Jambo from Kampala! I can’t tell you how excited and amazed I am to be continuing a second summer of blogging. At this point last summer, I was in Southeast Asia and had no idea what the following year, much less the following summer, held for me. I feel very fortunate to be living in Uganda for the next 10 weeks after finishing my first year in law school, and to have the opportunity to pursue my academic interests while exploring another corner of the world.
After a bit of self-reflection, I realize my blog posts from last summer were a bit on the fluffy and introspective side. Don’t get me wrong—that’s not a bad side to be on! I greatly enjoy being fluffy and introspective as a favorite pastime, and don’t worry—there will be plenty of those posts this summer. 🙂 However, after traveling for exactly one day in Egypt, I was confronted (actually, more like slapped in the face…) by a serious issue—the issue of travel privilege.
I actually hesitate to use the term “privilege”—I feel it carries such a heavy political connotation these days, and many people instantly tune out when they hear or read the word “privilege.” (I.e. asking someone to “check your privilege” will sometimes result in that person deciding he doesn’t have to listen to what you’re saying instead of continuing to engage…a hard reality for those who argue privilege is something that should be recognized and checked (myself included), but a reality nonetheless).
But I have to use the term privilege here, because it precisely describes my situation and the situation of millions of other Americans. Any American can spin a globe, put her finger down, say “I’m travelling here!” and make it happen. (This is apart and separate from financial ability to travel, which I’ve discussed in a previous post, and will revisit again in a later post this summer). It’s humbling to admit the “point, pick, and go” strategy is more or less what I did when I planned my around-the-world trip last summer. What I failed to fully realize then, and what I realize more now, is not every person enjoys the right of freedom of movement and travel like Americans do.
I met and spoke with several Egyptians during my 10 hours in Cairo who made me realize how much of a problem this is. My guide for the day in Cairo was by far one of the best, smartest, and most genuinely kind guides I’ve ever met when traveling. I casually asked him if he had ever been to the USA. “No, it’s almost impossible to get a visa there for leisure travel if you’re from the Middle East,” he replied. And this policy predates Donald Trump.
I can get a visa instantly to his country upon arrival, but he can’t do the same for my country. How do I get this very benefit that he is denied simply due to our differing national origins? I happened to be born in the USA, and he happened to be born in Egypt, and yet this luck of the draw dictates the destinations on this planet where he and I are each free to travel. I am no more deserving than he is of the benefits that come from traveling for personal pleasure and learning, yet I face far fewer barriers in far fewer countries than others face. This is example #1 of the definition of travel privilege.
Another privilege? Strength of currency. As Americans, we enjoy a relatively strong US dollar. While we may complain how “expensive” it is for us to travel to Europe or the UK, the truth is we can afford to travel pretty much anywhere when it comes to currency exchange rates. However, Egypt has seen its currency fall from 7 EGP to 1 USD to 18 EGP to 1 USD over the last decade. Not only is this prohibitive to leisure travel, but it’s prohibitive to parents being able to put food on the table for their families. A currency decline of this magnitude, coupled with the decline of a major industry (in the case of Egypt, tourism) means it’s harder for many families to make ends meet, and more kids are going hungry. I’ve met others over the years from different countries (including South Africa, Hungary, and Thailand) who have told me how the strength of the US dollar make it nearly impossible for them to visit the US. Meanwhile, Americans who choose to travel at all do so and complain about currency exchange rates. Shame on us.
What about immigration? Trump only opposes illegal immigrants, right? Well, think of the scenarios I just described above. Many families who want to leave everything they have ever known and try to make a better life for themselves and their children in America must enter a lottery. That’s right—the US federal government still sets a quota for each country (this is 2017, not 1887) , and then each country draws numbers for who gets to leave. I had always known this was the case generally, yet I had no idea the impact that this policy ritual of a scheduled “lottery” with a hard cut-off number has on people’s daily lives. My waiter in the Cairo airport told me the U.S. lottery for Egypt is next month—he is already counting down the days. He has a friend who “won” the lottery a few years ago, and was able to move to America. I would wager that most Americans are not even aware such lotteries still exist–I have to admit I didn’t know there was still an actual lottery–yet people like my waiter in Egypt literally count down to the day when these lottery drawings happen.
It isn’t like all Egyptians are looking to immigrate permanently—in fact, most Egyptians I met have an immense amount of national pride, and were very hospitable, welcoming, excited to share their country, and not looking to leave anytime soon. Yet the fact is that the economic downturn and political instability have hit the country hard in recent years. Permanent immigration concerns aside, the ability to travel freely in the world remains severely restricted for many citizens of Egypt and other countries. Many simply want to visit the USA for the same reason many Americans would want to visit Egypt– to experience a different culture, learn a rich history, and take in the sites and stories for themselves. Immigration and border control is one thing. But restricting travel visas completely? That’s a different issue entirely.
What can we Americans who value the freedom of movement and the benefits of travel do about it? As I alluded to above, once you realize how you’ve benefited from travel privilege, it’s hard not to feel some degree of guilt for the undeserved advantages you’ve received from a characteristic beyond your control (i.e. national origin). Yet there isn’t really anything you can do about your national origin. I think the first thing to do is maintain self-awareness of the travel privilege you experience, and then translate this into empathy for those you meet along your journeys. At the end of the day, we all share this earth together, and we are all equally curious to learn and explore. Next, work to translate this empathy into more humane visa and immigration policies through legislation and executive action on the federal level.
Privilege is when you don’t have to worry about something because it doesn’t affect you directly. But whatever “it” is always affects someone directly. So let’s act now by being conscious of what other travelers are facing, and by building empathy and pushing for governmental action to make the world a more equitable place for all.