A 70% increase in a decade. Intriguing, isn’t it? Almost appalling. The question begs to be asked: Why? Why do so many educated young men and women seek life away from home?
Between 1845 and 1851, a disease devastated Ireland’s most widely consumed crops, killing a million men, women and children. A potato famine that drove another million away from gorgeous Ireland. They fled the fangs of starvation, sickness and poverty, and sought less barren lands. No one in their right minds would dare blame them; these poor people’s lives were endangered, and their health obviously threatened.
Now, the World Health Organisation defines health as such: a state of complete PHYSICAL, MENTAL, and SOCIAL wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
Much is being said about the importance of mental health nowadays, but not enough in my opinion. Its global burden increased by 37% between 1990 and 2010, with depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders leading the ranks in DALYs or disability adjusted life years, or simply put for us mortals: The number of years lost due to ill-health.
Simply defined, mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Thanks again WHO! Let’s ask the obvious question: Are the young educated individuals in less developed countries ensured an environment where they can realize their own potential? Where they can deal with the stresses of life? Where they can work productively and fruitfully? And are able to make a contribution to their community? The short answer is no, the long answer is still no.
As a matter of fact, two words can describe conditions in pretty much every developing country: “Low” and “Poor”. There’s low per capita income, low standards of living, poor living conditions, poor and unequal distribution of income, poor health systems, low education standards, low life expectancy rates, poor transparency, low prospects of professional development… Oh I’m sorry! “High” is definitely another word to use: High infant mortality rates, high death rates, high unemployment rate, high poverty rates, high corruption rates, high incarceration rates… You get the picture.
25 year-old Soukaina, a Moroccan medical student provides the main elements of the typical answer any young man or woman gives when asked their reasons for considering immigration: “I’m suffocating here, the education system is depressing and I don’t feel respected or valued. Moreover, the environment I live in is highly toxic: there are not enough opportunities, and more than enough social pressure to follow the crowd, and let’s not even bring up working conditions and corruption and lack of freedom… Besides, I need a little pinch of excitement and adventure in my life, and I’m sure I won’t get any by staying here.”
It’s clear that the young have more than one reason to immigrate and seek a better life: higher income, higher life standards, better working conditions, career opportunities and professional development, research funding, modern facilities, political stability, modern educational systems, transparency, meritocracy, intellectual freedom… The question is: Should they?
Many argue that it’s the youth’s responsibility to improve their countries’ realities and create the environment they wish to live in, rhetorically wondering: “who would stay if you all go?”. But I beg to differ. I adhere to Amin Maalouf’s opinion, the famous Lebanese writer:
“Every Man has the right to leave, his country must persuade him to stay – whatever the grandiloquent politics say. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Easy to say when you’re a billionaire, and have just been elected, at 43, president of the United States of America! But when, in your country, you can neither work, nor get medical care, nor decent education, nor vote freely, nor express your opinion, nor even walk the streets as you please, what’s John F. Kennedy’s adage worth? Not much!
It’s your country’s duty, first and foremost, to observe a certain number of engagements towards you. To be considered a full-fledged citizen, to never endure oppression, or discrimination, or unnecessary privation. Your country and its leaders are under the obligation to guarantee you this; otherwise you owe them nothing. No attachment to the soil, and no salute to the flag. The country where you can live with your head high, you give it all, and for it, you sacrifice all, even your own life. The country where you must live with your head down, you give it nothing; be it your host-country or your homeland. Magnanimity bids magnanimity, indifference bids indifference and contempt bids contempt. This is the charter of the Free, and I, for one, recognize no other.”
The young of today are experiencing another kind of famine, not one of potatoes but one of hope. The mind lives on ambition, dreams, faith, inspiration, motivation, imagination and creativity. It craves the new, the just and the beautiful, and needs respect, dignity, opportunity and esteem. Mix in a measure of social injustice and a package of corruption; add a bit of instability and a dash of oppression, a tad of crime and discrimination, a pinch of despair and a hint of nepotism, blend the whole and there you go. We, the young, are fleeing the fangs of a full proof recipe for a toxic diseased environment, homebred depression and soaring suicide rates. Warsan Shire put it oh so well: “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark”.