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Desert Companion

In the face of uncertainty

Spending time with Las Vegans who are likely to see their lives reshaped by the incoming administration, our writer finds that the dawn of the Trump era is creating new fears for some and revived opportunities for others.

 

IMMIGRATION

Luis Montanez 

Luis MontanezIt’s around the time that Luis Montanez’s mom, who doesn’t want me to use her name, is brewing chamomile tea and cutting dense slices of pumpkin cake that I feel a surprising pinch in the pit of my stomach. Paranoid thoughts race through my head: What if they get in trouble because of me? What if ICE asks for my notes? What am I doing here?

I swallow the vague, fleeting fear — a tiny taste of what Luis, a 20-year-old Dreamer at Nevada State College, and his undocumented immigrant parents endure many times a day in the new world order of Brexit and “border walls.” To me, the feeling seems out of place in this Norman Rockwell scene: A middle-class family has opened its home to a reporter writing a story about the eldest son’s achievements, which include graduating third in his class at Durango High School and working toward a double BA in business and English, with an eye on law school.

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I’ve been chatting with them for more than an hour, holding their Yorkshire terrier, Jordy, on my lap and tossing an occasional question to Luis’ 6-year-old brother during his relays between the TV, tucked behind an outsized Christmas tree in the living room, and the breakfast nook off the kitchen where the adults are gathered.

“What school do you go to?” I ask, on the boy’s next go-round.

He grabs the edge of the table with both hands, puts his chin on it, and stares at me silently. His mom urges in Spanish, “She’s asking what school you go to.”

Luis Montanez

It’s not the language that escapes him — he speaks flawless American English, just like both his brothers — but the name of his school. Solution? Run back to the TV.

We adults resume. I’m getting the story of something that happened a few days before the presidential election. A new client had called Luis’ dad, a home-repair contractor who specializes in HVAC work, for a ceiling fan installation. While Luis’ dad, perched on a ladder, fiddled with the fan, the client came in the room. Referring to the contractor’s heavy Spanish accent, the client inquired whether he had a green card. Yes, Luis’ dad replied, lying. Good, the client said, seizing the opening to complain about undocumented immigrants coming into the country and stealing American jobs. Luis’ dad offered a defense: Actually, most of the jobs that immigrants take can’t be filled by American citizens. After a bit of back-and-forth on this, he asked if the client would prefer that an American complete the ceiling fan job. The client said, “No, you go ahead,” and left the room. Later, his wife, a native Spanish speaker herself, came in and apologized for her husband’s behavior. Overcome by conscience, Luis’ dad confessed to her that he didn’t really have a green card, but had said he did out of fear of being reported to immigration officials. She told him it was okay.

“Is that fear new?” I ask.

Yes, Luis and his parents concur. Before this year, they felt more secure. They’ve worked hard, paid taxes, minded their Ps and Qs and kept their heads down. In 2013, Luis went through an extensive application process, including a police background check, to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Until recently, none of them worried that they’d be targets of legal action. Then came Trump, who, Luis believes, effectively channeled conservatives’ top concerns — the economy and national security — into the single issue of immigration (despite unemployment going down 3.5 percent, median household incomes going up 2 percent, and 9 percent fewer unauthorized immigrants entering the country compared to 2009). Now, a looming vulnerability permeates the family’s daily life.

Still, they’re eager to share their story. They tell me how they came to the U.S. from Mexico on a tourist visa 17 years ago, landing in California, bouncing back and forth a couple times between there and their home country before settling in Las Vegas. Luis’ dad used his electrician training to find steady work with a home-repair company. After a couple years, he opened his own business, an LLC. He does all the HVAC work himself and subcontracts anything else.

He stresses that he doesn’t intentionally undercut American companies when bidding on projects. Luis’ mom adds that she and her husband have always provided for their family, never taking a handout, despite the hardship of raising three boys with no health insurance. Looking around their comfortable, modest home, I imagine how offended they must be by the alt-right’s portrayal of Mexican immigrants as ignorant criminals.

I ask what their options are and am immediately reminded of the time many years ago when, in a moment of absent-minded small talk, I asked a Chinese businessman how many children he had. Cringing, I wait for the obvious answer as Luis blinks at me incredulously.

