The nutty things I do – Going beyond my means to sponsor a Syrian refugee family

Hey guys,

So, you’ve probably all heard about this thing going on in Syria, right? Lots of fighting? And with Islamic State militants gaining more power and U.S.-led airstrikes in recent months, there has been even more fighting.

Formal work obligations prevent me from opining, but I will say this: I have always thought that fighting was a strange way to go about achieving peace. But I get it, sometimes, it seems there are no other options.

Today, I woke up to the news that Canada has delivered its first blow in the U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq. The latter are surely a horrifying bunch, but I find the whole we-are-at-war thing depressing.

So, Canada is now involved in the fight against these militants who, along with Bashar Assad, are seemingly and senselessly destroying anything and everyone still left in the country.

Canada’s involved in the Syrian war in other ways too. We’ve played a big role in providing much-needed security at Jordan’s newest Syrian refugee camp. Refer back to my blog post on Azraq where I talk about Canada’s investment there.

Another way for Canadians to get involved in the Syrian war is to sponsor refugees. If you’ve read my latest piece in the United Church Observer magazine, then you know from the sidebar (which is only in the print edition, sorry!) that Syria’s neighbours really don’t have the resources to handle any more refugees coming into their borders, the United Nations is appealing to the rest of the world to help out and the Canadian government is seeking more private sponsors.

So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m sponsoring a young refugee family of four. I can’t do it on my own though and I hope you can help out.

The family I am hoping to bring here are currently in Jordan. They have the typical Syrian refugee story – a long journey escaping the civil war in Syria, living in a refugee camp where their living conditions were far from ideal and finding alternate accommodations. They now struggle with scrounging enough money to pay for food and rent. It’s a worry that consumes them since refugees are not permitted to work in Jordan.

I met the father while I was reporting in Jordan. He helped me with interpreting, finding me accommodation and looked out for me when I felt my safety was threatened by unsavoury characters. He did a lot to help me out and I feel compelled to help in return.

If you want to know more about the family, please send me a private message. In the meantime, I have set up a fundraising site where you can donate, or spread the word about donating, to help bring this family to Canada. I am partnering with a group of other caring Canadians who are also helping with this process.

Things we need the money for:
– Immigration applications
– Air fares
– Visas
– Full financial, emotional and settlement support for the first year of the family’s stay in Canada as mandated by Canada’s refugee sponsorship agreement.

HERE IS THE LINK TO DONATE. Much thanks to anyone who is able to help out.

A tale of two refugee camps

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Children splash water on themselves and each other at a water-filling station in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp as a way to beat the scorching heat. (Credit: Vidya Kauri)

When Wa’el Jiradha was kidnapped by an armed group in Damascus, his wife Nazeq Aliqu had to use most of their savings to pay the nearly $6,000 in ransom that the group demanded.

“They beat me, they took my money, two mobile phones and my wife’s gold necklace,” said Jiradha, 32, recalling the four-hour ordeal.

Jiradha, a clothes trader, doesn’t know who detained him. Kidnappings for ransom have become a common tactic to raise money for resources, or the release of prisoners on either side, in the protracted fight between rebels and the Syrian government – a civil war that, now in its fourth year, has cost more than 160,000 lives and displaced about 9 million people making it the fastest-growing exodus since the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Syrians the world’s largest refugee population.

Robbed of their savings, Jiradha and Aliqu found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as the price of food and rent in the war-torn capital kept rising. Three months after the kidnapping, hunger forced them to flee their home they could no longer afford. To avoid the risk of being stopped, interrogated or captured by rebels or government forces at checkpoints, friends helped smuggle them on to the back of a truck. They felt like sheep and it was hot, they said. After nine hours travelling south, they reached the safer confines of neighbouring Jordan where border officials directed them to Azraq, Jordan’s newest refugee camp in the north.

They were among the first wave of refugees at Azraq arriving on May 4, in the first week of the camp’s official opening. And completely unprepared for their new home awaiting them.

“After the long journey, my wife fainted when she saw the empty caravan with a gravel floor,” said Jiradha. “She is six months pregnant, she has anemia, and I was shocked, frustrated and very angry. It is very hot and we are sitting on gravel.”

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Wa’el Jiradha, standing on the right, and his wife Nazeq Aliqu pose for a picture inside their shelter at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan while their neighbour’s child looks on. Jiradha, a clothes trader, was kidnapped and beaten in his home country of Syria. His wife had to give up most of their savings to pay his ransom and secure his release. After they lost their home in Syria’s civil war, they escaped on a truck to Jordan where the United Nations directed them to Azraq. Their shelter is not complete and they say it is difficult to sleep on the gravel floors and adjust to the extreme dry heat in Azraq. (Credit: Vidya Kauri)

Jordan is a hot country all around at this time of year with temperatures soaring well above 30 C and a humidity of almost 70 per cent, but the harsh desert winds are especially noticeable in the wide open spaces surrounding the camp. Although Azraq’s modern shelters are better designed to keep out extreme heat and cold better than the tents and caravans at other United Nations refugee camps, the air inside the zinc and steel containers is nonetheless still and stifling, and summer is only just beginning.

“We are not used to this kind of heat,” says Aliqu, 29, sitting on a tarpaulin sheet on the ground to soften the feel of grainy sand and sharp pebbles under her. “Since we arrived, my skin has been red and itchy and I cannot sleep at night because of it.”

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Vast fields of desert sand separate sections of tents from each other and from water filling stations at the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. (Credit: Vidya Kauri)

Azraq is a brand new civilization with a population of just over 7,000 people, and like any living entity, it is not immune to birth pangs. In some ways, it is trying to emulate Zaatari, its older sister, also in the north, and Jordan’s largest refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but officials say there are lessons to be learnt from Zaatari and incidents to be avoided.

Zaatari grew organically in response to the daily influx of hundreds fleeing violent scenes of death and destruction in their home towns. Many came from Daraa, a stone’s throw north of the border with Jordan, as well as from Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, still farther north. The camp was borne out of necessity, and shelters, schools, hospitals and healthcare programs for those injured and traumatized in the war needed to be set up in a hurry. While local authorities, UN officials and aid workers scrambled to keep pace with the steadily increasing stream of refugees, the camp witnessed multiple uprisings against the very people responsible for building it.

Maintaining peace and order was arguably the biggest challenge at Zaatari. There have been multiple riots and deadly clashes between refugees and police officers. In January 2013, there were reports of refugees attacking aid workers with sticks and stones in frustration over their poor living conditions. More recently, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee was killed and 29 police officers were injured in a melee that both the refugees and police have vastly different accounts of. A week later, local media reported the discovery of weapons-grade explosive materials in the camp. There have also been reports of sexual assaults and small amounts of heroin being smuggled in for individual use.

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Syrian refugees living in the new Azraq refugee camp line up at a water station to fill buckets and plastic jugs with water for drinking and cooking. (Credit: Vidya Kauri)

Azraq has had the advantages of foresight and prior planning, say UN and local officials, and has therefore not seen crime on the same scale as Zaatari. The most serious crimes reported so far are the theft of personal belongings from people’s tents.

“We have learnt lessons from Zaatari,” said General Waddah Hmoud, director of the Syrian Refugee Camp Affairs. “Till now, we haven’t had any serious complaints from the refugees. The situation is running very smoothly.”

When the Zaatari camp was created in July 2012, refugees were initially all lumped together in one unit and there was no gendarmerie for more than six months. In January 2013, Hmoud’s staff began to re-organize the camp into sectors to make policing easier. Azraq has been pre-planned for a year to contain villages of approximately 13,000 people in each. There are four villages with four community police stations, and two sub-stations for every two villages.

Canada has invested $7.5 million in these police stations, Civil Defence offices and a Joint Operations Centre which is the main hub for camp security. A further $100 million in development assistance over five years has been pledged, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

Another take-away from Zaatari that helped quell discontent as the camp got re-structured was to have relatives living together, said Hmoud. Now, spaces have been left between shelters at Azraq in case more family members arrive in the future. It is hoped that this structure will also reduce reports of sexual assault and harassment of females. There are two washrooms for every six shelters at Azraq essentially making them family washrooms, said Hmoud.

The April incident that claimed the life of a young Syrian man was initially, according to media reports, triggered by the detention of refugees trying to exit the camp without permission from the police. Hmoud, however, said the fighting started when police tried to search the bags of refugees entering the camp through back roads. It is not clear who fired the bullet that killed the refugee. It was the first major incident in more than a year since Zaatari began to be reorganized and the gendarmerie arrived.

At both Azraq and Zaatari, refugees must get permission to leave the camp. At both camps, refugees have tried to escape without being noticed, usually to find work even though it is against the law. If they are caught, police write up a report and return them to their shelters.

“It’s not a jail,” said Hmoud. “Refugees have a right to leave the camp to visit friends and family.”

Azraq is located near a military airport base and is designed to accommodate 130,000 people. It it meets this limit, it will overtake Zaatari as Jordan’s largest refugee camp where an estimated 85,000 people currently live. The camps only represent about 20 per cent of the Syrian refugee population in Jordan, however.

The Jordanian government approved the construction of Azraq in March 2013 when approximately 3,000 new refugees were arriving each day and Zaatari’s population ballooned to over 120,000 – just over twice the number it was designed to accommodate. Although construction began a year ahead of time to deal with a projected increase in refugees, some basic infrastructure elements are still missing. The all-natural gravel floors, which the UNHCR says will eventually be covered by compacted base course (a concrete composite), are a case in point.

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Solar lanterns are seen absorbing sunlight on a bright and hot day at the Azraq refugee. The United Nations is seeking environmentally friendly power solutions for the camp which is expected to accommodate 130,000 Syrian refugees. (Credit: Vidya Kauri)

The remote location of the camp also means that it is not hooked up to an electrical grid. Families are given two solar lanterns when they arrive and these can be used to charge cell phones as well. There are also charging stations throughout the camp that are powered by generators.

The eventual goal is to find solar solutions to power everybody’s needs at Azraq, said Andreas Needham, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at Azraq. The UNHCR is looking at a proposal to install a small solar panel on each roof. The solution would cost $100 per household and be capable of running larger appliances such as fans.

Perhaps the most positive lesson to be learnt from Zaatari is its large and bustling marketplace borne out of the enterprising nature of refugees needing more than the aid they receive, or just needing something to do. The sale of groceries, clothing, household appliances and salons, and even video game stores have given rise to a robust economy helping refugees earn a livelihood. Needham said a marketplace is in the works for Azraq as well.

