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TFI Daily News

World News for World Changers

Jul 28


Ukraine Troops Advance as Experts Renew Attempt to Reach Crash Site
(Reuters) At least three civilians were killed in overnight fighting in eastern Ukraine and government troops pressed ahead with their campaign against pro-Russian rebels, taking a strategic point close to where Malaysian flight MH17 crashed, officials said on Monday.

Lavrov Says Russia Will Not Respond in Kind to Western Sanctions
(Reuters) Russia will not impose tit-for-tat measures or act “hysterically” over Western economic sanctions, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday, trying to stake out the high ground amid growing tensions with the West.

Islamist Militants Kill 18 Civilians in Philippines
(Reuters) Islamist militants in the Philippines killed 18 people on Monday in revenge for their clan’s support of government efforts to bring stability to the resource-rich region and the military warned of more bloodshed.

Gaza Fighting Abates as Diplomatic Tension Flares
(Reuters) Israel eased its assaults in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian rocket fire from the enclave declined sharply on Monday, the military said, with both the United States and United Nations calling for a durable ceasefire.

Tanker With Iraqi Kurdish Crude Cleared to Unload Cargo Off Texas
(Reuters) A tanker carrying crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan was cleared by the U.S. Coast Guard to unload its cargo at sea off Texas on Sunday as a State Department official signaled Washington would not intervene to block delivery of the controversial crude.

Kerry to Woo Modi’s India, but Quick Progress Unlikely
(Reuters) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits India this week as Washington tries to revitalize ties it sees as a counterbalance to China’s rising power, but rapid progress is unlikely, despite the reformist reputation of India’s new leader.

Aruba Frees Venezuela Ex-General Sought by U.S. Over Drugs
(Reuters) A former Venezuelan military intelligence head detained on the Caribbean island of Aruba over U.S. accusations of drug-trafficking was released and flew home on Sunday.

Liberia Shuts Border Crossings, Restricts Gatherings to Curb Ebola Spreading
(Reuters) The Liberian government on Sunday closed most of the West African nation’s border crossings and introduced stringent health measures to curb the spread of the deadly Ebola virus that has killed at least 660 people across the region.

Boko Haram Kidnaps Wife of Cameroon’s Vice Premier
(Reuters) The wife of Cameroon’s vice prime minister was kidnapped and at least three people killed in an attack by Boko Haram militants on the official’s home on Sunday.

US: Russia has fired rockets into Ukraine
WASHINGTON (AP)—Stepping up pressure on Moscow, the U.S. has released satellite images it says show that rockets have been fired from Russia into neighboring eastern Ukraine and that heavy artillery for separatists has crossed the border.

Thought of the Day

“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”—Theodore Roosevelt


By Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, July 26, 2014

Q From Dave McCombs, New Zealand: Has the word blooper ever been traced to a source?

A Yes, it has, and it’s rather a surprising one.

We have to go back to the pioneering days of radio broadcasting in the US in the early 1920s. The primitive valve radios of those times suffered from a serious problem. To make them more sensitive, they fed back part of the amplified signal to the input. But if the user increased that feedback too far to try to pick up a weak station, the radio became a transmitter and blotted out reception for up to a mile around it.

If you’ve heard a public-address system screeching because somebody has put the microphone too near the loudspeaker, you’ll have a very good idea of the experience for suffering nearby listeners. Two technical names for it are positive feedback and oscillation; it has many others.

Americans didn’t call it oscillation, perhaps because it sounded a touch highfalutin. They named it blooping. The perpetrator was a blooper and the noise was a bloop.

Then some evening he wants to listen to a program clear through and the occassional [sic] “bloop” of his neighbors calls for his most blood-curdling curses.—Nevada State Journal, 16 Dec. 1923.

Nobody tried to explain where it came from at the time and nobody has managed to put forward an entirely satisfactory suggestion since. My guess, having heard lots of variations on the sound that feedback makes, is that the term imitated the noise in affected receivers, which probably wasn’t a shriek or whistle but a rapidly pulsing howl that sounded vaguely like “bloooop … bloooop … bloooop”.

The problem quickly grew worse as the number of sets mushroomed during the radio craze. The first example of blooper in print I’ve found is this, though for the sets rather than the perpetrators:

On account, perhaps, of the word of warning that was published in yesterdays paper in connection with the announcement of the presidents speech against improper handling of the radio sets of the radiating type, or “blooper” sets as they are coming to be called there was less interference than has been noted heretofore.

Lubbock Morning Avalanche (Texas), 23 Apr. 1924. To cap the typos in the item, the headline to the story misspelled the word as “blopper”. An early self-referential blooper.

Everybody knew what bloopers were and everybody hated them. To accidentally bloop was an embarrassing error; to do it deliberately was a crime against your neighbours.

In the middle 1920s blooper was taken up by baseball. It’s a sloppily hit ball that lofts into the gap between the infield and outfield for a base hit, an embarrassing error on the part of the fielding team.

The sense of a verbal or written error or indiscretion began to appear in print around 1940 (a writer to the Racine Journal Times of Wisconsin in January 1940 used bloopers for the typographical mistakes that he had found in the paper). The following year pull a blooper appeared, to make an embarrassing mistake:

We pulled a blooper, and we’re sorry. Here we were told that Dave Henry lost to Axel Johnson when the two softball greats teamed up in the Southern California playoffs three seasons ago. Actually the reverse was the case.—Oxnard Press-Courier (Oxnard, California), 12 Jun. 1941.

