Op-Ed: The Roots of Jamaica’s Brain Drain

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By Javed Jaghai
Op-Ed Contributor

During a speech at Hillel Academy on March 20, Jamaican Minister of Youth and Culture Lisa Hanna, admonished students to resist the urge to migrate to more developed countries. I was amused by the request because she appears to have a very limited understanding of why many young Jamaicans migrate.

Popular wisdom presumes that economic problems are our primary concern, but for many of my peers and myself, cultural issues are often the deciding factor. For her counsel to be taken seriously, the minister must recognize the importance of creating a more supportive sociocultural environment for young scholars, activists and leaders.

I graduated from St. Mary High in 2006 with ten distinctions at the CSEC level. I am the first in my family to attend college thanks to generous scholarships and financial aid. I attended Lester B Pearson United World College in Canada before matriculating at Dartmouth College in the United States in 2008. I will graduate in June this year and will make my parents, a seamstress and a security officer, very proud. At this time, I have no intention to return to Jamaica to live and work.

Throughout primary and high schools I was teased mercilessly for being effeminate. Even today, I turn heads in Jamaican streets because I do not walk, speak, or act like a Jamaican man is supposed to. My perspectives on state-sanctioned religious indoctrination, homophobia as inherent to Jamaican cultural identity and the classist dismissal of our national language as a “dialect,” to name a few issues, are at odds with popular opinion. Whenever I speak openly about my views I am an object of scrutiny and derision.

The truth of the matter is, our culture does not support imaginative, individual thinking. We mock difference and force those who think and act outside the constraints of normative standards to remain silent, conform or risk ostracism.

When I first left Jamaica it seemed foolish to ever return to what had become a prison for me. In Canada, I was free to think, to act and to be and I loved it! However, I would soon realize that despite being thousands of miles away from Jamaica, I could not stop thinking about the intractable problems we face as a nation.

Two summers ago I contacted at least ten government ministries and agencies with a simple message: “I am a Jamaican studying in America. I want to return home to serve without pay. Would you be able to use my labour?” Phones rang endlessly. Queries by email were never answered. Secretaries were clueless. Supervisors and directors were never available. I spent the summer at home in St Mary, counting down to the day when I would return to America.

I major in cultural geography and gender studies, but I have taken classes in a diversity of disciplines from legal theory to biology, accounting and French literature. Thanks to my school’s liberal arts curriculum and great extracurricular programs, I am an excellent communicator, a cross-disciplinary critical thinker, an idea generator and a leader.

Last summer, while volunteering in Kingston, I mentioned that I wanted to work in Jamaica after graduation. When asked what I studied I was often told that I had no skills and that since I had not specialized in a marketable field I would not be competitive in the Jamaican job market. I accepted my fate.

As is customary with Jamaican politicians, the new minister offers boilerplate sentiments that masquerade as policy. It would be nice for educated Jamaicans to stay, yes, but what is the Ministry of Youth and Culture doing to support those of us who are willing to make such a sacrifice?

Absent a strategic initiative to create opportunities to engage youth leaders, and to foster a cultural environment that encourages freethinking and rewards ambition, many of our most ingenious, innovative and industrious people will continue to migrate in droves.

Jamaica does not have a shortage of brilliant young minds who are willing to overlook anemic economic growth to find opportunities for meaningful engagement. The government is simply too naïve about why people like me opt to leave to discern what needs to be done to encourage us to return.

Javed Jaghai is a Senior Fellow and a BA candidate at Dartmouth College.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.

 

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