“Zaatari happened overnight. At Azraq, it will be more planned with more regulations whereby the authorities will regulate the plots or the market stands,” Needham said. “It will be a mix of Jordanian retailers from the local area so there is a benefit to the economy and also refugees.”

Although Azraq is relatively peaceful, it has its own challenges. Its far-flung distance from the nearest town – at least 45 minutes driving at the speed limit – could make it difficult for refugees to ship goods in and for trade to flourish. With nothing but a long stretch of highway and desert sands for miles around, it is also difficult for refugees to visit their relatives outside the camp. The improvement of current living conditions, including the provision of steady, 24-7 electricity, depends on international funding – a joint funding appeal for $1.3 billion for 2014 by 64 aid agencies working in Jordan has received 27 per cent of the funds to date. There is only one supermarket within the camp where food vouchers can be used and it is difficult for some refugees to walk to considering the vastness of the camp and the crushing heat of the desert sun. Needham says another supermarket could be opened if the camp’s population grows large enough. And although there is a water station approximately 50 metres away from each camp resident, it is an arduous task for some to carry jugs of water back to their tents for drinking, washing dishes or laundry.

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Farouq Khadri, 50, gestures as he speaks in his caravan at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. Khadri is a Syrian refugee who says he is haunted by violent events during the Syrian civil war. He says that although Azraq is hot and uncomfortable, it is a place where he feels safe for now. (Credit: Vidya Kauri)

Farouq Khadri, 50, says he has had to rely on the kindness of his neighbours to help him fetch water because of injuries to his knee ligaments. He had only been in Azraq for two days, having arrived with his wife and four teenage children from a town on the outskirts of Damascus. The sounds of tanks, scenes of houses shelled to rubble around his own, news of car bombs and random interrogations at army checkpoints haunts him, he says.

Khadri says he was shocked to find how hot, isolated and uncomfortable Azraq is. The daily inconveniences – being confined inside a temporary shelter for most of the day because of the heat, and no furniture save for mattresses and plastic sheets to cover a hard uneven floor – are the hardest, but he is relieved to find a safe abode for his family.

“We suffered in fear and horror,” said Khadri. “I thought the whole country would be destroyed. I was afraid for my life and my family’s life. The food vouchers we get here are not enough to feed my family, but we are relieved to be here.”

On racial tensions, teenagers’ aspirations and malnutrition amongst Syrian refugees

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Marfat Ibrahim poses in front of her tent in the Bekaa Valley with her husband and six of her eight children.

Marfat Ibrahim laughs as she lifts the rugs covering the concrete floor in her tent. “Look, look,” she says, pointing with one hand and juggling her one-year-old daughter in the other arm. “It’s all water underneath. Everything is wet. This is what we had to sleep on last night.”

This is no weekend camping trip gone sour. These are the rigours of daily life for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and elsewhere. Standing barefoot in the mud outside her tent in the Bekaa Valley, Ibrahim agrees to share how she and her family ended up here, less than 20 metres from an open ditch that collects sewage from an outhouse shared with two other families.

Continue reading my story on the United Church Observer’s website here.

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Syrian refugee Marfat Ibrahim points to a wet concrete floor in her tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. It had rained heavily the night before. The rain had soaked through their blankets and the carpets on the floor, and her family of 10 had to sleep sitting up and get up several times in the middle of the night to sweep out the rain water.

Just a few notes on my experience reporting on this story below:

I was surprised to learn that Lebanese doctors had no idea how to recognize or treat malnutrition. It’s just not something they learn in medical school and it’s a real crisis now with more than a million Syrian refugees taking shelter in Lebanon. They are not permitted to take up employment and they get very little aid. They Syrians in Lebanon are either hungry a lot of the time or living on a diet that does not provide them with essential nutrients.

I also learnt that Syria and Lebanon have very different attitudes towards nursing babies. There is a very strong culture of nursing in Syria with mothers nursing their young into toddlerhood and even beyond that in some cases. In Lebanon, there is a greater reliance on formula feeding. When Syrian refugees visit Lebanese hospitals to give birth or to get treatment for their sick babies, they are often given samples of free formula from doctors and some abandon breastfeeding as a result.

There isn’t a lot of discussion or awareness in either country on what is best to feed babies. Syrians breastfeed because their mothers and grandmothers have done it, but there are a lot of myths surrounding breastfeeding. Some women think they cannot eat or drink while in the act of breastfeeding because they believe the baby will choke, some believe they can’t nurse while pregnant, and so on.

The International Orthodox Christian Charities has been instructing doctors to encourage breastfeeding and not to hand out free formula. They have also been organizing nursing help sessions to dispel some of the myths, teach them how to nurse and provide ongoing support, and help re-initiate breastfeeding in women who had to stop because they endured trauma in the civil war.

I mention visiting a Syrian high school in the UCO story above. I was moved by how ambitious the teenagers are. They worry about their final exams and are determined to somehow find funds to attend university. They reminded me of when I was their age, also ambitious and worrying about final exams and getting into university. My choices were limited too, but I certainly had more choices than the Syrian teenagers I met. I wasn’t traumatized by losing parents or siblings in a war and I never had to worry that a senseless war would prevent me from achieving what I wanted.

The teenagers I met can’t go back to study in Syria, although all of them told me they really, really, really hope the war will end soon so they can. And they have to pay exorbitant fees to attend university in Lebanon. And they are not permitted to be employed. I loved meeting those teenagers and I really, really, really hope they continue to stay positive and find ways to realize their dreams.

The muddy Kab Elias camp in Bekaa Valley where Marfat Ibrahim lives.

The muddy Kab Elias camp in Bekaa Valley where Marfat Ibrahim lives.

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Marfat Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, shows off her 1-year-old daughter Shurooq who was diagnosed with malnutrition.

Working women feel they are losing their femininity

My latest dispatch from Lebanon is up on Al Jazeera’s website now. It’s about how Syrian women refugees have become primary breadwinners, but face unique gender challenges and sexual harassment while looking for work.

Something that surprised me while reporting on this story was that when Syrian women do find work and some measure of financial independence, they don’t find it liberating or empowering. The culture of men bringing in the dough and women taking care of the home and children is so strong that women feel they are losing their femininity when they have to take on their husbands’ roles.

This is also one of the reasons why Syrian women find it difficult to find jobs. A lot of them were never employed before they came to Lebanon, and they say they don’t know what they are capable of, how they can apply their skills outside the home and what kind of jobs they should be looking for, especially in an underground economy since they are legally not permitted to work. Of course, they still bear the primary responsibility of child-rearing. Some women’s husbands are either dead, missing, severely injured or fighting in the civil war back home. So, trying to earn an income while juggling kids is just an additional burden exacerbated by the fact that they don’t have a strong community support system to help them figure out how to survive.

It’s not uncommon to see young children begging on the streets with no adult supervision or selling any items they can get their hands on such as empty plastic water bottles. Children as young as 7 at least approach strangers all day hoping to take some money back home to their families. Some people give them a bit of cash, but these kids deal with a lot of rejection. Time after time, somebody curses at them and shoos them away. Time after time, their faces fall further.

My story here: http://aje.me/TRaWkj

How do you lose a title you never had?

If you’ve been following my blog over the last couple of months, you’ll know that one of my favourite topics to rant about is Middle Eastern bureaucracy. The rationale behind some decisions just escapes me sometimes.

Take Lebanon’s latest move. Its ministers have decided they will strip refugee status from displaced Syrians who return to their country. But wait, Lebanon never accepted them as refugees and the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a document that defines who a refugee is, the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of countries granting asylum to refugees. Sure the border is being kept open for Syrians escaping the civil war, but this has never been done in any official capacity. Lebanon’s “refugee camps” are not camps per se, but informal tented settlements because Lebanon has not officially recognized the Syrians pouring into its borders as refugees. People have erected tents anywhere they could find a spot near the border and there is little to no support from the government for these Syrian communities that have sprung up in their midst.

Contrast this with Jordan where the government has been heavily invested in partnership with the UN and NGOs in providing formal housing structures, healthcare and integrating refugee children into their school system. The camps, though prison-like because people must have permission to enter and exit the camp, are monitored by Jordanian police.

There is no security at Lebanon’s camps, and the cause of education in some of these camps has been taken up by more well-to-do Syrians who have been living in Lebanon since before the war began. With donations, they provide school materials and tents that function as classrooms. Some schools are informal and anything the kids learn here won’t be recognized by either the Lebanese or the Syrian school system. It was only earlier this year, nearly three years after the war began, that Lebanon permitted its public schools to run a second shift to deal with the additional enrolment from Syrian refugees.

To borrow a quote from the Daily Star (Lebanon’s only English daily) story I linked to at the top:

An Interior Ministry source shed some light on the process by which it would be enforced, saying the mechanism to un-register Syrian refugees who cross the border into their home country would be honed with time and the support of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

“At this point, General Security don’t know who [among the arrivals] has refugee status or not, because the list of registered refugees is with UNHCR,” he told The Daily Star.

Which goes to show just how little Lebanon knows about who and how many are streaming into its borders. All of which takes me back to this latest decision by Lebanon’s politicians. How on earth does one revoke a status that was never granted in the first place? And what could the possible benefits of doing this be, especially considering some Syrians have very real, legitimate reasons to return to their homeland for brief periods of time, and this political decision could jeopardize the lives of an already vulnerable population?

Oh Lebanon, you remain an enigma to me.

Self-employment – is it for loners?

I mean loners in the kindest possible way. There are people who like to be alone a lot and I see nothing wrong with that. I thought I might be one of those people because I have always enjoyed those times I had to myself. I never got bored and always found ways to either be ultra productive or finally partake in leisurely activities that get neglected sometimes. Like closing all my blinds, turning off all the lights and dancing like I’m at a nightclub.

But just because I have a strong independent streak doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the company of other people, and perhaps I crave social interaction more than I thought I would.

Long before I became a journalist, I held down a 9-5 type job. My employers were great, but I always resented the rigid structure that came with these kinds of jobs. Why did I have to go into the office every single day? Why did I have to be there at a specific time every single day? Honestly, no children were going to die if I worked from home in my PJs once in a while. And seriously, those water cooler conversations? Sigh, they could be so forcefully contrived and painfully empty.

