The Seattle Globalist http://www.seattleglobalist.com Where Seattle Meets the World Wed, 26 Nov 2014 15:05:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 Why you should (and shouldn’t) be worried about ISIS http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/26/whats-happening-with-islamic-state-isis-jonathan-landay/30924 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/26/whats-happening-with-islamic-state-isis-jonathan-landay/30924#comments Wed, 26 Nov 2014 14:00:55 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30924 ISIS Insurgents

A pair of Islamic State insurgents in Northern Iraq pose for a photo. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They’re called by many names: ISIS, ISIL, SIC, Da’esh or simply the Islamic State. Whatever you want to call them, they may be the most powerful terrorist group in history.

“These are not guys like Osama Bin Laden that live in a cave in the mountains somewhere,” said Jonathan Landay, national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy news. “These are people that control territory in which eight million people live.”

Having just returned from Baghdad, Landay — an award-winning journalist with over 25 years of international conflict reporting under his belt — stopped by The Seattle Times building Saturday for a discussion sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Chapter and the Seattle Globalist.

He came to discuss the Islamic State, the American response to their activities, and his work as a journalist in Iraq and Syria, two countries where 39 reporters lost their lives in 2013 alone.

“I call them the Islamic State because that’s what they call themselves,” Landay said. But a name is just a name, and there’s much more to figuring out the Islamic State than finding a definitive label.

The group responsible for the videotaped executions of James Foley, Steven Sotlof, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig are both shrouded in mystery and extremely visible, leaving many Americans with more questions than answers about the most recent incarnation of the War on Terror.

Where did they come from?

The U.S. currently finds itself at war in the Middle East for the third time in as many decades. But the Islamic State’s historical roots don’t run as deep as one would imagine.

“Unfortunately, the real root of what happened, of what’s happened in Iraq, is the American invasion in 2003,” Landay said. After all, the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), wasn’t fully formed until after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Having pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, the group spent much of the 2000s fighting both the American forces and local Shia populations, finding themselves severely weakened by 2007. By 2010, Gen Ray Odierno had estimated that 80 percent of AQIs leaders had been either killed or captured.

Newly appointed leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi replenished AQIs forces through continuous assaults on prisons housing former AQI members, a campaign that culminated with the escape of over 500 prisoners from Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons.

Seeing the Syrian civil war as an opportunity for expansion, al-Baghdadi dispersed forces to Syria to recoup and recruit new members, a move which would eventually give birth to another terrorist organization, the al-Nusra Front, who subsequently acquired widespread support among the Syrian opposition. In April 2013 al-Baghdadi announced a re-merging of the two groups and dubbed the new organization the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

What do they want?

The ultimate goal of the Islamic State is the same as that of its predecessor: to establish a caliphate, or an Islamic political state.

Last summer al-Baghdadi claimed to be the leader of that caliphate, but it has yet to be recognized by any country with a Muslim majority. Still, they have done more than AQI ever did to establish social services like continuous electricity or consistent court systems (although these court consistencies include punishments like beatings, whippings, stonings, and beheadings for violations of sharia law).

“They believe they can create a society that reproduces what they think was the perfect society: the one established under the prophet Muhammad,” Landay said. “That’s essentially what they see as their raison d’être.”

However, their methods have led to a widespread rejection of the group by previous allies like Al Qaeda — who condemns the Islamic State for killing Muslims — and the current incarnation of al-Nusra, who opposed the declaration of the caliphate, causing a substantial rift between the once unified groups.

Jonathan Landay, an award-winning national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy news, during a dialogue on the Islamic State held at the Seattle Times last Saturday and co-sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Seattle Globalist. (Photo by Cooper Inveen)

Jonathan Landay, an award-winning national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy news, during a dialogue on the Islamic State held at the Seattle Times last Saturday and co-sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Seattle Globalist. (Photo by Cooper Inveen)

So why release all the execution videos?

The circulation of the footage of Foley’s beheading was a turning point in the average American’s relationship with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. For the first time, the majority of the U.S. population was in support of at least an aerial military intervention in Syria, a notion which was overwhelmingly rejected by the public only a year earlier.

The U.S. has since unleashed a rigorous bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in both Iraq and Syria. This response likely does not come as a surprise to the terrorist group, however. In fact, they may have been counting on it.

“I think there’s a certain calculation that the more they do this, the greater the chance America is going to send more troops there that they can fight,” said Landay. “That way, they can build up a greater reputation and attract more followers for fighting the country that is thought to be responsible for all their suffering.”

The grabs for international attention seem to be working. In fact, a handful of Islamic State fighters (including the viral executioner known only as Jihadi John) are thought to be Europeans themselves — mostly young Muslims who have faced marginalization and discrimination back home.

But do they actually pose a threat?

In a national address following the executions of Foley and Sotlof, President Barack Obama speculated that if the Islamic State’s activities were to continue without repercussions the organization “could pose a growing threat beyond [the Middle East], including to the United States.”

Landay, on the other hand, remains skeptical.

“The National Security establishment within the government always operates on a worst-case-scenario,” he said. “So they build up Al Qaeda and these Islamist terrorist groups as the modern day equivalent of the Soviet nuclear arsenal — existential threats to the way we know life in the United States — which is not true.”

The close proximity of the Islamic State’s activities to countries like Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia does stand as an issue of concern for some of the U.S.’s strongest regional allies. But the real threat they pose to the U.S., Landay proposes, is a political one.

They are a threat to whoever is in the White House, who can then be blamed by his opposition for failing to do what has to be done and stop these kind of attacks from endangering Americans,” he said. “Going overboard on these kinds of threats has resulted in the creation of a multi-billion dollar security industry, and I’m not sure that’s made us any safer.”

So what does this mean for the future?

Due to the extreme danger for Western journalist of entering areas controlled by the Islamic State, it’s difficult know what it’s like for those living under the group’s sway, or even what the eventual ramifications of our intervention against them will be. The number of journalists stationed in Baghdad is dwindling, and the future is looking more and more uncertain.

“The question is where is this going, and I have no idea. I don’t think anyone else can tell you either,” said Landay. “A lot of us have been writing for a long time that simply tackling this from the air is not going to work, and yet Americans still only support intervention from the air. Boots on the ground? No. But that’s where this is slowly going, again.”

Currently there are 1600 American soldiers stationed in Iraq and on November 7 the Department of Defense announced plans to deploy an additional 1500 troops to the region over the coming months.

“Bottom line,” Landay said, “this isn’t going away for a long time.”

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Once united against Assad, Syrians now split by ISIS http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/25/isis-assad-syria-rebels-split-jordan-fsa/30925 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/25/isis-assad-syria-rebels-split-jordan-fsa/30925#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 21:34:02 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30925 "Hamdan," a Free Syrian Army fighter, sees too much international attention directed at ISIS, when the real target should be the Assad regime. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

“Hamdan,” a Free Syrian Army fighter, sees too much international attention directed at ISIS, when the real target should be the Assad regime. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

In the corner of his metal shelter in Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, Hamdan’s daughter plays with a discarded cigarette butt as he recounts glory tales from his time in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Hamdan is a lean man in his 30’s with graying hair and a chipped-tooth grin. His eyes are shaded by a boyish baseball cap and his words punctuated by his wife, who clicks her tongue in gentle jest at his dramatic depictions.

These are some of his last days in Zaatari.

Almost two years have passed since he left the ranks of the FSA and fled with his family to neighboring Jordan. Now he’s leaving them behind to rejoin the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Once he crosses the border back into Syria, Hamdan may not be able return to Zaatari again to rejoin his family. Jordanian authorities often turn single men away because of security concerns.

“I’ll take pictures of my family in case I don’t return. Maybe I’ll die there, I don’t know.”

Is he worried he won’t be let back in?

He runs a hand along the scruff on his wide jawline and shakes his head. He’s not expecting to come back.

“I will take pictures of my family so I can see them, in case I don’t return,” he says plainly. “Maybe I’ll die there, I don’t know. But at least I’ll have my pictures.”

Manal, an interpreter and refugee herself says Hamdan isn’t alone. He’s crossing back into Syria with a group of about 50 men from Zaatari, and similar groups are organizing all over the camp.

While attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) rock large parts of Syria, and government strikes pummel civilians and rebel forces across the country, young men like Hamdan are still pouring back across the border to join a wide range of opposition groups, from Western-backed rebel brigades like the FSA to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra Front.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says around 130 people board buses out of Zaatari to return to Syria daily, and that flow hasn’t slowed since the U.S.-led airstrike campaign began targeting Nusra and ISIS positions in September.