“Well, as far as we know, we don’t have any,” he says. “Right now, we’re just … in a state of uncertainty.”

Immigration wasn’t supposed to be the subject of Desert Companion’s January cover story; nor were nuclear waste storage, reproductive rights, the Affordable Care Act or anti-Muslim sentiment. But then Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency and Republicans took majorities in both the House and Senate. Citizens of all political stripes experienced a seismic shift in their world views. Conservative policy proposals that were floated during the campaign — defunding Planned Parenthood, repealing DACA and Obamacare, starting a Muslim registry — suddenly went from unlikely to probable. These new circumstances demand our attention.

So, here I am, at Luis’ house, struggling to understand what it’s like when nearly half the people who showed up to vote in the most recent election apparently want to kick you out of the country. My visit caps two weeks spent haunting a Yucca Mountain consultant, Planned Parenthood worker, antiregulation neurosurgeon and head scarf-wearing Muslim woman. Based on what I’ve observed, I’d say Luis’ remark best captures the prevailing sentiment of many locals facing an unexpected reality: We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re preparing for the worst — or the best, depending on how you see it.

 
YUCCA MOUNTAIN

Robert List

Robert ListSettling into an armchair in Sambalatte’s loft, Robert List tells me to call him “Bob.” Further exercising his political charm, Nevada’s 24th governor recalls our meeting at a Public Utilities Commission hearing last spring, where he’d gone to show support for rooftop solar.

Old-school nuclear energy opponents find it hypocritical that the state’s highest-profile supporter of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository jumped on the solar bandwagon, but to List, it makes perfect sense.

“We’re a nation today that needs multiple sources of energy,” he says. “I’m in favor of wind and solar and geothermal.”

What’s more, he lumps nuclear energy in with renewables as “clean,” since it produces no greenhouse gases — so, doesn’t contribute to global warming — and can be developed domestically due to the abundance of uranium in the U.S.

As controversial as this stance might seem, it pales in comparison to the pro- and anti-Yucca Mountain polemics in which List and others have engaged for 30 years. The plan to bury the country’s nuclear waste in a mountain two hours northwest of Las Vegas has languished in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, blocked from coming to fruition by U.S. Senator Harry Reid. The senator’s political strong-arming has infuriated the project’s supporters, who see it as a boon for Nevada. Meanwhile, grassroots opposition morphed into an effective advocacy and awareness campaign, keeping public support of Yucca Mountain low and concerns about it high. In 1998, the state agency for nuclear projects reported that more than two-thirds of Nevadans had consistently opposed the project in 20 years worth of polls; by 2007, a Reno Gazette-Journal poll found, that percentage had risen to three-quarters.

But List was among a handful of true believers who never gave up hope.

“I’ve felt for decades that sooner or later this project was probably going to happen,” he says. “That’s because we’re a small state, and we don’t have a lot of power compared to the big states where all this (spent) fuel is sitting. … Many of us felt that, once Senator Reid retired and was no longer in a position to single-handedly kill the budget, it was going to come back to the stage where the proceedings would go forward in the NRC, where the science will be completely analyzed and the final decision made.”

That day might have come, and sooner than List thought. Like many people, based on polls overwhelmingly favoring Hillary Clinton in the race against Donald Trump, List didn’t expect his Republican party to come out on top. But it did, at least nationally. And that, coupled with Reid’s coincidental retirement, breathed life back into the zombie plan. “Trump Advisers Eye Reviving Nevada Yucca Nuclear Waste Dump,” Bloomberg News wrote on November 14. The Congressional Budget Office called List and other attorneys who had represented Yucca Mountain’s stakeholders, he says, asking them to ballpark the amount of money they would need to get the project’s infrastructure going.

I ask List whether Reid’s coup de grâce — getting President Obama to create the Basin and Range National Monument, putting land that a Yucca Mountain rail line was supposed to traverse off limits — wouldn’t be enough to kill it for good. He says no, that the plans also included two other transportation options: a second rail line through Hawthorne, Nevada, and a highway route.

Which leads to this exchange:

Me: It doesn’t scare you, the idea of having a truck with nuclear waste in it driving along a public highway?

