For love of strangers: Behind the Jewish legacy of welcoming refugees

When thousands of Afghan immigrants were resettled in California’s Sacramento County over the past decade, volunteers from Congregation B’nai Israel were among those in the county providing aid, helping parents find apartments and jobs, and offering assistance ranging from literacy lessons to backpacks and school supplies. 

“We have Holocaust survivors in our congregation, and so many of us are just a generation or two removed from relatives who went through that experience or were forced to leave their country,” says Maryann Rabovsky, who has served as chairwoman of the synagogue’s immigration and refugee assistance committee since it was formed three years ago. “They came here as refugees, and so we understand how important it is to help others who are having to leave everything they know behind.”

That calling to help the “other” – to welcome strangers, to aid immigrants and refugees – is one with deep roots in Judaism, as well as other faiths, and many Jews say they feel both a deep moral obligation as well an ethical imperative from their own history. 

Recommended: When migration means fleeing home but not your country

And it’s a message that gained new prominence this weekend when the idea of love for strangers and a faith-based imperative to help was thrust into juxtaposition with extreme hate, in the form of the shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue, who, in online posts, tried to justify his actions by demonizing Jewish groups helping refugees.

“The radical message of the Bible is that we should let our suffering teach us love,” says Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean of Hadar, an egalitarian center for advanced Jewish learning in New York. “Another way of coming at this is that there are three love commandments in the Bible: love of God, love of the neighbor, and love of the stranger – in the modern translation that essentially means immigrant.”

An ancient text cannot be used to settle the details of contemporary policy questions, Rabbi Held adds, “but it can and should help us establish an ethos, and the ethos can and should be one of welcome. The demonization of people seeking refuge is, religiously speaking, an abomination.”  

For some Americans less familiar with refugee issues, Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh may have been the first time they’d heard of HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine resettlement agencies that partner with the US government to assist refugees. Founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, HIAS largely aided Jewish refugees fleeing persecution through the 20th century. More recently the group has expanded its work to assist non-Jewish refugees, and to work to help refugees around the world, wherever they are.

When Robert Bowers opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday, killing 11 people and wounding six, he was apparently driven by anti-Semitism, but had also expressed rage online specifically against HIAS, spouting conspiracy theories that the organization “like[d] to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us.”

That rage has been devastating to those doing the work.

“It’s both shocking and confounding, because it’s just such a twisting of the narrative we know to be true, which is that this is our obligation, and really everybody’s obligation,” says Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, director of education for community engagement at HIAS. “We’re in a time of incredible polarization in this country, where there has been a real uptick in hate speech, and that hate has been allowed to foment. This is a really tragic result of the moment that we’re in, but it also points to a patent misunderstanding of what our moral and ethical and religious obligations really are.”

Those obligations have deep roots not just in Judaism, but in all three of the Abrahamic traditions, says Mehnaz Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York (and who happens to be, as she notes, a Muslim woman heading a Holocaust center at a Catholic college). 

“For all three traditions, the stranger, the refugee, the wayfarer – they’re part of all the sacred scripture,” says Professor Afridi, citing numerous specific instances in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Quran where that obligation is spelled out. “We’ve all been strangers in lands, and I think that faith groups have always tried to help immigrants.” There’s a Syrian student on campus, Afridi notes, who has been helped by Muslims, Jews, and Catholics in his journey. 

Of course, not everyone interprets those traditions that way, and all three faiths also have darker, less loving histories among some sects. “All faiths share the following: If you read your tradition in the most narrow way, faith can actually encourage narrow-mindedness and bigotry and exclusionary rhetoric and behavior,” says Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.” It’s a reason, he adds, why “an open heart” is called for in reading and understanding those traditions.

Open hearts were in abundance in the wake of Saturday’s shooting. There was an outpouring of support for the Tree of Life Synagogue from Muslims, Christians, and other faith communities around the country.

‘A MORAL COMMITMENT’

In Jewish teachings, that idea of welcoming the stranger is a core tenet, harkening back to the days when Jews were exiles in Egypt. “You reach out to the other, because you were the other in Egypt. It’s a constant refrain,” says Rabbi Shoshanah Conover at Chicago’s Temple Sholom. The Torah readings last weekend – the day of the Pittsburgh shooting – were about Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers into their tent, who turn out to be messengers from God, notes Rabbi Conover. “That’s where we get this value of welcoming guests,” she says. “Once we get to Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we have the mention of welcoming the stranger, loving the stranger, all of these commandments, 36 times.”  

For many American Jews, they only have to look a generation or two back to find instances when they, or people they know, were fleeing persecution. Held notes that his father was born in Poland and his mother in Lithuania, and that “the world into which they were born was obliterated.” But more recently, other ethnic groups around the world have emerged as the most vulnerable, pushing more Jews to look outside of their community as they seek to help, says Rabbi Schwarz.

