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Trapped in Jordan, Syrian refugees see no way home
By JOSEF FEDERMAN and OMAR AKOUR | 06:01 EDT
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Seven years after fleeing the civil war in his homeland, Zahir Hamshari’s life is filled with questions and doubts: How to pay the rent? How to cover the electricity bill? How to afford even basic staples like bread and bottled water?
But one thing is crystal clear for him. Like many Syrian refugees, he cannot envision returning to his war-torn country.
“There is no future for us in Syria,” Hamshari said. “Nothing encourages us to return back to Syria.”
Nearly a year after Jordan’s main border crossing was opened for refugees to go home, such sentiments are common among the more than 1 million Syrians living in the desert kingdom.
Afraid to return home, unable to earn a decent living in Jordan and unwanted by the West, refugees are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt while straining the resources of a country that is already struggling to meet the needs of its own population.
“The Syrian crisis has negatively impacted the progress made by Jordan over the past years, increased public debt, and caused serious challenges to the path of sustainable development for the coming decade,” Jordan’s Planning Ministry said in a statement. “Education, health and water infrastructure have been tremendously strained in several communities.”
Many Jordanian schools, for instance, now operate in double shifts to accommodate refugee children, while Jordan, one of the world’s most arid countries, says water consumption has spiked over 20% due to the refugee influx.
The ministry noted that while some countries have been supportive with aid, “donor fatigue poses a major challenge.” Foreign donors have covered just 6.1% of the $2.4 billion needed for refugee services this year, according to government statistics.
Jordan, which borders southern Syria, became a popular destination for refugees after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. While Jordan hosts two camps near the Syrian border, most refugees have moved to cities, where they are permitted to work in menial jobs.
But the crisis has dragged on for much longer than anticipated, particularly as Western countries have slowed or halted programs to take in refugees. Jordan does not forcefully deport refugees.
Jordan has provided refuge to an estimated 1.3 million Syrians, including some 670,000 people officially registered with the U.N. as refugees, a significant burden for a country of roughly 10 million. Turkey, with 3.6 million refugees, and Lebanon, with nearly 1 million, are also major host nations.
When Jordan’s main border crossing with Syria reopened last October after four years, there were hopes that refugees would begin to return home. Since then, just 28,000 refugees have gone back, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
A report by the agency late last year found that while 78% of refugees hope to return to Syria one day, only 8% intended to do so in the coming year. The U.N. says such sentiment remains the same.
“When we do our monthly intention surveys with these refugees, we do see that the majority plan to go back to Syria one day in the future, but only a small portion of them are wanting to go back in the next 12 months,” said Lilly Carlisle, the agency’s spokeswoman in Jordan.
Refugees cite safety concerns, fear of conscription and a lack of jobs, housing and basic services as reasons for not going home. Reports from Syria aren’t encouraging either.
“When I contact my brothers in Syria, they told me that work opportunities there are not available, the situation is not safe,” said Yousef Samara, a 42-year-old refugee from Syria’s Deraa province who lives in the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan. “Living conditions don’t encourage us to return. I care about the future of my children; I left the war for their sake.”
The UNHCR, working with the Jordanian government and aid organizations, coordinates a host of services for refugees, including cash assistance, education, health services and mental health counseling. But facing a chronic budget crunch, with donor nations providing just over a quarter of needed funds this year, it has struggled to meet demand. The U.N. estimates that some 80% of refugees live below the poverty line and nearly 90% are in debt.
Hamshari, who uprooted his family from their home in a Damascus suburb in 2012, said he feels trapped. He said there is no way he can return to Syria, but there is no way to support his wife and four young children in his current situation.
The 36-year-old said he fled Syria after he was arrested in a random sweep that followed the outbreak of anti-government protests. He said he was tortured during three months in jail and believes he will be in danger if he returns. In any case, he said his home near Damascus is destroyed.
His first stop in 2012 was Libya, where he said he earned a good living as a construction worker. But after Libya’s civil war erupted, he fled to Jordan the following year. He applied to move his family to the U.S., but said the process was abruptly halted after the Trump administration tightened entry rules for Syrian refugees.