Then, newsrooms were like a breath of fresh air. As a general assignment reporter, every day was different. I could be researching monarch butterflies one day and trying to locate a serial killer the next. I didn’t care anymore if I had to be at work at 9 or 8 or even 4 in the morning. I was always learning and I was often out and about interviewing different people for my stories. Then, when I came back to the newsroom, my editor and reporters around me were always eager to know how my day had gone before I started to write my story. The monotony of a 9-5 office job was broken and there was plenty of structure in place to keep me responsible.

Occasionally I would wish I could write from home especially when I had to write longer features. Sometimes, I found it hard to write sitting at a desk. So, I would organize my notes and produce a not-so-great draft in the newsroom. Then, I would rush home to my comfy lounging clothes and my floor mattress by the living room window. Propped up against cushions, a drink handy so I wouldn’t have to get up, I would pound away on my laptop either lying on my belly or half-sitting. I was in the zone and nothing could distract me.

Now as a freelancer, that’s exactly what I get to do. In fact, it’s all I can do. Those days in the Middle East when I was out and about were always filled with adventures that I relished. But when it came time to stay home and write, I missed greeting my colleagues in the morning. I missed going for coffee breaks with them (even though I don’t drink coffee or tea) just so I could stretch my legs and walk and talk with them. And I missed those damned water cooler conversations that could lead to future exciting assignments.

Even though I’m back in Toronto, I still have three stories to file from interviews and research I conducted in Lebanon and Jordan. This ought to take about six weeks or so. It’s nice not having to tell somebody if I have a doctor’s appointment or something. I just have to schedule my work around such things. But I do miss not having an excuse to put on a blazer.

I find there is also less interaction between myself and my editors as a freelancer. As stories developed and changed from their initial inception, it was much easier when I could walk over to my editor’s desk or vice-versa and we could have a back-and-forth about how to approach the story or update each other on developments. Now, I send a pitch or receive an assignment, we agree to it, I go about and do my reporting and writing and file my story. All done in just three emails. There may be another couple of emails during the editing stage. It’s all very business-like. The system works, but there is something intangible about the face-to-face conversations that I have a yen for.

Look ma, I made it to Egypt!

I touched the peaks of two pyramids in Giza, Egypt. At the same time. This, here, is proof.

I touched the peaks of two pyramids in Giza, Egypt. At the same time. This, here, is proof.

I left Jordan early this a.m. I have a 19-hour layover in Cairo enroute to Canada. That’s a ridiculous amount of time to spend in an airport and when in Cairo, one must see the Nile, the Sphinx and the pyramids. So, I had arranged to drop my luggage off at an online friend’s place so I could wander the city.

To my surprise, when I landed in Egypt, my airline Egypt Air had arranged for free accommodation, visa, transportation to and from the airport and meals at the Meridien. So, I didn’t have to possibly inconvenience my friend, but I do wish I had had the pleasure of meeting him in 3D-life. I signed up for one of the tour packages put together by the hotel, and by the time that was done, I was plumb exhausted from travelling all night and touring all day and just crashed in my hotel room.

For a very affordable price, myself and two fellow travellers got a nice car, a driver and a tour guide to show us all the major attractions. It was great fun, but incredibly hot. When I returned to the hotel, I had my first real shower with the perfect water pressure and temperature since I left Toronto. I also have a real bed. Two of them actually! Utterly luxurious! (Yes, I’ve been roughing it, but only a little.) The food here is very, very good too.

I am returning home now because my freelance fund is running low and I miss Canada terribly. Amman felt like it could be more of a second home for me than Beirut because traffic is more organized and it’s quieter, and also quite possibly because my host family took such good care of me. But it’s more expensive and it’s harder to get around.

It’s not the best time for a journalist to leave the region what with elections coming up in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. There is no end of stories to report on here. But I foresee travel costs burgeoning quickly out of control as I expand my work across the region. I came here to report on the Syrian refugee situation, I’m content that I got to do that and I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I’m happy that I made several helpful connections here, figured out questions I had about how a foreign correspondent could work successfully in the Middle East, assessed the feasibility of moving here on a long-term basis, met many dear and wonderful people, learnt about new cultures, and improved my Arabic-language skills. I still have three more deadlines to file stories that I researched and interviewed for in the Middle East.

The best thing about the Middle East for me has been how quickly people are to help each other. Anytime you need a fix, someone is almost always ready to help you and more or will spread the word till they find someone else who can.

The thing that’s been the hardest for me to understand and/or empathize with in the Middle East is sectarianism. The majority of people I’ve met harbour some animosity against the “other.” People also attach a lot of importance to where you are born or where your ancestors came from. Of course, there is value in knowing one’s history, but to have your entire identity solely defined by where your ancestors lived 60 years ago is something that’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s quite intense when you know people are making presumptions of each other based on their religion, last name, where they were born or some other factor they didn’t choose for themselves.

This has been a fantastic trip and I hope I will return in the near future. For now, I leave you with the song below. It’s a crisis that brought me here and it might be another crisis that will bring me back or take me to another region on our beautiful planet. These lyrics are a good reflection of how I’m feeling now:

Ain al-Hilweh: The lawless Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon

My first story on refugees in the Middle East has finally seen the light of day. It’s about a lawless Palestinian camp in Lebanon that has become more dangerous as the Syrian civil war rages on. I penned it in early-mid April, but it is the nature of feature stories and non-breaking news. There is little urgency in publishing them. Moreover, Al Jazeera English said they were inundated with refugee stories. So, I guess many get pushed back and spaced out.

Read the story first.

THEN, read this update: Since I wrote the article, I have heard that Abu Yousef escaped Ain al-Hilweh camp to Libya. From there, he made it to Italy where he is hoping to bring his family. I can’t imagine making such a big move at almost 50 years of age.

Below are the pictures, courtesy of Abu Yousef, of the cubby hole his family hides in when they hear the sounds of guns and missiles.

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Funny thing happened this week

The first major piece of architecture Meg and I saw in Petra.

The first major piece of architecture Meg and I saw in Petra.

It’s been a whirlwind two-week visit in Jordan, travelling through desert sands to visit refugees living in the Zaatari and Azraq camps, and in host communities in Mafraq, East Amman and Ramtah to name a few places. I got some great stories, but unsure how I’m going to stitch them all together. I have a few weeks to figure it out.

I managed to squeeze in some rushed sightseeing in Petra and Jarash. I can’t tell you much about them except that they are ancient historical sites. (It was a really rushed tour!) Petra has big rose-coloured rocks and architecture carved into them, and Jarash has Greco-Roman ruins. Visiting Petra was the best because I got to see my old colleague from the National Post. She happened to be in Jordan at the same time as me and our schedules were remarkably similar. We had so much to say about our careers, our personal lives, the future of journalism, former colleagues, Canada, the Middle East, etc. We talked non-stop and laughed about stern GPS instructions leading us astray. for me, it was great to be able to speak in Canadian English again rather in my slow, broken English sans unimportant things like conjunctions and prepositions and with an Arabic accent so it’s easier for people here to understand me.

I’ll get to the funny part soon enough. My friend Meg kept getting stopped by the traffic police and we surmised it was because of her fancy-schmancy car, relatively speaking. She was driving, I was in the passenger seat. At one of the stops, the police officer asked for her license and registration, then pointed to the speedometer and said 5JD (Jordanian dinar, around $7). There was a language barrier, we tried to ask what the 5JD was for – Meg wasn’t speeding – and he couldn’t explain. So, he motioned for us to wait and returned to his vehicle behind us. Meg and I assured each other that he couldn’t prove we were speeding because well, we weren’t, and we hoped our sincere inability to communicate well in Arabic would help us.

In the rearview mirror, we saw the officer returning with back-up. Another man got out of the vehicle, and Meg and I thought, oh no, this guy probably knows English and we’re going to have to argue with him instead of acting like we didn’t understand a thing so the police would get nowhere with us.

Well, they walk up to our vehicle. The first guy again points to the speedometer and this time, he asks for 20JD (approx. $30). My friend tells him we weren’t speeding. The officer didn’t understand a word she said and helplessly looked to his reinforcement. The second guy fumbles with his iPhone, speaks into it, and shows us his Google Translate app. The translation was complete gibberish. I just about died trying not to laugh. Meg and I stared at them with our mouths wide open wondering how to react. The first guy said tayeb (meaning “ok”), nudged the other guy and the two of them walked away. They gave up trying to extort the foreigners. It was just too hard.

Child labour, prostitution, candid conversations and sadness

Ahmed

Smart Ahmed smokes a cigarette with his boss in between customers. Photo credit: Arwa’ Debaja

Ahmed is a 12-year-old Syrian boy living in Jordan’s Zaatari camp. He works 18-hour days, every day, for a Jordanian vegetable vendor near the camp. Ahmed earns $3 (Canadian) a day. He and his 13-year-old brother (who makes about $4.50 a day) are the only ones in the family of seven who are able to work.

Ahmed wasn’t very expressive at first when my translator and I met him in the vendor’s shop last night. He wore a serious and stoic expression on his face. His mannerisms and body language screamed, “I’m a middle-aged adult making less than minimum wage to feed my family and I can’t afford to dream about alternate ambitions in my future.”

I was impressed with the way Ahmed estimated weights, negotiated prices with customers and quickly calculated their change faster than I can. So, he became “Smart Ahmed” to me.

Smart Ahmed said he has no desire to go to school, acted like it’s not important to him and he really doesn’t care, and seems to have accepted his fate as a refugee with few opportunities. Although he gets the occasional Friday off, it’s clear that Smart Ahmed has lost his childhood.

My translator and I got the sense that we should pull him aside so his boss would be out of earshot. So, we did and this is when we started seeing the child in him emerge. He was more forthright and we found out how much he really misses his school in Dara’a, Syria. There was a girl in his class he was in love with, and he misses monkey bars and playing with his friends. The darkness had already set in for a couple of hours and it was getting rather cold. We realized Smart Ahmed was fighting back tears and our driver gave him a ride back to the camp’s gates.

As if that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, our ensuing conversation with his boss the vegetable vendor was more distressing to me. I had already heard Masab Al-Atoum express his hatred for Syrians (they have given his business competition thereby cutting into his profits, he says) and seen him hit and push the kid once (half-jokingly, but rough enough for me to tell him to stop). I pressed him on why he has a Syrian boy working for him when, according to him, it would be better to hire Jordanians (who would cost much more, by the way). Turns out he already hires two Jordanian teenagers whom he pays about $23 a day. He only took on the boy after his mother repeatedly begged him to let her son work there. Fair enough.