The specific sense of making a mistake before a microphone or camera is from movie jargon. The word started to appear in films in the early 1930s with the coming of the talkies. The short-lived blooping patch was a black strip stuck on a film’s optical soundtrack to cover the noise resulting from a splice. Compilations of errors in film, called bloops, are known from the 1930s, initially for private enjoyment:

But some of the nabobs of the films began collecting celluloid records of the “bloops” of which the screen players were guilty in reciting their lines, and so most of them now play safe with antics and verbal outbreaks that have become both unique and amusing.—Los Angeles Times, 15 Dec. 1935.

Blooper for such compilations became popular in the US in the 1950s through a series of records by a television producer named Kermit Schaefer under the general title Pardon My Blooper. Blooper reel was first used publicly of outtakes from Star Trek episodes in the early 1970s.

The evidence suggests that all these usages can be traced back to those anti-social individuals who let their radios oscillate in the early 1920s.

Powerful Philippine Christian church celebrates 100 years

By Cecil Morella, AFP, July 25, 2014

Manila (AFP)—A Philippine Christian church renowned for its discipline, money and political power will mark its 100th anniversary on Sunday with more than one million followers expected to join the celebrations.

The Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) members will congregate at a giant complex especially built for the occasion near Manila, in an event that will showcase the religion’s stunning success at home and abroad.

“The pace of the spread of Iglesia… has exploded,” church spokesman Edwil Zabala told AFP during a tour of the “City of Victory” complex, which includes a 55,000-seat indoor stadium, to promote the centenary.

The Roman Catholic Church has for centuries been the dominant religious force in the Philippines, a former Spanish colony.

About 80 percent of the nation’s 100 million people are Catholic, but there is a plethora of home-grown Christian movements, the highest-profile and strongest being INC, as Iglesia ni Cristo is known locally.

INC was established in 1914 in Manila by Felix Manalo, a charismatic man who was raised a Catholic, became a Protestant preacher then founded his own religion in which he proclaimed himself the last messenger of God.

Today its unique cathedrals topped by soaring spires can be seen in most cities and villages across the Philippines, while its missionary work has created congregations in more than 100 other countries.

The INC is at odds with the Catholic Church on many fundamental issues of doctrine, and numerous outsiders perceive it as a much more conservative brand of Christianity.

INC’s teachings are based on a rigid following of the Bible, and the church insists only its members qualify for salvation.

Men and women must be separated in church for services, and they are only allowed to date or marry fellow INC members. Once married, they can never separate.

Christmas and many Catholic fiestas that are hugely popular in the Philippines are not celebrated by INC members.

INC also has a reputation for carrying out much more intense missionary work than the Catholic Church.

“One has to respect how much more aggressive the INC is in expanding and sustaining itself,” Louie Checa Montemar, a political science lecturer at Catholic De La Salle University in Manila, told AFP.

The INC typically creates the biggest headlines in the Philippines when it flexes its considerable financial and political muscle.

Its political strength is built upon a ruling that all members must vote in national elections according to the verdict of the church’s leader.

INC refuses to disclose how many members it has—although local media estimate it to be well above two million, giving it a powerful bloc vote that ensures politicians pay them close attention.

“They have a preponderant influence on the government itself and on politics relative to their size,” Ramon Casiple, head of the Manila-based think tank Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, told AFP.

“Nobody wants to go against the Iglesia… in a close (election) fight.”

Flamenco-dancing priest brings congregation flocking back to church in Spain

By Fiona Govan, Madrid, Daily Telegraph, 26 Jul 2014

A Roman Catholic priest who dances traditional flamenco from the pulpit in southern Spain has become an internet hit

Jose Planas Moreno has brought parishioners flocking back to the Nuestra Señora del Carmen church in Campanilla, a district of Malaga, with his unusual style of worship.

Unlike across the rest of Spain where the Catholic Church has struggled with falling numbers, the priest, who is known as Father Pepe, celebrates mass to a packed congregation with queues regularly forming outside his church.

The 66-year-old curate delights the faithful by dancing the sevillanas—a traditional dance linked to flamenco—in the aisle of the church during mass.

Female worshippers leap from their pews to take a turn dancing with Father Pepe as he hitches up his white cassock, raises his arms above his head and kicks his heels.

Videos of a recent mass taken on the local feast day and uploaded onto YouTube and gone viral on social networks and spread Father Pepe’s fame far beyond his parish.

“Something happens when I dance,” said Father Pepe, who explained that flamenco is in his blood because his mother was a gipsy.

“I love it. It brings me closer to God,” he told Diario Sur, the local Malaga newspaper.

In 1997, Father Pepe, who will retire in September, danced in front of the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

He was among 3,000 or so gipsies who broke into dance to celebrate the beatification of the first Romany saint, Ceferino Gimenez Mallo, a Spaniard shot by a leftist execution squad during Spain’s Civil War for defending a priest.

Traditionally a Roman Catholic stronghold, Spain has seen church attendance plummet in recent years and a sharp fall in the number of those choosing to become clerics has left half the nation’s parishes without priests.

A recent survey showed only 72 per cent of Spaniards defined themselves as Catholic, a drop of eight per cent in a decade.

The survey also found that those who said that they never went to church rose from 7.5 per cent in 2002 to 48.6 per cent in 2012.

Turns Out It’s Pretty Easy to Shoot Down a Passenger Jet

BY Alex Davies, Wired, July 22, 2014

American officials believe the missile that destroyed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was fired by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, using a Russian-made system designed for bringing down fighter jets. That brings up the question: How easy is it to bring down a passenger jet with a weapon that’s meant to be used by trained soldiers?

Turns out, it’s pretty easy. As in, take a three-day course and go for it easy.