Today, he scrapes by as a worker in a pharmaceutical factory, living in a sparse, two-bedroom apartment in a working-class neighborhood in east Amman. He said he receives about $200 in food coupons from the U.N. each month, but gets no other assistance.
Like many other refugees, he said he cannot afford basic expenses and is months behind on his rent and electricity bills.
He subsists by borrowing a few dinars from friends or relatives, but says few people have money to lend because they are in a similar predicament.
“I feel lost,” he said. “I haven’t achieved anything in the last six or seven years, only eating and drinking and being indebted. If I stay like this, I will die from anger.”
He implored Western countries to take in refugees like himself. “Even if I work 20, 25 or 50 years here, I will not have a good future for me or for my children.”
Amer Sabaileh, an independent Jordanian analyst, said the government must devise a long-term strategy and decide whether it wants to absorb refugees or help them return home.
“It seems that we need to develop a stronger way of dealing with these emergencies. Let’s say we cannot keep just being receivers for what is happening in the region,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have this plan.”
Akour reported from the Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan.
EarthLink – News
Friendly fire: In trade fights, Trump targets US allies, too
By PAUL WISEMAN | Wed, September 11, 2019 11:56 EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump has risked turmoil in the financial markets and damage to the U.S. economy in waging his trade war with China, America’s top strategic rival.
But Trump hasn’t exactly gone easy on America’s friends, either. From Europe to Japan, the president has stirred up under-the-radar trade disputes that potentially could erupt within weeks or months with damaging consequences.
The administration is seeking, for example, to tax up to $25 billion in European Union imports in a rift over the EU’s subsidies to the aircraft giant Airbus. It’s also threatening to impose tariffs to punish France for a digital services tax that targets U.S. internet giants Google, Amazon and Facebook.
And come November, Trump could take his aggressive policies into uncharted territory by imposing tariffs on foreign autos and auto parts. This move would risk igniting a damaging conflict with Japan and the EU as well as with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The president’s rough tactics have already shaken markets and paralyzed businesses that are struggling to decide where to expand or invest at a time when the rules of global commerce can be upended with one presidential tweet. Their uncertainty has contributed to a slowdown in global trade and growth.
“He doesn’t seem to be deterred,” said William Reinsch, a former U.S. trade official who is an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He seems to argue that these things are good and have a positive effect for America.”
On trade, Trump is governing as he said he would. He casts the gaping U.S. trade deficit — $628 billion last year — as indisputable proof that America is being ripped off by its trading partners and that the free-trade deals his predecessors negotiated are rigged against U.S. companies. As a candidate, Trump pledged to forge more U.S.-friendly deals and to deploy tariffs to bend other countries to his will.
Mainstream economists take a decidedly different view of America’s trade deficit. They say it reflects a fundamental reality that won’t yield to changes in trade policy: Americans consume more than they produce. And imports fill the gap.
Among Trump’s numerous trade fights, his standoff with China has drawn by far the most attention. And for good reason: His administration is waging the biggest trade war since the 1930s against the world’s second-largest economy in a fight over Beijing’s aggressive push to supplant America’s technological dominance. Trump has imposed tariffs on $360 billion in Chinese imports and is preparing to tax the remaining $160 billion in goods that have so far been spared.
Yet Beijing is hardly the only U.S. trading partner to draw Trump’s fury. He has asserted that the EU’s trade policies are even worse than China’s and has threatened to use tariffs against the 28-country trade bloc, which has long been a vital U.S. ally.
“Sadly, in many cases it is our allies that took the greatest advantage of this country,” Trump said at a campaign rally Monday. “Now you have a president who understands I am not supposed to be the president of the world. I’m supposed to be president of the United States.”
Trump’s Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has drawn up lists of $25 billion in EU imports — including aircraft, gouda cheese, waffles and olives — that the U.S. could hit with tariffs in retaliation for the bloc’s support of Airbus.
Last year, the World Trade Organization ruled that the EU had indeed illegally subsidized Airbus. An arbitrator will decide how much compensation the United States is entitled to but could produce a figure that falls well short of what the Trump administration wants.
A much bigger hammer could drop this fall.