A Syrian family waits at Zaatari Refugee Camp to board a bus back across the border. According to the UNHCR, at least a hundred people return to Syria each day citing frustration with living conditions in the camp, or a desire to reunite with family, despite the risks.(Photo by Alisa Reznick)

A Syrian family waits at Zaatari Refugee Camp to board a bus back across the border. According to the UNHCR, at least a hundred people return to Syria each day citing frustration with living conditions in the camp, or a desire to reunite with family, despite the risks.(Photo by Alisa Reznick)

For 36-year-old Hamdan, who didn’t want his real name to be revealed for fear of repercussions once he’s back in Syria, the last four years are just the latest in a long struggle against Assad’s government.

After spending a year and a half in prison for political activity long before the revolution took off, he began distributing pamphlets calling for the fall of Assad in Dara’a, the rural southern Syrian city that served as the cradle of the revolution in March 2011.

Hamdan remembers being at the center of those initial protests.

“Men from Dara’a’s villages joined a huge demonstration in the city, in the streets we were yelling, ‘peaceful, peaceful,’” he said. “Then the snipers began shooting at us, and the revolution got big.”

In 2012, he joined the FSA and fought for six months with a Dara’a brigade before a bomb at a relative’s house killed his aunt and left his daughter wounded. He crossed into Jordan for refuge and medical treatment with his wife and two children that November, just four months after the camp opened its doors.

Zaatari has since become one of the world’s largest refugee camps a few paces from the Syrian border, swelling to house some 80,000 refugees, mostly from Dara’a.

Two years on, Hamdan’s almost come full circle. But while the battlefield he left in 2012 has evolved to include ISIS threats in the north and east, and a mixed bag rebel force of FSA-offshoots and Nusra fighters in Dara’a, little has changed about the enemy he intends to fight when he returns.

A map of the Syrian Civil War shows Kurdish controlled regions in the north (yellow), ISIS strongholds in Eastern deserts (black), areas still controlled by the Assad regime (red), and pockets of anti-Assad forces like the FSA and Nusra Front (green). (Map from Wikipedia)

A map of the Syrian Civil War shows Kurdish controlled regions in the north (yellow), ISIS strongholds in Eastern deserts (black), areas still controlled by the Assad regime (red), and pockets of anti-Assad forces like the FSA and Nusra Front (green). (Map from Wikipedia)

Hamdan says the ISIS threat is only a hurdle in the larger goal of ousting Assad, a cause he feels has been all but abandoned by American engagement.

“The regime is still fighting us, but everything is turning into Da’esh,” he said, using the group’s Arabic name. “The Americans now are bombing Da’esh and leaving the regime, so how do we benefit?”

ISIS doesn’t have a presence is southern areas like Dara’a. The fighter said he and other FSA rebels there have long disregarded the mostly-foreign militant group as neither a threat nor an ally.

While he’s returning to fight with the FSA, he has many friends who have opted to join the Nusra Front instead. These days in Dara’a, Hamdan said the two operate as one against Assad’s forces. So far, the U.S.-led bombing campaign has targeted both Nusra and ISIS positions, but Hamdan said he wouldn’t hesitate to fight alongside the al-Qaeda-affiliate.

“It’s as if someone is laughing at us. All the world is fighting the Syrian people.”

“I will go with my team, but if you fight with FSA or Nusra, it’s the same thing, one hand, all of them, against the regime,” he said. “So if the U.S. hits Nusra, the people will be angry, but if they hit Da’esh, we don’t care because they are not even Syrians.”

After three years of asking for U.S. intervention, Hamdan has little faith in the coalition airstrikes. Now, he said, rebel groups are heading off the fight with Assad, alone.

“If you want the truth, it’s as if someone is laughing at us,” he said. “All the world is fighting the Syrian people.”

While some took up arms like Hamdan, other activists have stayed true to peaceful spirit of the protest movements that first started in Dara’a back in 2011. In neighboring countries like Jordan, pockets of activists, journalists and Syrian army defectors are still piecing together a quiet resistance against Assad.

One of them is Milia Eidmouni, a journalist originally from Homs, who left Syria in 2012 for a job in Jordan’s capital Amman with an international aid group when work permits for Syrians were still easy to get.

She writes about refugee rights in Jordan and trains citizen journalists through the Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN), an organization she co-founded after leaving Damascus.

Syrian activists and artists meet for a night of featured poetry about the revolution and the conflict at a cafe in Amman. While the Zaatari camp houses some 85,000 refugees, many Syrians, like Eidmouni, also reside in Jordan's cities. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Syrian activists and artists meet for a night of featured poetry about the revolution and the conflict at a cafe in Amman. While the Zaatari camp houses some 85,000 refugees, many Syrians, like Eidmouni, also reside in Jordan’s cities. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

While Hamdan traded protest signs for armed rebellion long ago, 29-year-old Eidmouni chose a political path. Both believe the way forward still begins with removing Assad.

In an empty cafe in Amman, the soft-spoken activist sports a blonde crop and a row of tiny studs in her ears as she talks about the revolution’s early days.

She came to Jordan when her participation in street demonstrations and embassy sit-ins in Damascus landed her on the government’s radar. Her network was getting thinner and thinner as more friends were detained. By the end of 2012, she decided the only possibility to continue fighting Assad was from outside Syria.

As the war charges forward, Eidmouni hopes to transform the way Syrian women are involved in the political process through the SFJN.

“Usually, [Syrian women] have two roles: Either we are Syrian refugees and can’t do anything, or we live in the camps and only cook and take care of the kids,” she says. “We’re trying to change that image so that people believe women can be involved in the transitional process, in politics, and in the conflict’s solution.”

But as the war drags nearer to its fourth year and grows more brutal by the day, the nonviolent movement has been overshadowed by a hazy web of interests. While her vision for the revolution hasn’t shifted from where it began in 2011, Eidmouni admits things have become more complicated.

Life in Zaatari Refugee Camp

Syrians prepare fresh arabic bread at a storefront in Zaatari. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Syrian barber shop owner looks out from his business at the Zaatari Camp. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Syrian store owner mixes spices inside his business at the Zataari camp's main marketplace, nicknamed the Champs Elysees. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Syrian boy hoists up a piece of his family's luggage as he prepares to load the bus back to Syria. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) The marketplace inside Zaatari is sprawling with refugees' store fronts offering everything from falafel sandwiches and washing machines, to phone cards and wedding dresses brought in to the camp from Jordanian cities. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) Family members watch as relatives board the bus from Zaatari back to Syria. About 130 refugees leave the camps every day, preferring to brave the ongoing civil war over life as a refugee. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) Young boys ready to board the bus out of Zaatari. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Jordanian offers rides around the massive camp for those who can pay a small fee, usually one or two Jordanian dinar. Syrian refugees now make up close to ten percent of Jordan's population. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) Syrian children at Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp ride on the back of a Jordanian's pickup truck.  Zaatari offers kindergarten and elementary schooling for the refugees, but overcrowded classrooms and labor needs at home keep many young refugees from attending. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A child helps his father haul crops in Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp. With 85,000 residents, the camp has become like a small city with its own economy. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) Young Syrian refugees walk along the main road at Zaatari. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A man holds a string of Islamic prayer beads while waiting with three of his brothers for a border-bound bus to arrive at Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp to take them back to southern Syria. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

“I’m still supporting the revolution, this is not changing, but first we were fighting against the regime, now we’re fighting against the regime and the jihadists,” she says. “Because they’re trying to control our revolution, the peaceful one.”

Stephen Zunes, a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Fransisco who specializes in nonviolent resistance movements, pinpoints two factors that made Assad stronger than other Arab spring leaders — a relatively large social base of support among minority sects, and a disorganized opposition movement in 2011.

“Statistics show, basically, with more armed engagements…there was a dramatic drop-off in both the number of demonstrations and the participation of people in them,” he said. “It really did hurt the movement from the very beginning.”

“Now we’re fighting against the regime and the jihadists.”

When street protests turned into armed rebellion, he says, nonviolent solutions slipped out of reach.

As ISIS militants sweep through Syria, Zunes says Assad’s government could look even more appealing.

“ISIS has definitely strengthened [Assad] big time,” Zunes said. “I’d say the majority of Syrians who if they had the choice between the nonviolent opposition in 2011 and the regime, they wouldn’t choose the regime, but between ISIS and Assad, I think most would obviously choose Assad.”

