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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


Mood swinging against refugees

More than 250,000 people have died since 2011 when violence broke out in Syria, and at least 11 million people in the country of 22 million have fled their homes. Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population, according to the United Nations.

Most are struggling to find safe haven in Europe. The mood was already turning against the millions of Syrian men, women and children driven into destitution by a war that has gone on for four and a half years.

Some countries have told them to stay out. Hungary even built a razor-wire fence along its border, and neighboring countries have been following suit. And previously generous countries like Sweden and Germany that welcomed thousands were already pulling back.

In the United States, where candidates running in upcoming presidential elections comment on most major issues, the Paris attacks had already triggered caustic opposition to Obama’s plans to scale up the number of Syrian refugees.

Then on Sunday, came news that one of the Paris bombers carried Syrian identification papers — possibly forged — and the fear of Syrian refugees grew worse.


Out of the lab and into the field

Most appeals for refugees focus on immediate necessities: clothes, food, shelter. But medium and long-term innovation is needed, and that’s where developments across STEM disciplines really come into their own.

Engineering is a clear starting point: sanitation, shelter and supply lines are all essential in any crisis. Dr Hayaatun Sillem, of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) agrees: “Many critical aspects of humanitarian relief efforts rely on excellent engineering, from design and layout of refugee shelters to maximize their capacity, to the creation of efficient communication and transport networks that allow information to be shared and resources moved quickly across a humanitarian supply chain.”

Up to 115 people die every hour in Africa from diseases linked to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation, particularly in the wake of conflicts and environmental disasters. Dr Askwar Hilonga recently won the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize, which is dedicated to African inventions with the potential to bring major social and economic benefits to the continent. Hilonga has invented a low cost, sand-based water filter. The filter combines nanotechnology with traditional sand-filtering methods to provide safe drinking water without expensive treatment facilities. It has the potential to save thousands of lives and provide a cheap, efficient and quick way for refugee camps and emergency shelters to provide safe drinking water from any source.

[The Guardian]

Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement plan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his cabinet today where one of the top priorities was to discuss a plan to resettle 25,000 refugees.

The fast-track Liberal plan needs to work out the logistics of how to get them here before year’s end, and where to house them once they arrive.

“We, as a country, are going forward to provide quick and substantial help to some of the most distressed people on the planet,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum  after the cabinet meeting.

The Canadian Armed Forces is expected to play a crucial role in the refugee resettlement process.

It’s expected refugees will be chosen from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and Canada’s representative at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees says U.N. staff are trying to keep expectations realistic.


UN warns of humanitarian crisis for Nepal’s children

The UN has warned that Nepal’s children, already hit by devastating earthquakes, are facing a new humanitarian crisis as the country reels under political strife and blockade in the Terai region bordering India, severely impacting their health.

United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) executive director Anthony Lake commented,
“The declining stocks of gas, food and medicines, together with the closure of schools due to political strife in the Terai plains and shortages of fuel throughout the country, are not only inflicting damage to the lives of the children now they threaten the future of the country itself,” he added.

Warning that shortage of fuel, food and medicines could severely impact the capacity to deal with diseases like pneumonia, Lake said that the misery would be more intense in winter, which is just weeks away.

Nepal is facing acute shortage of essential goods as Madhesi groups have enforced over a month-long blockade of all border crossings in the Terai region with India, demanding proportional representation in the new constitution.

Lake also expressed concern about children being out of the school. “When the doors of the schools are closed on children, they close also to their dreams and ambitions. And thus to the futures of their families, their communities and their nation,” Lake was quoted as saying by the Kathmandu Post. According to the Unicef, more than 1.5 million children are out of school in the Tarai region now.

[Times of India] 

The Living Dead in Palestine

Nothing sums up the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to a recent NBC News report, more than the video of the Palestinian teen Ahmad Manasrah, who was left to bleed in pain and distress on camera for the whole world to watch.

In the video that went viral on social media, Israeli vigilantes, mobs and bystanders recorded themselves hurling a barrage of obscene invectives and expletives on the squirming, bleeding Palestinian teen Ahmad. Prior to this, the young boy was run over by an Israeli settler’s vehicle, with some saying it was a military vehicle. One of the vigilantes is heard urging a police officer to “do him a favor and give him a bullet in the head,” a fact that was omitted from NBC’s report. The video also shows a police officer stomping over the boy and pushing him down on the ground to continue writhing in his agony, while paramedics denied him medical care.

Fortunately, Ahmad did not perish in the attempt to kill him. However, the time that he was left to endure and suffer in expectation of his ultimate death demonstrates that the dehumanization of the Palestinians is taking on a specific form at this stage in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The issue here is not only the extrajudicial executions captured in these images, but more importantly, the deferral of Palestinian death and the suspension of the victims’ lives between two deaths, one biological and the other symbolic.

In recent weeks, an increasing number of videos and images representing summary or extrajudicial executions and other forms of violence against Palestinian teens by trigger-happy Israeli state agents, settlers, vigilantes, mobs and bystanders have gone viral on social media. These videos and images show that the teens  … often shot at point blank range or in direct contact, left to bleed for some time, hanging there not only between life and death, but between two deaths. As they lay there, soaked in their blood… the shooters can be seen or have been reported to be seen either roaming around and taunting the victim, stomping or pinning them down, encircling them with their guns pointed at them or chasing them and repeatedly shooting them.

[Read full Truthout article]

German reception centers to help speed up process of accepting or repatriating refugees

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the agreement on Thursday to set up three to five reception centers nationwide that would expedite the process of either accepting or repatriating refugees.

For weeks, opposition parties have been urging Merkel to reduce the number of the refugees in the country, saying that local authorities are struggling to deal with the refugee influx.