Bob: Not at all. Not at all. They already do this all over the world.

Me: Even though there are other spills on highways all the time — chemical spills, milk spills?

Bob: Those are far more dangerous. I mean, chlorine on the rail lines is hugely dangerous.

Me: Probably not more than nuclear waste, though.

Bob: Yes, it is, because the nuclear waste is packaged in these impenetrable containers. And they’ve been tested. I’ve seen videos of the tests. They’re so heavily encased that they can take a full-blown train running into the side of them, and they won’t burst. … There have been so many misconceptions about the material. I mean, it’s not liquid. It’s in the form of little pellets. And what you’d have to do if somehow there were ever a spill, is go out and pick it up and put it back in the container. It’s not going to destroy the area.

Me: But it does emit radiation.

Bob: Sure, you’d have to pick it up and move it out.

Me: It’s a solid waste, but anything it comes into contact with is contaminated.

Bob: Yeah, but if somehow it was spilled out in the desert, you’d just pick it up and put it back in something and take it away.

Me: Well, it not like picking up wood chips. It’s still radioactive waste.

Bob: Yeah, it’s radioactive waste. But you ask a lot of people, and they don’t understand that (it’s not a liquid). They feel it could burn or explode or something.

He emphasizes that he would never encourage the state to adopt a plan that he isn’t convinced is safe for citizens, and that he’s anxious to see such issues addressed in the NRC hearings. But if it is proven safe, he says, Nevada is looking at “billions and billions” in potential economic impact, including thousands of jobs.

And there’s one other thing: “This site is 90 miles from Las Vegas, in the middle of the desert, next to an Air Force base, 1,000 feet underground, 1,000 feet above the water table,” he says. “You’re not going to find a safer place, you know.”

He might have some convincing to do on this point. At press time Nevada’s official position, as published on Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s website, is as follows: “Yucca Mountain is a singularly bad site to house the nation’s high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel for several reasons,” including geology, location, limited space, transportation and national security.

 

HEALTHCARE

William Smith 

Shadowing neurosurgeon William Smith while on assignment four years ago still ranks in my 10 most enthralling experiences as a journalist. Within minutes of my arrival at UMC, Smith had me scrubbed and standing next to him in the OR. Over the following five hours, I attended six surgeries (including one emergency), accepting his invitation to peer inside open body cavities, study human brains being projected on a video screen from a scope up someone’s nose and many other things I swore in a waiver that I would never write about.

At that time, EMR — shorthand for electronic medical records — was the buzz in healthcare circles. Doctors’ offices were scrambling to comply with regulations requiring them to adopt software that allowed various parties access to patient information, and Smith was annoyed by the imposition, which he predicted would increase the burden on healthcare providers without actually improving the quality of care. Given Republicans’ current promise to repeal Obamacare, I wondered if Smith would be happy to see what many doctors consider another onerous government program on its way out. So I met him for coffee to find out.

“I believe the bureaucrats have won the war in medicine,” he says, right off the bat.

He explains that every week he gets another new form he has to fill out. The week prior to our meeting, for instance, it was a three-pager informing patients of fire risk in the operating room. He says he tried questioning its necessity, then refusing to sign, but ultimately gave in. It’s now required for every surgery.

“Why am I so against the ACA?” he says. “Because you have bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., determining what’s the best treatment for my patient. There’s no longer the direct patient-physician relationship. There’s a bureaucrat between us at all times.”

Smith predicts that if things keep going the way they are now, protocol-driven medicine will sap doctors’ ability and/or desire to help people. He offers this example: A recent industry conference where he spoke also featured a representative from a Midwestern orthopedic surgeons’ group that has case meetings every Monday. They take or reject cases, Smith says, based on criteria such as cost and whether a person smokes or has a support network to help with their recovery. Smith says most attendees at the conference applauded this approach, but he found it appalling.

“I went into medicine to help sick people,” he says. “Your cost-benefit ratio may look good (doing it that way), but are you really taking care of society?”

But the Midwestern group’s approach is also understandable, Smith says, given the regulatory environment. For instance, the government has determined that, starting next year, wound infections should be so-called “never events,” a category that includes operating on the wrong patient, the wrong organ, the wrong side and leaving an instrument inside a patient after surgery.