The weapon in question is the SA-11, a radar-guided surface to air missile (SAM) system. It’s been around since the Soviets deployed the first-generation model in 1979. The mobile system (it sits on a tank chassis) is made to serve near the front lines to protect ground forces from air attacks. Operated by a crew of four and designed to attack fighter jets, it can fire multiple missiles simultaneously. It fires high explosive proximity fuse warheads, which home in on their targets and detonate just before reaching them, to maximize damage. Targets 20 miles away and over 70,000 feet in the air are fair game. It’s a “big, heavy vehicle that has big missiles,” says Randal Cordes, a military intelligence analyst who has worked at the CIA and Pentagon. “To use an SA-11 against an airliner, it’s brutal overkill.”

The training required to properly operate the system can take weeks or months, which may explain why the Malaysia plane was destroyed in the first place. The problem with the SA-11 is that it’s difficult to properly identify and track targets, but easy to fire missiles. “The skill comes in knowing what you want to shoot at,” says Cordes. That’s because the SA-11’s radar system shows the same “blip” for all different targets. The operator sees an aircraft’s altitude, air speed, and vector, but not its size or type, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Airliners broadcast a four-digit transponder known as an IFF code that identifies them as civilian aircraft, and the SA-11 system is capable of picking up that information. But the training that goes into properly identifying aircraft takes months, especially since the window for acquiring and firing on targets is just a few minutes.

“You can’t take a crew, stick ‘em inside the cabin, and say here’s the on switch, and here’s the button you hit,” and expect them to operate it properly, says Wesley Paul, a former intelligence research analyst for the Air Force.

“Ready” and “aim” are difficult. “Fire” is easy.

It would take three to four days at most to teach someone to use the system well enough to shoot down a 777, Cordesman says. That’s partly because passenger planes fly at steady speeds and altitudes, and have no defense systems. They cruise higher than fighter jets do, at heights where they’re more easily picked up by radar.

“Once the radar picks up a target, it is a matter of telling the system that it should engage the target and issuing a fire command,” says Paul Huter, an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin. That involves following a checklist and selecting the target, either by clicking on a screen or pushing a button (or clicking with a mouse on a screen, depending on the system model). Training would consist of running through that procedure in various conditions, and would be so straightforward, Huter says, that “it is certainly possible for someone with no training to read through the checklist and successfully engage a target.”

Cordesman compared it to firing a gun: “Pulling the trigger is easy. Judgment is hard.” And once the missile’s been fired, there’s no way to divert it, he says. “You press the button and it’s gone.”

No Time to Think

By Kate Murphy, NY Times, July 25, 2014

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought—say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic—out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.

It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out—difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”

But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.

“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”

Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”

Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.

“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.

To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.

We’re Missing the Story

By Anjan Sundaram, NY Times, July 25, 2014

LISBON—THE Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world. We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.

To the consumer, the news can seem authoritative. But the 24-hour news cycles we watch rarely give us the stories essential to understanding the major events of our time. The news machine, confused about its mandate, has faltered. Big stories are often missed. Huge swaths of the world are forgotten or shrouded in myth. The news both creates these myths and dispels them, in a pretense of providing us with truth.

I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a stringer, a freelance journalist paid by the word, for a year and a half, in 2005-06. There, on the bottom rung of the news ladder, I grasped the role of the imaginary in the production of world news. Congo is the scene of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our lifetimes. Two successive wars have killed more than five million people since 1996.

Yet this great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories. As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.

When I arrived, there were only three other foreign reporters in Congo. We were all based in the capital, Kinshasa, while the war raged more than 600 miles to the east. My colleagues lived well: one in a luxury hotel suite, another in an immense colonial home with servants and guards. I envied them. To make matters worse, shortly after arriving I was robbed at gunpoint.

I found work as a stringer for The Associated Press, and rented a room from a family in a run-down home in one of Kinshasa’s poorest but most lively areas. The house frequently lacked water and electricity, and neighborhood children would run through it after playing in sewage. It became The A.P.’s headquarters in Congo.

I shared with my host family the only meal they ate each day. I helped draw the curtains and hid with them when a band of street boys pillaged our neighborhood. I was present when their baby first crawled.

My proximity to people was essential to my reporting. They were as surprised as I was by news of a rape or a political killing—especially if it wasn’t in the war-torn east of the country.

But the world outside is rarely surprised by a Congolese death. Those same rapes and killings were not deemed important enough to make news. Ignored, they were soon forgotten. The world saw Congo as a violent place, but not worth reporting on, unless the story was spectacular and gruesome.

Joy was often ignored.

Few Congolese, even in the war, see themselves as victims. The idea of their victimhood is imagined, and the news in these moments seems to be speaking to itself.

Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves.

The telltale sign of such mythical, distant reporting is a distinct assuredness. Confusion and vulnerability are stripped away, as are the subtleties and contradictions of life. People and places are reduced to simple narratives—good and evil, victim and killer. Such narratives can be easy to digest. But they tell us only a portion of the story.

A few months ago I traveled to a remote town in the Central African Republic that had just been burned and destroyed by the government. The town, now empty, was believed to have sheltered anti-government militiamen during a battle. Bodies were strewn across the bush, quickly decomposing, beside baby clothes dropped by fleeing mothers. On my way back from the town I saw groups of outraged militiamen who wanted to fight back. There was little reporting from there at that time; The government had been demonized and the militiamen portrayed as victims. African Union and French peacekeepers tried to curb the fighting by disarming government forces. But the militiamen, unchecked, began widespread massacres.