I asked him if he talks ill of Syrians in front of Ahmed. He said yes. Ahmed had earlier said that he also gets cussed at by customers who despise the presence of Syrians in their country.

I probed the vendor to understand the source of his animosity. He said the Syrians are devastating Jordan’s economy, and prostitution has become much more common and cheaper. He’s 22, unmarried and hires a prostitute every day. I asked him how much a Syrian prostitute charges compared to a Jordanian prostitute. He wouldn’t admit that there are Jordanian prostitutes, but he said a Syrian prostitute charges around $10 while a “non-Syrian” prostitute charges $75 and up. Since he believes the Syrians are devastating the local economy, it only made sense to ask him why he gives his business to Syrian prostitutes. The significant price difference is certainly an understandable factor, but surely, wouldn’t it be better for Jordan’s economy to support local services, illegal though they may be?

His response: “I feel like I’m taking revenge on the Syrians.” He admits to hitting Syrian prostitutes, hurting them and having anal sex with them (I have no idea if the women consent to all his sexual desires). Al-Atoum spoke candidly in response to my questions. I believe he was speaking truthfully and not bragging.

Something in me compelled me to ask him if he talks about his sexual activities with Smart Ahmed. He said, “Yes, I share some details.”

If you know a 12-year-old, what is he or she doing today?

Amman – first impressions

Dinner. Kubbeh balls, stuffed gourd of some kind, and very, very tender meat, garlic, tomoates and grape leaves stuffed with rice in the centre.

Dinner. Kubbeh balls, stuffed gourd of some kind, and very, very tender meat, garlic, tomoates and grape leaves stuffed with rice in the centre.

I have just GOT to talk about my experience with the wonderfully generous Syrian family I am staying with.

I wrote that sentence five minutes ago. Since then, the kids have driven me bonkers. Okay, deep breath.

So, where were we? Aah yes, generosity. I have never before met a group of people who are as warm, gracious and welcoming. If this is a reflection of Syrian culture – and the word on the street is that it is, it’s a damn shame their country is now so destroyed that they have little or nothing to give.

There is the woman of the house and her husband. They have lived in Jordan for about 10 years because of his business. On the other side of a wall, the woman’s sister and her husband live. They have their own private entrance and came here to escape the Syrian war. There’s a grandfather, and uncles, aunts and cousins who all live either in the same building or very close by. All the cooking and eating happens in the part of the house I’m in. And it happens all day. It always smells sooooo good. And there are lots and lots of children. I don’t really know who belongs to who. Some are cute, one four-year-old is just completely adorable, and the one who is into touching all my stuff and shut down my computer this afternoon is totally and completely pesky.

So yes, they’ve opened up their doors to me expecting nada in return. The women work all day cleaning and cooking from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. at least. The whole family is constantly offering me food. They are very insistent, and when I finish my plate, multiple hands load more food on my plate. Mamma mia, I am going to be 50 pounds heavier by the time I leave in 10 days. I can’t really hide in the bedroom because they bring the food to me if I haven’t eaten in about two hours. No, I’m not really complaining… Really! Well, maybe a little bit. I just tried to refuse a snack and they just stuck it into my mouth.

Syrians are known for their excellent cuisine, and the women’s cooking here is among the best I’ve ever had. Maybe the very best. I wish I could show you pictures of them rolling and flattening dozens of balls of dough, sticking them into an oven with the flames raging below, and then adding ground meat, thyme and cheese. But they are typically not wearing veils or burqas while cooking, and so will not permit me to take pictures. I took a picture of them stuffing grape leaves with rice. But one woman’s hand could be seen in the picture. So, I had to delete it. No skin!

The gender divides are very strong and clearly defined here. I made the dreadful mistake of offering my hand to greet one of the husbands. He refused and the women came rushing up to me saying, “no, no, no.” I could be wrong, but I think he purposefully avoids looking at me. The other men in the family have been friendlier.

Did I mention the pressure to eat is immense? I spend more time eating than working. 11:30 p.m. and I just got offered a sandwich, cookies and nuts. Cause the last time something was literally shoved down my throat was 15 minutes ago.

When I said the kids were driving me bonkers earlier, a pair of them started arguing over a toy next to me and the older one hit the younger one a couple of times. Yesterday, I thought I kept hearing an adult hit a child repeatedly yesterday, but now I think that maybe it was just the kids beating each other up.

So, that’s my genuine, first-hand experience of being assimilated with a Syrian family in Jordan. They would prefer to be in Syria, they say. That’s what every Syrian I’ve met says.

As for Amman itself, it’s somehow busier yet quieter than Beirut. It’s because there are fewer motorbikes and traffic is more organized. So, there’s less honking. I had gotten so used to the tiny place that Beirut is and being able to walk (albeit uncomfortably sans sidewalks) from one end of the city to the other that it’s strange not being able to walk long distances here even though sidewalks actually exist here. Nothing is close to anything and one must take cabs everywhere.

The architecture here is older. In Beirut, so much got destroyed during their civil war that very few things are older than 30 years. Here, one can see ancient stone structures dating back centuries to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times. I don’t have a lot of time to sightsee while I’m here and I didn’t walk around with my camera today, but got some quick and dirty pictures of my neighbourhood and houses on the hills with my phone.

My last day in Lebanon…

… for now, was yesterday. I am in Amman, Jordan now. This is going to be a short post. I’m exhausted from travelling.

I’ve been in the Middle East for about a month and a half. In this time, I got seven assignments. I came to learn and write about Syrians affected by the civil war. I have learnt so much about Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese culture, history and politics, and I got to write about issues that are important to me and to the local residents. I feel truly blessed to have had this experience.

My stories are scheduled to be published from the 13th of this month through to October in different publications. They focus on issues such as personal safety and security, malnutrition, employment conditions, the work of NGOs, and a look at the day-to-day lives of refugees. And of course, the Lebanese presidential election that you’ve heard too much of from me already.

As always, I will post links to my stories in all the usual places – here, Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Google+, etc.

This week, I am meeting with two NGOs in Amman, and I have trips scheduled to the Zaatari and Azraq camps. And then, it’s time to come home…

For now. I would like to be back to report from the Middle East again. But I don’t know when that will be. Next time, I am setting my sights on Egypt. Freelancing from here gets to be rather expensive unless one is based here. I’ve been deliberating about that since before I even arrived here. For now, I am not inclined to move my entire life here for a number of personal reasons. Inshallah (it’s a way of expressing good wishes for the future even if you’re not religious). I have missed Toronto greatly and will be happy to be back in about a week and a half.

So much wretched misery

Muddy everywhere, but still preferable to the summer heat which is coming soon!

Muddy everywhere, but still preferable to the summer heat which is coming soon!

Visiting refugee camps always stirs up a mixed range of emotions in me. On the one hand, it’s great to see how excited the children get about having visitors, especially those with cameras.

It’s wonderful to see how, as the saying goes, children will always be children. Despite not having toys, parks or playgrounds to play in, they constantly find ways to engage in imaginative play, invent new games amongst themselves and find a hundred things to laugh about. Seeing this creativity always gives me cautious hope for their future. I would hate to see their positivity destroyed. Seems to happen to the best of us as we get older.

And then, I talk to their parents and it’s painful to see how they have nothing. Nothing at all. No jobs, no money, no privacy, no clean water and no dry clothes or blankets when it rains. Just a leaky canvas tent. Many have lost close relatives who either died or went missing during the war. Tent neighbours visit each other, talk and cry. There is nothing else to do. We had a lot of rain yesterday and through the night before. The ground around the tents turns into one big, muddy, slippery swamp. Nobody has boots. So, they walk around barefoot with the mud going up almost to their knees and splattering all over them. One couple with eight children told me how the whole family tried to sleep sitting up the night before because their blankets and the mats on the floor of their tent got soaked from the rain leaking through the roof. They also got up several times in the night to sweep large puddles of water out of the tent.

A child lingers at the entrance to her home.

A child lingers at the entrance to her home.

As a journalist, I’m used to not letting my emotions get the better of me. I’ve been trained to maintain empathy while maintaining an emotional distance from the subjects I interview. If there are things are really hard to stomach, I may go home, journal and reflect on them at the end of the day. (The Luka Magnotta murder, the Mississauga body parts case and Nighisti Semret’s stabbing were three such cases that were difficult to report on.)  But while I’m working, I can stay focused on my job and getting answers to pertinent questions. One thing that helps me stay detached in these swampy camps is the knowledge that life here is temporary. These refugees are going home after the war, and they very desperately want to return home. They don’t want to settle down in Lebanon.

Nothing prepared me for the misery and squalor I saw in the Shatila camp earlier this week though.

The Palestinian camp in southern Beirut has been around since 1949. The refugees living there are in their third generation now. It’s a dirty, miserable camp with people living in unfinished tenement buildings, adults and children rooting through mountains of garbage, litter strewn about everywhere, the smell of sewage, low-hanging and dangerously exposed electrical cables (which my roomie tells me have claimed a few lives), narrow pathways in between buildings with brown, stagnating puddles, and the darkest, smallest classroom I have ever seen sans blackboard, desks and chairs.

This is how people have been living for 65 years. Children have grown up here, and had their own children who now study on the floor of that dank little classroom with greyish-blue walls. Some of them go on to schools run by the United Nations as they get older, and then on to university. But the camp’s population has been growing steadily, and it has been hit by a surge of tens of thousands of new refugees pouring in from Syria. These are the Syrian Palestinians who are now twice displaced. (In case people don’t know, these are Palestinian refugees who settled in Syria. And now, many of them are refugees in Lebanon because of the war in Syria.) And of course, there are always people who will take advantage of the vulnerable like the landlords charging higher rents as they cram more people into the same tiny amount of space. It was exhausting to bear witness to the Syrian Palestinians’ trauma and keep my feelings buried while speaking with them. Many of them actually had great lives in Syria before the civil war started. So, losing their home for the second time brings back painful memories and  is doubly distressing for them.  When I got home that evening, I just stared into space and not feeling ready to write my story, I went to bed early.