"Hamdan" holds his 3-year-old son's hand on the floor of his shed in Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp. He's leaving his family behind to return to Syria and rejoin the fight to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

“Hamdan” holds his 3-year-old son’s hand on the floor of his shed in Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp. He’s leaving his family behind to return to Syria and rejoin the fight to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Eidmouni says political action in getting harder to spur in Jordan, too, with new restrictions on work permits and visas being imposed on Syrians as the kingdom’s resources dwindle to a refugee population that’s at least surpassed 620,000 — though unofficial figures place the number around 1.4 million.

In August, local activists planned a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, to commemorate the 2013 chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Jordanian authorities prevented protesters from hanging banners, however,  and many stayed away from the embassy for fear of arrest.

The Jordanian government joined the coalition of Arab nations in the U.S.-led airstrike campaign in Syria in September, marking one of its first definitive military steps there so far. But Jordan’s stance on Assad has been ambiguous throughout the conflict, making the peaceful movement lose momentum, Eidmouni said.

“There’s nothing here in Jordan you could call a movement,” she said. “During my last year here, if I met any Syrian they will say they’re planning to leave Jordan…because of all the new restrictions, it’s so hard right now. There’s just no space to do anything anymore…neither here nor there.”

Look out for part 3 of On the Borders of War, coming tomorrow.

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Syrian American dissidents scramble to save their country http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/24/syria-american-dissidents-seattle-borders-civil-war-assad/30822 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/24/syria-american-dissidents-seattle-borders-civil-war-assad/30822#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 20:00:33 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30822
Reham Hamoui interprets for a Syrian refugee at a pop-up clinic held during the Seattle-based Salaam Cultural Museum's week-long aid mission in Jordan in September.

Seattleite Reham Hamoui interprets for a Syrian refugee in Jordan at a pop-up clinic organized by Seattle-based Salaam Cultural Museum. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Standing before a room full of wide-eyed children and wider-eyed volunteers, Reham Hamoui is blushing hard.

Her Arabic is a little shaky as she she greets the group at the Malki-SCM Children’s Center, the Amman-based partner to Seattle aid organization, Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM).

It’s the second day of a week-long aid mission put together by the SCM, which sends monthly groups of volunteer medical professionals and humanitarians to Jordan to set up pop-up clinics for Syrian refugees.

Hamoui is usually in charge of organizing the missions from the SCM office in Wallingford. But this time the 27-year-old is on the ground — and back in the Middle East for the first time since she was a child.

From laptops around the United States, young Syrians like her have watched the peaceful movement that began in 2011 explode into the full-blown civil war gripping Syria today.

At first, living abroad meant missing out on a moment of transformation they’d long dreamed of seeing in their home country. But as the situation deteriorates, it’s meant balancing the safety and stability of life in America with a desperate urge to help put Syria back together.

Pop-up clinics treat Syrian refugees

A volunteer doctor working with the Seattle-based Salaam Cultural Museum examines a Syrian refugee child. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Salaam Cultural Museum volunteer holds up X-ray photos of a patient he's monitoring at a pop-up clinic in Madaba, Jordan during the organization's September mission. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Syrian mother and son wait for a chance to see a volunteer doctor during one of the SCM's pop-up clinics just outside Amman. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) Layla Midani, a lead organizer and Syrian pharmacist at the Malki-SCM Children's Center in Amman, walks through the newly painted music room at the center. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A Syrian girl peers at the camera at the Malki-SCM Children's Center in Amman. The center conducts several months-long workshops during the week where Syrian children receive music and art therapy to ease trauma caused to the war. (Photo by Alisa Reznick) A volunteer doctor retrieves medication for a patient from the make-shift pharmact at the SCM pop-up clinic in Madaba, about 18 miles outside Jordan's capital Amman. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

For Hamoui’s family, trouble there began more than two decades ago.

Her father Safouh piloted the presidential airplane for Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor. As a Sunni Muslim, he was a minority in the Alawite-led government.

Working as the president’s personal pilot meant being privy to a lot of the government’s grim dealings. Hamoui says her father doesn’t like to talk about specifics — just that the things his job required eventually became too much to handle.

He confided in a colleague, and what happened next was something all Syrians live in fear of: He was reported to the Syrian authorities.

Speaking against the country’s leader was rarely tolerated, but doing it as the Syrian equivalent of an Air Force One pilot was unforgivable. Safouh was detained by the government intelligence service and tortured.

As Syria’s war unfolds, so do accounts of torture, forced disappearances and detainment at the hands of Assad’s government, both during the last three years and long before. Hamoui says stories like her father’s are being heard for the first time by the international community because it was only after the revolution began in 2011 that Syrians dared to talk about them.

Up recently, even she wasn’t sure exactly what he experienced.

“Even though he spoke out against the government when it was life or death, he still tries to avoid it and still gets paranoid,” she said of her father, Safouh. “He’ll tell me stuff but makes me swear a hundred times over that I won’t share it with anyone.”

Reham Hamoui holds up a photo of her and her siblings before the family fled Syria in 1992. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Reham Hamoui holds up a photo of her and her siblings before the family fled Syria in 1992. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Upon his release, Safouh knew the family had to leave Syria for good.

“They told him [he was] still under investigation, and if he tried anything, they’d kill [his] wife and kids in front of [him],” Hamoui said.

Within a month, Hamoui, her mother, and four siblings were fleeing the country to stay with an uncle in California. A few months later Safouh fled Syria and met them in the United States.

The family now has permanent residency as refugees in the country. If they returned to Syria today, Hamoui says they would almost certainly be arrested and executed as traitors to the government.

So the stakes were particularly high for the family when unrest started in Syria in 2011.

“We kind of romanticized [the uprising]… But I remember my dad just looking at me and saying, ‘this is not what you think it’s gonna be.”

Hamoui remembers waking up early on Friday mornings to find videos uploaded by activists on the ground. Watching thousands of protesters take to the streets in Damascus, Homs and Dara’a, she was filled with hope.

Unlike older, terrified generations, her’s was finally speaking out against the Assads. It felt surreal.

“We kind of romanticized it, so many people had been waiting for so long,” Hamoui says one afternoon in Seattle, shaking her head. “But I remember my dad just looking at me and saying, ‘this is not what you think it’s gonna be.”

It didn’t take long for her to realize what he meant. Several months into the revolution, the conflict hit home when Hamoui watched a YouTube video showing the aftermath of a bombing at a hospital in her hometown of Homs.

When she talked to her family back in Syria later that day, she found out it was her own cousin she’d watched die in the blast.

“On my mother’s side I know it’s over 30 [people], we stopped counting,” she says of family members who have been killed inside Syria.

A volunteer doctor shows a birth defect on a refugee child's thumb, thought to be caused by exposure to chemical agents in explosives used in the civil war. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

A volunteer doctor shows a birth defect on a refugee child’s thumb, thought to be caused by exposure to chemical agents in explosives used in the civil war. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

The Syrian revolution has long since deviated from the path of the Arab Spring uprisings it was initially compared to.

The Homs that Hamoui and her family remember is unrecognizable.

By now, international attention to Syria is dedicated almost entirely to tracking the gains and fathomless antics of Islamic State extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In September, President Obama announced plans to expand airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq to target the group’s positions in Syria. During the same month, he signed a bill approving a train-and-equip program for Syrian moderate factions fighting Assad’s government forces.

Up until that point the White House’s hands-off response to the more than three-year crisis had disappointed Syrian-Americans.

“It’s too little, and too slow,” said Oula Abdulhamid-Alrifai of Obama’s handling of the civil war. The 28-year-old Syrian-American lives in Washington D.C. and works as a Syria researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

For her and Hamoui, the Assad government’s violent suppression of dissidents didn’t start in 2011.

When the revolution began, they were frustrated by being shut out of a struggle against a leadership whose brutality had dramatically changed the course of their lives.

Damascus-born Abdulhamid-Alrifai arrived in the United States in 2005 after the pro-democracy, anti-regime organization started by her parents garnered enough attention to earn the family death threats.

Oula Abdulhamid-Alrifai poses with a Syrian refugee child last year in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, where she was documenting the lives of young refugees in Turkey. (Courtesy photo)

Oula Abdulhamid-Alrifai poses with a Syrian refugee child last year in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, where she was documenting the lives of young refugees in Turkey. (Courtesy photo)

“It was in September [2005], two days before my 18th birthday. It was the most depressing day of my life,” the activist said of leaving Damascus.