News from a distance worsens these problems. Living among Congolese, I was continually held accountable for what I wrote, whether about killings and rapes, election politics or Pygmy tribes who had given away sections of forest to foreign logging companies for some sacks of salt.

A WARLORD once told me that war crimes were more comprehensible than crimes in times of peace; the world didn’t realize, he said, that such atrocities were committed in times of confusion. He didn’t deny that war crimes should be punished, but merely asked to be understood. He had become a warlord when armed men had stormed into his home and killed his daughter. Unable to protect his family, he had formed a militia. His subsequent brutality, whose targets included other fathers and daughters, was criminal. It would be easy to dismiss him as evil. His story tells us that his context produced evil.

Such immersive reporting is essential if news is to serve its purpose and help us construct any real sense of the world.

News systems are not designed for this. Reporters move like herds of sheep, flocking to the same places at the same times to tell us, more or less, the same stories. Foreign bureaus are closing. We are moving farther away.

News organizations tell us that immersive reporting is prohibitively expensive. But the money is there; it’s just often misallocated on expensive trips for correspondents. Even as I was struggling to justify costs for a new round of reporting in Congo, I watched teams of correspondents stay in $300-per-night hotels, spending in one night what I would in two months. And they missed the story.

Parachuting in with little context, and with a dozen other countries to cover, they stayed for the vote but left before the results were announced. A battle broke out in Kinshasa after they left, and I found myself hiding in an old margarine factory, relaying news to the world, including reports to this newspaper.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained—as it is now—vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves. Stories from there, and from places like the killing fields of the Central African Republic, are still distant, and they are growing smaller.

The Typical Household, Now Worth a Third Less

By Anna Bernasek, NY Times, July 26, 2014

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution—the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years. Other research, by economists like Edward Wolff at New York University, has shown even greater gains in wealth for the richest 1 percent of households.

For households at the median level of net worth, much of the damage has occurred since the start of the last recession in 2007. Until then, net worth had been rising for the typical household, although at a slower pace than for households in higher wealth brackets. But much of the gain for many typical households came from the rising value of their homes. Exclude that housing wealth and the picture is worse: Median net worth began to decline even earlier.

“The housing bubble basically hid a trend of declining financial wealth at the median that began in 2001,” said Fabian T. Pfeffer, the University of Michigan professor who is lead author of the Russell Sage Foundation study.

The reasons for these declines are complex and controversial, but one point seems clear: When only a few people are winning and more than half the population is losing, surely something is amiss.

Echoes of Past Battles on Immigration Ring Through Current Debate

By Carl Hulse, NY Times, July 26, 2014

WASHINGTON—Up in arms about being forced to provide emergency housing for a flood of immigrants entering the country illegally, voters turned to the ballot box to punish elected officials they faulted for failing to resolve the crisis. The backlash was swift, costing Bill Clinton his 1980 bid for a second term as Arkansas governor in the aftermath of the boatlift from Mariel, Cuba.

The continuing fight over how to handle tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving at the Texas border from across Central America is not the first time federal and state officials have struggled with the human and political consequences of an unexpected surge in those arriving in the United States from troubled neighbors. In addition to the Mariel boatlift, a steady flow of Haitians has set off a wrenching political debate in recent decades. There have been other immigration surges as well, and the fallout from previous immigration crises has been felt from the White House to city halls.

Now repercussions from past episodes are helping shape today’s responses as those in public office try to navigate the line between recognizing legitimate public concerns about a sudden influx and wanting to show compassion for those who say they are seeking sanctuary.

“These events are so intense in part because they are so human and people can relate to children fleeing violence or adults fleeing political repression,” said Bob Graham, the former senator who, as Florida governor in 1980, found himself confronting the arrival in Key West of 125,000 Cubans on a makeshift flotilla. “And they tend to cause divisions in the community between those who feel it should be treated as a humanitarian crisis and those who see it as a law enforcement matter.”

Those fault lines are surfacing anew in Washington and across the country. President Obama, members of Congress, governors and local officials are being buffeted by demands to stop the flow of immigrants by cracking down and returning the arrivals to their home countries. They have also faced passionate calls for the humane treatment of children who took risks to reach the United States and face risks at home.

Veterans of past immigration battles say that elected officials are unlikely to come out ahead.

“The issue of immigration in general is a political loser no matter what position you take,” said Bill Richardson, a former ambassador, cabinet member and Democratic governor of New Mexico. “You get attacked from conservatives and Tea Party members who just want no more immigration. You lose out with poor people who feel those resources should go to them, and then you lose with local officials who feel that eventually they will have to spend money and taxpayer funds.”

The effort to find the right tone has been evident. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a town hall-style meeting on CNN, said this month that most of the children should be sent home. Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a potential Democratic rival of Ms. Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, criticized that approach, saying that America does not return children to war-torn countries.

In Washington, where the president’s emergency request for $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis is caught up in a partisan fight. Congressional Republicans are pushing for the Obama administration to send back most of the children while expressing sympathy for their plight. They say they are reflecting the view of their constituents.

“We can deal with this,” said Representative Joe Garcia, the Florida Democrat who represents Key West. “This is manageable.”

Mr. Garcia noted that such influxes can produce unexpected results, recounting the story of one Cuban youth named Melquíades who came to Florida on his own as a teenager in the 1960s as part of a humanitarian effort overseen by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Melquíades grew up to be Mel Martinez,” Mr. Garcia said, referring to the prominent Florida Republican, “senator, cabinet member and head of his party.”

In U.S. custody, migrant kids are flown thousands of miles at taxpayer expense

By Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post, July 26, 2014

PHOENIX—Before they sloshed and skidded across the Rio Grande, Greysi and Claudia Paula had never been on a plane.

