There is fear and a rethinking of futures
The presidential election has shaken America, but the streets of Eastleigh, the Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, have been buzzing with talk of Donald Trump’s victory for days. I was there when the news broke. People are afraid. They fear for the safety of their relatives in Minnesota. Accounts and stories of people harassing Muslim Americans and immigrants have made their way to Kenya. People enthusiastically ripping hijabs off women, spitting on immigrants, telling them to go home, increased sexual assaults, the drawing of offensive slurs and images on buildings — the list goes on. As an American citizen, people asked me questions: Can I wear a hijab in America? Will Trump declare war on the Muslim world? Will my family be sent home? Is my family safe?
The attitudes of Trump and his supporters are no secret. English is the language of the world and a major language in Kenya. I worked as an ESL teacher in Eastleigh for the month of October, and I know that the register of English spoken by the president-elect and his supporters is easy enough for English learners to understand. Build a wall. Deport Muslims. Nothing is lost in translation.
This does not sound like the America I left in late September, or the America people around the world dream of. Many here in Kenya wished to one day join their families in Minnesota, but they are aware of the polarizing effect of the campaign season and the xenophobic environment it has created. To them, America was known as the land of opportunity, but now they think they are not welcome. If we do not stop this rhetoric and behavior, their hope may not return.
The writer is a Somali and French interpreter who works between Minnesota, Djibouti and Kenya. He is currently working with Al Imra College in Nairobi, Kenya, teaching English and developing an online curriculum as a new resource for students.
FROM A FORWARD OPERATING BASE IN AFGHANISTAN
Us vs. Them: Our eternal challenge
Through the mental mist of a cold and the aftermath of rocket fire, the election looks strange. I watched the opening of the polls and last-minute speechifying while trying to take an exercise break. The tone of the coverage was sensational, the contenders were beyond confrontational.
A lifetime ago, I learned something of the American West and its native peoples. In addition to living in balance with nature, I learned that native tribes who might refer to themselves as “the people” did not necessarily acknowledge the “peopleness” of the tribe next door. In my travels since, I have seen this issue in every continent I have worked in: Us vs. Them.
Today and everyday here in Afghanistan, I live the “Us vs. Them” life. For sure, we meet many Afghans whom we respect and trust — but, we also meet or “indirectly meet” nearby Afghans who see us as them, the invaders, those who are not people and should therefore cease to exist. This is a real problem.
In the Army, I work with a diverse group of Americans. I am sure that our political colors mesh into purple. Our skins would mesh into the dark side of tan, and our first languages were often not U.S. English. Still, we get along. We salute one another and (this is key) we return salutes. We serve in danger with loaded weapons, bound by our collective need to protect one another. And, when rockets come, and they do come, we hit the ground together shoulder to shoulder, brothers and sisters of all colors doing our best to stay alive, to get back home, to represent U.S. democracy in a foreign land. That this war seems unending is not our immediate concern. Serving our country with honor is.
We are busy here. Watching the goings-on at home is not a high priority. But what we see is difficult to understand. One side is chastising protesters when the victor is arguably the benefactor of a huge protest vote. I can’t help but think that politicos in Russia and/or China are having parties with our national confusion as entertainment.
When I was a child, I heard John F. Kennedy ask us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. Has so much time gone by that we have collectively forgotten that we the people are responsible for our country? One another? Expecting a single person or party to meet our individual needs is not what the Constitution guarantees. We are guaranteed the right to pursue a religion of our choice, the freedom to speak and write our mind (which does not extend to libel or yelling fire in a crowded theater). Neither happiness nor a job is guaranteed. Even though not perfect, these rights and this governmental structure are miles better than the situation in England in 1776 — and the situation here in Afghanistan in 2016, particularly if you are a girl or a woman.
I hope to return to U.S. soil by the new year, but most of the team I serve on will stay behind. Their tour of duty continues. Statistically, fewer than 1 percent of you who read this as Americans will have to worry about your upcoming or ongoing tour of duty. You can instead worry about how the other guy is taking your cheese from you. But, that mentality is no longer working. As a veteran, if I am certain of anything, I am certain of this — it’s time for all citizens to serve a tour of duty. Not necessarily in military uniform, but as an American first — serving the needs of our country. To do something for the country without asking for something in return.
We are a great country. We are free. We are the most diverse and open society on Earth with almost unlimited opportunity. But we need to bind ourselves together again into a nation of us. We the people, all the people, all of us — in service to America and its dream.
Dr. Matthew D. Putnam
The writer is a full-time staff surgeon at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a professor of orthopedics at the University of Minnesota and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He is immediate past commander of the 945th Forward Surgical Team based at Fort Snelling and is temporarily assigned to the 629th Forward Surgical Team in Afghanistan.
THE KOREAN PENINSULA
Dangerous environment now looks even more so
Trump’s victory was greeted by some with jubilation, but it’s unlikely many of them live on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. While it is unclear what Trump’s policy toward the peninsula and its security problems will be, his rhetoric during the campaign has already caused serious upheaval. Whether entertaining the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops if South Korea doesn’t pay more for hosting them, or offhandedly suggesting the region would be safer if South Korea had nuclear weapons, Trump has done little to soothe any latent abandonment fears in one of our oldest allies.
This might not be an issue if South Korea weren’t going through its own political turbulence. President Park Guen-hye has weathered a number of political problems during her time in office, but her latest scandal seems to be much more debilitating. Under pressure for having given her confidant, Choi Soon-Sil, special favors and influence in governing, Park has seen her domestic situation affect her performance as the face of South Korea abroad. She has lost the confidence of her own party and, although her government denies it, many see her absence from this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, the first such absence for a South Korean leader, as directly related to the scandal.
Without strong leadership from a leader in Seoul, Trump’s comments on North Korea take on more ominous tones for South Korean ears. Trump expressed numerous times during the campaign his willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un, stoking concern that the U.S. could throw South Korea under the proverbial bus. Trump does not seem to realize that public talks with North Korea, without South Korea at his side, only reinforces the North’s narrative as a champion for Korean independence, both in the North and abroad.
This is a big deal when one remembers what Trump has said about U.S. relations with South Korea specifically. The comments about making South Korea pay more to host the U.S. military, despite the South’s financing of about 40 percent of the costs, are at the front of most minds. Trump also said that the U.S. “gets nothing” for all the assistance it provides, conveniently forgetting that a large-scale conventional war in Korea would be far more expensive. Trump has also effectively accused South Koreans of leeching on the U.S. economy. He claims the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement destroyed 100,000 U.S. jobs and killed U.S. automotive manufacturing, and has stated that he wants to “get a better deal” from South Korea. In short: The U.S.-South Korea relationship does nothing positive for the U.S.
You could forgive South Koreans for seeing Trump as a predatory figure — the idea that a President Trump will see them as more of a competitor than ally is too distressing to ignore, and South Koreans have no effective leader at the moment to protect them. They rightly worry about their security: Pockets of Park’s own Saenuri Party are seriously discussing the acquisition of nuclear weapons to hedge against Trump policy changes, and more of the South Korean public views it as a serious option than ever before. It has been reported that Trump has already rolled back his threats to remove U.S. troops from Korea, but when Trump has repeatedly made unpredictability the centerpiece of his negotiating strategy, will that be enough to gain South Koreans’ trust? With virtually absent leadership in Seoul and a seemingly predatory U.S. administration on the way, we should all be worried about what comes next in Korea.
The writer is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.