Her grandfather was tortured and killed in a Syrian prison in 1982 for speaking against the Assads, and 30 years passed before his death was confirmed. Political dissidence is the family legacy. So when the protests flared up in 2011, she felt like it was her turn.

“2011 was so different,” she said. “…I felt like ‘oh my God, this is the moment I was looking forward to.. now my people are feeling the same things I felt in 2005.”

At the Washington Institute, she works on projects to build trust between the White House and moderate opposition forces still fighting inside Syria. So far, it’s been a tough sell.

After the first round of strikes in September, some Free Syrian Army factions and other rebel brigades condemned the attacks for not including Syrian military positions in their scope.

“Armed groups on the ground are pissed and still don’t trust the United States, they don’t see [the airstrikes] helping them to be honest,” Abdulhamid-Alrifai said.

She also works with the Tharwa Foundation, an American extension of the pro-democracy organization her parents launched in Syria. They’ve sent money, cameras, phones and recording devices to activists on the ground, and broadcasted their messages through social media.

“It would be selfish of me to go back [to Syria] just to feel the soil beneath my feet.”

She says that despite the frustration, online activism is worth it because sometimes it’s all people have.

“[Facebook] is the home of activists, inside and outside [of Syria],” she said. “Some activists inside told me that I was making their voices heard, and if I stopped, they would have no hope for change.”

But at times she still feels stuck on the sidelines.

“It’s different when you protest inside the country,” she said. “I always dreamed of that moment; I wanted to be inside Syria, not outside.”

The war looks a lot different now than it did back in 2011, and though numbers have dipped amid new border policies to protect neighboring countries, thousands of refugees still pour out of Syria each month. It’s hard to imagine voluntarily going in.

Reham Hamoui looks through a bag of donated toys for refugee children during one of the Salaam Cultural Museum's pop-up clinics just outside Amman. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Reham Hamoui looks through a bag of donated toys for refugee children during one of the Salaam Cultural Museum’s pop-up clinics just outside Amman. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

For Hamoui, returning to Homs is a notion she’s had to let go. This fall she’s working toward a degree in communications at the University of Washington, which she hopes to use to help shape U.S. foreign policy toward Syria down the road.

“My dreams of going back have changed,” she said. “It would be selfish of me to go back just to feel the soil beneath my feet.”

During the medical mission, she flits between patient intake areas at one of the SCM’s pop-up community clinics in Madaba, about 26 miles outside Jordan’s capital Amman.

She’s organizing pre-natal packages for pregnant refugees and helping with interpretation between foreign volunteer doctors and their Arabic-speaking patients.

During calmer moments, she trades stories of lost relatives and compares family histories with other Syrian volunteers.

The SCM mission in Jordan reflects just how many people the conflict has impacted — it’s filled with volunteers from Aleppo, Damascus, Dara’a and Homs. Like Hamoui and Abdulhamid-Alrifai, they’ve all escaped Syria, but are still desperate to do whatever it takes from abroad to save the country they love, that’s crumbling before their eyes.

Look out for parts 2 and 3 of “On the Borders of War” later this week.

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Pop-art from post-tsunami Japan comes to SAAM http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/21/japanese-pop-art-gets-to-live-on-at-the-sam/30323 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/21/japanese-pop-art-gets-to-live-on-at-the-sam/30323#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 20:00:56 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30323 stationed-at-the-convenience-store

Mr.’s painting “Stationed at the Convenience Store” 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 59 1/16 × 118 1/8in. (Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin)

The Japanese artist Mr. brings his first solo museum exhibition in the United States , a series titled “Live On,” to the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) beginning Friday Nov. 22nd.

Mr. is a protegé of the prolific contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, and derives his name from the Yomiuri Giants professional baseball team’s player Shigeo “Mr. Giants” Nagashima. Mr. has said that the March 2011 tsunami that hit Japan’s Tohoku coast had a profound effect on his work.

“Give Me Your Wings – Think Different” is the centerpiece of this exhibition. It features an installation of hundreds of objects reflective of Japanese life post-tsunami. It is meant to be an embodiment of the fear, frustration, and chaos that Japanese citizens experienced after the natural disaster covered their homes and country with debris.

“Because the disaster has lasting effects today, we wanted to create a space to give people who haven’t experienced the tsunami a sense of what it was like living in Japan after the disaster,” said the SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean art, Xiaojin Wu.

Mr. has said that he doesn’t attempt to mimic western styles of art, but instead chooses to work with his, “Asian, Japanese, capitalist, born-after-the-war, everyday self,” as his artistic inspiration and motivation. Classifying himself as part of the “otaku” (anime and manga) subculture that is popular in Japan, Mr. appeals to many that relish art and expression that doesn’t always directly align with reality.

Mr in studio2

Mr. in his studio. (Photo courtesy of Mr.)

The exhibit’s centerpiece is among a series of paintings from Mr.’s past 15 years of work that feature characters done in anime style, with vibrant colors and energy, reminiscent of childlike freedom. This style is referred to as “moe,” meaning “budding,” meant to embody the feel of youth and a rebellion against authority and its social expectations. Despite the cheery and playful images in Mr.’s art, his pieces are often layered with darker and more serious meanings reflective of negative emotions such as angst, anxiety, and perils of everyday life.

mr.-10772_1

Mr.’s painting “Making Things Right,” 2006, acrylic on canvas, 118 x 177 in. (Photo courtesy Galerie Perrotin)

Mr. explained that post-war Japan was left in a cycle of self-doubt that spurred a longing for innocence and lack of bearing responsibility brought on by a tumultuous history.

“The psychological trauma caused by various wars travels across generations,” Mr. said. “In the case of Japan, this trauma has developed over time into a strangely morphed, peculiar culture that is now captivating the world in the form of anime and games.”

This will be the first anime exhibition at the SAM since a Hello Kitty themed installation in 2002, and the first in a series of Japanese contemporary artists to be featured at the museum.

The museum hopes this exhibit will be a success especially with Seattle’s Japanese population and anime fanbase, drawing in a larger and and younger demographic while breaking down the stigma that SAAM only features traditional art. Wu hopes this exhibition will surprise patrons with its deep themes of societal distress shrouded in a seemingly superficial candy-colored exterior.

This exhibit runs from Nov. 22 through April 15 in the Asian Art Museum’s Tateuchi Galleries. To purchase tickets visit: http://tickets.seattleartmuseum.org/public/show_events_list.asp

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Facebook’s first Habesha reflects on her refugee roots http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/21/facebook-tech-diversity-year-up-intern-eritrea-refugee/30813 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/21/facebook-tech-diversity-year-up-intern-eritrea-refugee/30813#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 19:43:25 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30813 Selam Zecharias, an intern at Facebook's Seattle office, is interviewed in the office "hot tub," About one percent of Facebook employees are African-American. (Photo by Ken Lamber / The Seattle Times)

Selam Zecharias, an intern at Facebook’s Seattle office, is interviewed in the office “hot tub,” About one percent of Facebook employees are African-American. (Photo by Ken Lamber / The Seattle Times)

One of the first things Selam Zecharias did as a new intern at Seattle’s Facebook office was draw graffiti in the hallway.

A play off the social-networking site’s virtual “wall,” some of the physical walls in the downtown office are devoted to employee musings and Zecharias — originally from Eritrea — knew exactly what she had to add.

Between Seahawks worship and cartoon doodles she wrote in orange marker: “My name is Selam and I am the first Habesha at Facebook.” (“Habesha” is a slang term for people from the Eritrea or Ethiopia).

Nationally the tech industry has received increasing criticism for its overwhelmingly white, male workforce.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, similar diversity concerns are compounded by the worry that booming local companies often look outside of Seattle for new hires.

“Microsoft has 4,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs available right now,” says Lisa Chin, executive director for Year Up, the job-training program that helped place Zecharias in her internship. “In Seattle we’re just unable to find the STEM talent we need.”

Year Up hopes to help fill positions like those through an intensive yearlong program of job training, mentoring and internships for young adults from underserved backgrounds.

“These students don’t have the economic means, networks or technical training they need to go to college [and] enter these jobs,” explains Chin, who says most of their students or young people of color come from low-income backgrounds. “They don’t have the support system to succeed.”

But even in this program, Zecharias’ story of hardship stands out.

Zecharias is one of six children. Her father was killed for his political beliefs when she was 13 years old, so her mother, fearing further violence, moved the family to a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia.