Now the teenage Honduran sisters are frequent fliers, crisscrossing America on government chartered jets and settling into commercial airliner seats at taxpayer expense. In the harried and jumbled scramble to house a wave of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the United States, U.S. officials have ordered the girls flown from Texas to Arizona, from Arizona to Oklahoma and from Oklahoma back to Arizona—all in a matter of weeks.

Their jagged 3,000-plus mile trek is one of hundreds outlined in confidential Department of Homeland Security e-mails and extensively detailed Honduran diplomatic journals reviewed by The Washington Post. The documents show that Central American children, almost all of whom will be released to relatives while they await court hearings, are being sent on meandering, circular and often illogical odysseys. Frequently, children are being apprehended in the border states where their families live and flown thousands of miles to shelters and detention facilities, only to be flown back to the border states where their U.S. journeys started.

The pinballing in the skies over America illustrates the extent to which the U.S. immigration system has been caught unprepared. Too many kids, too few beds and intense political pressure on officials to deal quickly with the flood of young migrants have resulted in an expensive, inefficient shuffle.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Tony Banegas, the Honduran honorary consul in Arizona, who has interviewed more than 400 children, most of whom were flown from Texas to a federal detention center in the border town of Nogales, Ariz. “They were not prepared.”

Quietly, it appears, the federal government has begun to recognize the problem and take small steps to address the logistical chaos. In response to questions from The Post, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for making decisions about the children’s travel and placement, said a pilot program has been launched to reunify children with families at some federal facilities in the Rio Grande Valley rather than first sending them to temporary government facilities at military bases or privately contracted shelters.

“We try to minimize travel,” HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an e-mail. “But it depends on the availability of [unaccompanied minor] shelter beds at the time.”

Wolfe declined to comment on individual cases and said he could not provide information about how much the government is paying for the children’s travel within the United States. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates the flights under a system known internally as “ICE Air,” declined to discuss costs or logistics.

The search for beds is sometimes leading to almost surreal scenarios, with kids bouncing back and forth between the same locations. The experience of Greysi, 15, and Claudia Paula, 17, is a case in point. The Post was granted access to their records, and those of other children, by Banegas, the Honduran diplomat, under the condition that their last names not be used.

The girls are from Saba, a small town in northern Honduras plagued by drug violence. Their parents left when they were babies, and they had been living with their grandparents. The death of their grandfather—he was either murdered or died accidentally, no one knows for sure—finally pushed the girls to undertake a days-long bus trip through Guatemala and Mexico to be reunited with parents they knew only as flickering images on occasional Skype calls.

They were taken into custody late last month in Texas and spent a night in the border town of McAllen at a notorious detention center dubbed “the icebox” by migrant children because the air conditioning is set to such a low temperature that kids have to huddle together for warmth.

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.), who visited the facility, said he was appalled at the conditions. The children were “all dirty and grungy,” he said. “The smell was almost of wet dog.”

From Texas, Greysi and Claudia Paula were flown on a government chartered flight to Arizona—the girls’ first time on an airplane—and taken to a federally run center in Nogales, near the Mexican border, that was temporarily being used to process unaccompanied minors.

In the upside-down world of this border crisis, the trip to Nogales represented progress for the girls. Their parents live in Phoenix, a three-hour drive to the north.

“Now, you’re close,” their mother, Elsa, recalled telling the girls when they phoned from Nogales. “Oh, my God, I’m so happy.”

But days later, there was another call. Elsa learned that the girls weren’t being driven to her but instead were being flown on another chartered plane, this time to Oklahoma, more than 900 miles east, to a temporary shelter at Fort Sill, an Army post.

“My world collapsed,” said the mother, who hadn’t seen her daughters since they were toddlers. “I had my girls so close. Now they were going so far.”

The decision puzzled Banegas. The day after the girls were sent to Oklahoma, he received an e-mail notification from the Department of Homeland Security showing that a half-dozen beds were available in Arizona. And not just in Arizona, but in Phoenix, only minutes from the small apartment the girls’ parents rent on a street where almost all the business have signs in Spanish.

In Nogales, the girls said, they had to sleep on a concrete floor. The conditions in Fort Sill were better: They slept in beds and were given fresh clothes.

They stayed in Oklahoma more than a week, then boarded another plane—a commercial airliner, according to interviews with the sisters and their parents.

Finally, after three flights, numerous van rides to and from shelters and approximately three weeks and thousands of miles—the girls were released from federal custody. They are living with their parents in Phoenix and awaiting a court appearance to determine whether they can remain in the United States.

Shuffling children from state to state is expensive. HHS, which runs the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has a budget of more than $860 million to cover costs such as housing and feeding the unaccompanied minors.

The children travel to the facilities via an unusual government entity called ICE Air Operations, described as a “very large airline” in congressional testimony by John Morton, who at the time was director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE Air charters Boeing 737s and MD-80s that can transport 135 undocumented children or adults, according to ICE’s Web site. The planes are used to fly deportees back to their home countries, but recently they have gotten heavy use ferrying children to locations in the United States.

An ICE spokesman did not respond to requests for details on how many planes have been chartered. There have been indications that the fleet has expanded during the crisis. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last month, an ICE officers union representative said two additional planes have been leased to keep up with demand.

ICE Air also operates as a kind of escort agency, accompanying some minors flown on commercial airliners. Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, which represents ICE officers, testified that 60 to 120 ICE officers board commercial planes every day to escort small groups of unaccompanied minors on flights to places around the country where HHS has shelters.

“ICE officers around the nation are under orders to be packed for overnight travel and ready to respond at any time, day or night,” Crane told the Judiciary Committee.