“If we take our own experience and have the ethos to care for the stranger stop at the borders of our own community and tribe, then we’ve learned nothing from history,” says Schwarz. HIAS’s work, he says, epitomizes that drive to practice what teachings demand. “HIAS as an organization has pivoted from an organization that primarily was committed to helping Jewish refugees to, today, an organization that helps refugees because we’re Jews.” 

And even while Jewish communities have specific history, both recent and ancient, that gives added resonance, and empathy, to the idea of helping refugees – many Jewish scholars emphasize that the moral imperative would exist regardless. 

“Every year Jews try to internalize the idea that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt and were liberated,… and we’re asked to make the leap to understand how others who were strangers or immigrants might feel,” says Held. “That’s why you have such a fiercely impassioned response from a large swath of the Jewish community” not just to the refugee crisis but to the immigration issues that came to a head this summer. “The historical experience of the Jews amplifies for us what is always in place as a moral commitment.” 

It’s that commitment – and the news about the Syrian refugee crisis – that led Conover, at the Chicago temple, to help spearhead a recent effort to sponsor a refugee family. “It hit that boiling point where it felt like if we don’t do something now, we’re not living up to our ethical Jewish imperative,” she says. 

Her temple and several others in Chicago went through training with HIAS and, in the end, Temple Sholom sponsored a Rohingya family through RefugeeOne, another refugee resettlement agency. The political turmoil around refugees that has arisen during the Trump presidency delayed the temple’s efforts to help, and prompted congregants to shift some of their focus to advocacy, Conover says. And the experience of actually working with a refugee family – which arrived with a 2-year-old son and a teenage daughter, and that has another child who wasn’t able to travel with them – lent a personal immediacy to what can seem an abstract debate.

“Working with them very directly makes it very, very personal when there is dehumanizing rhetoric about who comes to this country,” says Conover. 

‘IF YOU SAVE ONE LIFE, YOU SAVE A WORLD’

In Wellesley, Mass., a leafy suburb 30 minutes west of Boston, Michael Gilman and Debbie Gotbetter get similarly emotional when they talk about the two Syrian families their temple, Beth Elohim, has helped to support, and the six other families in the area they’ve worked with.

They were also moved to help by news of the growing Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, and both serve on the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Team associated with their congregation, which works with HIAS and Jewish Family Services.

“In the Jewish tradition and the Muslim tradition, you know the saying is ‘If you save one life, you save a world,’ ” says Mr. Gilman, speaking in a quiet corner of Beth Elohim as children run about on the floor below. “And you know, from that perspective we’ve saved many worlds.”

Ms. Gotbetter, Gilman, and other volunteers worked to set up apartments for the families ahead of time, stocking them with furniture and familiar foods. And the nervousness they felt before the families’ arrival quickly melted away, they said. Since the families arrived about two years ago the volunteers have shared poignant moments with them, and Gotbetter even served as a doula for a birth.

“I have more photos of them than I do of my own family,” she says.

Gotbetter remembers asking one father what surprised him the most coming here. “And he pointed at me and basically said, ‘You. Your community,’ ” she says. “They were surprised that we were all Jewish and have told their families, and I think they were surprised too, and it’s been really powerful for all of us.”

Schwarz notes that the process of helping a refugee family was also a powerful experience for his congregation in Bethesda, Md. In their case, it was an Afghan family – a husband, wife, and four children – that they helped, and it was in conjunction with a Presbyterian refugee resettlement organization. “Our entire congregation has embraced them,” Schwarz says. “You’ve got a Christian organization helping a Muslim family from Afghanistan, and we’re Jews who are doing it. And all those pieces are interchangeable. You go to another community where HIAS is the agency, and a Christian church is taking on the family that’s coming in from Syria. That’s the epitome of what it means for people of faith to join hands together with people who are suffering and who are the most vulnerable in the world today.” 

Related stories

Read this story at csmonitor.com

Become a part of the Monitor community

It’s alive! On Halloween, Frankenreads celebrate 200th anniversary of classic

Carolinn Kuebler says she found the perfect way to celebrate one of her favorite holidays.

On Oct. 31, she headed to the haunted halls of … the Library of Congress. There authors, actors, and librarians were lining up – not to trick or treat or wait for the Great Pumpkin – but to bring a 200-year-old book to life.

Wearing a festive sweater with a bright orange pumpkin on it, the Washington architect listens intently to “Frankenstein,” a novel she herself has read several times. She says she’s happy to relive the story of the inventor who thought he could create life, and this time have it read aloud to her.

Recommended: Halloween arrives, and Canadians embrace the season wholeheartedly

“With podcasts and everything, people are really getting into listening to stories again, which I think is really cool,” says Ms. Kuebler.

To celebrate the anniversary of “Frankenstein,” more than 600 Frankenreads have been planned in at least 43 countries – ranging from film screenings, museum exhibits, and marathon reads of the monstrous classic, which has inspired everything from more than 50 movies to breakfast cereal.

“It goes beyond popular culture and into the book itself,” says Marc Ruppel, a senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which partnered with the Keats-Shelley Association of America to create the Frankenreads. “And the fact that it has something to tell us about ourselves, something to tell us about the ways that we engage with technology, engage with humanity, and engage with each other.”

