Rohingya Expatriates Push US Lawmakers to Act on Myanmar

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, right, listens to a report on the plight of displaced Rohingya at Bangladesh refugee camps, during a meeting with Rohingya activists at the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago, Illinois, Oct. 18, 2017.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, right, listens to a report on the plight of displaced Rohingya at Bangladesh refugee camps, during a meeting with Rohingya activists at the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago, Illinois, Oct. 18, 2017.

 

Although he hasn't seen his home country in more than a decade, modern technology has made it easy for Abdul Jabbar Amanullah to stay in regular contact with his family in Myanmar's remote Rakhine state.

Using email and social media to interact with loved ones has made his life as a refugee now living in Chicago a little easier, even if the latest news coming from his village has been growing increasingly unsettling.

“They are telling me the situation is [becoming even] worse because the military has them surrounded,” he told VOA.

 

For all that the technology has given him, however, it also has fueled his greatest fears. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya have been fleeing attacks in Rakhine in recent weeks. The last contact Amanullah had with family in his village is a blurry, 11-second video of towering flames… footage he says shows his village burning to the ground after Myanmar military forces came through.

“We don’t know who set fires,” Amanullah explained, though he suspects it was the military or groups aligned with them.

It's difficult for him to verify what’s going on in Myanmar because officials restrict access for journalists and aid workers, but hundreds of thousands of ethnic Muslim Rohingya have already fled for neighboring Bangladesh, pushed out of their homes in what the United Nations calls “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the Myanmar military.

Myanmar rejects claims

Myanmar officials reject those claims. They blame arsonists for the burning villages, and say the problems are being exaggerated.

As the crisis, and blame, continue to unfold, many Rohingya in the United States, particularly in Chicago — which is home to the second largest Rohingya community in the nation — frantically await word from friends and family still in the conflict zone. They search for any hint of news slowly trickling out of the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

“The story is very similar from everybody,” said Dr. Imran Akbar. “The military is coming in, they are torching the villages, they are shooting the men.There’s been countless reports of women being kidnapped, anywhere from 12 years old to older, being kidnapped and carried away and raped. They are not allowed to take anything with them, and the villagers are running for the hills.”

Akbar recently returned to Chicago after visiting several camps in Bangladesh, and shared his first-hand observations with Amanullah and others who gathered at the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago.

Photo taken by Dr. Imran Akbar in the Rohingya refugee camps he visited in Bangladesh.
Photo taken by Dr. Imran Akbar in the Rohingya refugee camps he visited in Bangladesh.

“The lines are miles long waiting for food distribution,” he explained to VOA. “It rains there every day. With that there is constant mud and sludge and a lot of times impassible conditions for vehicles. Couple that with not having proper sanitation and not having adequate latrines and so forth, it creates the perfect environment for cholera and other infectious diseases.”

Durbin meets with Rohingya in Chicago

Armed with pictures and first-hand video accounts, Akbar is taking their case directly to the U.S. government through Senator Dick Durbin, who listened to Akbar’s observations, as well as concerns from other Rohingya who gathered to make a direct appeal for U.S. action in their home country.

“What we know is this, there is an ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar today,” Durbin told VOA in an exclusive interview after his meeting with Rohingya community members in Chicago.

Durbin wants to immediately terminate military-to-military contact between the United States and Myanmar, something Congress, and the president, currently is evaluating.

“They should allow U.N. observers in immediately to see all of the territory in Myanmar currently occupied by the Rohingya people,” said Durbin. “There is no excuse for that. Until they allow that to happen, there is no reason the United States should send them aid.”

After Senator Dick Durbin, seated center, talked with local Rohingya leaders, Durbin told VOA he wants the U.S. to immediately terminate military-to-military contact with Myanmar.
After Senator Dick Durbin, seated center, talked with local Rohingya leaders, Durbin told VOA he wants the U.S. to immediately terminate military-to-military contact with Myanmar.

Myanmar ambassador meeting

Durbin believes finding a way to end the crisis has bipartisan support in Congress, and he says he plans to address the issue himself directly with the Myanmar government.