“We had to struggle there for a long time; sleeping with animals like snakes and scorpions,” says Zecharias, remembering the scarce resources and harsh conditions that characterized the camps. “It wasn’t a good thing.”

One of Selam Zecharias's perks at Facebook's Seattle office is this common area which has a cocoon-style nap pod. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

One of Selam Zecharias’s perks at Facebook’s Seattle office is this common area which has a cocoon-style nap pod. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

After two years, Zecharias’ family was resettled by the United Nations to Ohio, where Zecharias, then 15 and with little English, says she was bullied by classmates in an almost all-white school.

In response, Zecharias’ mom reached out to relatives in Seattle’s large Eritrean community, and the family moved again to North Seattle, where Zecharias attended Ingraham High School and became the first in her family to graduate.

Having worked to help support her siblings all through school, Zecharias had plenty of job experience, mostly at fast-food restaurants and in hotels, but she says she wanted a career.

“I wanted to learn something. I wanted a change,” says Zecharias, who found out about Year Up through a flier at the library. “I had a big family to take care of, I had two or three jobs at the same time, but I decided that I needed to do something.”

That decision turned into six months of intensive career and technical training and mentoring all while earning college credit (Zecharias is enrolled at North Seattle College) and a $10,000 stipend.

She’s now in the second half of the program — the internship — and works providing tech support for Facebook employees.

This highly disciplined program is not for the faint of heart.

“There’s a behavioral contract. If they’re one second late it’s $15 off their stipend,” says Chin, who adds that there’s a dress code and cellphones aren’t allowed in classes. “The behavioral expectations for our students are made very, very clear.”

But Zecharias says it’s all worth it. Going from a refugee camp where there was never enough to eat or a safe place to sleep, to a hyper-hip office featuring conference rooms named after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a free gourmet cafeteria and — no joke — a nap pod, is a vast distance to travel in this world.

Zecharias hopes this internship turns into a job offer (not uncommon in the Year Up program), but either way, she says she’s learned the most important thing — her own value.

“There are a lot of smart people out there that deserve great things,” she says as she looks out on a panoramic view of downtown Seattle, “(And now) I know I’m one of them.”

No kidding.

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Obama announces largest immigration overhaul in decades http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/20/obama-executive-action-immigration-reform/30795 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/20/obama-executive-action-immigration-reform/30795#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 04:53:43 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30795

Ricardo Martinez and Gloricela Lorenzo were proud, but hardly surprised, when their teenage daughter confronted House Speaker John Boehner at his favorite Washington D.C. diner a year ago, pushing him for answers on immigration.

That’s how the Redmond couple raised their five children — to be confident and strong.

Now, as the parents of U.S.-born children, they could be among more than four million undocumented immigrants nationwide shielded from deportation and given employment authorization, under the terms of a politically contentious executive order President Obama announced Thursday night.

Those who qualify, including an estimated 77,000 people in Washington state, could begin applying for relief as soon as next spring.

“We feel hopeful,” Martinez, 47, said, referring to their chances. “It would be liberating to be able to work without some sort of threat looming above our heads.”

Added Lorenzo: “While we are grateful…we hope that we don’t become complacent. Work permits are temporary; we need a permanent solution. We need something that will definitively cement our safety here in the United States and keep our families together.”

The president’s action, which he will pursue without Congressional approval, would have the biggest impact on the nation’s immigration system in a generation, and comes after more than a decade of failed attempts in Congress to address the nation’s immigration problems.

The plan will allow millions of people now in this country illegally to emerge from the shadows and legitimately seek employment.

Other details of the plan:

• The undocumented immigrant parents of U.S citizens and legal permanent residents will be temporarily exempted from deportation, and would be granted social security numbers and three-year work permits.

• To qualify, they will have to have a clean criminal record, be able to pass a background check and pay taxes.

• Additionally, the plan will expand the criteria for a 2012 program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which temporarily exempted young people who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

• The plan eliminates an age limit for participating in DACA and makes January 2010 — rather than June 2007 — the date by which undocumented immigrants must have arrived in the country to qualify.

• There are also provisions to reinforce border security and to more quickly remove border-crossers and clear up the immigration court backlog.

• The plan makes accommodations for nearly 500,000 high-skilled workers caught in a visa backlog, as well as for foreign graduates of U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In his Thursday night speech, Obama pointed out that he’s not granting undocumented immigrants citizenship or the right to stay here permanently.

“This debate is about who we are as a country: Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where those who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to make it right with the law?” Obama said. “Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends?”

Seattleites joined Mayor Murray, Rep. Adam Smith and immigrant rights advocates at a rally outside the Federal Building Thursday, heralding Obama's executive action and demanding further steps toward immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Garland)

Seattleites joined Mayor Murray, Rep. Adam Smith and immigrant rights advocates at a rally outside the Federal Building Thursday, heralding Obama’s executive action and demanding further steps toward immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Garland)

But Obama’s executive action is also a further step along on a fiery collision course with Congressional Republicans, who have questioned whether the Constitution grants the president such unilateral powers. Even before the announcement they have threatened to retaliate with including another government shutdown or even impeachment.

Boehner called it, “The wrong way to govern” and said Obama will “burn himself” if he moves forward on it.

Obama’s defenders, meanwhile, point out that not only has the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the president’s discretion over immigration matters, but presidents for decades — both Republicans and Democrats — have taken such unilateral action. Obama reiterated that position in his speech

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, who spoke at a rally in downtown Seattle on Thursday, told a small crowd that Obama is doing what the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives has failed to do.

“This executive action is a good step, but millions of undocumented immigrants will continue to live in fear,” Smith said later. “To truly address our broken immigration system, Congress must pass a permanent comprehensive immigration reform bill.”

At rallies across the state Thursday, immigrants and their advocates hailed the proposal as a welcome, although temporary, reprieve from the threat of deportation that separates families.

“This is a victory for immigrant communities … but it’s a limited victory,” Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said at the downtown event, which was also attended by Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Maud Daudon.

“There will be a lot of people who will still be left out and in fear of deportation,” he said. “And even for those who qualify, this is still limited, temporary. It’s not going to provide a path to citizenship.”

But it’s a “step in the right direction,” Baron said, outlining actions those who qualify for relief will need to take in the months ahead.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting suspects during a 2010 raid. More people have been deported under Obama than any previous president. (Photo from ICE)

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting suspects during a 2010 raid. More people have been deported under Obama than any previous president. (Photo from ICE)

The president’s proposal follows repeated failed efforts in Congress over the last decade to overhaul the nation’s fractured immigration system — including a broad, bipartisan measure that the U.S. Senate passed last year but that the Republican-led House failed to take up.

This summer, Obama promised immigrants and their advocates that he would use his executive power to pursue the changes he could, but postponed taking action until after the midterm elections when many Democrats faced tough challenges in their home districts.

Nonetheless, many of those Democrats were defeated in a stunning house-cleaning that saw Republicans take the Senate and several governorships across the country.

Ira Mehlman, Seattle-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors immigration enforcement, said Obama is ignoring the will of voters who rejected his policies on election day.

“He is putting his political agenda ahead of the welfare of the nation and ahead of his oath to faithfully defend the Constitution,” Mehlman said.

Further, he said, the move could have a huge impact on the nation’s labor market, by releasing millions of undocumented immigrants “to compete for any job.”

“It allows millions of people here illegally to remain here and work here and collect benefits here,” he said.

“The response to DACA was a surge of minors coming across the border,” he continued. “The response to amnesty will be more people coming across. And there’s no indication that once the president makes this order that he’ll suddenly start enforcing immigration law…”

Sharon Maeda, executive director of 21 Progress, a Seattle-based organization that works with young undocumented immigrants and their families to apply for deferred action, said she’s excited for those who will benefit from the president’s plan.

She says many of those she’s met have skills they are unable to use because of their immigration status. There have been graphic artists, social workers, chefs, teachers, entrepreneurs.

“A social security number and work permit would change that for many of them,” she said. “It would give them access to legitimate jobs where their employers are required to pay them at least the minimum wage, give them a lunch break — things some of them have never had.”

Martinez, 47, who works in the construction industry and has been in the U.S. more than half his life, said he hopes that employment authorization through Obama’s executive plan will improve the reputation of undocumented workers.

“We are not immoral people,” he said. “We are people who have always work. I came here to work, and I’ve done that and I will continue to do so.”