At the Library of Congress’s free event, designated readers, including award-winning author Louis Bayard and Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, stand at two podiums in the center of the room. Each read for ten minutes as a camera switches between the two so that the reading can continue unbroken. The list includes a few pre-recorded appearances from figures like horror-meister R.L. Stein, actor John Cena, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Throughout the reading, tours of the library continue with school groups catching snippets of the novel as they walk by.

From “The Munsters” to “Young Frankenstein” to memes, the horror story a teenage Mary Shelley dreamed up one night to win a contest in which the competition included her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron has resonated in pop culture. In fact, a movie about the contest itself, starring Elle Fanning, was released just last year.

In addition to winning the contest, some literary scholars say Shelley invented what became the science fiction genre.

“It’s a very complicated fable but it’s deeply embedded in all sorts of cultural, professional, scientific, technological anxieties about progress, which comes with promise and doesn’t always think through the perils,” says Dr. Susan Wolfson, a professor of English at Princeton University who organized a Frankenread on campus.

Reading aloud presents an important alternative to entertainment on screens, says Mr. Ruppel. The marathon read of “Frankenstein,” inspired in part by Bloomsday readings of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, holds significance in a world where technology encourages separate, individuated experiences.

“It matters that we begin to start to share these things again,” says Ruppel, “and that we do it in way I think that allows for some real patience and just deliberateness on our part.”

The book, which is estimated to have sold 80 million to 100 million copies worldwide, has been kept alive in part to its celebration in film, says Neil Fraistat, president of the Keats-Shelley Association of America and organizer of Frankenreads. Since 1910, film renditions have popularized the story all over the world, with actors from Boris Karloff to Peter Boyle to Robert De Niro playing Victor Frankenstein’s misbegotten creation. But the novel’s message – as well as the monster – are why it still resonates.

Throughout the many retellings of the Gothic novel, “Frankenstein” encourages us to think more deeply about humanity, says Mr. Fraistat. And in doing so, “we can learn the importance of empathy, love, [and] ethical responsibility.”

Related stories

Read this story at csmonitor.com

Become a part of the Monitor community

After canceling ‘Rift 2’ overhaul, Oculus plans a modest update to flagship VR headset

Facebook’s virtual reality arm may soon find itself in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up with hardware competitors.

Last week, TechCrunch reported that Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe had decided to leave Facebook partially due to his “fundamentally different views on the future of Oculus” and decisions surrounding the cancellation of a next-generation “Rift 2” project.

The company’s prototype “Rift 2” device, codenamed Caspar, was a “complete redesign” of the original Rift headset, a source familiar with the matter tells us. Its cancellation signified an interest by Facebook leadership to focus on more accessible improvements to the core Rift experience that wouldn’t require the latest PC hardware to function. Iribe did not agree with the direction, with a source telling us that he was specifically not interested in “offering compromised experiences that provided short-term user growth but sacrificed on comfort and performance.”

Former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe sharing details on the Oculus Rift in 2015

In the wake of the overhaul’s cancellation, the company will be pursuing a more modest product update — possibly called the “Rift S” — to be released as early as next year, which makes minor upgrades to the device’s display resolution while more notably getting rid of the external sensor tracking system, sources tell us. Instead, the headset will utilize the integrated “inside-out” Insight tracking system which is core to Facebook’s recently-announced Oculus Quest standalone headset.

The “Constellation” tracking system on the current-generation Rift offers precise accuracy thanks to the static external sensors that track the headset and Touch controllers. While the Insight system would likely offer users a much more simplified setup process, a clear pain point of the first-generation product, “inside-out” tracking systems have greater limitations when it comes to the lighting conditions they work in and are generally less accurate than systems with external trackers.

While Oculus has long led the way on hardware advances, this release could be seen as the company playing catch-up with competitors like Microsoft, which has partnered with OEMs including Samsung, Lenovo and LG to release headsets on its Windows Mixed Reality platform that also feature inside-out tracking as well as higher resolution displays than the Oculus Rift.

“While we don’t comment on rumors/speculation about our future products, as we shared last week, PC VR remains a part of our strategy and is a category we will continue to invest in. In addition to hardware, we have a robust software roadmap and are funding content well into 2020,” an Oculus spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introducing the $399 Oculus Quest

There are some clear benefits for Oculus pushing iterative hardware in an iPhone-like “S” manner, especially around affordability, as a more drawn out device life cycle gives both Oculus and PC component manufacturers time to reduce VR’s high barrier to entry in terms of cost.

The cancellation of its Caspar “Rift 2” project, does suggest a less aggressive pace of innovation for the company with its flagship premium VR product. The move away from a redesign could alienate early adopters and send them to other platforms. It could also lead Oculus into a situation where new titles that take advantage of the latest systems aren’t compatible with Rift hardware.