“My task is to really reach out directly to the Myanmar ambassador in Washington and demand that he come and meet with a group of senators who share my concerns, both Democrats and Republicans, about the ethnic cleansing taking place in his country,” said Durbin.

“Secondly, to join with Senator (John) McCain and others on both sides of the aisle to say the United States will not be complicit in this ethnic cleansing. We are going to cut off assistance to Myanmar if they refuse to allow U.N. observers, and if they continue to participate in this ethnic cleansing.”

Need ‘immediate action’

As Abdul Jabbar Amanullah seeks further news, or videos, from those in his home village, he hopes that whatever action the U.S. government takes isn't too late to help his family.

“The military is still doing the same thing they did before, setting the fires, killing the Rohingyas, so our first target is to stop this kind of stuff,” he said. “So that is my hope to Senator Durbin — he can raise his voice and tell Congress and our president to take immediate action with the Burmese government.”

Action he hopes that ultimately will lead to the end of a still unfolding humanitarian crisis, which already has forced more than half a million people from their homes.

Georgia Rep. Price Says HIV Comments Taken Out of Context

Vice President Mike Pence takes the podium to speak at a swearing in ceremony for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, accompanied by his wife Betty, Feb. 10, 2017, in the in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.

Vice President Mike Pence takes the podium to speak at a swearing in ceremony for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, accompanied by his wife Betty, Feb. 10, 2017, in the in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.

 

Georgia Rep. Betty Price says her comments on people with HIV that ignited a national firestorm were "taken completely out of context."

Price, the wife of former U.S. Health Secretary Tom Price, was in a legislative committee meeting Tuesday when she asked a state health official whether people with HIV could legally be quarantined.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Price said Saturday that she was just being "provocative."

She said a health official had presented that Georgia is second only to Louisiana in the rate of new infections. Part of the reason is that more than a third of Georgians with HIV are not receiving care for it. She said that's what sparked her "rhetorical" comments.

"I do not support a quarantine in this public health challenge and dilemma of undertreated HIV patients," Price said in a statement. "I do, however, wish to light a fire under all of us with responsibility in the public health arena _ a fire that will result in resolve and commitment to ensure that all of our fellow citizens with HIV will receive, and adhere to, a treatment regimen that will enhance their quality of life and protect the health of the public. I look forward to continuing to work with all to accomplish this goal."

Price, a Republican whose district includes parts of Atlanta's northern suburbs, asked the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health's HIV Epidemiology Section about stopping the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"What are we legally able to do? I don't want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it," Price can be seen asking the official, Dr. Pascale Wortley, in a video of the study committee meeting on barriers to adequate health care.

"Is there an ability, since I would guess that public dollars are expended heavily in prophylaxis and treatment of this condition, so we have a public interest in curtailing the spread," she continued. "Are there any methods, legally, that we could do that would curtail the spread?"

Like her husband, who resigned last month as Health and Human Services secretary after an outcry over his use of costly private planes for official travel, Betty Price is a doctor. Her legislative biography says she worked as an anesthesiologist for more than two decades, served on the boards of the Medical Association of Atlanta and the Medical Association of Georgia and is a past president of the American Medical Women's Association in Atlanta.

In 2015, Georgia ranked fifth highest in the country for the number of adults and adolescents living with HIV, according to a fact sheet on the state's Department of Public Health website. The total number of people living with HIV infection in Georgia on Dec. 31 of that year was 54,574 and nearly two-thirds of them lived in the Atlanta metro area.

Project Q Atlanta, a website serving the city's gay community, was the first to report Price's comments.

US Attorney General Grilled on Trump, Russia Probe, Immigration

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn in for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 18, 2017.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn in for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 18, 2017.

 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday declined to discuss his conversations with President Donald Trump concerning the Russia probe and defended the president's immigration agenda in often-heated exchanges with lawmakers on Capitol Hill

"I will not be able to discuss the content of my conversations with the president," Sessions said in his first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee since becoming America's top law enforcement officer.