Trump last year ordered the Commerce Department to investigate whether imported autos and auto parts posed a threat to America’s national security — a designation that would allow Trump to impose tariffs under a rarely used provision of American trade law. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross duly decided that foreign cars did imperil the United States. (The administration last year invoked the same justification to tax imported steel and aluminum.)
But the administration in May decided to postpone any action on autos for six months until mid-November.
Tariffs on auto imports would mark a drastic escalation of trade hostilities. The United States last year imported $192 billion worth of passenger cars and light trucks and an additional $159 billion in auto parts. Virtually no one outside the White House supports auto tariffs, which would disrupt manufacturing supply chains, raise prices for American consumers and open a diplomatic rift with Europe and Japan.
If Trump proceeds with the taxes, he would likely face pushback in Congress. Lawmakers are already considering legislation to scale back his nearly unlimited authority to impose tariffs on national security grounds.
The president is using the looming tariffs to try to pry concessions from Europe and Japan. Last month, the EU agreed to import $270 million worth of U.S. beef annually. Trump credited his tariff threat.
“The EU has tremendous barriers to us, but we just broke the first barrier,” he said then. “Maybe we broke it because of the fact that if I don’t get what we want, I put on auto tariffs.”
Likewise, Japan hopes to reach an agreement that would exempt it from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and from the threat of auto tariffs. In exchange, Tokyo would grant America’s farmers greater access to the Japanese market.
But Reinsch, noting that Trump has a history of slamming countries with sanctions even after they’ve agreed to his terms, said he thought Tokyo would insist that any agreement be “signed in blood.”
Pressured by the steel and aluminum tariffs, for instance, Mexico agreed to join Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a revamping of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump had condemned as a job-killing disaster.
But just as trade relations between the neighbors appeared to be returning to normal, Trump surprised even his own advisers by threatening to tax all Mexican imports in a totally separate dispute (later resolved) over immigration.
Economists say growing uncertainty from Trump’s confrontational trade moves is weakening American manufacturing, which contracted last month for the first time in three years, according to the Institute for Supply Management. Forecasters are downgrading their estimates of global growth, and financial markets appear sensitive to any perceptible rise in trade hostilities.
Philip Levy, chief economist at the freight company Flexport who was an adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration, wonders if Trump will rethink his stated belief that trade wars are “good and easy to win.” Maybe, Levy suggested, “With your fingers a little singed, you resolve not to touch the hot stove again.”
Would Trump still be willing, for instance, to make good on his threat to abandon NAFTA entirely if Congress doesn’t approve the new version his team negotiated?
Daniel Ujczo, a trade attorney with Dickinson Wright in Ohio, said “there is a low likelihood that President Trump actually withdraws from NAFTA” — and risks throwing $1.4 trillion in annual U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico into chaos.
Still, Ujczo suggested, Trump might go through the motions of doing so and start a six-month procedural clock to a pullout in order to intensify pressure on Congress.
Then again, Trump still enjoys almost unwavering support from his base among rank-and-file Republican voters. His supporters, Levy said, “like it when you fight and not when you act meek.”
The result, Levy concluded, is that Trump is “much more likely to double-down than reverse course.”
“Until he sees political consequences, you’re not going to see a change in strategy.”
AP Writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Wiseman on Twitter at @PaulWisemanAP
EarthLink – News
Afghans fear Trump’s Taliban move means more civilians die
By CARA ANNA and AHMAD SEIR | 08:29 EDT
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The sound of the blast ripped through Kabul, in an instant wrenching the Afghan capital’s attention from a nationally televised interview in which a United States envoy revealed the first details of a deal to end America’s longest war.
Last week’s Taliban car bomb targeted a foreign compound but instead shredded Afghan homes, with stunned and bloodied families picking up children and fleeing in darkness as their once-solid world collapsed. One family saw 30 relatives wounded — many of them women — including a son still healing from an attack the year before.
“Our only hope was peace,” Hayat Khan, the family’s 54-year-old patriarch, said Tuesday, “and that doesn’t happen now.”
President Donald Trump says the U.S.-Taliban talks on ending the fighting in Afghanistan are “dead,” deeply unfortunate wording for the Afghan civilians who have been killed by the tens of thousands over almost 18 years. Many fear his cancellation of negotiations will bring more carnage as the U.S. and Taliban, as well as Afghan forces, step up their offensives and everyday people die in the crossfire.