About 758,000 have already arrived so far this year, with around one million expected to reach the country by the end of 2015.

In addition, Germany is facing pressure from its neighbors eager for Europe’s top economy to take the refugee task off their shoulders.


Charity smuggling spy equipment for US Govt endangers NGOs worldwide

Was a Christian non-governmental organization funded by the Pentagon used to smuggle spy equipment into North Korea?

The story goes something like this: in 2004 the Pentagon, fired up by the need to “protect the country” post 9/11, was keen on muscling in on the CIA’s virtual monopoly on strategic intelligence collection. A scheme [was devised] to smuggle electronic monitoring equipment and other spyware into top priority target North Korea. … A religious charity called Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG) was developed [to enable] the smuggling of monitoring equipment into North Korea under cover of shipments of used clothing.

The HISG charity was funded by the Pentagon to the tune of an estimated $15 million during the course of the operation. It is reported that short wave radios and some electronic devices intended to monitor nuclear programs as well as interfere with North Korean military communications were smuggled into the country by unwitting Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers, but whether they provided any critical intelligence is unclear. The operation continued to run [until] 2013.

Now it will be plausibly believed that Christian charities are actually hotbeds of American spies and the likely response will be commensurate with that perception. Using a Christian charity to spy puts at risk all the employees and volunteers linked to that specific organization while helping propagate the myth that any indigenous Christian is a potential traitor.

Using unwitting and unfocused humanitarian charity volunteers and employees to smuggle in spy gear was a non-starter right from the beginning and should never have been attempted. The United States government does in fact impose a ban on recruiting certain categories of individuals as spies. Clergymen are off limits partly for ethical reasons but more because the exposure of such a relationship would be devastating both to the religious organization itself and to the United States government. Use of the U.S. taxpayer-funded Peace Corps is also banned because exploiting it would potentially turn its volunteers into targets for terrorists.

[From American Conservative article by Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer]

Why are half the kids in Uttar Pradesh India stunted?

India is a vigorous democracy that has sent an orbiter to Mars. Yet its children are more likely to starve than children in far poorer nations in Africa!

In a remarkable failure of democracy, India is the epicenter of global malnutrition: 39 percent of Indian children are stunted from poor nutrition; according to government figures (other estimates are higher). Stunting is worse in India than in Burkina Faso or Haiti, worse than in Bangladesh or North Korea.

In Uttar Pradesh, a vast state of 200 million people in India’s north, the malnutrition is even more horrifying. By the government’s own reckoning, a slight majority of children under age 5 in this state are stunted–worse than in any country in Africa save Burundi, according to figures in the 2015 Global Nutrition Report.

A couple of bold new theories are emerging to explain why India does so poorly in child nutrition:
The first is that the low status of women leads to maternal nutrition in India that is much worse than previously believed. Women often eat last in Indian households–and 42 percent of Indian women are underweight before pregnancy, according to Diane Coffey, a Princeton University economist. Then during pregnancy, Indian women gain only half the recommended weight. Many children are malnourished in the uterus and never recover.

The second new theory is poor sanitation, particularly open defecation, with about half of Indians defecating outside without using toilets. The result is that children pick up parasites and chronic infections that impair the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients–and 117,000 Indian children die each year from diarrhea, according to UNICEF.

[Nicholas Kristof writing in NY Times]

Mass migration of refugees has only just begun

They arrived in an unceasing stream, 10,000 a day at the height, as many as a million migrants heading for Europe this year, pushing infants in strollers and elderly parents in wheelchairs, carrying children on their shoulders and life savings in their socks. They came in search of a new life, but in many ways they were the heralds of a new age.

There are more displaced people and refugees now than at any other time in recorded history–60 million in all–and they are on the march in numbers not seen since World War II. They are coming not just from Syria, but from an array of countries and regions, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, even Haiti, as well as any of a dozen or so nations in sub-Saharan and North Africa. They are unofficial ambassadors of failed states, unending wars, intractable conflicts.

The most striking thing about the current migration crisis, however, is how much bigger it could still get.

While the flow of migrants to Europe this year already represents the biggest influx from outside the Continent in modern history, many experts warn that the mass movement may continue and even increase–possibly for years to come. “We are talking about millions of potential refugees trying to reach Europe, not thousands,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.

[New York Times]

Refugee children settle in long dreamed of life in Europe

The bags are packed, the goodbye hugs done. The Afghan, Eritrean and Sudanese boys are on the move again, but this time it’s a happy occasion: After months of hardship traversing continents, the teenage refugees are finally on the way to English homes where they can settle down for a long dreamed-of life in Europe.

The dozens of boys are unaccompanied child refugees who have come to the end of a long, risky journey by boat, foot, truck and train. Upon reaching the shores of Dover they were brought to a reception center in Kent, southern England, where they were given temporary shelter. As the teenagers leave for more permanent social housing or foster homes, they are seen off by another group of boys who are eagerly awaiting their turn.

Europe’s migrant crisis has seen a record surge of unaccompanied child asylum seekers fleeing civil war, conscription and poverty at home to countries including Britain and Sweden, which have scrambled to provide care for thousands of newly arrived minors. Most are boys aged between 14 to 18 hailing from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan.

“I’m happy to leave today,” said Sadiq, a shy 17-year-old Sudanese, who said he wanted to become an engineer. Like all the refugees interviewed at the center, his full name cannot be reported because they are minors under government care.

Like the other youngsters, Sadiq had made it to Europe alone after leaving behind his family, and may never see his loved ones again. He lowered his head when asked about his homeland, where a years-long conflict has killed thousands and driven millions from their homes.

“Since I left I have had no information, I don’t know anything about my family. I’m very sad because of that, but what can I do?”