Migration crisis: People keep dying

The team from MOAS gets ready to rescue migrants who set sail from Libya on a rubber dinghy.

The team from MOAS gets ready to rescue migrants who set sail from Libya on a rubber dinghy.

Almost every day, I receive an email from the International Organization for Migration containing the latest update on migration issues around the world. Many of you may not know that more than 60 million people are on the move, either as refugees fleeing horrendous situations in their homelands or economic migrants seeking a way out of a life of poverty.

Today, the IOM update included a number. Migrant arrivals in Europe via the Mediterranean: 302,149. Deaths at sea: 3,501.

The numbers are higher than they were last year at this time, yet it seems to me that European nations are addressing the crisis in an incremental way that won’t likely lead to a permanent solution.

In July, I spent almost a week with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a private rescue outfit started by American millionaire Chris Catrambone and his wife, Regina. They were sickened by what they perceived as a lack of response from governments. They were called to action by Pope Francis who visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, then a hub for migrants, and shamed the rich countries for a lack of action.

Eva, a Nigerian woman, gets some much needed sleep after being rescued at sea.

Eva, a Nigerian woman, gets some much needed sleep after being rescued at sea.

I’ve reported on natural disasters that kill thousands and leave even more in dire conditions. I’ve reported from war zones, where I have seen the worst of humanity unfold before my eyes.

I did not expect I would feel the kind of emotions I did during my days on the Topaz Responder, a ship chartered by MOAS to patrol the Mediterranean with the sole purpose of plucking desperate people from the sea.

In one day, MOAS rescued 366 people. Luckily, everyone had survived. I spoke with many of those on board. Some had traveled for months and experienced the worst physical conditions as well as abuse by human smugglers and Libyan militias. A Nigerian woman, Esther, told me she was right next to her brother  he was shot and killed by gunmen.

Even after those harrowing journeys, refugees and migrants then board flimsy boats to make a long crossing to Europe. Some die of dehydration. Most of the deaths are from drowning and in the winter months, hypothermia.

I thought about the kind of desperation that drives human beings to risk everything for a better life. I can’t fully understand it because I live such a privileged and comfortable life compared to them. But I try hard to report their stories.

Yes, we should be outraged when a photograph of a shell-shocked Syrian boy goes viral on social media. But that’s not enough.

It’s important for those of us who live in rich countries to know the stories of people who were born to poor countries rife with corrupt and callous leaders who do little for their people. It’s important to open our eyes to the suffering of people who endure constant war and conflict.

I encourage everyone to think about how huge the numbers are in the refugee crisis. Think about what it would feel like if you were forced from your home knowing, that you may never see it again. What if you were separated from your mother or father, your husband or wife, your children?

Here’s a link to a few stories I’ve written recently on the crisis, including the one I reported thanks to MOAS.




David Gilkey: remembering an incredible photojournalist

Credit: Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

Credit: Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

I woke up to extremely sad news today. NPR photojournalist David Gilkey was killed in Afghanistan, along with interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

Another friend who worked tirelessly in the world’s most difficult places, gone.

David and Zabihullah were traveling with an Afghan army unit, according to the report I heard on NPR this morning. They came under fire and their armored Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Also killed was their driver, an Afghan soldier.

David was only 50 years old.

He was an incredible photojournalist. His photographs were often difficult to look at and yet I could never turn away. He was so good at capturing the essence of a place through its people.

He won many well-deserved accolades, including the Polk Award. I encourage everyone to look at his work: His NPR profile page and the NPR tribute today

I first met Gilkey in Iraq. I can’t remember exactly which year it was or even where it was. Later, I got to know him better through Military Reporters and Editors. We were both newspaper journalists then — he with the Detroit Free Press and I with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I ran into him in Haiti, after the earthquake in 2010. By then, we had both left the shrinking newspaper world. He joined NPR in 2007 and I had been with CNN for about a year.  We spoke about our transitions and he said:

“You’re a writer who works for a cable television network and I’m a photog who works for radio. Go figure.”

We laughed. He told me he was thankful he could carry on his work. And it was such important work. David gave us an understanding of people who are so often forgotten.

