss it, and we didn’t have anything better to do, so we went.

I think I walked in and just cried.

The place is full of frescoes by the world’s greatest Renaissance artists. If those aren’t enough to fascinate you for hours, there are the tombs – the most famous people in the Italian world are buried here. Machiavelli. Galileo. Dante Aligheri. Marsupini. And Michaelangelo himself. The sculpture and the stained glass and the recovered Great Works depicting the life of Christ paired with being painfully Catholic – I was insufferable there, truly. I think we stayed for three hours. We saw Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper and Giotto’s Bardi frescoes, but my favorite was a painting, recovered and replaced in its rightful home after Nazi occupation, of Doubting Thomas. The Lord is there and it’s powerful. He practically reaches out to you through the art. It is surreal and reassuring and gorgeous and an incredible reminder of the history of a faith, the history of a faithful God, that stretches back to the ends of the human memory.

Go to Basilica Santa Croce and then tell me you’re not religious.

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