At its Oculus Connect developer conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared that the Oculus Rift, Quest and Go represented “the completion of its first-generation of VR products.” As Zuckerberg continues to double-down on his long-term goal to bring 1 billion users into VR, the need to build the Oculus user base is growing more important but it’s unclear how essential the company believes leading the high-end PC VR market is to defining that early mainstream success.

Every Other Democrat In Texas Is Trying To Ride The Beto Wave

One day late last January, Beto O’Rourke was hosting a town hall in Sugar Land, Texas, and Sarah DeMerchant, a candidate for a Texas state house seat, was worried she wouldn’t be able to make it because of a prior, black-tie engagement.

So she showed up to shake hands at the O’Rourke event — in a gold sequin evening gown. DeMerchant said O’Rourke even asked her if he had underdressed. “It was absolutely hilarious, but it had to be done,” she told BuzzFeed News.

O’Rourke is the type of high-excitement candidate the likes of which Texas Democrats haven’t seen in a long, long time. Getting a chance to be seen with a candidate who can draw thousands to his rallies and is raising money from all over the country is invaluable for lesser-known Texas Democrats running in local races across the state.

A slew of Democrats — the kind that, the party hopes, could eventually turn Texas blue — are hoping to ride on the enthusiasm O’Rourke has built. Even if he loses big statewide, local Democratic candidates have embraced him, and say that the energy generated by his well-traveled campaign may have a long-term legacy for the party in Texas.

Diane Trautman, who is running against an incumbent Republican for county clerk in Harris County, told BuzzFeed News she’s made sure to be at events where O’Rourke is, describing them as the “perfect place to campaign” because of the large crowds he draws out. “Most events I go to, a hundred would be a big crowd.”

“My race of course is at the bottom of a very long ballot, so this excitement that he generates … is turning into voter engagement. And that has resulted in more people being interested in all levels of government,” Trautman said.

Asked if she thought it would be harder to run as a Democrat in Texas this year if O’Rourke wasn’t at the top of the ticket, Trautman said, “Probably. You need a high excitement candidate somewhere up at the top.”

The comparison most Democrats reach for, if any, when asked if they’ve ever seen a candidate like O’Rourke is Barack Obama, during his first run for president.

“I like to say … that [O’Rourke] has the ‘It Factor.’ Now don’t ask me what the It Factor is, but whatever it is, he’s got it,” Cynthia Ginyard, the chair of Fort Bend County Democrats, told BuzzFeed News, laughing. “He’s got it. And that is not something that you buy.”

O’Rourke’s still the underdog in a closely watched Senate race against Senator Ted Cruz, the one-time presidential candidate. But the fact that it’s closely watched says something: Maybe, just maybe, this is the year Democrats have a chance at winning a state-wide seat for the first time since 1994. And that hope, however slim, has impacts all down the ballot.

In past years, “by this time in the election, everybody knew that we weren’t going to win a statewide race,” said Matt Angle, the founder of Lone Star Project, a Democratic communications PAC. “The fact that Beto has run a good campaign, he’s remained competitive and he’s communicated through the end, that has helped all Democrats.”

Even absent a Senate win, straight-ticket voting in Texas means some O’Rourke voters could be a deciding factor in closer, lower-level races. (This is the last year Texas will offer straight-ticket voting.)

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, has reportedly expressed concern over down-ballot candidates riding an O’Rourke wave thanks to straight-ticket voting. “I feel very good about our top of the ticket statewide. But I’m very concerned about our down-ballot judges, our county clerks … our district clerks, anyone who’s down ballot: our House members and our congressmen,” Patrick said, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Several candidates who spoke to BuzzFeed News credited O’Rourke’s campaign with reaching out and allowing down-ballot candidates to get involved in his events.

“They’ve been very gracious about sharing the stage with… people who get little to no exposure,” said Sharon Hirsch, who is running for a state house seat against Matt Shaheen, a Republican incumbent.

Since she spoke at an O’Rourke event, Hirsch said she’s had voters tell her they saw her speak there. “You can’t not know about him, where it’s harder for the rest of us to get that,” she said.

Brian Middleton, who is running for district attorney in Fort Bend County, said he tries to “follow Beto everywhere he goes” trying to reach his base. He spends time campaigning there and takes his information to voters, even if he isn’t necessarily speaking at the event. Democrats are, he said, coordinating events and “trying to help each other and ride the popularity of Beto,” he said.

And it’s not just tagging along to O’Rourke’s events. Mark Phariss, who is running for a Texas state senate seat, told BuzzFeed News he changed his personal Facebook profile picture to one of him with O’Rourke. He’s also bought digital ads that feature the Senate candidate. “They do very well,” Phariss said. “And they click right through [to] my website.”

“Of course I believe that Beto’s campaign, with the enthusiasm that it has, has helped my campaign. There’s no doubt about it,” said Phariss, who would be the first openly gay member of the Texas state Senate.

But several candidates noted that while the excitement around O’Rourke has helped them, they still have to run their own campaigns. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m not necessarily counting on that,” said Julie Luton, a candidate running for a state house seat. “We can’t all rely on one candidate, no matter how wonderful he is.”

