Category: International Affairs

In May of 2010 I visited Syria. I went on my own, but organized transportation between cities and hired guides to visit key historical sites.

The Theater in Bosra is now used by snipers and houses rebel forces.

The Theater in Bosra is now used by snipers and houses rebel forces.

The Syria I visited was both beautiful and fascinating — Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, the Citadel of Saladin and Palmyra were living links to a past that I had only been able to imagine.

There was a major battle in a city in the desert area of Restafa where I met  this young entrepreneur who sold me this hand embroidered treasure.

There was a major battle in a city in the desert area of Restafa where I met this young entrepreneur who sold me this hand embroidered treasure.








When I see the images of what is happening and has happened in the last four years, my heart breaks. I don’t want to forget the Syria and the Syrians I experienced during my visit.

Palmyra, that for centuries was the crossroads of the world, has not escaped the relentless destruction of the civil war.

Palmyra, that for centuries was the crossroads of the world, has not escaped the relentless destruction of the civil war.

The Grand Mosque in Aleppo and the bazaar that abuts it have sustained significant damage.

The Grand Mosque in Aleppo and the bazaar that abuts it have sustained significant damage.




I fear these young men no longer have the same easy smiles and open curiosity

I fear these young men no longer have the same easy smiles and open curiosity



This post is my attempt to remind myself and others of what has been lost and what is being lost as this tragic war drags on.

A Truce

This has been a tough week. The news is filled with conflict — the fight against Ebola, the war on ISIS and, for us here in Florida, Fangate  (the conflict over a floor fan).  As a respite from all this, I offer this image: my two dogs, rivals in all things, but able to enjoy a quiet moment together.

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Whenever I see the image of the Ebola virus, I hear the theme from Jaws in my head.






If you think about it, that ubiquitous photo  does have  a predatory aquatic quality to it.

But I doubt that’s why my mind relates the two.  I’m waiting for Time Magazine to annoint this “The Summer of the Ebola Virus.”  In 2001 the world, particularly the media, seemed to be convinced that suddenly sharks had begun preying on innocent swimmers worldwide. Shark attacks were front page news, experts debated why this was happening and how we might protect ourselves. Only thing was, there was no particular upsurge in shark attacks that year. In fact the year before there had been more attacks and more fatalities.

This particular “crisis” is just as skewed. Don’t get me wrong Ebola is serious. It’s a very infectious and deadly disease. But let’s put some things in perspective. With the exception of health workers who were brought back after contracting Ebola while working in West Africa, there have been two cases of Ebola in the U.S.  Thomas Duncan, who is the first Ebola victim to die in the U.S., contracted the disease in Liberia and traveled here before realizing he had been infected. And now one of the nurses who cared for him has become the first person in the U.S. to contract Ebola on American soil. This is troubling. But both these cases happened in one city, Dallas. The U.S. has over 317 million people and is 3 million square miles (that’s just the contiguous U.S.) I don’t think we need to head for the bunkers yet.

I live in Miami. A young woman yesterday called me concerned about whether she should take her child to the hospital because he might contract Ebola. She seemed to feel that Ebola was everywhere. I explained how Ebola is transmitted and why she should not worry at this point. But it got me thinking. How many mothers or fathers will wait or refuse to get medical help for a sick child because they fear Ebola? How many flu victims will be shunned and demonized because people worry they have Ebola?

The Ebola story is important and  has to be reported. But the constant speculation, fear mongering and 24/7 focus on the U.S. Ebola victims is doing a disservice not only to people here, but to the thousands of victims in Africa. Because ironically, about a month ago I saw a letter to the editor complaining about the U.S. sending troops to help with the Ebola virus. The gist of the letter was that it was a waste of American taxpayer money. This latest outbreak could have been greatly reduced if resources and people had been directed to the problem earlier.

When all this calms down, I hope the lesson we take away is that what happens in Africa, Asia, anywhere is no longer just “their” problem. Terrorism, disease, even wars now travel throughout the world. When we help, and I don’t mean send troops and guns, but resources and practical assistance, we’re doing this for our own benefit as well as the benefit of those at the other end.






Issues of citizenship, nationality and belonging have been in the news recently. The great ‘immigration debate’ rages as Americans try to wrestle with exactly when someone becomes “American”. But these questions are not just abstract legal issues or economic ones. They represent an essential component of how we define who we are. For the vast majority of people in the world, this poses no problem. But for some of us  – and our numbers are growing — questions arise.
Citizenship is a legal term, it refers to a country within which you, as a citizen, have certain rights and for whom the government has certain responsibilities. You can have, as do  I and many I know, dual, triple or even quadruple citizenship. You can get citizenship through birth, from your parents, from your spouse or through legal means such as naturalization. Citizenship is conferred differently by different countries. In some, it’s fairly difficult to attain. In others, quite easy.