He said this about his work in Haiti, according to NPR: “It’s not just reporting. It’s not just taking pictures. It’s, ‘Do those visuals, do the stories, do they change somebody’s mind enough to take action?’ So if we’re doing our part, it gets people to do their part. Hopefully.”

We forget the risks that journalists take to bring us important stories. We forget until we are reminded by tragedy.

A few days ago, I spoke with Paula Bronstein, another photojournalist who has put herself in harm’s way countless times to tell the sad story of Afghanistan. Paula recently returned to the United States to receive a courage award named for Anja Niedringhaus, also killed in Afghanistan in 2014. You can see that story here: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/31/middleeast/cnnphotos-afghanistan-between-hope-and-fear/

I thought today of all the journalists I knew who were killed in conflict. In all, 1,192 journalists have died this way since 1992, says The Committee to Protect Journalists. So many important voices silenced too soon by war.


From the darkness of disaster…


I first met Maya Gurung last year, a few days after a massive earthquake struck Nepal. Maya was recovering from the amputation of her left leg at a Kathmandu hospital.

I wrote a story about her  because I wondered how a little girl would fare in Kashi Gaon, the remote and rugged village in Gorkha District, where she lived. It would be hard for her without the use of a leg; her future seemed bleak.

Then a second quake hit Nepal on May 12. And Maya’s life trajectory changed again.

Ahead of the first anniversary of the quake, I returned to Nepal for CNN to find out how Maya was doing. I believe hers is a story of something good happening from something very bad.

You can read the story on CNN.com: A ray of hope for one girl in Nepal


When doves cry…

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 1.29.33 PM
Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life

Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here 2 tell u
There’s something else
The afterworld

A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day or night


You left too soon. Just two months after Vanity.

I saw you on stage a few times. The first was the best. Tully Gym. Florida State. Vanity 6. Yeah.

You rocked my world.


Ed Duffy. Unforgettable.

We all lose people we love, people who are integral to us. We cannot escape loss. I will never know what it must feel like to lose a child but I know the sorrow of a mother or father’s death.

Today, my father-in-law, Edward Duffy, died.

His wife, Jean, and his seven children are in that unenviable position today of realizing they will never see Ed’s smile again or hear his laugh. They will never sit down for a family dinner with him or debate the future of America.

It is a very hard thing to think about death in those ways. So finite.

FullSizeRender 8But I have learned some things in all the years that have passed without the physical presence of my parents. I have learned that their love has stayed with me, no matter that I cannot see them or hear them or feel them.

Ed would have turned 90 later this month. He lived a long and full life. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York, served in the Navy during World War II and excelled in his banking career. By the time he retired from a top position at Marine Midland Bank, Ed had built a comfortable life for his family. He served on the boards of several companies and was wise with his money, as every good banker should be.

But most of all, he cared deeply about his family. They mattered more to him than anything else. That was something that drew me to the Duffys. When I first met them, my parents were in India and I saw them for a few days every year, if I was lucky. I wanted so much to be a part of a family, and Ed and Jean were gracious enough to give me that gift. After my parents died, I thought of Ed and Jean as my own mom and dad.

I reminded Kevin today of his father’s long and rewarding life. Ed’s children were lucky to have him around so long. That’s something precious many of us don’t get.

Ed may no longer be here on Earth and we will miss him. But his spirit is within all those he loved and he will continue to be a guiding light in their lives.

Here’s to you, Edward Duffy, and a life well lived.



How Jimmy Carter paved the way for Obama in Cuba

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 1.47.11 PMPresident Barack Obama made history on his arrival in Havana on Sunday. “The first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928,” said all the news stories.

Yes, Obama is the first sitting president to land on Cuban soil since Coolidge. But let’s not forget Jimmy Carter’s equally momentous trip to the island nation in 2002.

Carter went as a private citizen, of course. But he made great strides in opening the door to better relations between the world’s superpower and one of the world’s few remaining communist countries. That visit contributed to making  Obama’s olive branch possible.

Carter met with Cuban leaders as well as political dissidents. He went to a baseball game with Fidel and delivered a speech broadcast on Cuban national television. Obama’s agenda is very similar.