“So, if I have two wound infections next year, they’re going to lump me in the same group of guys who amputate the wrong foot,” Smith says. “That’s the way the government’s going to look at it. They don’t want people to have wound infections; I don’t, either. But if it’s going to ruin my career, will I risk taking care of sick, elderly people?” (Rhetoric aside, he says he will, but it will cost him time and money.)

By focusing on burdensome bureaucratic meddling in his practice and the move away from patient-centered care, Smith is expressing a view of healthcare reform that’s common among physicians. The New Yorker’s December 19 financial column argues that Trump’s nomination of Georgia Representative Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services underlines the administration’s determination to roll back Obamacare, in part because Price is a doctor. In 2014, a physicians’ trade group survey found that 25 percent of members gave the ACA a grade of F, while only 4 percent gave it an A.

One interpretation of doctors’ opposition to healthcare reform is that they’re acting out of financial self-interest; government-subsidized plans that drive down consumer costs can also reduce competition and fees for services. Smith does say he thinks doctors should get paid a fair price for what they do, but he also believes cost transparency is a key solution to solving the country’s healthcare problems. And he concedes that Nevada’s embrace of Obamacare has benefited him (and low-income people), since more of the patients he operates on at UMC have health insurance now than they did pre-ACA.

Indeed, according to federal data, some 90,000 Nevadans gained coverage through the Medicaid expansion. This and ACA’s other popular aspects — restricting denial of coverage due to preexisting conditions and allowing kids to stay on their parents’ plans longer — could make Obamacare difficult to get rid of outright. I ask Smith what he thinks of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare, and he says he thinks Ryan is “one of the honest brokers, who’s trying to do it the right way.”

Nevertheless, he’s pessimistic about a true repeal. He asks me to name another government program that has been bestowed and then subsequently taken away, and I can’t think of any. (The 1996 welfare reform that kicked millions of people off federal unemployment assistance hits me when I’m driving back to work, of course.)

In any case, Smith believes that, if anything, we’re moving toward a single-payer system, in which whatever insurance companies are left a decade from now will all pay Medicare rates. 

“I don’t care who comes into power,” he says. “To fight the million faceless bureaucrats, to change what they’ve already done, I think will be nearly impossible. I think little changes might be able to be made, but I think big changes will be nearly impossible.”

 

REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

Rosita Castillo

Rosita CastilloOn December’s first cold Friday, I pull up to a business office fourplex on East Sahara that’s supposed to be the weekly meeting location for networking nonprofit Grupo de Mujeres (“Womens Group”). I hesitate to go in, because the building looks abandoned, but I really have to go to the bathroom, which, it turns out, is locked.

I find Suite 3, upstairs on the right, where a middle-aged woman with cheerful eyes and red lipstick is taking clothes out of a bag and arranging them on a row of tables. She greets me like we’re old friends, introduces herself as the founder of Grupo de Mujeres and explains that she’s getting ready for their monthly clothing swap.

Fun, I say. And do you have a key to the bathroom?

She doesn’t, so I go back downstairs, where the receptionist for a paralegal service in Suite 1 — evidently, the only heated spot in the building — gives me the key to the bathroom (thank God!). By the time I get back to the Grupo de Mujeres meeting room, members are trickling in, nodding buenos dias as they rub their hands together briskly. A woman from Puerto Rico shows me a deep scar on her wrist from carpal tunnel surgery a few weeks earlier. I think she’s saying that the operation went well, and the incision is healing on schedule, but I can’t be sure; it’s all in Spanish, a language I haven’t used in conversation since graduate school. I nod and smile, throwing in “Si” when I understand something.

Around 10:15, Rosita Castillo bursts in towing a rolling suitcase filled with literature and condom-stuffed goodie bags, part of her presentation as a Hispanic-community health worker, or promotora de salud, for Planned Parenthood. Castillo’s no-nonsense energy pumps up the room, and within minutes of her arrival, she’s giving me her autobiography, rapid-fire style: farm worker on the West Coast for 10 years, chemical dependency counselor in Mexico for 15 years, various government and NGO social work gigs since. Her passion for community health started when she was a child.