As America on Wednesday mourns thousands of civilians killed in the 9/11 attacks, weary Afghans watch their own toll from the aftermath continue to rise.
“Here innocent people are killed and there is bloodshed everywhere. Families lose their sons, mothers, even their livestock, but no one cares about it,” Khan said, a bandage still around his head from the blast. “Who remembers them? Are they not humans?”
The idea that Trump in a series of tweets over the weekend would call off a deal on the brink of completion, citing the Taliban’s killing of a U.S. service member in another Kabul blast last week, has struck many Afghans as incomprehensible.
“There are attacks every day,” said Khan’s 26-year-old son, Zaki, who walked The Associated Press through the family’s ruined home. A relative held up a phone to show a photo of Zaki, dusty and bleeding and clutching a child, shortly after the blast. “Why doesn’t he care about the killing of hundreds of civilians here?”
This also would be Afghanistan’s longest war, if the fighting in the country had ever truly ended. Instead, Afghans have been plunged into various conflicts over the past four decades, from a Soviet invasion to a warlord-led civil war to the Taliban’s arrival that ushered in a harsh version of Islamic law.
The collective deaths, in the hundreds of thousands, are being remembered in Martyrs’ Week that continues through Sunday. Across Afghanistan, fresh graves are dug every day. And all sides — the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan forces — are to blame.
For the first time, more Afghan civilians have been killed by international and Afghan forces than by the Taliban and other insurgents, the United Nations said of the first three months of this year, with thousands more wounded by insurgent attacks. The toll has been largely due to stepped-up airstrikes by the U.S. as it aids Afghan ground forces in their efforts to dislodge Taliban fighters and those with the local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
The CIA-trained Afghan special forces also have been criticized, including by the U.N., for heavy-handed raids on Afghan homes that often turn deadly and alienate the local population. This month the Afghan intelligence chief was forced to resign after those forces killed four brothers in a raid in the eastern city of Jalalabad. They had no known links to insurgents.
“As a responsible state we have zero tolerance for civilian casualties,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in announcing the resignation.
The collapse of the U.S.-Taliban peace efforts has turned quickly to talk of more war on all sides. The Taliban, while signaling they were still open to negotiations, said they would continue their fight against foreign “occupation.”
The Afghan defense ministry’s deputy spokesman, Fawad Aman, confirmed on Tuesday that offensives against the Taliban have increased across the country in recent days.
For the U.S., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that more than 1,000 Taliban had been killed in battle during the past 10 days — an estimate that could reflect Afghan efforts as fighting intensifies ahead of this month’s presidential election and the end of the “fighting season” before winter. And Trump, on the defensive after critics accused him of upending the talks in favor of rash showmanship, asserted that “we’ve hit the Taliban harder in the last four days than they’ve been hit in over 10 years.”
There has been no evidence to back up his statement. But the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that violence had intensified.
All parties must reduce civilian casualties “to demonstrate their seriousness for peace,” he said.
The talk of even fiercer fighting has anguished some in Afghanistan. “Stop breaking more hearts! The escalation in violence from all sides won’t have a winner,” Omaid Sharifi, the founder of an art project that now paints concrete blast walls with thousands of tulips to remember the dead, said Tuesday on Twitter.
And after an air raid was blamed in the deaths of seven family members in Maidan Wardak province this week, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said that “such inattention and carelessness on the part of the international military forces would result in people’s wrath and anger” and urged Afghan officials to investigate why such events repeatedly occur.
The family members had been returning from a memorial ceremony when they were killed, said Sharifullah Hotak, a provincial council member. With offensives stepping up in the wake of Trump’s decision, he said, “unfortunately, both sides of the battle will cause more civilian casualties.”
A new report by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program shows how many have died this year alone. Just over 450 Afghan civilians were killed in the cross fire between state and insurgent forces or in attacks on government institutions in the first six months, it said. Another 100 civilians were killed in “one-sided violence” such as suicide attacks against purely civilian targets such as weddings.
Part of the tragedy in Afghanistan, some say, is that families are battered over and over.
For Khan, the blast that scattered his loved ones was the third attack in the past two years.