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Local Ukrainians see an irreparable rift with Russia http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/20/ukrainians-washington-seattle-rift-russia-putin/30779 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/20/ukrainians-washington-seattle-rift-russia-putin/30779#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 22:54:46 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30779 Ukrainian soldiers in the  city of Slovyansk this summer, anticipating an attack by Russian separatists. (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko)

Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Slovyansk this summer, anticipating an attack by Russian separatists. (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko)

Russia’s President Putin continues to make the news, most recently due to his early departure from the G-20 summit in Brisbane, where he got to pose with a cuddly koala but then left the summit early after an otherwise chilly reception.

The main cause of the cold shoulder that Putin received — Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine — have mostly disappeared from the U.S. news. Active fighting between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army has subsided. Since early September, a truce has been in place after Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, has granted the rebellious regions a wide degree of autonomy.

Still, fighters and civilians continue to die in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions due to repeated ceasefire violations. As the war on the ground continues, so does the information war.

Most Russians — those who get their news from government-run TV — continue to believe that Ukraine is overrun by a “Ukro-fascist junta” (a phrase coined and popularized by the government media) that is impinging upon the civil rights of the country’s Russian speakers and threatening their safety, and who thus must be stopped at all costs.

The Russian government continues to deny that it has been sending troops to Ukraine, deflecting clear evidence to this effect with claims that the latest batch of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine went there while on leave of their own accord, or were actually killed on Russian territory by shells fired from across the border.

Within Ukraine itself, opinions on current events appear to be determined largely by geography. In most of the country, people’s views largely match those in the West. Simply put, they want Putin out of their country, now.

For those living in the rebellious regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, it’s more complicated. It remains unclear how much popular support the self-proclaimed leaders of “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” actually enjoy among local residents. Since the separatist government reportedly has been ruthlessly quashing any dissent, it is unsafe for people to speak their mind freely.

A map showing the war in Eastern Ukraine. Areas in red are breakaway regions now under de-facto Russian control. (Map by Niele via Wikipedia)

A map showing the war in Eastern Ukraine. Areas in red are breakaway regions now under de-facto Russian control. (Map by Niele via Wikipedia)

Tragically, regardless of their political views, civilians in the region have found themselves caught in the crossfire, as separatists did not hesitate to use them as “human shields” while the poorly trained Ukrainian army either botched its aim or fired indiscriminately.

All four of my grandparents were born and raised in Ukraine. But I don’t have any first-hand contacts there anymore. So, one afternoon after work, I hopped on I-5 and headed to a low-income housing community 15 minutes outside of Seattle to interview a few of the 35,000 plus Ukrainian immigrants living in Washington.

My friend, who works in the community and helped arrange my visit, told me that most of the Ukrainian tenants were from western Ukraine – therefore, likely to support a unified Ukraine and oppose Russian intervention.

Rush hour was beginning, and as I sat in stop-and-go traffic, my anxiety about running late was amplified by other worries: What would my interviewees think of me, someone who was born and raised in the country that is now waging a war on their homeland? Would they be wary? Would they blame me for the Russian government’s actions? How would they feel about speaking with me in Russian?

As another Seattle Globalist author recently noted, many local Ukrainians who have Russian heritage or grew up speaking Russian are now distancing themselves from that part of their identity.

As I pulled into the building’s parking lot, a dignified-looking man in his seventies, his hands resting on a cane, was waiting for me on a bench just off the building’s central courtyard. He introduced himself by his first name and patronymic, Ivan Ivanovich.

At first he was reluctant to share his opinion.

“You should talk to Galina,” he said, in Russian, referring to a neighbor. “I get all of my information from her. She reads the news online and then tells me everything. I have the Internet too but I’m saving my eyes so I don’t read it.” (Later, I learned what Ivan Ivanovich was saving his eyes for. He took me up to his apartment, which was covered from floor to ceiling with his oil paintings, mostly depicting the Ukrainian countryside.)

While we waited for the neighbor, I learned that Ivan Ivanovich was originally from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that is located less than 50 miles from the Polish border and has had a fascinating history as part of various states over the centuries, albeit with little connection to Russia until the region was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939.

As we chatted, another resident walked by, and Ivan Ivanovich pulled him into our conversation. Mikhail, as he introduced himself, was also from Lviv. In the few moments he had to spare, Mikhail expressed his views with confidence, speaking in Russian with Ukrainian words thrown in occasionally: the mess in eastern Ukraine was due solely to Russian intervention, but, with time, things would be all right again. Not only Luhansk and Donetsk would be reintegrated into Ukraine, but also Crimea, annexed by Russia in March and essentially written off by the international community.

Mikhail had some unambiguous predictions for Russia, too:

“You will have your own Maidan,” he declared emphatically. “Putin’s government will be overthrown.”

Protestors in Ukraine initially turned out in support of EU membership last year, but dissent over corruption quickly came to the forefront. (Photo by Nessa Gnatoush via Wikipedia)

Protesters at Maidan in Kiev, Ukraine last December initially turned out in support of EU membership, but ended up overthrowing the pro-Russian government, kicking off the still ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. (Photo by Nessa Gnatoush)

As Mikhail excused himself and moved on, Galina, Ivan Ivanovich’s middle-aged neighbor, came out to join us.

I barely finished explaining the purpose of my visit when Galina, a former resident of Kiev, began speaking passionately in rapid-fire Ukrainian; to my amazement, I understood virtually everything she said. (Russian and Ukrainian languages are closely related, but only share about 62% of the vocabulary.)

Galina, who gets her information from Ukrainian news source such as Ukrayinska Pravda, Channel 5, and Channel 24, as well as from first-hand accounts of family members living in eastern Ukraine, was unequivocal:

“Of course Putin and his government are to blame for what’s happening — mainly Putin.” When I mused that she must be worried about relatives who remain behind in dangerous conditions, she countered, “I worry about everyone who lives there. Their children are our children too. Their families fled to Kiev, and we took them in. These children are going to local schools where they now sit 3-4 students to a desk.”

Paradoxically, according to Galina, instead of dividing the country’s citizens, the conflict has united them.

“Everyone is helping the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] effort,” she said, employing the term commonly used by the Ukrainian government to describe their campaign to bring Luhansk and Donetsk back. “Old grandmas are knitting mittens and sending them to the soldiers on the frontlines.”

Like Mikhail, Galina was certain that both the breakaway eastern regions and Crimea will one day become a part of Ukraine again. Not because Putin will give them back, she explained, “but simply because the people living there will see how much better off Ukraine is after joining Europe, and they will want to live like that too.”

Wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine in July, after it was apparently shot down by pro-Russian separatists. (Photo by Jeroen Akkermans)

Wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine in July, after it was apparently shot down by pro-Russian separatists. (Photo by Jeroen Akkermans)

At one point, as I stood nodding silently while Galina spoke at length, Ivan Ivanovich asked me, “Do you understand Ukrainska mova?” Although I confirmed that, in fact, I did understand almost everything, even if I hadn’t expected to, Galina nonetheless felt bad. “You should have told me. I would have spoken in Russian,” she said.

Once Galina left, Ivan Ivanovich and I lingered on the bench as dusk fell and the Russian and Ukrainian children and their West African peers who had been playing in the courtyard drifted back to their apartments for dinner. I asked him about the wave of Soviet monument removals that has rolled through Ukraine since last December.

“Removing statues of Lenin is a positive thing,” Ivan Ivanovich replied. “The Bolsheviks didn’t do Ukraine much good.” He did, however, regret the removal from one of Lviv public squares of a tank commemorating the Soviet soldiers who drove the Nazis out of the city.

After stopping by Ivan Ivanovich’s apartment to take a look at his paintings, I drove away from the building feeling, for the most part, relieved. My interviewees seemed to understand that, despite Putin’s record-high approval ratings, some Russians did disagree with his policies.

The one thing that saddened me on my drive home was something Galina had said. I asked her if she thought relations between Russians and Ukrainians were irreparably damaged. The answer was a firm yes.

“The children of the people who are dying in Ukraine now will not forget or forgive.”

Russian-Ukrainian relations have always been complicated, with the two nations sharing much of their cultural heritage, yet periodically drifting farther apart. Yet it seems that the rift was never as decisive as it is today. Is there hope that in my lifetime, Ukraine and Russia will patch up their relationship? Without a regime change in Russia — its own Maidan, perhaps — it seems unlikely.