“I remember my mother crying when she found out she was pregnant. We were migrant workers, and it was very hard,” she says. “A lot of women don’t know their rights. They don’t understand that their bodies belong to them. And there are so many barriers to getting health care: immigration status, fear, poverty. … Health is a human right. Reproductive health is a human right. In Latino cultures, women carry a lot of the responsibility for making sure the family succeeds, so keeping women healthy is a priority.”

Castillo says that when she started this work in Las Vegas, most Latinos didn’t even know that Planned Parenthood existed. Seven years later, they call it la clinica, “the clinic.” Grupo de Mujeres is one of many community groups that regularly invite her to speak.

Today, in honor of World AIDS Day, the topic is HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The dozen or so group members draw their chairs around her in a circle and listen politely as she debunks transmission myths, introduces a new morning-after-like pill and urges open discussion to reduce the disease’s stigma.

Looking around the 30-something and middle-aged faces, I wonder how much of Castillo’s pitch is getting through. Two little girls who’ve come with their moms make eyes at and then advances toward each other, though it doesn’t seem to distract anyone but me. Castillo’s English was hard enough to keep up with; her Spanish whizzes by me so fast I can only catch the occasional phrase: zero transmicion (“zero transmissions”), mucho trabajo por hacer (“much work to do”), es problema de todos (“it’s everyone’s problem”), comprender y respetar (“to understand and respect”).

But after about 20 minutes, the audience gets involved, and things take an unexpected turn. One woman shares her experience of giving her daughter a condom for the first time. Another says she didn’t know how to respond when her 12-year-old asked what AIDS was (the situation is then work-shopped). Another asks how to get help for a friend-of-a-friend who just found out she’s HIV-positive. These women aren’t listening as a courtesy, I realize. They’re there to get information they can use.

As her presentation winds down, Rosita reminds them where Planned Parenthood is located and mentions that it has programs to help with everything from family communication to sexual assault recovery. The group invites her — and me — back for a holiday party and moves on to tea and clothes swapping.

Driving away from the fourplex, I wonder what will become of promotores de salud under the new administration. A couple days earlier, Politico reported that 2017 would almost certainly see the revival of a 2015 bill, vetoed by Obama, to defund Planned Parenthood, which gets more than 40 percent of its $1.3 billion annual revenue from the federal government. During his campaign, Trump said he would defund the group, but in true Trump fashion, he also expressed appreciation for Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services for low-income populations.

Castillo’s boss doesn’t return my calls looking for a follow-up interview. But I get some insight a week later when I drop by UNLV for an officers meeting of Students United for Reproductive Justice, a Planned Parenthood-sponsored campus organization.

The current president is handing the reins to Suki Narwal, who’s going over her plans for the spring semester. Narwal talks about an upcoming conclave of progressive groups where they’ll formulate their demands for the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. Noting that the campus pro-life group is currently out-organizing and out-recruiting SURJ, Raquel Cruz-Juarez, the group’s Planned Parenthood advisor, says the gathering will be a good opportunity to enlist volunteers by helping people  turn their post-election anxiety into action.

“We definitely know we’re going to get defunded in the first 100 days,” Cruz-Juarez says.

“I can feel the fear,” Narwal says. “It’s so uncomfortable. A lot of people have been contacting me and sharing their concerns. So we really need to let them know we’re still there for them.”

 

ISLAM

Najah Masaddiq 

Najah Masaddiq is full of surprises. On the phone she sounds like a 20- or 30-something, but she’s actually 50. She arrives to meet me in the lobby of her gated apartment community on Gowan Road, riding a motorized scooter with a small boy, her grandson Kye, sitting cross-legged between her feet and the steering column. And despite being a devoted Muslim who wears niqab, the head- and face-covering that conceals all but her eyes — the very symbol of demureness — she’s quite direct.

NadjaTelling me about the bus driver who’s been giving her a hard time since he started on the Martin Luther King Boulevard route that she takes every day to get Kye to Acelero Learning Center, she says, “Yesterday, when I was pulling my wheelchair onto the bus, another passenger who’s not usually there asked what was happening, and he said, ‘She always takes forever.’” And then, as we ride that bus, within earshot of said driver, she says, “You can see that only took a minute!”