But yes, they admit, O’Rourke has been a help, and point to the fact that Texas is historically a low voter turnout state. This year, more early voters have already cast their ballots than in the last midterm election in 2014, something Democrats credit at least in part to O’Rourke. Some candidates, including Phariss, argued that their efforts locally are helping O’Rourke as well.

For years now, Democrats have been saying they’ll one day turn Texas blue, pointing to the changing demographics in the state. But even if the wave doesn’t come to Texas this year, eyes are on the lasting effects of O’Rourke’s campaign.

“It’s never been my goal for him to win. I would love for him to win,” Colin Strother, an Austin-based Texas Democratic consultant, told BuzzFeed News. Instead, Strother said, he wants O’Rourke to help get Democrats on base rather than just try to score a home run. “What it will do is it will illustrate firmly that a grassroots, progressive campaign that’s adequately funded with a good candidate can move the needle in Texas.”

While Hirsch noted that Wendy Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, did some events in her area and with other down-ballot candidates, O’Rourke is different. “This is just something that hasn’t happened before. We haven’t had statewide candidates in our community,” she said.

Asked if she’d ever seen a candidate like O’Rourke, Hirsch laughed. “In Texas, no.”

SpaceX shuffles Starlink leadership, hoping to accelerate launch

SpaceX is changing the lineup at the Seattle-based offices of Starlink, the company’s nascent satellite broadband division. A Reuters report depicts a whirlwind visit by CEO Elon Musk as a middle management bloodbath, but SpaceX says it’s just the usual fast-moving space company stuff.

Starlink plans to put thousands of satellites into space with which to blanket the world in broadband — SpaceX isn’t the only aspirant to this plan, but it is farther along than some. It launched a pair of prototype satellites in February, Tintin A and B, which are reportedly working perfectly well as ongoing test platforms.

Space is no place to rush into, however, but that clashed with aggressive timelines set by Musk years ago and apparently not quite being met. Reuters reported that several leads on the project were pushing for more testing, and Musk visited Seattle to provide a kick in the pants.

Among those reported fired were VP of satellites Rajeev Badyal and designer Mark Krebs, both of whom have overseen the project through and after launch. SpaceX did not directly confirm their departures but confirmed that Starlink had seen significant restructuring.

“We have incorporated lessons learned and re-organized to allow for the next design iteration to be flown in short order,” a SpaceX representative told TechCrunch, saying the move was consistent with the “rapid iteration design and testing” the company is known for.

Will it be enough to put more birds in the air by mid-2019, as Musk hopes? That remains to be seen, but the SpaceX strategy of launching early and often has so far paid off in the long run, so perhaps this maneuver will as well.

Syria crisis: Will donor fatigue push refugees back too soon?

Yusra Ajaj is facing a life or death decision.

A widowed mother of three, Ms. Ajaj is considering leaving Jordan, the country she has called home since war consumed her homeland and killed her husband in 2013.

After nearly five years, her life is once again in upheaval. In April, the United Nations stopped her monthly cash assistance of $210, which she relied upon to pay rent. Then in September, the UN cut her monthly $175 in food vouchers, which she had recently resorted to selling on the black market in order to pay her bills.

Recommended: How Syrian refugees strain – and strengthen – Jordan

Now Ajaj is faced with what she describes as “two worst cases” – poverty and homelessness in Jordan, or return to Syria. Worse still, she says the decision is being made for her.

“I fear that the international community is trying to push us back into Syria,” Ajaj says as she enters the offices of a Jordanian NGO in the northern city of Mafraq to ask for cash assistance.

Across Jordan and Lebanon, Syrian refugees are finding their assistance cut, medical aid suspended, and educational programs axed as international donor fatigue sets in over the Syrian crisis. The UN and its partner agencies across the Middle East are being hit hard.

Yet despite a new push by humanitarian organizations to focus on reconstruction in Syria and encourage refugee returns, UN officials warn that conditions there are not yet stable or conducive for a mass return of the 5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries.

Instead, they warn, the cuts in aid will leave tens of thousands of families deep in poverty in host countries unable to support them.

A SNOWBALL EFFECT

In late September, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), which has taken the lead in providing life-saving and sustaining assistance to 5.6 million Syrian refugees across the Middle East, issued an urgent appeal for $270 million by the end of the month.

If it did not receive these funds, it warned, it would have to suspend services for millions of refugees, including cash assistance to 456,000 vulnerable Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon.

This money is used for rent and food, crucial for the 80 percent of Syrian refugees who live in urban areas and not camps and are under the poverty line.

“If we stop this assistance, then thousands of families cannot pay the rent, and this will create a devastating snowball effect in host communities,” says Stefan Severe, UNHCR’s Jordan representative.

The shortfall is not a blip, but the latest sign of endemic shortages. As of late September, the entire UNHCR budget for the Syrian crisis of $1.97 billion was 35 percent funded for 2018. Other UN agencies and its partners face similar deficits.