I think that one of the reasons Shatila affected me so much is the seeming permanency of it all. Palestinians don’t have a Palestine to return home to. And so many generations later, there are many who just want to live an average, normal life with jobs, families and recreation. Certainly, the younger ones are aware of their history and they know what their homeland is. But the yearning to return home has faded. Even the older ones don’t aim to return home one day. It’s a dream they have given up on, but not forgotten. I’m not saying that everybody has given up on the right of return. I just haven’t seen that desire in the people I have met so far. One older woman I spoke with at Shatila said that of course, it would be nice to see where her grandparents used to live, but Lebanon is home now because this is where her family and friends are. Last month, I visited a high school in southern Lebanon for Syrian Palestinians. I asked a classroom of about 30 teenagers ranging in age from 16 to 19 whether they wanted to return to Palestine. Nobody put up their hands. I asked them if they wanted to return to Syria, and all the hands shot up right away accompanied by loud “Yeas.”

Naturally, I begin comparing Lebanon to Canada, even though one country is much bigger and has far more resources. How fortunate we are in Canada that we welcome refugees to make our home their own. Yes, I know Canada’s immigration system is not without blemishes. It can be infuriating, controversial and even discriminatory. All in all though, Canada’s had a pretty good track record, and we just simply do not have refugees living in such squalor and dangerous and unhygienic conditions while we wait for them to return someplace else on some unknown day that may never come.

Here in Lebanon, Palestinians are barred from working in government jobs or regulated professions such as law, engineering and medicine. They are guests. Nobody knows how long they will be guests and it doesn’t seem that anybody cares. The Lebanese government is not invested in taking on any responsibility to ensure these refugees have a decent quality of life while they are here. The people turfed from their homeland are left to their own devices, and the real tragedy is it affects the quality of life for Lebanese as well. But it is much easier to blame the filthy refugees for being filthy than it is to press the government to take a stance on the million refugees. Instead of pretending that eye sores don’t exist in its backyard, could Lebanon have a law to regulate overcrowding? If such a law exists, it’s not being enforced just like the many other laws that don’t get enforced. It’s a joke heard at many social gatherings here. Nobody cares about the law because it’s never enforced. There is a minimum wage law; yet Syrian refugees are making 40 per cent less than the minimum wage. Again, it’s much easier to blame the Syrians for “stealing our jobs” because they will work for so little money than taking action against business owners flouting the law to take advantage of refugees’ vulnerability.

So much wretched misery.

I asked this little girl if she likes playing in the camp. She clucked her tongue and cast her eyes downward. After a few seconds, she said she misses her schoolfriends in Syria. There is no school near this camp.

I asked this little girl if she likes playing in the camp. She clucked her tongue and cast her eyes downward. After a few seconds, she said she misses her schoolfriends in Syria. There is no school near this camp.

No quorum, no new president, no surprise

There were no surprises during Lebanon’s parliamentary session this afternoon when lawmakers failed to elect a president for the third week in a row, bolstering concerns that the country is headed for a presidential void for months to come.

Seventy-five members of parliament arrived at Nejmeh Square to participate in today’s vote which could not take place as quorum was not reached. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri once again pushed the vote forward by another week to May 15.

Several members of the March 8 bloc are boycotting the election until a candidate who they support comes forward.

A new development that took place earlier this week was when Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel announced his candidacy in a bid to avoid a presidential vacuum. However, Gemayel is unlikely to get the support of either the March 8 or the March 14 alliances, the two major political factions.

Members of the March 8 bloc are backing MP Michel Aoun who has yet to declare his candidacy, and the March 14 alliance has thrown its support behind Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea who failed to get enough votes to win the presidency during the first round of voting.

MP Ghazi Youssef, a member of the March 14 alliance, said there has been talk within the ranks of shifting support to Gemayel, but it is not something the party has officially agreed upon yet.

“We are still backing Samir Geagea,” said Youssef. “Amine Gemayel may get a few more votes, but he still would not get a majority.”

Youssef accused Aoun of trying to run a one-horse race, saying that Aoun won’t throw his hat into the ring until he has the support of the Future Movement and can be confident of winning. Aoun and other March 8 members boycotted last week’s voting session.

“There is a clear message being sent by March 8 forces that it’s either Aoun for president, or you won’t get to elect anybody else,” said Youssef.

A member of the March 8 bloc could not be reached for comment.

Charles Saba, a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Centre for Lebanon, a public, non-partisan think tank, agreed with Youssef’s analysis and added that there is no immediate pressure to elect a new president. Although it is important to have a figurehead who represents the country’s Christian population, the cabinet can collectively assume the president’s responsibilities until the post is filled.

Saba expects regional powers to ramp up pressure in September ahead of Lebanon’s parliamentary election.

Last week, 76 MPs showed up – not enough to meet the 86-member quorum, and the week before, a vote did take place. However, no candidate won the support of two-thirds of the MPs required in the first round of voting. The term of the current president Michel Suleiman ends on May 25.

Lebanon’s presidential election – still not a wrap

As promised, here’s my follow-up report in Al Jazeera on the second round of voting in today’s presidential election.

ICYMI, this was my analysis of last week’s first round of voting.

It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody that parliament did not reach the quorum needed for a vote to take place, but I was surprised by how close they came. We only needed 10 more MPs!

Third try will be next week: May 7. More of the same? Quite possibly unless something drastically changes between now and then.

Lebanon’s presidential election – round 2

Round two of Lebanon’s presidential election will take place tomorrow. No new candidates have emerged since last week, and local media outlets have been predicting that parliament will fail to reach the mandatory two-thirds quorum for the vote to take place.

There have been reports that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is playing some role in influencing the election. Hariri, who led the (mainly Sunni) March 14 Alliance calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005,  has been out of the country for about three years now following the collapse of his cabinet in 2011. The collapse came about following political tensions arising from the investigation into the assassination of Hariri’s father (also a former prime minister), Rafic Hariri. His party, the Future Movement, has approximately 26 seats in the 128-member parliament.

The main contender touted for the post by local media is MP Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The FPM is part of the (mainly Shia) March 8 Alliance which held demonstrations on March 8, 2005 in support of Syria’s military occupation of Lebanon and its role in resisting Israel’s invasion. Aoun has been trying to build bridges between many dissenting groups, but there is still distrust and suspicion and his allegiances may be perceived as being unpredictable.

It’s easy to see what a big role Syria has played in Lebanon’s political history, and it continues to do so. The soldiers left in 2005, and less than a decade later, the refugees started arriving as a result of Syria’s ongoing civil war now in its fourth year. There are more than one million registered refugees in Lebanon, according to the United Nations. That’s nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population and nobody knows how many more unregistered refugees there are. (Some are afraid to register with the UN out of fear and security concerns.)

There is a lot of animosity toward the Syrians. They get blamed for stealing jobs because they will work for less than the minimum wage, adding to the numbers of beggars on the streets, for making the suburbs look unsightly with their tents, for reproducing, etc. Despite having the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, the Lebanese government has refused to formally recognize the Syrian refugee camps making it more difficult to regulate their size and ensure they have basic infrastructure, and to integrate Syrians into Lebanese society even on a temporary basis.

While several Lebanese think they should have closed the border to Syrian refugees a long time ago, the war in Syria continues with the military support of one of the most powerful Shia political parties in Lebanon: Hezbollah. It will be interesting to see how and when the Sunnis and Shiites will come to an agreement over who Lebanon’s next Christian president will be. That’s right, in the interests of representing every major religious group and restraining power struggles between them, the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shia muslim.

Confused yet? It’s a complicated but very interesting political system. There is one person who is attempting to change this sectarian order and bring in secularism. Nadine Moussa, the first woman to run for president in Lebanon, would rather see different aspects of Lebanese society and economy represented in the cabinet rather than religious groups. It doesn’t appear, however, that anybody in the male-dominated parliament is taking  her candidacy seriously. She didn’t get a single vote in last week’s election.

So, we will wait to see what happens tomorrow. The current president’s term ends on May 25. Are we headed toward a presidential vacuum? Look out for my follow-up report tomorrow on Al Jazeera English’s website.

All your equipment are belong to us

I had an unpleasant experience with a media communications person working for an NGO earlier this week. I was looking for a certain type of interview subject. He told me he knew many such people, offered to drive me around to meet them and translate for me (for a small fee). So, I met him the next day to meet these people.

As I interviewed them, it became evident that most of these people did not possess the qualities I was looking for, and my helper was a completely unprofessional translator. When I asked tough questions, he told me not to ask them because they would make my interviewee uncomfortable. Obviously, I was annoyed with his attempt at censorship. I had to tell him the decision to answer questions should be up to the interviewee and not him, and could he please tell the interviewee that if there were things they found too distressing to talk about, they should say so. He really struggled with this and I really struggled with him because it was obvious that the one person I was really curious about was very eager to share her story.

When we finished working, he asked me to send him all the pictures I had taken through the day as well as my notes. And I was all like

what gif

He didn’t like my reaction, said he told me at the start that he would need them for his website (he didn’t), and was clearly getting agitated. Well, I had lots of shots. So, I said I would send him the ones I don’t end up using for my assignment, but not before my story gets published. He was somewhat appeased, but still not entirely happy that he would have to wait.

In the past, people have asked if they could see my story before it gets published. Sometimes, they are genuinely worried about errors creeping into the story – a legitimate concern. Sometimes, they are just eager and curious and don’t know that it’s standard and ethical industry practice not to share stories with sources prior to publication, but they understand once it’s explained to them that doing so would undermine editorial independence.

Here in Lebanon, I still haven’t wrapped my head around people’s attitude to the press. It almost seems as if people think they have a right to all my equipment and the notes I jot down. They don’t just ask. They demand, and get upset when I say no. A couple of people have actually grabbed my phone right out of my hands without any warning to see my pictures or contacts on it. I was so stunned the first time that happened, I just watched as the person even annoyingly changed the brightness setting before I came to my senses and grabbed it back from him. I hold on to everything with a vice-like grip now. I’ve also encountered cameraphobes who think I should leave my camera unguarded in a public area if I want to gain entry somewhere.

yea right giphy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes, one has no choice. Like at parliament yesterday for the presidential election when the press officer arbitrarily decided there were enough photographers inside the chambers. The police searched my bag and made me give up my camera, recorder and cell phone. At least, my belongings were going to be somewhat secure with them on a table full of other journalists’ equipment. As soon as the ballots were cast, all the photographers were asked to leave before the vote counting began. I don’t understand why as other journalists, including myself, were allowed to stay. A few pleaded unsuccessfully for time to get a few more shots or to stay.