“Whenever I build my house,” he said, “it is destroyed again.”
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan; Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan; Robert Burns in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to say Martyrs’ Week continues through Sunday.
EarthLink – News
Wisconsin man accused in illegal THC vaping cartridge scheme
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin man is accused of running a 10-man operation that manufactured thousands of counterfeit vaping cartridges loaded with THC oil every day for almost two years, authorities said.
Kenosha County prosecutors said 20-year-old Tyler Huffhines had employees make professionally packaged cartridges. Authorities said the employees filled about 3,000 to 5,000 cartridges per day and were sold for $16 each.
“Based on how everything was set up, this was a very high-tech operation that was running for some time,” Andrew Burgoyne, Kenosha County assistant district attorney, said during a Monday court hearing to set bond. Police said the business started in January 2018.
Police arrested Huffhines on Thursday. He was being held on a $500,000 cash bond while he awaits charges to be filed. He was due in court Friday.
His attorney, Mark Richards, did not respond to an email or a phone message left at his office.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, the Kenosha Drug Operations Group and other agencies executed search warrants at two homes. The Kenosha News reports that authorities seized 188 pounds (85 kilograms) of marijuana, THC oil, eight firearms, and about $20,000 in cash.
The arrest comes as health officials investigate 450 possible cases in 33 states where vaping was linked to a severe lung disease. Kansas reported its first death tied to the outbreak on Friday. Nationwide, as many as six people have died.
Health officials have warned against buying counterfeit vaping cartridges. It’s unknown if the Wisconsin operation has been linked to any illnesses.
No single vaping device, liquid or ingredient has been tied to all the illnesses. But recent attention has been focused on devices, liquids, refill pods and cartridges that are not sold in stores.
New York state has focused its investigation on an ingredient called Vitamin E acetate, which has been used to thicken marijuana vape juice but is considered dangerous if heated and inhaled.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also investigating Vitamin E acetate, but officials said they’re looking at several other ingredients as well. Last week, the CDC warned against buying vaping products off the street because the substances in them may be unknown. The agency also warned against modifying vaping products or adding any substances not intended by the manufacturer.
This isn’t the first time Huffhines has made it into the headlines. Last year, the Kenosha News wrote a feature story about him when he was an 18-year-old Central High School student, selling athletic shoes online. The story’s headline was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
EarthLink – News
Leaders of California ministry charged with forced labor
Wed, September 11, 2019 12:42 EDT
EL CENTRO, Calif. (AP) — A dozen leaders of a California-based ministry were arrested Tuesday on charges that they used homeless people as forced labor, holding them in locked group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, U.S. prosecutors said.
The former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, Victor Gonzalez, and the others were arrested in San Diego, El Centro near the Southern California border with Mexico and Brownsville, Texas. They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.
The El Centro-based ministry has about 30 affiliate church throughout the United States and Mexico and runs five group homes in Southern California, authorities said.
Dozens of victims, many of them homeless and some as young as 17, were lured to the group homes by the promise of food and shelter until they were able to return home.
Instead, the ministry that billed itself as rehabilitating drug addicts kept them inside deadbolted group homes, took their personal belongings and identification documents and refused to return them, stole their food stamp and welfare benefits and in some cases threatened to take away their children if they left, according to a grand jury indictment filed Aug. 23 and unsealed Tuesday.
“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said at a news conference. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
“Windows were nailed shut at some group home locations, leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window, escape, and run to a neighboring property to call police,” said a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.
Ministry members told people that “they would not receive transportation home, or that loved ones had rejected them and they must stay because ‘only God’ loved them. Punishments for violations of home rules, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included the withholding of food,” the statement said.
In addition to panhandling up to 54 hours per week to provide money to the church, some victims were refused medical treatment, the indictment alleged.
A diabetic woman was refused medicine, supplies and food for her low blood sugar but managed to escape and seek help, authorities said.
Another woman was refused treatment for a prolapsed uterus, the indictment alleged.
A man who answered the phone at the ministry’s headquarters Tuesday night declined to comment or be named but said the church would be posting comments on its website in a couple of days. An email message seeking comment was not immediately returned.
All the alleged victims that have been identified are now free and support services were available for them and for any additional victims that are found, authorities said.