Funding for UNICEF Jordan, which supports Jordanian schools and educational programs, is down significantly even as the number of Syrian students is rising.

“If funding continues to reduce at this pace, we will continue to make difficult choices and minimize the impact on the most vulnerable children,” says UNICEF Jordan Representative Robert Jenkins. “But we cannot completely protect them.”

KEEPING KIDS IN SCHOOL

One of the first casualties was the hajati program, under which UNICEF provided $28 a month to vulnerable Syrian students to help pay for transportation, uniforms, and even shoes to attend school. The program aims to encourage some of the 90,000 Syrian children estimated to be out of school in Jordan to attend class.

The hajati program helped 50,000 Syrian students last school year; because of cuts, UNICEF reduced the number of beneficiaries to 10,000 for 2018/19, after which it is expected to stop altogether.

Also in the crosshairs is Makani, after-school centers that provide day-long tutoring, life skills, counseling, remedial education, kindergarten, and safe spaces for Syrian and Jordanian children to play and interact. For many, the Makani centers offer their only hope for education.

One such student is Mohammed, 15, who has gone six years without a full semester of school. When he was nine, his primary school was bombed by Syrian war planes. He fled to Jordan with his mother, uncle, and siblings after his father was killed and began four years of bouncing between refugee camps and shared apartments near industrial zones.

Now he cannot enter a Jordanian school, and for good reason: he cannot read or write. 

“I just want to be able to read street signs and store signs and maps,” Mohammed says in between remedial classes at a Makani center. “I want to know where I am going in life, and how to get back home…. If I can read and write, I can go to school. And if I go to school, my future will not be lost.”

Mohammed and hundreds of others like him stand to lose out as UNICEF has cut the number of its Makani centers from 200 across Jordan down to 100 centers this year. The program is in doubt beyond this year.

SYRIA RECONSTRUCTION

The funding for these programs in Jordan has diminished as several humanitarian organizations that have partnered with the UN have begun redirecting their priorities away from refugees and toward the stabilization of Syria.

The flow of donor interest and funds from refugees to reconstruction has led several NGOs to float tenders for projects within Syria and create new positions for foreigners to head up “Syria” operations.

“The new buzzword is reconstruction, and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” an aid worker who was not authorized to speak to the press says on the condition of anonymity. “Refugees in donors’ minds are old news.”

Yet UN officials warn that talk of refugee returns is very premature.

While Jordan saw 17,000 Syrian refugees return to their homeland in 2017, the rate slowed to 1,770 returns from January 2018 through September and no verified voluntary returns to Syria since June.

Despite a drive by the Lebanese government to encourage and facilitate its 1 million Syrian refugees to return home, both a lack of trust on the part of refugees and restrictions by the Syrian government have limited repatriations to a few thousand.

On the recently reopened Jordanian-Syrian border, meanwhile, a much publicized restoration of trade and passenger traffic has triggered a slow but steady trickle of Syrians travelling back to their homeland. Jordanian authorities reported that 108 refugees traveled back to Syria over the first five days the border was open.

TOO SOON TO RELOCATE

However, most Syrians traveling at the border tell a visiting reporter that they are going for family visits. Relocation, they say, is still not an option.

“We are so happy to have the chance to see family we could cry,” says Abu Ahmed, a Syrian heading to Damascus. “But we remain residents of Jordan and will for the future.”

And the UN insists that the conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for the return of millions, many of whom have been targeted by their own government.

“We don’t want to push refugees back into Syria before it and they are ready – and we don’t want to leave vulnerable Syrians in host countries without vital support,” says Mr. Severe of the UNHCR.

Jordanian officials recognize that conditions are not yet right for mass returns; many here fear that the international community will begin to redirect resources away from refugees prematurely, leaving host countries like Jordan and Lebanon to carry a burden that some liken to a social “time-bomb.”

Facing the cuts to assistance programs in the cities, thousands of Syrians are already returning to under-funded refugee camps in Jordan in search of free shelter and medical care.

UN experts warn the cut in aid could result in thousands of children dropping out of school to work and a spike in child marriages, crime, human trafficking, and exploitation.

“I don’t know what to do,”  the widowed Ms. Ajaj says after leaving the Jordanian NGO empty-handed, tears forming in her eyes. Unwilling to go back to Syria, unable to live in Jordan, the only answer, she says, may be putting her children on a migrant boat to Europe.

“We are out of options and out of hope,” she says, wiping her eyes. “What would you do?”

Related stories

Read this story at csmonitor.com

Become a part of the Monitor community

First Long-Term Shelter Opens for Boy Victims of US Sex Trafficking

A trafficking shelter for boys opens in North Carolina

When Americans think about human trafficking, most don’t picture a boy as the victim. But several studies, identified in USA Today earlier this year, show that boys account for a third or more of the children sexually exploited in the US.

It’s why Anna and Chris Smith have founded the ministry Restore One which has opened a faith-based shelter designed specifically for boys aged 12-18 who have been victims of sex trafficking.