As an aside, I enjoyed watching Lebanon’s parliament in action for the first time. The oval press gallery looking down on the MPs’ seating area is rather large, maybe with a capacity for at least 100 journalists, and it was full. Sorry, no pictures. I didn’t have my camera on me, remember? But I did snap this picture outside the parliament building when journalists were waiting for MPs to arrive.

Journalists wait for MPs to arrive outside Lebanon's parliament building ahead of the first round of voting to elect a new president.

Journalists wait for MPs to arrive outside Lebanon’s parliament building ahead of the first round of voting to elect a new president.

And then, as I blogged earlier, there are numerous levels of bureaucracy and government ministries that don’t talk to each other. Journalists have to wade through a lot of red tape to get permissions and gain access to anywhere. I’m not used to this level of control and censorship being the privileged North American that I am. I’m not saying that censorship doesn’t exist in North America. Just look at the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden who had to take extraordinary measures to protect his conversations with journalists from telecommunications and government agencies spying on him. But the general societal attitude toward press freedoms that I’ve encountered so far is more pervasive and restrictive than what I’ve experienced before.

p.s: If you want to read my coverage of the presidential election on Al Jazeera English and understand why Lebanon is unlikely to succeed in electing a president before Syria’s presidential election in June, click here.

Random musing

I think the term “young journalist” is weird. Do we have young bankers, young chemists and young astronauts? Why is our industry so bent on identifying “young journalists?” When does one stop being a young journalist? When we finally land a permanent job with a stable income after 8 years of paid internships because those are the only jobs around, or when we hit a certain age? What qualities is one promoting when self-identifying as a young journalist? Inexperienced, ambitious, something else? Curious to hear from others in the field.

A day in the life of a Syrian refugee camp (in pictures)

You got to see the profiles of children in Bekaa Valley’s Bar Elias refugee camps last week. Much has already been written and broadcast about the quality of life in these camps – the lack of access to proper nutrition, clean drinking water, education and much more. No need for me to replicate what’s already out there, but I wanted to share with you some pictures that look at the normal day-to-day life in these camps. 

The families living in each tent are generally large, about 8 to 12 members. The ones who have been there for a year or more have been able to expand their tents to create separate spaces for lounging, sleeping and cooking. The newer families make-do in a space that’s no bigger than an average bedroom. A far corner of the tent is usually reserved for a small camp stove and washing dishes. In the rest of the tent, mats are laid down on the concrete floor and everybody huddles together at night. They may or may not have enough blankets depending on when they arrived and what items have been donated to the camp. It’s not so bad at this time of year when the nights are still cool. But I imagine it will get incredibly uncomfortable as summer marches in. Hover over the images to see the captions or click on them to view as a slideshow.

I also mentioned Alphabet Alternative Education last time. They are a small group of Syrians living in Lebanon who deliver aid and educational materials to the camps. They also help build structures for classrooms, hold art workshops and get the kids engaged in physical activities such as running races. The children love learning and playing with the AAE volunteers everytime they visit. The people who teach on a daily basis in the classrooms are Syrian refugees living in the camps. Here are some pictures of the kids with the AAE volunteers:

I have a few other stories to share. I apologize that I haven’t been posting as frequently as I would like, but I’ve had to contend with severe power and internet outages this week. As always, stay tuned.

Homesickness

It’s not a feeling I had anticipated. At all. It’s not the first time I’ve (successfully) made major changes in my life, moving across continents to start anew. I was buoyed by the opportunity for adventure, and I still am, but I miss Toronto like crazy. At some point in my life, it became home.

I miss being able to speak in full sentences with the local grocer rather than in half-English, half-Arabic. I miss the cold. Yah, I know you think I’m crazy, but I’ve always liked the winter.

These are the children of Bar Elias

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My Irish friend and photojournalist, Stephen Boyle, once posted on Facebook, and I paraphrase:

Whenever you enter any refugee camp, the children come running to you eager to have their photo taken. You cannot get any work done till you comply.

So true! I visited the Syrian refugee camps at Bar Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last weekend. Two lovely people let me hop in their car and shadow them as they delivered aid and educational materials to these camps. They are Syrians living in Lebanon, and organizers among a very small group of people (less than 10) called Alphabet Alternative Education. Concerned about the lack of education for children in these camps, they continually raise funds to build tents for classrooms, deliver exercise books and stationary, and spend time engaging the kids in sports and art activities.

As we went from one camp to the next, we were greeted the same way: Dozens of dusty-faced children running up to our car, waving and eager to see their visitors. Everywhere, they commanded, “Sourana” which is a really bad English transliteration for “Take our picture.” It felt great to comply and then hear them laugh and say “halwa” (pretty/nice) when I showed them the pictures on my camera.

The Bar Elias camps are in a very remote region with nothing but a highway on one side and the mountains on the other. There are no playgrounds, libraries, schools, shops or other amenities nearby. The refugee communities here are very isolated and left to their own devices. Ranim Ibrahim, an organizer with Alphabet Alternative Education, says she visits three or four times a week, and every time, there is no sign of any other NGO, charity or UN organization working in these camps to deliver aid on a regular, formal basis. “It’s as if they set up the tents and then they left,” she said.

It’s no wonder the kids get so excited when visitors come to play with them, make art with them and give them some sense of structure.

Logistics, boring logistics

This is a rant about the Lebanese bureaucracy. A foreign freelance journalist must get a letter of permission from the government to work here. To get the letter, one must show them a letter from at least one of the media organisations you’ll be working for.

Lucky for me, I had TWO such letters from two different media organizations – one in my email inbox and one in print. So, I printed out the electronic letter and showed them both to the guy at the ministry. No good. The one from my email had no signature on it. Why would it? It was an attachment in an email, and most places accept the from field in lieu of the signature. Not the Lebanese government though. For no reason whatsoever, he didn’t care about the other letter which did have a signature on it.

So, I asked the respective media company to fax the ministry a signed copy of the letter. Their fax machine was broken, but they kindly scanned a signed copy and emailed it to me. I forwarded the signed letter to the email address the ministry provided, which by the way is a hotmail address. I asked the guy in person if he got it and he said he doesn’t accept emails. Right.

So, I went back out, printed the damned letter, and oh shit, it’s 2 p.m. So, I better run because that’s when they close. Although the guy did tell me his assistant would arrive at 2:30 and help me. I missed the guy. His assistant finally arrived and told me to come back the next day. He didn’t look especially busy, but he couldn’t help me, he said. I had to see the guy. I protested. They guy told me the assistant would help.

The assistant reluctantly picks up the phone and calls somebody. The guy, I presume. When he hung up, he said he would give me the letter I needed. Then, he asked me for two passport-sized photos. Why the hell didn’t the guy tell me I needed this when I asked him what documentation I needed?

Back out I went, returned with the photos and got what I needed. Of course, nobody tells you if there are instances when that government letter is useless in this country especially when dealing with other levels of the government.

Today, I needed to get the army’s permission to enter a Palestinian refugee camp. As you may know, Lebanese authorities have no right of access inside the Palestinian camps according to the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the PLO and the Lebanese army. So, the army mans checkpoints at the camps’ entrances to monitor who goes in and out. Camp residents complain about being stopped and checked for their permission documentation every time they exit the camp and want to return home. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that wanted terrorists from various sectarian groups, some linked to Al-Qaeda, have managed to find a home in these camps away from the hands of arresting authorities.

Back to the point. I needed the army’s permission to get in. One soldier told me to go inside the office a few metres inside the barricades. I went in and showed a man in plainclothes the letter I painstakingly obtained from the ministry. He looked at it, said it was a “beautiful” letter, according to my translator, but it was no good. I needed yet another letter from a different ministry (defence). Also, if I was going to take pictures, I should hand over all my pictures to them on a CD. WTF?!

When I went back out, I told the soldier I needed to get a letter from the defence ministry. He said, “Oh yea, I knew that!” So, why didn’t he say so before he sent me to the office? He thought he would let me try to get in without it, he said. Just in case the officer inside decided to be nice. My translator didn’t want to go back in to see if a small bribe would get me in.

Also, the army gave me incorrect directions to the defence ministry. It’s actually not in Beirut like they said. And of course, they also close at 2.

Not to worry. I got my story. Can’t go inside the camp? Fine, I’ll get people on the inside to come meet me outside. But I would’ve liked to get some colour and visuals for my story.

Aargh!

p.s: I modified the 2nd para to say I had not one, but TWO letters.

The stories are coming soon

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The view from my bus on the way back to Beirut from Sidon.

I just penned 1,200 words in my journal, while basking in the sunshine of my balcony, of my experience to a Syrian high school in Lebanon’s Sidon district two days ago. Despite being uprooted, the kids are a happy bunch. Confident and optimistic; Determined to have strong futures in their adulthood.

Located on the second floor of an apartment building, the physical size of the school is small. There are few extra-curricular activities although some of the boys play football (soccer). The focus, for students and teachers alike, is academics. Every teenager in that school loves the math, physics, English and French classes offered. They want to excel in high school, go on to university and become civil engineers, teachers, bankers or pharmacists. Every one of them also wants to return home to Syria.

My trip led to a story idea revolving around personal safety and security that I was able to successfully pitch to a major news organization. Watch out for it in the next week or so. That’s all I’ll say for now about it. I have a lot of great story ideas too, but I need to make more connections before I feel ready to pitch them. I’m also just busy with the two assignments I have on the go.

The perfect bubble of East meets West

I have been in beautiful Beirut for almost five days now and I have a lot of mixed feelings that I suppose are normal when one moves to a new country with a different language and culture. I feel lost sometimes in ways that a haritha (map) cannot help.
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The balcony outside my bedroom window.

Of course I have enjoyed getting to know Beirut. It is such a perfect bubble of East meets West. It is like India with all the noises (honking and scooters), smells (pollution), and narrow or non-existent sidewalks, but far less intense and crowded. And everybody is liberated enough that I can walk confidently down any street at any time of day or night without getting harassed (unlike in India, and often, in Canada too). I know I said I feel lost sometimes, but I am also surprised by how much I feel at home here.
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View from my balcony where I sit down to work and read sometimes.

My main anxieties stem from my shift into self-employment. I have a lot of hope, a good reputation and excellent connections with many editors in Canada, but my enthusiasm doesn’t make things any less daunting. I expect it will be a long haul trying to pitch and sell stories, and to get to the point where I will be earning a sustainable income. Hiring a translator and sometimes a driver is very expensive and these costs will add up quickly. My lack of fluency in Arabic worries me too, but that’s getting better everyday. It’s good that I passed up a free visit to the National Museum for five solid hours of learning Arabic instead last night. I keep reminding myself that I must give myself time to make things work.

