The ruins that were once Syria

A heap of dust is all that remains of the house where Aylan Kurdi was born and raised in Kobane, Syria, before war sent his family fleeing and he drowned on the short sea crossing between Turkey and Greece. The image of the toddler’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach turned him into an instant symbol of the suffering of Syrians so desperate to reach Europe that they are prepared to risk their lives making the dangerous journey.

His flattened home, destroyed in an American airstrike in the landmark battle for control of the Syrian town of Kobane last year, has not been so widely seen. It is just one of thousands of buildings leveled, among hundreds of thousands more that have been obliterated in Syria during the four-year-old war.

As the conflict drags into a fifth year with no end in sight, little heed is being paid to the enormity of the havoc being wreaked on the country. Some 2.1 million homes, half the country’s hospitals and more than 7,000 schools have been destroyed, according to the United Nations.

The cost of the damage so far is estimated at a staggering $270 billion–and rebuilding could run to more than $300 billion. That’s more than 10 times the amount spent by the United States on reconstruction in Iraq, with few discernible results.

If or when the war ends, any government will find itself “ruling over a pile of rubble,” said Abdallah al-Dardari, a former Syrian government minister who heads the UN National Agenda for Syria. “I don’t know who will fund this.”

The numbers rise daily with each new airstrike and each new offensive launched, as Russian planes join Syrian and American ones in bombing the country and the various factions sustain their relentless attacks on one another with rockets, mortars and artillery.

“If you lived in Kobane, would you stay?” asked Aylan Kurdi’s father, Abdullah, as he recounted the events that spurred his family’s fateful departure.

[Washington Post]

Gaining a perspective on the refugee crisis

The following are from the comments section of a video criticizing refugees in Europe.

These people are sub human,” read one actual comment.

They haven’t fully evolved from apes yet,” another commenter replied.

I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading. Is this really how some people regard their fellow human beings?

In reading through that comments section, I sensed an underlying current of one emotion: fear. Faced with a sudden influx of people you don’t know, whose culture you don’t understand and whose lives are in some ways very different from your own, it’s easy to succumb to fear.

Click here for eye-opening online experiences you can check out to gain a perspective on things.

Toronto couple gives up big wedding plans to help Syrians

Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian’s big March 2016 wedding–which they had been planning for over a year–was just months away when a photo of a little boy appeared and shocked the world.

The image of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had drowned along with several family members in a desperate attempt to reach Europe in September, drew attention to the Syrian refugee crisis like no other photo before it.

The photo “was a turning point, in the sense that we knew this was a perfect time to act,” Yousefian told the Star. “We knew that people were aware of the issue because (the photo) had made such an impact and brought the issue to the fore … We wanted to build on the momentum of that photo. It was a tragic circumstance, and we couldn’t fail to act.”

The couple decided that instead of a big celebration, they would opt for a smaller event at City Hall last month, in hopes of raising enough money to sponsor a Syrian family of four. Their wedding reception doubled as a fundraiser. Fortunately for the couple, their original wedding venue refunded their deposit, which was also a big help toward their $27,000 fundraising goal. So far they’ve raised about $17,500.

“We felt we had an obligation, in light of the humanitarian crisis, to contribute, and we thought this was the perfect opportunity to do that,” Yousefian said. “The joy we received from celebrating our wedding with family and friends would be amplified if we could use that as a platform to give back at the same time.”

[Toronto Star]

Paris attacks must not be pretext for slamming door on refugees

The United Nations General Assembly met last week to tackle the global refugee crisis in the shadow of terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, with top officials pleading that the door for genuine refuge not be slammed shut in the name of security.

“How are we to balance security needs and moral and legal obligations to protect refugees and others in need of protection? …This balance must be found without giving in on our basic values and without closing the door to those who have already endured tremendous suffering,” Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said.

“Those who flee this violence should not be punished twice – first by war or oppressive forces which persecute them at home. And, second, by unjust, dangerous stigma which even shockingly associate the refugees with their attackers. The refugees, if any, understand better than anyone the barbaric cruelty of violent extremism.”

General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft also addressed the security issue, which has seen calls after the attacks for limiting refugee access lest terrorist infiltrate among them. “In no way do those attacks reduce the moral and legal obligations of the international community towards displaced people,” he stressed. “On the contrary, they serve to underline even further why so many people are risking their lives to secure international protection and why we – the international community – must not fail them, for a second time.”

[South-South News]

Canada continues with goal of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end

Canada’s government will inevitably have to cut some corners on security screening to achieve its ambitious goal of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end, said current and former security sources. The plan by newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seeks to complete in six weeks a process that can take up to two years in the United States, where last Friday’s attacks in Paris have sparked a political backlash against US plans to allow in 10,000 Syrians over the coming year.

In Canada, which shares about 5,500 miles (8,850 km) of relatively porous border with the United States, Friday’s attacks have prompted calls for Trudeau to push back the Jan. 1 deadline to ensure all the refugees are properly screened.