“We felt like the Lord really told us to do this,” Anna explained to CBN News this week. Initially, she and her husband intended to open a home for girls but changed their minds when several anti-trafficking advocates told them they had no long-term shelter options for law enforcement looking for referral sources for boys. 

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow — I wonder if this is something God is calling us to,’ ” Smith said.

A few months later she and her husband decided to take the plunge and create a home for boys.

They’re now offering The Anchor House, a licensed, North Carolina-based shelter for boys who need a place to stay to receive holistic care. The non-profit offers the shelter at no charge. “Kids will stay with us as long as they need,” she said. That could range from one to two years.

The boys will live in cottages supervised by male and female house parents. “They need to see strong and kind men and also safe and strong women,” Smith said.

Most boys, she said, are trafficked by men and sold to men. “Boys are absolutely pimped out, but many boys don’t identify their pimp as a pimp but more as a trusted friend,” she said.

Shared Hope International, a leader in the international anti-trafficking movement, says The Anchor House is the only licensed shelter for male survivors of child sex trafficking in the US.

Shared Hope spokeswoman Susanna Bean says anti-trafficking advocates have mistakenly ignored the needs of male victims. “This shelter is opening at a time when we’re recognizing as a movement that we have overlooked the trafficking of boys for far too long,” she said.

The Anchor House provides counseling therapy for its residents as well as educational and medical services. Plenty of exercise options, such as biking, soccer, and yoga are also available.

The ministry wants to provide holistic care for boys who have suffered multiple traumas. “For a lot of men and boys, for them to either speak out or name that they’re a survivor is so shameful,” Smith said. “They may be concerned that they’ll be called gay or that they’re not a true guy anymore.”

CBS launches a streaming entertainment network, ET Live

CBS is today launching another streaming network, this time focused on entertainment news. The service, which is called ET Live, was developed by CBS Interactive and CBS TV’s “Entertainment Tonight” news magazine, and will be available both as a standalone app as well as a part of the CBS streaming app aimed at cord cutters, CBS All Access.

The new service will deliver 24/7 coverage of entertainment news, including breaking news, celebrity interviews, features, behind-the-scenes, red carpet coverage, plus trends stories across celebrity fashion, beauty and lifestyle.

The content isn’t just a rehash of the “Entertainment Tonight” on-air broadcast, the network claims. Instead, it will feature original programming and a roster of new hosts, including Lauren Zima, Denny Directo, Cassie DiLaura, Tanner Thomason, Jason Carter and Melicia Johnson.

The flagship show’s current hosts – Nancy O’Dell, Kevin Frazier, Nischelle Turner and Keltie Knight – will make regular appearances, however, to promote what’s up next and other exclusives.

At launch, the service is available on its own website at ETLive.com and through an ET Live app on iOS, Android, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV, with more platforms expected in the future.

It’s also being integrated into CBS All Access’s live feed across platforms, and as feed within CBSN, the network’s 24/7 streaming news service.

The new streaming network is the latest of several launches aimed at bringing more CBS content to a new generation of viewers who no longer tune in to traditional pay TV.

A few months ago, CBS debuted a portfolio of streaming services under the brand CBS Local. These help deliver local news to cord cutters and other digital media consumers, including its CBS All Access subscribers. It also operates news network CBSN, which it added to CBS All Access last year. And it launched streaming sports news service, CBS Sports HQ, earlier this year. This can now also be found in CBS All Access.

Like CBSN, CBS Sports HQ, and your local CBS News (where available), the new ET Live feed is available in the “Live” section of the CBS All Access app. Users can toggle between the various live streams with a tap, then can choose to watch live or jump back to watch previous segments on-demand.

ET’s brand made sense to be the next to transition to reach over-the-top viewers because of its existing reach, including on digital platforms. The TV show has nearly 5 million daily viewers, while the ETonline.com website averages 20 million monthly U.S. uniques, per comScore. Its social audience is even larger, with over 70 million U.S. users monthly, the network says.

“From CBS All Access to CBSN and CBS Sports HQ, we are dedicated to bringing consumers best-in-class streaming services,” said Rob Gelick, Executive Vice President and General Manager, CBS Entertainment Digital for CBS Interactive, in a statement about the launch.

“ET Live is a natural expansion of our strategy and expertise in this area. We have the great advantage of being able to apply key learnings from our leading digital entertainment properties and marry that with the #1 entertainment brand in ‘Entertainment Tonight’ to create a new offering for the next generation of entertainment consumers, those that are platform-agnostic and expect content to be accessible anytime, anywhere,” he said.

Oman’s guiding hand in a churning Mideast

One of the calmest cities in the Middle East has been very busy of late, acting as a hall of odd fellows.

In recent weeks, Muscat, the capital of the tiny Arab state of Oman, has hosted Israel’s prime minister, Iran’s foreign minister for special political affairs, the Palestinian president, and the United Nations envoy for the Yemen conflict.

Each visit was held in secret, of course, which befits Oman’s historic role as a trusted go-between in the region. Yet three possible outcomes now seem to be in the open.