I spent a lot of time this week just getting acclimatized. I walked through many neighbourhoods: Hamra, which is rich in culture, Manara and the Corniche by the sea, the posh downtown where the parliament buildings and the Beirut Souks are, and Bachoura and Basta Al Tahta with the antique shops. I’ve been indulging in zathars (pita bread with thyme seasoning) and sfeehas (pita with meat and onions). Roomie has been wonderful in cooking up some homemade Lebanese food, and introducing me to many people to practice my Arabiya on. Two nights ago, a friend drove me along the Green Line that separated Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war. The area used to be nothing but rubble, uninhabited and neglected because of gunfights and shelling. Over time, a cornucopia of green shrubs and bushes began sprouting along this stretch. Hence the name. Today, the green line is a long road leading to Damascus that is dotted with mid- and high-rises developed during the last 20-plus years. My friend explained that a very delicate balance of several religions exists in Beirut. Many people tell me that one reason Lebanon is reluctant to fully and formally accept the Syrian refugees in their midst is because their presence would tip the balance in favour of the Sunnis.
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This is what fresh almonds look like!

I was delighted to see fresh almonds for the first time ever when roomie (a local Lebanese journo) took me to the Tuesday organic souk (market) in Hamra. They taste a little like green mangoes, and are excellent with salt. I also got to try arak one evening. It’s the “pride of Lebanon,” I’m told, in the world of alcoholic beverages. The Levantine cocktail is made from grapes and with anise. The oil from the anise turns the drink into a milky white colour when mixed with water, and it was served to me with a mint leaf in it.

Well, I am looking forward to pounding the pavement next week in search of stories. I have an interview lined up for an assignment on Tuesday, and a potential translator to help me. I certainly feel the pressures of self-employment. I either feel I should be working all the time, or when work is enjoyable and doesn’t feel like work, I think I should be working harder. Getting to know the lay of the land in Beirut is essential to covering news in this city, but it really doesn’t look or feel like work when I’m walking around like a tourist and smelling the leaves of all the plants that are new to me along the way!

With deep thanks

Thank you to everyone for helping fund my career shift as a freelancer in the Middle East. I am very grateful, and humbled that you all have so much faith in me. With online & offline contributions, I have just under 5 grand, and coupled with my own savings, I should be able to last a while and produce some really good stories in Beirut, Jordan, & even Syria if life takes me there. A very important side benefit of crowd funding is all the valuable connections I’ve made as the word spread. This will help me survive the start of self-employment even better. I love all of you. Keep me accountable. Live simple and live large. Like the two creatures in this photo.

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Five weekends left

I’m packing up my bags and leaving the comfort of my Toronto home to report on the conflicts in the Middle East. This was a difficult decision to make but also something I have wanted to do for a long time.

Although I have never used this blog to express myself personally, I will attempt to record my thoughts and observations here on a regular basis as I embark on this adventure. I am all kinds of excited and terrified. Excited about all the things I will learn. Terrified because I will be freelancing – something I’ve always worried won’t be sustainable.

But here I go. I leave for Beirut on the evening of March 23. I will be based in Lebanon, but I plan on visiting neighbouring countries as well.

If you wish to learn more about me and what has inspired me to make this move, visit this page: indiegogo.com/projects/syria-s-refugee-camps. Here, you can also make donations toward my freelance fund.

Stay tuned. Five weekends left in the Big Smoke. There will be a lot of stories to tell.

A little ‘constructive’ criticism for NATO

At a time when Canada is backing out of key NATO surveillance programs to focus on internal defence spending, it seems taxpayers may have to pony up much more than expected toward the construction of a new home for the alliance. Much to the chagrin of NATO’s 28 member countries, the construction consortium responsible for the new $1.6-billion headquarters in Brussels has requested an additional $371 million, and 10 more months, to complete the project.

Oana Lungescu, a spokesperson for NATO, calls the consortium’s request for additional funds part of “a hard commercial negotiation” that is currently under review. But it’s already proven to be an embarrassment for the alliance and, especially, for NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who championed the steel and glass structure as a symbol of a new, modern NATO. According to Der Spiegel magazine, Germany’s ambassador to NATO, Martin Erdmann, said in a con?dential cable that the effect on NATO’s image would be disastrous if “NATO appeared to be incapable of punctually completing a construction project.”

NATO members already had doubts about the project when the Royal BAM Group, based in the Netherlands, successfully bid $300 million less than what NATO had estimated for the project. The request for more money comes from “unforeseen circumstances (including significantly higher security requirements),” says Arno Pronk, a BAM spokesperson, adding there is no backup plan for the project if the funds don’t come through. With the building 80 per cent finished, member states, including Canada, may have no choice but to pay up.

Published in Maclean’s magazine on Feb. 4, 2013.

Controversial online loan giant Wonga targets Canada

Its name, Wonga, is British slang for money. And its television ads, airing in parts of Canada, feature comical puppet pensioners—one with a penchant for skateboards—who speak with exaggerated English accents. Wonga Canada, the online money-lending service, which has been doling out short-term loans here for more than a year, has stayed true to its British roots with an off-kilter marketing message that borrowing money should be easy and fun. But the past few months have been anything but cheery for Wonga’s executives in London.

The company is beset by controversy. It’s been accused by politicians, media and even the Church of England of preying on some of that country’s most financially vulnerable citizens through short-term, high-interest loans. The archbishop of Canterbury has essentially waged holy war on the lender, with a plan to put it out of business by launching competing credit unions offering lower-interest loans. In November, executives from Wonga and other payday loan firms were grilled by MPs at a parliamentary committee. In fact, to say the company has an image problem in the U.K. is an understatement—earlier this month, when a British MP chastized banks for the ATM fees they charge in low-income neighbourhoods, he said the practice “makes Wonga look like Santa Claus.”

Click here to continue reading this story, published in Maclean’s magazine on Jan. 21, 2014.

Wal-Mart hitting a great wall in China

The news last week that Wal-Mart had to recall packages of donkey meat from its stores in China because they contained bits of fox ricocheted around the world as only a story about fox-tainted donkey meat can. But, for all the attention given to the proclivities of Chinese grocery shoppers, the incident shone a light on a particular problem for the company: For a retailer that’s come to be synonymous with cheap Chinese goods, Wal-Mart is having a hard time finding its identity in the Middle Kingdom itself.

Continue reading this story, published on Jan. 14, 2014, in Maclean’s magazine.

China-Japan tension racheting up

When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Asia in early December, his message to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was simple: start talking. While tensions have ratcheted up in the fight over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea, experts worry things could get far worse. In fact, the most optimistic outcome for the year ahead is that the two old foes settle into an uncomfortable Cold War.

Efforts to maintain peace will be difficult because of the intense hostility and risk of incidental conflict, says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China. Since China declared an air-defence zone over a large expanse of the East China Sea, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea have all defiantly sent in military aircraft. China retaliated with its own warplanes. One pilot with an itchy trigger finger could spark a war.

Biden’s two-hour visit with Xi was amiable—Xi called Biden an “old friend”—but settled nothing. China is unlikely to back down, as such a move would be a domestic embarrassment. Building up its military has been a priority lately. Its defence budget has grown and it recently sent its only aircraft carrier into the South China Sea, where it is waging similar battles over island groups with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Japan’s conservative Abe, who has been in office for about a year, brings his own brand of nationalism to the fight. He’s eager to loosen the bonds of post-war pacifism and be more assertive toward China, while Japan’s brutal invasion of China in the 1930s still haunts relations.

The rise of nationalism in both China and Japan and displays of military muscle make for a potent mix. “The maintenance of a cold peace between China and Japan is still much achievable” in 2014, says Shi. But it’s far from a sure thing.

Published in Maclean’s magazine on Dec. 28, 2013.

Why it’s taking so long for some Torontonians to get power

Almost a week has gone by since Toronto and surrounding regions were hit by a powerful ice storm knocking out power for thousands of residents. Read my piece in Maclean’s magazine for answers to the questions that the 32,000 residents who are still without power are asking.

Published on Dec. 27, 2013.

Bad ice storm? Yes. Great Ice Storm? Not even close

Ice storms may be rare enough that many Torontonians can’t remember experiencing one that wreaked as much havoc as last weekend’s. But the Great Ice Storm of 1998 that swept across eastern Ontario, southern Quebec and Nova Scotia caused considerably more damage. Read my story in Maclean’s magazine to see how last weekend’s storm stacks up to the one in 1998.

This week’s storm is a doozy, but comparisons to 1998 are probably premature. Unlike the Great Ice Storm of 1998, no municipality has yet declared a state of emergency—and, much to the chagrin of Canadians looking to poke fun at their largest city, no military boots are on the ground.

“Three weeks after that storm in 1998, there were still hundreds of thousands of people without power,” recalls Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. “And here we¹re talking about perhaps not being able to cook a turkey at Christmas. It isn’t the same impact.”

Click here to continue reading. Published on Dec. 23, 2013.

Police officers can’t seek legal advice to prepare notes: Supreme Court

The widespread police practice of consulting with a lawyer while making notes of incidents which are under investigation in Ontario is “an anathema to the very transparency” of the justice system, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Canada’s highest court unanimously condemned the practice and ruled that police officers can no longer receive legal advice while preparing notes.

Read more at Maclean’s magazine online. Published on Dec. 19, 2013.

Also see the prequel to this breaking news story here.

Kathryn Jones, OLG and case of the missing $50M lottery ticket

When a pair of investigators from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation paid a visit to Kathryn Jones’s Hamilton home in October, it was the beginning of the end of a year-long search that culminated in the engineer and mother of two making headlines this week as the rightful winner of a lost $50-million lottery ticket.

The OLG’s 25-strong investigative team, comprised primarily of former law enforcement officers, usually only focuses on verifying or disputing claims that come to them. Besides appealing to the public for winners to identify themselves through media outreach, the OLG does not scour voluntarily for lottery winners. There were $22 million in unclaimed prizes last year, and the unclaimed spoils either go back to players in future jackpots or into profits that go to the province.

This is the first time the OLG sought out a winner of their own volition. It took 17 investigators sifting through 435 false claims for one year to find her – a month before the ticket was set to expire.

Click here to continue reading this story published in Maclean’s magazine on Dec. 7, 2013.