People who have spent time with the kids say they seem disoriented, not only from their treacherous trip to the border but also from their circuitous U.S. travels.

“I don’t think my family knows where I am,” Paula McPheeters, a retired schoolteacher and volunteer translator, remembers children asking her. “How are they going to know where I am?”

They also almost always had another question for her: “Where am I?’”

One boy in particular sticks out in her mind, a wisp of a child named Oscar, whose family lives in Waco, Tex. “When he crossed that river he knew that he was getting really close to his mother,” McPherson said. Now he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t in Texas anymore.

Language problems have led to more confusion. Many of the children, especially those from Guatemala, do not speak English or Spanish when they arrive, instead using indigenous dialects that are a mystery to their captors, their interpreters and some of their fellow detainees.

Effort to Secure Malaysia Airline Crash Site Falters in Eastern Ukraine

By Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer, NY Times, July 26, 2014

KHARKIV, Ukraine—An international push to secure the crash site of a Malaysian passenger jet shot down by a missile over eastern Ukraine stalled on Saturday, with the leader of a Dutch forensic mission announcing that scores of foreign police officers and experts gathered at a luxury hotel here would not start moving toward the site for at least five days.

Jan Tuinder, the head of a Dutch mission comprising 40 unarmed military police officers and around 20 forensic specialists, said the delay was needed to give the Ukrainian Parliament time to vote on Thursday to provide a “legal basis” for the deployment of foreign police officers on Ukrainian territory.

Efforts to reach the crash site had previously been hindered by heavily armed pro-Russia rebels, who control the area, but now another obstacle appears to be Ukraine, whose military has been gaining ground against the rebels and is wary of halting its offensive.

The jet, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, crashed in territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia rebels on July 17, and while most of the bodies of the 298 victims of Flight 17 have now been recovered and flown to the Netherlands for identification, forensic investigators have not been able to reach the area in sufficient numbers to ensure that all the bodies have been found and collect debris that could provide evidence of who brought the plane down. The Netherlands, whose citizens accounted for around two-thirds of the crash victims, is leading an international effort to get to the bottom of what happened to Flight 17.

Officials from the Netherlands and other countries that lost citizens on the Malaysian jet had previously made no mention of any vote by Parliament and instead blamed the rebels for stalling access to the site.

A team of seven Dutch forensic experts who tried to reach the crash site early Saturday gave up after running into fighting. A separate group of four Dutch experts managed to reach the crash site on Friday but planned to pull out after heavy fighting erupted overnight in Donetsk, the capital of the rebels’ self-proclaimed republic.

Russia, worried that the rebels, whose cause it supports, are losing ground, has repeatedly called for a pause in hostilities, a demand that Ukrainian officials dismiss as a ploy to give the rebels time to regroup and obtain new weapons from Russia.

In the city of Donetsk, the smoldering ruins of several homes hit by stray artillery shells, downed power lines looping across the streets, and blown-off tree branches scattered about the sidewalks in an outlying neighborhood testified to the Ukrainian Army’s approach from the north and west. The streets were deserted but for elderly people, who apparently had nowhere to go as the fight closed in.

The shells struck several vacant homes overnight, residents said. By afternoon, black smoke rose from the positions occupied by the Ukrainian Army at the city’s airport and by rebels at a coal mine several miles away.

For now, there was no sign of a ground attack into the city, where the neighborhoods are fortified with separatist foxholes and trenches in parks and the green space of traffic circles.

On Saturday, Sergei Senikov, 53, a retiree, sprinkled the ruins of his home with a garden hose. A stray shell had landed on the roof around 11 the night before while he and his family were having dinner at a relative’s home. “Thank God for that,” he said.

The house was demolished, charred. Cherry and apricot branches lay strewn about the yard. Asked who was at fault, Mr. Senikov said he had no way of knowing. “There are two contingents here,” he said. “One is defending, the other attacking,” and both are shooting.

“There will be a big fight for Donetsk,” he said.

Fifth Columns Are (and Were) Everywhere

By Reid Standish, Foreign Policy, July 25, 2014

Since fighting first broke out between government and separatist forces nearly four months ago in Ukraine’s east, the Communist Party has been a vocal critic of Kiev, voting against the ruling coalition and leveling severe—and sometimes unfounded—accusations against the government. The party is quick to denounce the revolutionary government in Kiev as fascists, prompting many leftists’ opponents to label them a “fifth column” of Russian influence in Ukraine.

In response, the Ukrainian parliament stripped the Communist Party of its official status in its legislative body, the Verkhovna Rada—a drastic move. Communist legislators can still vote but they have no influence on the daily agenda and have no guarantee of floor time.

In doing so, Ukraine’s ruling coalition once more denounced them as a “fifth column” loyal to Russia. “We only need to tolerate them for one more day,” said Oleksandr Tymchuk, the Rada’s speaker, when the law passed. Shortly thereafter, Igor Miroshnichenko, a member of the right-wing Svoboda Party, called the Communists the “fifth column of the Kremlin” that “announce[s] all of Putin’s wishes in parliament.”

In a separate move on Thursday, the Office of the Prosecutor General and the SBU—the Security Service of Ukraine—filed criminal charges against the Communist Party related to its support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and for aiding the separatists of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Kiev’s administrative district court hears the case on Aug. 14. If found guilty of encouraging separatism, the party will effectively become illegal and cease to exist.

The crusade against the Communist Party of Ukraine—and the rhetoric used against it—is somewhat ironic. After all, the concept of a “fifth column”—a disloyal, subversive, and hidden element in society—was a favorite theme of Soviet propagandists.