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Chinese students swoon at visa extension announcement http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/20/china-visa-extension-apec-obama-international-student/30741 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/20/china-visa-extension-apec-obama-international-student/30741#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 19:50:44 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30741 Chinese students make up the largest portion of international students in the University of Washington. (Photo by Irene Lu)

Chinese students make up the largest portion of international students in the University of Washington. (Photo by Irene Lu)

Last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing was pretty exciting, as meetings of world leaders go. In addition to a “historic agreement” between the U.S. and China to curb carbon emissions, President Obama announced a reciprocal visa extension for Chinese students, workers, and tourists coming to the U.S.

The agreement extends the validity of student visas from one year to five years, and tourist and business visa from one year to ten years. The new rules won’t extend the allowed duration of each visit, which varies from visa to visa.

But what might sound like minor change in visa policy to many Americans is actually a really big deal for the thousands of Chinese citizens in the Northwest.

Many of my Chinese friends celebrated the good news, sharing the link on their WeChat wall with plenty of exclamation marks and smiling emojis.

Kristi Heim, the executive director of Washington State China Relations Council, explains that the student visa extension will allow students to travel home to see their families without worrying about not getting their visa renewed on time before their flight back to the U.S.

Back when the first APEC summit was held right here in the Northwest in 1993, former president Bill Clinton described China as country that “anybody should be reluctant to isolate.”

Today more than 230 thousand Chinese students make up over a quarter of international student population at U.S. universities, contributing billions of dollars in the U.S. economy. Beijing alone sends over 50 thousand students to the U.S each year. That is equivalent 7 percent of the entire Seattle population. The University of Washington has close to four thousand students from China.

In the past, all of those international students had to renew their visas every year. That meant a lot of paperwork, and a heavy burden for visa officer staffing. Not only that, the U.S. visa application fee is $160. Adding on the transportation to the U.S. embassies, Chinese students pay four times as much as students from Hong Kong and Taiwan to renew their visas.

“Believe me, this will pay huge dividends for American and Chinese citizens,” said John Kerry, the U.S. Secret of State at Beijing’s press conference, as he gave out the first 11 travelers’ visa.

The visa renewal burden is just a small part of the challenge facing Chinese students hoping to study in the United States.

One of my favorite movies, “American Dreams in China,” tells the story of three college friends who built an English language school called New Dreams in China, assisting thousands of Chinese students on U.S. exams like SAT, TOEFL, and GRE to apply to American universities.

Toward the end of the film, one of the founders delivers a speech during a court dispute with American companies, which spoke for many students in China:

When I was eighteen, I memorized the whole Xinhua English dictionary… I was only considered mediocre among my peers. Chinese students are extremely adept at taking exams. You can’t imagine what they’re willing to go through to succeed,” Cheng says.

Although recent numbers showed more Chinese students returning home after pursuing a foreign degree, thousands of Chinese students who come to study in the U.S. are still chasing the American dream, believing they can find better opportunities and better quality of life in America. Amongst my Chinese peers at the University of Washington, many of them want to follow this “formula to success” — get an internship after graduation on Optional Practical Training, then the H1B visa if they’re lucky enough, and ultimately apply for the golden green card.

It’s a fierce battle: Not only are they at a language disadvantage when competing with American graduates, they face stiff competition with millions of Chinese students chasing the same dream.

Sure, you might find a few wealthy Chinese students boosting the Seattle economy by shopping at luxury stores, occupying expensive off-campus housing with skyrocketing rents, and leasing luxury cars. But most visiting students are working as hard as possible and struggling to make ends while they here.  

The visa validity extension is a nice return for the years of effort they put in to get to the United States.

According to UW student Wendy Wang from Shanghai, who has studied here for three years, the change will save her a huge amount of time and money that she used to spend renewing her visa every year.

Extension of tourist visa validity from one year to ten years will also make things much easier for Chinese parents visiting children who study here. Once the parents obtain their tourist visa, they will be able to travel to the U.S. multiple times over ten years. Attending kids’ graduation will no longer be quite so chaotic and stressful.

As a city that’s already popular for Chinese tourists, Heim suggests Seattle should definitely be prepared for a new flood of visitors following the visa change. She’s excitedly anticipating expanded tourism promotion throughout China showing of all the interesting places to visit in Washington, as well as a need for increased hotel capacity here, and other big opportunities for our local economy.

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Young refugees from Burma speak through art http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/19/forced-to-flee-burma-refugees-in-seattle/30703 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/19/forced-to-flee-burma-refugees-in-seattle/30703#comments Wed, 19 Nov 2014 14:00:22 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30703 Soldiers from the local ethnic army escorted Kyaw Eh’s family as they made the long trek on foot to the Thai-Burma border. ("Wounded Journey" painting by Kyaw Eh, courtesy of Erika Berg)

Soldiers from the local ethnic army escorted Kyaw Eh’s family as they made the long trek on foot to the Thai-Burma border. (“Wounded Journey” painting by Kyaw Eh, courtesy of Erika Berg)

“We need your help.”

This is how Seattleite Erika Berg has started each of the more than forty visual storytelling workshops she has conducted for refugee youth from Burma (also known as Myanmar).

“These kids were so used to asking others for help. And then we put the focus on them, and they were so bewildered – ‘What’s so special about me?’” Berg said.

Next, Berg passes out paper, watercolor crayons and pencils. She asks children questions about their experiences and memories, and they are free to draw in response. In a project that has stretched from King County to India to Thailand to Burma itself, Berg has collected more than 1,200 of these hand-drawn paintings and pictures, or “visual stories.” Set to release in February 2015, the collected visual stories in Berg’s upcoming book “Forced to Flee” humanize events and issues in Burma that are often politicized in headlines and human rights reports.

Ta Kwe Say, a refugee from Burma who identifies as part of the Karen ethnic group, was part of one of Berg’s workshops for high schoolers at a Tukwila library nearly four years ago. After participating in Berg’s workshop, Say eventually applied for and was granted a fellowship to co-facilitate workshops with Berg.

“By sharing their stories with art supplies, even newly resettled refugees who have yet to learn English would be capable and encouraged to voice their issues,” Say said. “When someone is just beginning to learn how to speak English, it can be scary to speak up.”

Ta Kwe Say painted this visual story, recalling the army  restoring “harmony”— at gunpoint. ("Force Over Justice" painting by Ta Kwe Say, courtesy of Erika Berg)

Ta Kwe Say painted this visual story, recalling the army restoring “harmony”— at gunpoint. (“Force Over Justice” painting by Ta Kwe Say, courtesy of Erika Berg)

Berg’s upcoming book of visual stories is organized in five chapters, based on the five questions she often asks workshop participants:

  • Why were you forced to flee Burma?
  • What do you remember most about your journey to safety?
  • What is/was it like to live in exile (in a refugee camp)?
  • What do you miss most about Burma?
  • What is your dream for the future?

What is now the Forced to Flee project began to take form as early as 2000, when Berg volunteered to teach English at the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) in Seattle. Having grown up with a mother who was artistic, and having worked for 24 years in book publishing herself, communicating with images and stories came naturally to Berg.

Registered as a refugee in Delhi, the 15-year-old Chin refugee girl who painted this visual story is a rape survivor assaulted in Burma's Chin State — the most impoverished one in the nation.  When asked about her dream for the future,  she shared her vision of opening a rape crisis center for refugee  women and girls in Delhi. (Image courtesy of Erika Berg)

Registered as a refugee in Delhi, the 15-year-old Chin refugee girl who painted this visual story is a rape survivor assaulted in Burma’s Chin State — the most impoverished one in the nation. When asked about her dream for the future, she shared her vision of opening a rape crisis center for refugee women and girls in Delhi. (Image courtesy of Erika Berg)

“It just ended up being a way of inviting those who had experienced trauma to express their feelings in a way that was safer than using words,” said Berg. “That was my initial motivation: to have them feel heard, to unlock a door where they would feel safe to speak in the future.”

In 2007, Berg watched with the world as the Saffron Revolution unfolded in Burma, and it sparked her to devote her energies to Burma’s refugees and its democracy movement.

By no coincidence, 2007 also marked the beginning of a new wave of Burmese refugee resettlement in Washington state. By 2009, Burma became our state’s largest refugee community.

After conducting workshops on Burma’s borders with India and Thailand with her husband and daughter by her side, Berg showed some of the visual stories she had collected in an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).

“I wanted people to just walk away saying ‘wow’ at how much it takes for someone just to survive,” Berg said. “Refugees often don’t know where they’re going, what’s at the other end, how long it will take, or if they’ll even be safe once they get there.”

Writing the captions and material for the SAM exhibit jumpstarted Berg’s efforts to produce a book showcasing the visual stories of refugee youth.

