Thursday, September 3, 2015

Luck of the draw

Seeing stories about the horrifying conditions Syrian refugees face, I’m thinking once again about how lucky I am to have been born in this country.

As a social worker, some of the clients I work with are immigration detainees waiting to find out if they will be deported.

The descriptions they give of their journeys to this country are harrowing. “I spent three days walking through the mountains. There were snakes.” “In the desert it was freezing at night and hot in the day. We got surprised by immigration officials at night and ran off without our water. My neighbor died.” “You pass corpses in the desert.”

What exactly would make a person take those kind of risks? Sometimes it’s a very specific fear: “After my brother got shot, my parents scraped together the money for the trip and told me to come here.” But often it’s simply to avoid grinding poverty. One man explained the life he left as a corn farmer in Central America: “I think I could make about $8 a day. What kind of life can you have? I can’t get married on that, I can’t raise kids.”

Some of them speak of the difference they were able to make to their families: “My mother depends on money I send her for insulin. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford it if I have to go back.” “I’ve been keeping my children in school. School there isn’t free like here: you have to buy uniforms and books.” “When I visited my cousins, I left my clothes with them because they didn’t have decent clothes. That’s how poor they are.”

In short, they’re normal people who want normal things and have gone to extraordinary lengths to get them.

Source: Branko Milanovic, PovcalNet (World Bank)

An American at the poverty line ($11,770 a year) is richer than 85% of the world, even after accounting for different costs of living. You can play around with the “How Rich Am I?” calculator.

This is why the idea of prioritizing one’s own neighborhood or nation over others has never made sense to me. No one would choose to be born in the murder capital of the world, or a country undergoing civil war, or a community where people can’t afford to send their children to school. I didn’t do anything to earn my American passport except be born. I didn’t earn the right to be white, or healthy, or from an upper-middle-class family.

And that’s why I want to use my good fortune to make a difference for people who didn’t get so lucky.

Two new roles

I'm excited to be starting some new things:
  • In June I joined the board of GiveWell.
  • I'm joining the Center for Effective Altruism's Outreach team. I've wanted to work for them for years, and I'm so glad it became possible without moving to another country! I'll still be doing some social work part-time.