As a military tactic, the presence of sympathetic forces within a society working on behalf of its enemies dates all the way back to the Peloponnesian War, where revolts started by interlopers shifted the balance for both sides. But the term “fifth column” originated in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. It is credited to General Emilio Mola Vidal, who uttered the phrase when he was poised to attack republican Madrid. “General Mola stated he had four columns of troops, but that the attack would be initiated by a ‘fifth column’ already inside the city,” said Paul Preston, a professor of history at the London School of Economics. A fifth column is therefore traditionally defined as government-backed sympathizers or infiltrators spreading misinformation and rumors, as well as employing force in preparation for an external attack.

In the lead-up to and during World War II, fifth columns were not only feared but actively employed. The Nazis used one to seize the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938 with the local German minority’s help, and again when “German tourists”—soldiers in disguise—helped capture Luxembourg in 1940.

Germany’s success in using fifth columns spurred paranoia within the Soviet Union and inspired Joseph Stalin to deport ethnic Germans from the western Soviet Union to Central Asia and Siberia. Despite the legitimate threat of fifth columns, more important was the language of an enemy within, which presented a convenient way to scapegoat huge swaths of the population that Stalin feared could undermine his authority. Under the guise of eliminating internal enemies, Stalin deported Chechens, Koreans, Crimean Tatars, and many other minority groups and relocated them to the Soviet steppe, often leading to huge death tolls.

In an address to the Duma on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the threat of a “fifth column.” Such terminology has sparked fears within Russia and even inspired a website called predatel.net, which lists public figures who have allegedly betrayed Russia, whether by criticizing the Crimean annexation or by supporting sanctions against the Kremlin and its allies.

The same conspiratorial line of thinking is alive and well in Ukraine. On Wednesday, Petro Symonenko, the first secretary of Ukraine’s Communist Party, accused the country’s security services and members of the nationalist Svoboda party of killing citizens in the east to use their bodies for black-market organ transplants—a story propagated by Russian state media. In response, Svoboda members accused Symonenko of disseminating false information and offered to physically eject him from the parliament.

A full-blown brawl ensued.

After the break, the news of the Communist Party’s dissolution was announced, upon which all its members walked out of parliament.

Afghans Don’t Like Tofu, Either

By Alexander Cohen, James Arkin, Foreign Policy, July 25, 2014

Afghanistan has a rich culinary tradition, but soybeans have not been a part of it. American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood find this dismaying, and so over the past four years, they have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat.

The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight, and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Warnings in 2008 by British agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started, according to a government-funded evaluation of the effort this year.

These are the bureaucratic explanations. The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy-processed foods. This view survived even the U.S. government’s use of what it called “food technologists” to teach families how soybean products can be used to make tasty meals.

As one of the project’s managers said, it was a “risky but honorable endeavor,” meant to improve the nutrition of malnourished Afghans by raising the level of protein in their diets. As such, the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement, and poor spending controls.

No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a special congressionally chartered group known as the Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated in 2011 that it could be nearly a third of the total. A special auditor appointed by President Barack Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.

“We didn’t have a reconstruction effort, we just spent a lot of money,” mostly to get the Afghan military working and keep its government afloat, commented Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East specialist and former defense intelligence analyst who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit group in Washington. The funds allocated to rebuild the country mostly went to “short-term aid projects, without an assessment of the overall economy, with reliance on contractors. And for most of the time you didn’t have effective auditing procedures,” Cordesman said.

The Afghan diet reform effort, formally known as the Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative, was overseen by the Agriculture Department (USDA) and implemented by the main trade association for the industry, the American Soybean Association. It encountered problems from the start.

The first crop failed in 2011, and subsequent harvests didn’t produce enough soybeans to operate a special factory in Mazar-e-Sharif—constructed and managed by a nonprofit organization based in Iowa at a cost of at least $1.5 million—that was meant to create a local soybean economy. Afghan farmers participating in the project, discouraged by crop failures, largely abandoned their growing efforts.

As a result, the factory has instead been forced to use at least 4,000 metric tons of soybeans imported from America at a cost of more than $2 million. But its operation has been so hobbled by shortages that those involved in the project worry that its equipment could soon be dismantled and sold by its local owner.

In March, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko met with project and government employees in the country who told him there is no “significant demand for soybean products in Afghanistan,” as he wrote in a letter the following month to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “This should have been expected, since Afghans apparently have never grown or eaten soybeans before,” Sopko wrote.

Moreover, those running the program told him that “Afghans don’t like the taste of bread made with soybean flour,” Sopko wrote. He requested that the department turn over all of its internal documents on the program.

Then, after reviewing the documents, Sopko wrote Vilsack again in June, expressing alarm that a feasibility study was not performed before the department started spending tens of millions of dollars on the idea, and that it was not halted when problems were flagged in a USDA-financed review this February.

“What is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided,” Sopko said.

Asked for comment, the Agriculture Department called Sopko’s criticisms “premature.” Spokeswoman Gwen Sparks said, “The project has produced positive results in the direct distribution of soybean products, renovation of irrigation systems, and rehabilitation of farm-to-market roads.” She also said the effort, slated to end in five months, was modified after the special expert review and would be reexamined before it is extended.

But Food for Progress, the USDA program financing the soybean project, has a broader history of mismanagement and oversight failings, according to a March 2014 report by USDA Assistant Inspector General for Audit Gil H. Harden.

The program has “significant … management control weaknesses,” Harden wrote about Food for Progress. His audit did not encompass the soybean project. But 10 of 11 food aid projects it did examine lacked required status reports, and so they could not be properly assessed by those in charge, his report said.