Recommended: Israel publicly cozies up to Arabian Gulf to balance Iran’s growing influence

One, Oman’s minister for foreign affairs said “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same” as other states in the Middle East. The suggestion was not widely disputed by most Arab states, not even Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of ongoing global criticism for its role in killing of a prominent Saudi dissident.

Two, both the Defense secretary and secretary of State for the United States have called for a swift cease-fire in the war in Yemen and peace talks to take place next month. The four-year-old war has killed some 10,000 and left more than a third of the population in a humanitarian crisis. “It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Three, the Israeli sports minister, Miri Regev, was able to visit Abu Dhabi, sing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world, and visit the third largest mosque in the world.

As retired Gen. David Petraeus said at a recent conference in the region, the Middle East is in the midst of a “realignment” of power. Events are shifting the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US may soon propose a new peace process for the Israel-Palestinian standoff. And while the war in Syria winds down, the war in Yemen has escalated.

Oman, as it has done in the past, is playing a crucial role as a mediator in many of these shifts. It is friendly to Iran, its fellow Arab states, and the West. It can talk to both sides in the Yemen conflict, even brokering the release of Western hostages in Yemen. And it has been a back channel during the Syrian war and an intra-Arab dispute over Qatar.

What gives it this influence?

Oman seeks to live a peaceful existence as a neutral player between the bigger powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has been in power since 1970, also has a guiding philosophy on how to build trust and mutual respect.

The country’s diplomacy focuses on understanding the interests of other countries rather than trying to maximize its own gains, explains Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi, secretary-general of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It relies on seeing them as “though we were as them, to see the world through their eyes.”

“Is there some solution to this problem that neither of us have yet thought of that might turn out to work better for both of us?” says Mr. Busaidi.

This approach allows Oman to keep an open invitation to countries seeking to negotiate a way out of a difficult situation. And as the recent visits of foreign diplomats to Muscat shows, Oman’s honest listening and genuine concern for others may be helping produce results.

Related stories

Read this story at csmonitor.com

Become a part of the Monitor community

Royole’s bendy-screen FlexPai phone unveiled in China

FlexiPaiImage copyright Royole
Image caption Royole showed off its flexible phone at a trade event in China

A little-known California-based company has laid claim to creating the “world’s first foldable phone”.

Royole Corporation – a specialist in manufacturing flexible displays – unveiled the FlexPai handset at an event in Beijing.

When opened, the device presents a single display measuring 7.8in (19.8cm) – bigger than many tablets.

But when folded up, it presents three separate smaller screens – on the front, rear and spine of the device.

The six-year-old company said it would hold three “flash sales” to consumers in China on 1 November to offer the first product run.

Image copyright Royole
Image caption The firm says that when folded the spine of the device will be used to show notifications

The phones will be priced between 8,999 and 12,999 yuan ($1,290 to $1,863; £1,011 to £1,460) depending on the memory and storage specifications selected.

In addition, Royole said it would also offer a slightly different version of the devices to developers across the world the same day.

It intends to start deliveries in “late December”.

The launch has caught many industry watchers by surprise.

It was widely believed Samsung or Huawei would be the first to sell such a device to the public.

Samsung was expected to preview its efforts at an event in San Francisco on 7 November, but is not understood to be ready to put a product on sale.

Image copyright Royole
Image caption The handset is powered by Water OS – a variant of Android

Venturebeat reporter Evan Blass has also claimed LG intends to unveil a foldable phone of its own at the CES trade show in January.

Videos posted to social media of the FlexPai in action, however, indicate the version of Android they run still needs some work.

In particular, the display is shown to flick between different orientations after being switched from one mode to another before settling.

Purchasers will also need to be mindful that the device weighs 320g – more than 50% more than the iPhone XS Max or Galaxy Note 9.

However, Royole says the FlexPai has been tested to withstand more than 200,000 open-and-shut movements, meaning it should offer many years of use before the action damages the picture.

One expert said the smartphone was unlikely to become a bestseller but was impressive nonetheless.

“Royole gets the bragging rights to being first, and it’s quite astonishing that someone you’ve never heard of is doing this,” said Carolina Milanesi, from the Creative Strategies consultancy.

“What’s great is that it’s putting this into the hands of developers, who will be able to start the legwork that will result in apps for flexible devices that will eventually be sold by Samsung and whoever else.

“You need developers to think through how they can best take advantage of screens that double in size.”

She added that Royole might ultimately become an acquisition target for one of the mainstream consumer electronics brands.

Image copyright Royole
Image caption Royole designs its own flexible sensors and displays

Another company-watcher added that he doubted the FlexPai would ever be produced in large numbers.

“Royole has carried out several publicity stunts over the years to showcase its flexible OLED [organic light-emitting diode] displays,” said Dr Guillaume Chansin from Irimitech Consulting.

“The FlexPai is probably another stunt.

“Royole is building its first OLED factory and it is now trying to compete directly with other display manufacturers such as Samsung and LG.”