Nationality is less precise. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, nationality is “the status of belonging to a particular nation by origin, birth or naturalization.” or “a people having common origins or traditions”. But what nationality are you if you’re born one place, of parents of another country and grew up yet somewhere else? Nationality can be defined by others. The Chinese government reserves the right to claim as Chinese nationals all ethnic Chinese from any community anywhere in the world, regardless of how long it has been since any family member has ever set foot in China. A friend of mine who was of Japanese descent – several generations ago – found it very difficult when she visited Japan because she found that there was an expectation that despite her foreign ‘citizenship’, upbringing etc. that she would continue to be fully and completely ‘Japanese’ including how she walked, talked and moved. She told me she grew tired of being criticized for how she stood while waiting for a subway.

For me, questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “What are you?” always provoked a feeling of discomfort. Where was I from? I was born in Brazil, spent little time in the U.S. growing up so certainly I didn’t feel as if I was from the U.S. But did that make me ‘Brazilian’? Not really. My parents were from the United States, I received a largely U.S. style education, and spent much of my adult life representing the U.S. overseas. So I must be ‘American’.

I spent only four years of my first 18 in the U.S., the rest I was in Guatemala, Cuba and Brazil. When I was a teenager I was so rabidly, wholeheartedly and fanatically Brazilian, that my American parents, fearing I would lose my American identity entirely, insisted in my returning to the U.S. to go to college. When they moved to Tunisia during my college years, I ended up with no family or roots to return to in Brazil, so I settled into life in the U.S. Ironically because I wanted to get back overseas, I ended up becoming an American foreign service officer and took as my job ‘explaining America’ to the rest of the world But I never relinquished my Brazilian citizenship and I always maintained a brazilian heart.

My latest ‘identity crisis’ was triggered by  the World Cup. The World Cup tested my national loyalties. I have now lived and worked in so many countries – in North America, South America, Africa and the Far East – that I have emotional ties to them all. When Spain faced Tunisia, who should I root for? When the U.S. faced Ghana? (Sorry, but I just had to root for the Africans on this one). What about when Brazil faced Ghana? How I envied those friends whose loyalties were clear.
But then I remembered two important points. First, while it may be confusing and at times lonely feeling no strong sense of belonging to one place, I get such great joy from feeling connected to so many places.  As the World Cup went on those who rooted so passionately for one team, lost so much after their team was eliminated. But I just kept finding a new team to which I had an emotional attachment.

Secondly my sense of belonging in the U.S. as a whole may be tenuous at times, but I do very much feel a part of Miami.  After all, Miami is  the community version of me. So many loyalties, so many identities, so many citizenships. I could hardly have found a more appropriate place to live.

And finally as I fret about my multiple identities I can’t help but be aware of the millions of refugees that don’t have any — no citizenship, no nationality, no home. So now I’ll stop worrying about my crisis of too many identities and  focus on ways — however small — I can help those who have lost all  of theirs.

This is an absolutely fascinating talk. I’m sure many of you have already seen/heard it. But for those who haven’t, it’s very thought-provoking. (BTW – I only beat the chimps once.)


Despite my best efforts to block out what is happening in Syria, the situation cries out for a response. And I just don’t see an answer. Oh, that I could emphatically say we should intervene militarily or absolutely we should not. But I can’t. Every scenario I can envision ends with devastation and years of enmity and continued conflict.

In scenario one, things just keep going the way they are. No one intervenes and the combatants continue down this path of mutual destruction. Finally, either the ‘opposition’ wins and new fighting begins between the factions who have vastly different views of what the ‘new’ Syria would be. Or, Bashar al-Assad manages to hold on and the subsequent political, social and religious repression guarantees continued suffering and almost inevitably a new civil war in the future.

Ok, so maybe the U.S. (and/or her European allies) step up to the plate. They provide material, air support and eventually even troops. Once the commitment is made, I doubt that al-Assad could survive. But now with the U.S. and/or other countries will be vested in who ends up running the country. And attempts to facilitate that outcome have proven singularly unproductive (see: Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.)

Well, what about intervention by a more ‘international’ coalition that includes neighbors and interested states around the world? In a perfect world, that might have a chance of isolating whatever support Bashar al-Assad has and ending the current conflict most quickly. And if (a major IF) all coalition members then stuck to an agreement to back off once the fighting stops and an international peace keeping force could be put in place until such time as the local factions hammered out a power sharing arrangement, there might be hope for Syrians to begin to rebuild. But this isn’t a perfect world.

So, what happens in the end? Whoever wins celebrates a Pyrrhic victory and takes control of a country that is physically, economically, politically and socially all but dead. Religious and ethnic differences will have hardened into intractable enmities. Refugees will continue to pour into neighboring countries, causing economic and political destabilization to spread.

Syria has survived millennia and will probably survive this disaster too. The crumbled pieces of Bashar al-Assad’s empire will be added to those of the Romans, the Crusaders, the French and all the others Syria has seen come and go. But as in many other things, modern man will make this destruction more efficient and complete and more of Syria’s past is likely to disappear along with its future.

So what do I think should happen? I’m afraid that right now my best option is to hope for some divine or extraterrestrial intervention. Because the Syria and the Syrians I fell in love with when I visited just three years ago deserve so much more than to be drowned in a sea of blood.