The young and the restless

Jason Dorsey was at a conference for fast-food franchisees last week, when a restaurant owner told him about being berated by the parent of a young employee after giving that worker a poor performance review. As a keynote speaker, Dorsey asked how many other employers had dealt with interfering parents. Roughly 45 of the 300 attendees threw up their hands. “The franchisees in that room have been in this business a long time, and they were complaining because they’ve never seen anything like this,” says Dorsey, 35, a consultant based in Austin, Texas, who advises companies on retaining millennials—one of the kinder terms ascribed to the Generation Y cohort born during the early 1980s or later.

Click here to continue reading this story published in Maclean’s magazine on Nov. 7, 2013.

It’s all ‘sex assault’

Police don’t release details about sex crimes – but does the public need to know to stay safe?

“If there is someone loose in my neighborhood sexually assaulting women, I would really feel better knowing whether it was a slap on the ass or a violent rape,” said Meaghan Willis, 28, a global health research professional in downtown Toronto.

Willis answered a question posed by The Ryersonian last week about whether it is in the public’s interest for police to reveal the specifics of reported sexual assaults. Her desire to know more is reflected by several other women who want to know the worst-case scenario when their safety is threatened.

Connie Guberman, a senior lecturer in the department of women’s and gender studies at the University of Toronto, agrees with Willis.

“I just want to know the nature of the assault for my own needs, my own anxiety, my own self-protection,” Guberman said.

Guberman lives in the Annex neighbourhood where 10 sexual assaults have been reported since July. Although an arrest has not yet been made, police believe a single perpetrator is responsible for all 10 assaults. The Toronto Police Service has provided details of circumstances that led up to the attacks – typically, women have been approached from behind while walking alone late at night, they were sexually assaulted and when they screamed or fought back, the perpetrator fled.

But there is no information on what happened during the assault. A sexual assault is defined by Toronto police as any unwanted contact with sexual overtones, and it is not necessary for physical contact to have taken place. So women have no way of knowing if the assaults involved gestural threats, threats with a weapon, grabbing, fondling, biting, choking, or penetration.

Toronto police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said police use the language in the Criminal Code, which was modified in 1983 to repeal the rape charge. While a person in Canada cannot be charged with rape, police can charge individuals with sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, or sexual assault with a weapon, as well as threats to a third party or causing bodily harm.

“The general public may attribute a level of seriousness to these assaults, and some assaults may be seen as less serious than others,” Gray said. “That is not the message we want to put out there. Every sexual assault is serious for us.”

At Ryerson, six assaults have occurred on or near campus since the beginning of the school year. Alerts released by Ryerson’s security and emergency services have detailed how women were assaulted, but because specific alerts are not emailed out, students have to visit Ryerson.ca’s Security Watches page regularly to receive the information or read through the administration’s frequent “Ryerson Today” emails. In one case, a woman’s skirt was lifted and her buttock was grabbed. There were at least two other cases in which women’s backsides were grabbed.

Ryerson University spokesman Bruce Piercey explained that the university tries to be as transparent as possible without jeopardizing the investigation.

“It’s important for people to understand the context of the assaults in order to better protect themselves. The more information that’s provided, the better the understanding in the community of what’s going on,” he said.

But Guberman said it should not be up to authorities to decide what information women want to hear. She said she does not make judgment calls on the seriousness of a sexual assault and that she has the right to be armed with as much knowledge as possible.

Jane Doe, whose real name is under a court-ordered publication ban, successfully sued Toronto police in 1986 for not releasing information about a known serial rapist in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood. Madam Justice Jean MacFarland ruled that had police warned the public about the rapes, Doe could have taken steps to prevent the rapist from breaking into her home, threatening her with a knife and sexually assaulting her. She was awarded $220,000.

Surprisingly, Doe’s feelings on sexual assault reporting are in line with the Toronto police policy.

“Whether they’re grabbing my ass or beating me down and penetrating me, they’re still crimes against a woman’s autonomy, her personhood and her dignity,” she said.

Kasia Mychajlowycz, a recent Ryerson graduate and one of the organizers of Ryerson’s Take Back the Block party to reclaim a safe space for women on campus last Saturday, respectfully disagrees with Doe.

“Putting this crime in a special secret category doesn’t make sense to me because we’re trying to bring things more into the open and have more of a conversation around sexual assaults,” she said. “We’ve tried the whole keeping-it-in-the-family, not-talking-about-it thing for the last 10,000 years, and where has that gotten us?”

She argues that publicizing the details of sexual assaults helps women with similar experiences know they are not alone. “I don’t see how not being specific … is how we’re going to go about reducing the stigma of reporting,” she said.

Doe is incensed and troubled by what she perceives as pressure on women to report sexual assaults, saying that it is an individual woman’s decision to make while considering a legal system that often blames and disbelieves sexual assault victims, and almost never convicts.

“What I’m seeing more and more is this pressure being put on women,” she said. “Do it for the team. If you would just report, the crime rate would go down. It’s outrageous. Why is it our responsibility to stop the crime?”

Doe said the national conviction rate for sexual assaults is dismally low – hovering between one and five per cent – and charges are often dropped before the case even goes to trial.

Nicole Pietsch, co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, has doubts about whether knowing the specifics of a sexual assault will actually be beneficial to women. She feels women are already getting the information they need from police.

“I’m just not really sure if this is a public want for some sort of graphic information so they can make a judgment on whether that sexual assault was important or relevant and rank them,” Pietsch said.

Both Pietsch and Doe identified the media’s desire to publish sensational and graphic reports as unhelpful. Pietsch said she heard all the details in the high-profile rape of eight-year-old Tori Stafford and the rapes perpetrated by former Canadian Forces colonel Russell Williams, but they only made her feel powerless, depressed, horrified and afraid. She doesn’t believe parents can protect their children any more than they already do by knowing the specifics of what Tori had to endure.

“No one’s done a study on this, but I think if police say, ‘There’s been a sexual assault in blah-blah area. If you’ve been affected, please come forward,’ I think that would be just as effective as saying, ‘Woman had her butt grabbed in the blah-blah-blah area,’” Pietsch said.

Despite compelling, but contradictory, arguments, there was one thing all interviewees agreed on: women are already aware of their surroundings, and are already looking over their shoulders while walking home alone. Police and media need to stop sending messages that blame victims or urge them to take precautions – instead, these agencies should be sending a firm message that sexual assaults are unacceptable.

“What they (police) should be saying and what would be absolutely effective is: ‘Look buddy, we know you’re out there. We’re on to you and we’re going to get you. Someone knows who you are and they’re going to call us. Stay the fuck off the street,’” Doe said.

“Don’t tell me to stay off the streets,” she added. “I want to walk home by myself. Alone. That’s my choice.”

Published in the Ryersonian on September 26, 2012.

Mother charged with attempted murder after 11-year-old injured in Toronto apartment

The mother of an 11-year-old boy found gravely injured in a Toronto west-end apartment has been charged with attempted murder.

Toronto police said they responded to a 911 call just before 1 a.m. Friday to a high-rise building near Bloor Street West and Hwy. 427. The child was found with severe head and neck injuries and an ambulance rushed him to hospital. Constable Tony Vella said a household item had been used as a weapon.

The 32-year old mother has also been charged with aggravated assault and failing to provide the necessities of life. Police are not releasing the mother’s name to protect the identity of the child.

Constable Vella said there were other children in the home who will be transferred to the care of the Children’s Aid Society.

Residents in the building said they were surprised to hear the news of what happened last night. Red tape has replaced the glass door of the front lobby which emergency responders had to break through because the lobby was closed.

Kumar Ramachandran said he was woken by shouts and screaming around 1 a.m. from the apartment two doors down on the 12th floor. He didn’t step outside because the sounds made him afraid, he said.

Mr. Ramachandran said this is not the first time he has heard arguments coming through the door of his neighbour’s flat. But the sounds last night: “Oh, that was bad, very bad,” he said. “I live next door and you can imagine how loud it was.”

Mr. Ramachandran said it sounded as if things were being thrown around, he heard the mother swearing and yelling, “Leave,” and the little boys saying “No” repeatedly. At one point, he heard one very loud thud, louder than the other sounds.

The apartment was occupied by a woman and her two sons, ages 11 and 9, and her daughters who are 15 and 17 years old, said Mr. Ramachandran, who added the children often came over to his place to play Wii games with his daughters.

Mr. Ramachandran said the children seemed happy. He would often see the boys take out the trash and go grocery shopping on their own. On weekdays, he said he would see the children wait after school for an hour or two outside the apartment for their mother to open the door.

“They are good kids,” said Mr. Ramachandran, adding that the family had moved less than three years ago from Alberta where the father works. The parents are originally from Jamaica, he said.

Catharine Antle, another neighbour on the 12th floor where the mother was arrested, said she had just gone out for a coffee around 1 a.m. When she returned, four police officers got on the elevator with her. She said she thought there had been a minor dispute when the officers got off the elevator on the same floor as her.

A short while later, she saw police taking a woman away in a white bathrobe and handcuffs.

Published in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 30, 2013.

Harper unveils plans for tougher laws against child sex offenders

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proposing new legislation that would increase penalties for those convicted of sexually exploiting children.

“We must create a justice system that is more responsive to victims, and especially more responsive to children and to the families of children who have been victimized by sexual predators,” Mr. Harper told a room full of cabinet ministers, senators, police officers and journalists during a visit to Toronto.

Click here to read about the proposals that Mr. Harper is making.

Published in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 29, 2013.

Syria’s Assad waging a war against his own people, Baird says

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada is outraged by the suspected poison gas attack in Syria last week, and vowed to “review a full range of options” in response to what he called the Syrian president’s war against his own people.

“Obviously we’re tremendously concerned about the victims of Assad’s war against his own people,” said Mr. Baird. “The use of chemical weapons is a new dark chapter in this conflict.”

Hundreds of people were reported dead after chemical weapons were apparently used in at least four suburbs in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Aug. 21.

Click here to continue reading this story published in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 26, 2013.

An interview with Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians and the country’s leading water activist, is expecting the release of her latest book next month. Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever is the final in a trilogy that uses compelling statistics to examine the global water crisis. In the book, Ms. Barlow, who was a leader in the successful movement to push the United Nations to recognize water as a human right, introduces the notion that water, like living beings, has rights too.

Read my interview with Ms. Barlow published in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 23, 2013.

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