I was lucky enough to go to Cuba to cover Carter’s journey to Cuba for Cox Newspapers.  It’s hard to believe that was 14 years ago. It’s also hard to find the stories I wrote online. So here is a snippet of one of the first ones that published after reporter Mike Williams, photographer David Tulis and I had melted waiting on a hot Havana tarmac for the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, to land. It’s excerpted from the wire story sent out by Cox:

It was a day of rarities in Havana.

The Star Spangled Banner, heard only at a few sporting events, roared through a loudspeaker. Old Glory fluttered in the balmy breeze. And the historic Cuban capital opened its doors for an equally historic visit.

With the landing of his private jet on Sunday morning, Jimmy Carter became the first former or serving United States president to touch Cuban soil since the 1959 revolution that hurled Fidel Castro to power.

The 75-year-old Cuban president shed his usual military fatigues for a dark, double-breasted suit and black leather sports shoes to personally welcome Mr Carter and a seven-member Carter Centre delegation to the Cuban capital.

Mr Carter, 77, who is in Cuba on what he emphasises is a private visit, flashed his signature smile and shook Dr Castro’s hand shortly after his jet, donated by an Atlanta businessman, touched down at 10.45am.

The mood was almost as warm as the weather as Mr Carter began an unprecedented six-day mission to overcome four decades of enmity between the US and the communist island.

Mr Carter said he was delighted to be back in Cuba, where he and his wife had holidayed shortly before the revolution.

Dr Castro expressed his respect for Mr Carter, and has ensured him free access to the country’s institutions and people.

A meeting is planned on Thursday between Mr Carter and Cuba’s religious and human rights leaders, who are seeking to reform the country’s authoritarian one-party system.

Mr Carter, a global peacemaker and champion of human rights, acknowledged disagreement with some of Dr Castro’s policies but said he looked forward to the opportunity to see Cuba at first hand. Dr Castro specifically invited Mr Carter, a nuclear physicist, to tour Cuba’s scientific development and research centres, which the US, just days ago, accused of making biological weapons.

The two men walked down a dusty red carpet laid out on the tarmac and onto a podium where the Cuban and US flags flew side by side. Mr Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, flanked Dr Castro at the podium and placed their right hands over their hearts during the Star Spangled Banner.

As night fell, Dr Castro met Mr Carter again for a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution. He awaited his guests, who pulled up in a black Mercedes-Benz, at the top of three sets of marble stairs covered with red carpet. The pair were to dine again on Monday night.

Earlier in the afternoon the Carters emerged into the heat for a walking tour of Old Havana, a district rich in architecture and dotted with picturesque plazas.

Dressed in white Reeboks, white trousers and a white shirt that seemed a modern version of a guayabera, a traditional pleated men’s shirt popular in Cuba, Mr Carter strolled the streets hand in hand with Mrs Carter.

The Carters began their tour at the Cathedral of Havana, restored in the past decade and now a popular Sunday destination for Cuban Catholics. Cuban authorities suppressed organised religion for decades after the revolution, but since the Pope visited the island in 1996 religious activity has been allowed.

Along the route of the walking tour, Cuban families crowded iron-railed balconies to catch a glimpse of the former president, many drawing waves and smiles from the Carters.

Moment of desi pride at the Oscars

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 9.02.40 AM

Lost in the diversity controversy at the Oscars Sunday night was this: The only woman of color who won was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Who? That’s the problem. Very few people in America know who she is. But they ought to.

Obaid-Chinoy, 37, has two Academy Awards to her name; her latest was in the best documentary short category  for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a haunting  portrayal of honor killings in Obaid-Chinoy’s ancestral Pakistan.

The film tells the story of Saba, 19, who is beaten, shot and tossed into a river because she eloped with a man her family rejected. Saba is a rare survivor of honor violence and Obaid-Chinoy’s film explores in the bleakest way the physical and emotional pain that so many women in that part of the world suffer.

“She wanted her story told,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a CBCinterview. “The impact of her story is tremendous, because it is going to change lives, and it’s going to save lives, and there can be no greater reward than that.”

Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist turned documentarian, has focused her life’s work on social justice and feels compelled to expose wrongdoing in her homeland. Because, she says, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“A Girl in the River” prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pledge that he would change a barbaric law that lets perpetrators of honor crimes go unprosecuted.

“”This is what happens when determined women get together,”  she said with her golden statue in hand. “This week, the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”

Obaid-Chinoy dedicated her accolade to Saba and to all the women who helped her make the film and also to the men who champion women.

Obaid-Chinoy’s acceptance speech was the most powerful Sunday night, though, ironically, it got drowned by the noise of diversity jokes and the buzz over Leo.

But she was the real stuff. Here was a brown Muslim woman totally rockin’ it. She hails from a part of the world where the most barbaric practices against women still exist, and that made Obaid-Chinoy’s win even more worthwhile.

Go, Sharmeen, I yelled in front of the TV. You make desi women proud.

Check out her work here: http://sharmeenobaidfilms.com/

War hero, Indian and Jewish


He was known in my native India as the hero of the Bangladesh war.

In Israel, he was known as the highest-ranking Jew in the Indian Army.

Lieutenant General Farj Rafael Jacob died Wednesday morning. He was 92.

Jacob said in interviews that he was drawn to the then-British Indian Army in 1942 because of the massacre of Jews in the Holocaust. He fought on several fronts in World War II and went on to a storied military career. In 1971, he negotiated Pakistan’s surrender in the war that led to the independence of Bangladesh.

Notable Indians paid their tributes on social media after learning of Jacob’s passing:

I read in Indian newspapers that Jacob died at the Army Hospital in Delhi. He had no family in India anymore. That made me think about two things: that few people know about Jewish contributions to India and even fewer probably know that the Jewish community in India has sadly, for a variety of reasons, shriveled up.

Jacob’s family came to India from Iraq and he was born in my hometown of Kolkata, where there was once a thriving Jewish community. Now there are only 30 or so Jews left in a city of millions.

Here is a link to a story I reported  in 2010. I felt sad writing it because the city that I love so much was poorer for the loss of the Jewish community. In writing it, I realized that a big part of Kolkata’s history was vanishing.  Jacob’s death was another stark reminder.

Go to the story here: Twilight comes for India’s fading Jewish community

The saint

mother_teresa-smaller.14704.articlefull.0Pope Francis announced that Mother Teresa is becoming a saint. She will be canonized next fall.

The pontiff attributed the miraculous healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors, which means the Albanian-born nun can now ascend to the most vaulted status in the Catholic church.

But for me, and millions in my hometown of Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s true miracles were on the streets of that city. She didn’t just save the life of a terminally ill Brazilian man; she saved the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa gave everything to make something of people who had nowhere to go. People who had no hope.

I saw this firsthand when I volunteered at an institution run by the Missionaries of Charity. Their main chapel was just down the street from my parents’ home in central Kolkata. I met Mother Teresa many years ago, before she was a Nobel laureate, before the world knew much about her.

She has been criticized in India from various corners. Some thought she was pushing a Catholic agenda in a mostly Hindu city. Others said she gained fame because she was a foreigner. I don’t pretend to know every truth about her. But I will say this: I know she helped care for desperate people who otherwise would have gone without help. I don’t know of anyone else who gave so tirelessly to the poor.

That makes her a saint in my book.

Dear Naren

I first began speaking with K.S. Narendran right after the disappearance of MH Flight 370 in March 2014. His wife, Chandrika, was on that doomed jet.

We spoke by phone, Skype an email — conversations that resulted in several stories on CNN. I finally had the chance to meet him yesterday in Bangalore. I felt honored he made time for me.

I felt some apprehension about the meeting. I was not sure how much he still wanted to talk about the tragedy that befell him; how much he wanted to just move on.

But the meeting was easy. Even though I had never seen him before, at times, it felt that I had known him for a while. After all, he had shared with me some of the most personal parts of his life, the kind of things you share only with family and those closest to your heart.

In the end, we met not as journalist and subject of story but as friends, really — and with the hope that our friendship will continue.

Here are the stories: