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Robot Scientists Carry Heavy Human Hearts 

Six young voyagers from the war-stricken, landlocked country called Burundi have disappeared from the “protective” shores of these United States whose promise of welcoming for those “yearning to be free” is rapidly transmuting into a fraudulent contract that confines refugees, locks hopes in midnight raids, breaks families into teary separations.

These six youths, aged 16 to 18, managed to flee from a dormitory at Trinity Washington University on July 18 in the District of Columbia after closing events at the first Global Challenge robotics competition, run by Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral and congressman. The competition attracted youth from 157 countries who demonstrated their prowess in using computers, electrodes, software, plastic and metal appendages to perform tasks of strength and dexterity.

Two of the Burundi youth are reported to have slipped over the border to Canada; the other four are thought to still remain in the U.S. apparently under the protective care of friends and/or relatives. Asylum experts have praised the youths’ bravery while warning that their relatives still in Burundi face cruel reprisals from government officials who fear “brain drain” of the talented who will never return to the violence in their native land.

Yet there is a cosmic possibility in the youths’ flight and their scientific talent and curiosity. Their country is one which is infested with a horrific blood lust that seeks to chop off arms and legs for various reasons.  There is a belief in some cults there that the limbs of albinos contain cures for various illnesses.  So many albinos are forced into hiding to prevent these forced amputations. The less fortunate have to navigate the forests and fields with missing limbs.

Burundi has been roiled by civil war and reports of human rights abuses. In 2015, Burundi’s president, the former Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, successfully sought re-election to a third term. Mass protests organized by the opposition were put down, and the climate grew more repressive after an attempted coup in May 2015. The State Department issued a travel warning in June, advising Americans of “political tensions, political and criminal violence, and the potential for civil unrest.”

That warning stated that rebel forces, ex-combatants and youth gangs from Congo had reportedly attacked and kidnapped civilians, while armed groups have ambushed vehicles. Hundreds of people have been killed, and hundreds more have disappeared, allegedly the work of Burundi’s security forces. In the past two years, more than 400,000 people have fled the country, according to human rights activists.

The obstacles to an environment in which these budding engineers would be able to utilize their imaginative and technical gifts are myriad. Past the challenges of merely staying alive and protecting their families circled by violence and famine, is the reality of having to function professionally in their home country faced with the resonance of reintegrating the many refugees who would be competitive for jobs for which they might be trained in their host countries. Yet they face difficulties gaining employment in their adopted countries because of fears that they are taking work from Americans and Canadians.

The decision of two of the students to try to relocate to Canada as opposed to the U.S. may easily be explained by the American increasing stringent anti-immigrant stance. The current immigration climate, especially under President Trump does not lend itself to inviting undocumented young Africans to stay without out proper documentation.  If they are captured, they will be retained and eventually deported… Canada under Justin Trudeau has a more humane posture with a less cumbersome screening refugee process.

The presence of youth from the more than 150 countries who met the African students may serve to convert some of them into ambassadors for more humane change in their own countries. Emerging research conducted with Latin American and Caribbean immigrants shows that laws contributing to locally policing have changed to capture and confine a greater number of illegal immigrants. And, at this time in world immigration history, the welcome map is yanked from refugees’ sore feet with violent abruptness.

Yet these students may find an interim challenge to clarify their alienation. They may choose to join the scientists who are diligently trying to develop better robotic limbs that can utilize the use of electrodes to sense impulses from the brain to the remaining muscle of an amputee to gain finer and finer muscle control. This would be a fitting way to harness their passion for robotics with concern for victims in their ravaged land.

Frederick B. Hudson is an international management consultant who has done work in Africa, Jamaica, and Iran.

Dr. Junis Warren is a professor of international relations who specializes in issues of refugee status and resettlement. She recently returned from Central America and contributed to several United Nations publications.

March 19, 2019
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