Trudeau has vowed to stick to the plan, reiterating the security of Canadians would be paramount when dealing with the refugees. The Canadian plan will entail background checks that include biometric and fingerprint checks, as well as health assessments. Some screening will have to be done after the refugees arrive in Canada given the short time frame.

Canada will primarily focus on families with children under the age of 18 who have been in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, said an intelligence source and a non-government source familiar with deliberations. The first step in the Canadian plan is to select refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), then conduct checks against Interpol, Canadian security and immigration as well as foreign allies’ watchlists before issuing permanent or temporary residence permits.

Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, asked in Manila whether Washington had expressed security concerns about the plan, said: “Everything that we have heard is that our initiative is welcome and everyone wants to cooperate with this – the United States, but also Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.”

[Reuters]

Europe’s largest mass movement of dispossessed people since the Second World War

In the immediate wake of the massacres in Paris last Friday, the finance minister for the German state of Bavaria, Markus Söder, feverishly called for an end to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s so-called “open-door” policy on refugees.

Merkel’s government expects to register 800,000 refugees this year, part of the largest mass movement of dispossessed people since the Second World War. Germany has refused to name an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers it will let in.

France and Britain, by contrast, have agreed only to take in a combined 44,000 refugees. It was a fraught task for EU leaders to agree to quotas for sharing 160,000 people seeking refuge in the union.

Germany the largest EU nation with 82 million citizens is indeed taking in the most new denizens. (It’s worth noting that Turkey expects 1.9 million refugees this year, 1.7 million of whom have come from Syria.)

Merkel’s current term as chancellor ends in 2017, and it is unclear whether she will run in the next election. It thus makes sense to judge her actions now in terms of legacy-forging. After decades of realpolitik maneuvering, Merkel has room for a grand gesture on her way out. Showing a kindly face to desperate people is already paying off for her in the international media.

14 humanitarian aid workers kidnapped in eastern Congo

Fourteen humanitarian workers have been kidnapped in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the latest in a spate of hostage-takings in the region, according to the United Nations and local activists.

The employees of a Congolese non-governmental organization were abducted on Sunday in the Rutshuru region in North Kivu province, the U.N. mission in Congo’s humanitarian coordinator, Mamadou Diallo, said in a statement.

A local activist group, the Centre of Study for the Promotion of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights, said in a statement on Monday that the aid workers were taken in the town of Makoka, some 100 km (60 miles) northeast of the provincial capital Goma, by a dozen armed men. The statement blamed the attack on rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia based in eastern Congo since fleeing the neighboring country after the 1994 genocide.

Security has deteriorated this year, with dozens kidnapped by armed militias and criminal gangs. Eastern Congo was ravaged by two wars between 1996 and 2003 that killed millions of people, most dying from hunger and disease, and the region remains plagued by dozens of armed groups who compete over reserves of gold, tin and tantalum.

[Reuters]

November 19th World Toilet Day

Some 2.4 billion people around the world don’t have access to decent sanitation, and more than a billion are forced to defecate in the open, risking disease and other dangers, according to the United Nations.

Launching its World Toilet Day campaign for Nov 19, the UN said poor sanitation increases the risk of illness and malnutrition, especially for children, and called for women and girls in particular to be offered safe, clean facilities. “One out of three women around the world lack access to safe toilets,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. “As a result they face disease, shame and potential violence when they seek a place to defecate.”

The UN says that while there is sufficient fresh water on the planet for everyone, “bad economics and poor infrastructure” mean that every year millions of people–most of them children–die from diseases linked to poor sanitation, unhygienic living conditions and lack of clean water supplies.

[Reuters]

What’s the US security vetting process for refugees?

Much attention has been focused on the security vetting refugees must go through before they come to the United States, particularly after it was revealed that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks entered Europe through a refugee processing center.

Several federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are involved in the process, which Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner recently called, “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States.”

These agencies use biographical and biometric information about applicants to conduct a background check and make sure applicants really are who they say they are.

The applicant is interviewed by a DHS officer with training in this screening process as well as specialized training for Syrian and Iraqi refugee cases. And refugees from Syria actually go through another layer of screening, called the Syria Enhanced Review process.

According to senior administration officials, more than half of the Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. so far are children. “Single men of combat age” represent only 2% of those admitted.

[CNN]

How the refugee process works

The Paris terrorist attacks have intensified a debate in Washington over whether the United States should allow Syrian refugees to enter the country.

Potential refugees must first apply for refugee status through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the international body in charge of protecting and assisting refugees. The UNHCR essentially decides who merits refugee status based on the parameters laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

If it’s demonstrated that the refugee in question meets the above conditions, the applicant may be referred by the UNHRC for resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, where he or she will be given legal resident status and eventually be able to apply for citizenship.

Each candidate has an intensive screening process, which includes an interview, a medical evaluation and an interagency security screening process aimed at ensuring the refugee does not pose a threat to the United States.

The average processing time for refugee applications is 18 to 24 months, but Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information.

Once they’ve completed that part of the process, the refugee is paired with a resettlement agency in the United States to assist in his or her transition to the country. That organization provides support services, such as language and vocational training, as well as monetary assistance for housing and other necessities.

[CNN]