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A Silicon Valley real estate mogul has come up with an amazing and crazy solution to the world’s migration crisis
The heart-sinking, mind-numbing visual of a three-year old Syrian toddler washed up on the shores of human indifference may have shocked the world this past week, but Jason Buzi’s conscience was aflame much before the pictorial blow illustrated the plight of refugees swarming into Europe.
After weeks of watching the movement of refugees across the world, not just from Syria and other crisis states in the Middle East into Europe, but as far apart as Burmese fleeing to Australia and Latinos trickling north of the border, Buzi, a Jewish-American real estate developer in California, pitched a possible solution beyond the realms of traditional, straight-jacket thinking: Why not create a new country, a brand new country, exclusively for refugees, funded by some of the wealthier people and governments of the world?
After all, the world was not short of space, notwithstanding talk of overpopulation.
There are vast untenanted areas in countries ranging from Australia to Canada (both underpopulated), to Middle Africa. Many countries that have lived beyond their means and are over their heads in debt are talking of selling some of their land, including islands. What stops the world’s best minds in politics, business, and NGOs from coming together and simply building a new nation for refugees, and by refugees? Just because it is so outlandish? “The ability to do that is very much present today. All it needs is political will,” Buzi told the TOI in an interview on Friday, wanting to press the matter while the image of the young Syrian toddler lying dead face down on a beach seared the world’s conscience.
After he was scoffed at by the cognoscenti, Buzi’s ideas have been picked up and examined with some seriousness by commentators even as the refugee crisis has assumed alarming proportions. On Friday, the Israeli origin entrepreneur philanthropist heard about an unexpected ally: Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris came up with a similar idea, saying he was willing to pony up cash to buy a Greek or Italian island where refugees can rebuild their lives.
In an interview with AFP, Sawiris, a telecommunications mogul who is worth around $3 billion, estimated the cost of purchasing the island, $10 million to $100 million, wouldn’t be a deterrent. Citing Rabindranath Tagore saying “You can’t cross a sea by merely staring into the ocean,” Sawaris tweeted: “Crazy idea…Maybe, but at least temporary until they can return to their countries??!!” Not so crazy, insists Buzi, who made his fortune (a small one, he clarifies) as a real estate developer and found that beyond providing creature comforts, wealth meant less to him amid human misery and poverty.
Last year, he startled Americans by starting a stealth programme to give away money to create what he called “at least momentary happiness and some lighthearted fun.” Using the Twitter handle @HiddenCash, he began tweeting clues to money he and a friend would hide in public places,cash ranging from $200 to $500, attracting scores of mostly poor people to the treasure hunt. At its peak, the @HiddenCash handle had more than 7,00,000 followers and ignited copycat schemes across the world after it inflamed money hunters in a dozen American cities. But after a couple of shambolic events, notwithstanding the joy of bringing even momentary happiness to poor people, Buzi ended the shtick, having dispensed, by his own account, only around $40,000. The publicity he got was worth far more he admits, maintaining that it was never his intention to solve world hunger or poverty — only bring a smile to people’s lives.
As it turned out, the street game accomplished far more. A young Mexican girl who found $200 that Buzi had hidden broke down uncontrollably saying how important it was for her to send that money to her grandmother in Mexico. It was a moment of epiphany for Buzi, to aim a little higher, at least, he says, in terms of mitigating suffering. That is when he came up with the idea of Refugee Nation. Scorned by many people (particularly in the US, he adds) the idea got some traction when the European media picked up in it and development studies guru Robin Cohen, among others, examined it critically. Christening this proposed land ‘Refugia’ Cohen agrees with critics who say historical precedents for countries made for and by refugees, migrants, and diaspora have not been ideal solutions, but maintains that Buzi’s “moral outrage, his diagnosis of the scale of the problem and his attempt to energize and galvanize a response adequate to the crisis” deserve attention.
Buzi, while not denying that his Jewish origin could have influenced his thinking, agrees that he does not have all the answers, nor is there an ideal solution. “Frankly, I don’t have the billions, I don’t have the resources, I am not even trying to solve a big problem,” he says. “My intention is to highlight the issue, bring it centre-stage.” And although a wide range of people have heard his initial pitch, from representatives of George Clooney and Angelina Jolie to the World Bank, no one has endorsed it yet. On Friday, Buzi was boosted by Egyptian billionaire Sawaris talking along the same lines. “I don’t care where the idea comes from and whether he acknowledges me or not,” he said, “These desperate people need help.”
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.