By all accounts, the idea for the soybeans-in-Afghanistan endeavor came from Steven Kwon, a food biochemist who first visited the country 11 years ago, while he was a nutritionist in California with the Nestlé food company, to give a lecture at Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif. He became convinced that Afghans needed more protein in their diets, according to Sonia Kwon, his daughter, who handles public relations for the effort.

During a subsequent visit to Mazar-e-Sharif, Kwon held a blind taste test between two beverages—one a soy-based product, the other milk-based—with about 20 participants, including university faculty and students, local government officials, and community leaders, according to Sonia Kwon. She said that every member of the panel preferred the soy-based product.

This tiny, unscientific survey formed the foundation of the U.S. government’s four-year effort to change the Afghan diet, according to multiple sources.

The slight impact of the soy effort mirrors the shortcomings of larger U.S. development programs in Afghanistan. As the United States prepares to exit the country, the partly functioning soy factory may eventually be abandoned, serving as yet another relic of good Western intentions in a land with its own identity.

Classroom brings a rare, welcome ‘escape’ for refugees in Lebanon

By Nicholas Blanford, CS Monitor, July 27, 2014

SIDON, LEBANON—Tucked down a narrow, traffic-clogged street in the center of this southern Lebanese city sits a non-descript three-story building. Here, a Palestinian charity worker is trying to bring a semblance of normality to children displaced from the war ravaging neighboring Syria.

Mahmoud Manaa, popularly known as Abu Hussein, runs the operations of the Joint Christian Council (JCC) in Sidon. Through dogged determination, he has helped 180 young Syrian and Palestinian students continue their education and take part in official brevet and baccalaureate exams in Damascus.

“We as an NGO opened our center to provide displaced Palestinian and Syrian children the opportunity to educate themselves in the Syrian program because no one in Lebanon is providing this service,” he says.

He turned two small rooms in his office into makeshift classrooms, hired teachers from the Syrian refugee population living in the Sidon area, and rotated students through two five-hour shifts per day.

The JCC is one of the oldest charities working with Palestinians in Lebanon and focuses on vocational and educational services for men and women. The logistical problems facing Abu Hussein were formidable. The project, funded by the charity Action of Churches Together, started with 90 Palestinian and Syrian students and quickly swelled to 180, straining the capacity of his small office. Abu Hussein had no official Syrian school text books to hand out to the students.

“The Syrian ministry of education did not distribute any books so we photocopied books for 200 students from just one [original] copy,” he says.

While many of the Syrian and Palestinian students are staying in Sidon and the adjacent Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, other students are scattered across south Lebanon. Abu Hussein hired bus drivers to bring them to his tiny classrooms.

Next was the problem of formally registering the children with Syrian educational authorities. Many of the students fled with their families from war zones, such as the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, and had little time to bring identity documents and papers necessary for educational registration.

Abu Hussein travelled to Damascus and with the help of UNRWA, the United Nations agency that handles Palestinian refugee affairs, and officials at the Syrian education ministry, he was able to register 200 students for the official brevet and baccalaureate exams.

For Syrian and Palestinian refugees having fled the Syrian war to a destitute and difficult life in Lebanon, JCC’s education project provided a beacon of hope.

“I heard about it through friends. I was living in Ain al-Hilweh and I came here because I wanted to continue my education,” says Noura Mouawad, 17, a partially-sighted Palestinian girl who was displaced from the Yarmouk Palestinian camp 18 months ago.

Before the students could travel to Damascus to take the exams, Abu Hussein had another hurdle to overcome. Under Lebanese law, any Palestinian refugee that chooses to leave Lebanon will be barred from returning.

Lebanon is a reluctant host to some 450,000 officially registered Palestinian refugees whose forebears fled Palestine in 1948 during the war that led to the creation of Israel. Around half of them live in 12 officially recognized camps amid conditions of poverty, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, and rampant crime and militancy. The Palestinians are banned from most professions and are forced to eke out livings mainly from menial labor. The problem has been greatly exacerbated by the influx of more than one million Syrians fleeing the civil war, placing an intolerable burden on the cash-strapped Lebanese state. The Lebanese government recently announced that any Syrian citizen who returns to Syria would not be allowed back into Lebanon, the same condition imposed upon the stateless Palestinian refugees.

Abu Hussein visited Lebanon’s General Security department, which handles immigration issues, and persuaded them to make an exception for the students so that they could attend the exams in Damascus and then return to their families staying in Lebanon.

“The General Security was very understanding and they helped us a lot,” Abu Hussein says.

When it came time to travel to Damascus, not all students were willing to go. It was not the fear of being caught up in the violence in Syria that made them reluctant but the possibility that they would be prevented from returning afterwards irrespective of the deal with General Security.

Now, for those that took and passed their baccalaureate exams, the future is uncertain. Most want to attend university, but they lack the funds and as refugees there is doubt that Lebanese higher education institutions would accept them.

“I want to study medicine in Lebanon. It’s in my nature to help people but I don’t think we can afford it. It will be very difficult,” says Naima al-Lahm, 18, a Syrian girl from Al-Midan in Damascus.

Most of the students view education as an escape from the grim reality of their lives.

“Education is the only thing that can help us. We have no home, no country. At least we can have an education,” says Yara, a Palestinian girl. “When we left Yarmouk, we lost all hope in life. But we have got some of it back by being here.”

Mona, another Palestinian girl agrees.

“This place is a big chance for us,” she says referring to Abu Hussein’s project. “This place makes us feel like we didn’t leave Syria. It makes us feel like we are at home.”

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