The biggest surprise comes when we get back to her apartment after dropping Kye off, and she immediately removes her niqab. I had turned away for a moment, and when I turn back, there she is, barefaced (her head scarf, or hijab, was still in place). I feel a flash of intense embarrassment, followed quickly by the thought that she looks nothing like I’d imagined.

Masaddiq hasn’t always worn niqab; she hasn’t always been Muslim. The former Southern Baptist converted in 1997 following a personal rough patch. A Gardena, California, native, she came to Las Vegas in ’92 following the birth of her first child (Kye’s mom), because a girlfriend from the Navy had convinced her they could live and raise their kids together. That didn’t work out, and Masaddiq soon found herself not only pregnant again, but also married to an abusive man. Disengaging from that relationship, she says, drove her a little crazy. In her search for sanity, she found Islam.

“The people from the big mosque here sent me to Masjid As Sabur and said, ‘I think you’ll be more comfortable there,’ you know, for obvious reasons,” she says, alluding to the mosque’s ethnic and racial diversity. “And there I learned more about Islam and took my Shahada, which is the oath that Mohammed is God’s prophet, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Her faith has steadily deepened over the years, finding expression first in her decision to wear hijab, and then, in the fall of 2015, to go full niqab. This wasn’t easy for Masaddiq, because she has multiple sclerosis, which makes her sensitive to the heat. But her worry that the garment would suffocate her has proven unfounded, she says.

She also hasn’t experienced any harassment, until recently. On another bus route, a driver told her she couldn’t get on “with that thing,” meaning the niqab. But Masaddiq had already boarded when the conflict broke out, so she stood her ground, saying it was a religious face covering and that she’d been riding the bus with it on for nearly a year. She refused to disembark, forcing the driver to call a supervisor, who verified that, yes, religious face coverings are allowed on public transportation.

“When I got off the bus, all she said was, ‘Have a good day,’” Masaddiq recalls. “And I said, ‘Thank you, you too,’ and got off the bus. But I proceeded to call the RTC at the same time, and when they heard what had happened, they were aghast. The woman on the phone was like, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry. That’s a Title VI incident, and you have to fill out this form,’ which I did.”

Masaddiq says it’s impossible to know whether the incident is related to her being Muslim; to Trump’s campaign talk about radical Islamic terrorism, barring Muslim immigrants from the U.S. and creating a national Muslim registry; or to the anti-Muslim sentiment that has bubbled to society’s surface since his election, manifesting itself in widespread cases of harassment nationwide, including several against women in hijab. She does say that her driver on the MLK route is less patient with her than others in wheelchairs, though. It leaves her to wonder if it’s because of her religion.

I ask if the bus driver who asked her to remove her niqab might have been under the same mistaken impression as the Peppermill employee who, in November, ejected Muslim Louvenia Daan for wearing hijab, blaming it on the Strip restaurant’s policy that required patrons’ full head and face to be visible to security cameras. (Peppermill has since apologized to Daan and rescinded the policy.)

“That’s all malarkey,” Masaddiq says. “No, there’s absolutely no reason why you have to take off your head covering. … It’s like telling a church lady to take off her church hat. Do they do that? I bet they don’t.”

So, I venture: What would she say to someone who argues that female terrorists in burkas have carried bombs under their clothing into crowded places and set them off, and that she could do the same thing in her niqab?

She leans back against her sofa, folds her hands over her belly and levels a serious gaze at me.

“What would I tell them?” she says. “There are terrorists in our country that wear jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps. You can’t identify who’s a bad person and who’s a good person by their attire. … We’re living in critical times. We’re living in dangerous times, and people are very afraid of what might happen tomorrow. I’m kind of afraid of what might happen tomorrow. But I can’t adjust the person that I am any more than Donald Trump is going to adjust the person that he is based on how somebody might feel about him. I have a right to practice my religion in the way that I see fit, in the way that makes me happy and peaceful. … I’m going to do the best that I can to be the best example of Islam that I can be. I cannot tell you how to think. But nobody else can tell me what to think, either.” 

 

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