And the release of these stories, scheduled for 2015, could not come at a more critical time. As Burma hurdles toward unpredictable 2015 elections, President Obama’s recent trip to Burma shined a spotlight on events and issues that the popular conversation has, until now, largely left in the dark.

The 16-year-old boy who painted this visual story along the Thai-Burma border dreamed of a world where impoverished ethnic Burmese villagers were considered as worthy of human rights as wealthy city dwellers. ("Justice" by Saw Yar Zar, courtesy of Erika Berg)

The 16-year-old boy who painted this visual story along the Thai-Burma border dreamed of a world where impoverished ethnic Burmese villagers were considered as worthy of human rights as wealthy city dwellers. (“Justice” by Saw Yar Zar, courtesy of Erika Berg)

The stories and experiences pictured in “Forced to Flee” illuminate some of these same issues: human rights abuses against Muslim Rohingya, whom the United Nations describes as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities; the nearly 100,000 Kachin and Shan who live in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps; the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps along the Thailand-Burma border, the India-Burma border, and in Delhi; ongoing armed conflict in Burma’s Karen State; and the mounting uncertainty of democratic reforms to Burma’s constitution.

Now, Ta Kwe Say is an undergraduate at the University of Washington (UW), majoring in social welfare and playing a leadership role in the Burma/Myanmar Student Association. Fluent in three languages, he has worked as an interpreter for two local refugee resettlement agencies. He aspires to eventually earn a master’s degree at the UW’s School of Social Work.

Ta at the UW's School of Social Work, after he had taken a group of refugee youth on a tour of the campus. Many of their paintings were about their dreams of going to college. (Photo courtesy of Erika Berg)

Ta at the UW’s School of Social Work, after he had taken a group of refugee youth on a tour of the campus. Many of their paintings were about their dreams of going to college. (Photo courtesy of Erika Berg)

Last June, Say was invited to Washington, D.C. to participate in a refugee leadership program and call on legislators for World Refugee Day 2014.

“I shared about my experience resettling in the United States. I shared about my challenges being a student,” Say said. “Many refugees arrive every year, but the funding is still the same. The refugees and immigrant services need more funding, because they need more support to start their life here.

Moving forward, Berg plans to continue offering workshops in the greater Seattle area. She also intends to travel back to Burma to work with IDPs in Kachin and Rakhine states, and even envisions a touring exhibit of “Forced to Flee” visual stories and workshops within Burma.

Amidst growing urgency in a volatile political landscape, Berg’s intent for the Forced to Flee project remains.

“I want people to not only know about refugee youths’ experiences, but also be mobilized to act,” Berg said.

“These are their stories, and they’ve shared them generously and bravely.”

Learn more or contribute to the “Forced to Flee” project

This story has been updated since its original publication.

 

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ISIS brutality toward women a shocking symptom of a larger disease http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/18/isis-stoning-video-women-brutality/30674 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/11/18/isis-stoning-video-women-brutality/30674#comments Tue, 18 Nov 2014 19:59:13 +0000 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/?p=30674 A still from a video circulated last month that appears to show ISIS militants in Syria stoning a woman to death for adultery, with the cooperation of her father. (Image via Mideast Media Research Institute)

A still from a video circulated last month that appears to show ISIS militants in Syria stoning a woman to death for adultery, with the cooperation of her father. (Image via Mideast Media Research Institute)

Last month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that it received a gruesome video showing a woman being stoned to death by her father, along with a group of men who appeared to be militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The report said the stoning took place in the ISIS-controlled countryside of Hama, Syria.

The video begins with a tall, bearded militant in camouflage passing down the stoning sentence to the woman. “We hope that this will serve as a lesson to other women,” he says, with his right hand on the father’s shoulder. “This punishment is the result of the actions you did of your own free will,” the bearded militant continues, “therefore, you should be satisfied with the ruling decree by Allah.”

He then turns to the woman’s father, “Is there anything you would like to say to your daughter?”

“No,” answers the man wearing a red-and-white checkered ghutra.

Then the woman, covered in a brown dress from head to toe, pleads with her father for forgiveness. He insistently refuses, until he finally grants her final wish after another hooded ISIS fighter approaches him to persuade him of doing so.

The father ties a rope around the woman, drags her into a pit, and the stoning begins.

According to the Syrian Observatory, the terrorist group stoned two other women earlier this year in the province of Al-Raqqa, after accusing them of adultery. Only the stoning case in Hama was caught on video.

The date of the recording was not verified, and it was not clear how the woman was found guilty of adultery.

What the video shows clearly, however, is that those members of the terrorist group were able to convince the woman’s father of the legitimacy of their decree, to the extent that he was willing to take part in her execution. Shocking, but not impossible in a harshly misogynistic, perpetually patriarchal environment, where honor killing is condoned by many men and women and has long been protected by the constitution, even under the so-called secular regimes around the region.

Consider the fact that the Syrian constitution, for example, allows a male perpetrator of rape to escape punishment by marrying the victim, and limits punishment of “honor killings” to 2-7 years in prison. Such is the case under the protection of a secular, civil state; now try to envision the matter in the hands of the unrestricted group of terrorists.

Gender roles in pre-war Syria seemed to be more progressive than under ISIS control, with women moving freely and holding high positions in the Assad Regime, but the constitution still included many misogynist clauses. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Gender roles in pre-war Syria seemed to be more progressive than under ISIS control, with women moving freely and holding high positions in the Assad Regime, but the constitution still included many misogynist clauses. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

It appears that the evils of fundamentalism and the cowardice of social bullies have joined forces in the form of ISIS.

Many Arab and Middle Eastern societies are what anthropologist Edward T. Hall calls a “high-context” culture — meaning that more importance is given to the family over the individual, and a self-governing individualist is viewed as a risk to the family’s reputation. Under such circumstances, patriarchy tends to thrive.

But let us not forget that the patriarchy has another equally ugly side to it. Men in such societies are also bound by the same highly masculine social construct, where aspects of misogyny are viewed as a necessity to maintain the order of society; an inescapable harness that men are always expected to tie around women and handle with utmost care. Consequently, a man’s failure to fit the restrictive mold of the patriarchal order would be faced with a lot of scorn and lifelong shaming by his community.

Let us, for the sake of argument, think of what other options were available to the stoned woman’s father. Let us imagine for a minute that the man, instead of refusing his daughter’s plea for forgiveness, had refused to participate in the stoning, took his daughter’s hand, then walked her away from the group of armed fundamentalist thugs.

If the man and his daughter, miraculously somehow, were able to survive our imaginary scenario, it would not be possible for either one of them to rejoin their families and go on with their ordinary life: The man would be labeled a “cuckold,” and the woman a “whore,” for generations to come. This brings us to the concept of a “sacrifice”: The family of a fallen woman must offer her to society as a sacrifice in order to publicly clear their responsibility, declaring that they have removed the cause of their social alienation and announcing that they should be welcomed back into their community as respectful individuals.

Does that mean all Arabs or Muslims support stoning women to death as a punishment for adultery? The short answer is, no. This raises another fundamental question: Doesn’t Islam prescribe stoning as a punishment for married adulterers?

As an Arab woman who was born into a strict Muslim family who grew up in a Muslim community, I can tell you, the answer depends on who you ask. A moderate Muslim would make a distinction between the misogynistic culture and the religion of Islam, saying that stoning has questionable grounds in the Muslim faith. A fundamentalist or Wahhabi Muslim, on the other hand, would suggest that the cultural values of male-dominance are in the core of Islamic teachings, and would strongly defend the deep-rootedness of the stoning practice in Islam. Ironically, both individuals would provide Qur’anic texts and other religious tracts to support their views.

The level of barbarism illustrated in the terrorist activities carried out by ISIS members in Syria and Iraq has led many Western observers to call for a collaboration with the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s regime to fight against terrorism.

As tempting as it is, however, to blame fundamental Islam for the savagery of ISIS — particularly its misogynistic practices, as in the case at hand — one should not turn a blind eye to the dangerously effective role played by bad politics, both foreign and interior, in the perpetuation of internalized sexism.

ISIS is not the malignant tumor that ought to be resected; it is merely one symptom of a serious underlying disease that has been developing over centuries of oppression and cultural segregation on one hand, and the blind idolization of the past, accompanied by fear of the responsibilities that come with change, on the other.

While the eradication of ISIS is both important and necessary, the path to achieving gender equality in the region runs a lot deeper than the caves of terrorists.

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