The attorney general stuck to that response that a president's private conversations are privileged as Democratic senators repeatedly sought answers about what Sessions and Trump might have discussed pertaining to the Russia investigation, as well as the firing of former FBI director James Comey.

FILE - Former FBI Director James Comey testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 8, 2017, in Washington.
FILE - Former FBI Director James Comey testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 8, 2017, in Washington.

Sessions did, however, tell senators that he has not been interviewed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election. Asked whether he has confidence in Mueller's work, the attorney general was noncommittal.

"The process has to work its will … history will judge," Sessions said.

Trump has criticized the special counsel's probe as a "witch hunt" and berated the attorney general for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

On other topics, Sessions spoke far more freely. He vigorously defended President Trump's decision to end a program that has shielded undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation, and he said so-called "sanctuary cities" that refuse to cooperate with federal officials in identifying undocumented people deserve to lose federal funding.

In both cases, Sessions said Trump is correcting "an erosion in respect for the rule of law."

Senators of both parties pushed back. Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina challenged Sessions on the president's decision to sunset the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, unless Congress enacts a new program into law.

"Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated, and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving their country, brought to this country through no fault of their own?" asked Tillis, who has co-authored legislation to benefit DACA recipients.

"I say that it cannot be the policy of the United States that one can bring a young person [illegally] in the country, and they can't be deported," Sessions responded, adding that Trump wants DACA recipients to be dealt with "compassionately" as part of a larger package of immigration reforms and measures to boost U.S. border security.

Trump often has pledged to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Asked whether he expects a barrier to be constructed spanning the entire 3,000-kilometer U.S.-Mexico border, the attorney general said, "No, the president has made clear he doesn't expect that."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 18, 2017.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 18, 2017.

Sessions, who represented Alabama in the Senate before becoming attorney general, came under fire from former Democratic colleagues for asserting during his confirmation hearing that he had no contact with Russian officials during last year's campaign. Sessions, who backed Trump and served as a campaign surrogate, later admitted to having met with Russia's ambassador on several occasions.

"The ambassador from Russia is Russian," Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota said pointedly.

"I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at anytime," Sessions insisted.

The attorney general testified hours after Trump posted a series of tweets blasting Comey once again for the FBI's probe of Democrat Hillary Clinton's handling of emails. Clinton, a former secretary of state, was Trump's 2016 election challenger.

 

Earlier this year, Comey testified that, before firing him, Trump repeatedly pressured him to wrap up the Justice Department's Russia investigation, wanting him to "lift the cloud" surrounding the inquiry.

"Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud' on the Russia investigation?" asked the committee's top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California.

"Senator Feinstein, that calls for [revealing] a communication that I've had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential," Sessions responded.

Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

Firefighters Shifting Into Recovery Phase in Northern California

Marcos Morales, co-founder of pot company Legion of Bloom, stands on the ruins of a state-of-the-art drying shed in Glen Ellen, Calif., where 1,600 pounds of ready-to-ship bud were destroyed in a fire, Oct. 15, 2017.

Marcos Morales, co-founder of pot company Legion of Bloom, stands on the ruins of a state-of-the-art drying shed in Glen Ellen, Calif., where 1,600 pounds of ready-to-ship bud were destroyed in a fire, Oct. 15, 2017.

 

The fires in Northern California improved this week, with fire officials saying they have the upper hand on the widespread blazes.

But for firefighters, there is still the daily work of containing the fire and shifting into recovery and clean up. For Ryan Estes, the fight against the widespread, complex fire in Northern California is personal. Estes has worked as a firefighter outside of Santa Rosa, California since 2000.

Firefighter Chris Oliver walks between grape vines as a helicopter drops water over a wildfire burning near a winery Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California.
Firefighter Chris Oliver walks between grape vines as a helicopter drops water over a wildfire burning near a winery Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California.

“This is home and we’ve been here since day one,” said Ryan Estes, captain of the Rincon Valley Fire Department. “We’re still working because this is home. We don’t want to leave.”

Estes’s family and home are fine. His wife is home 15 minutes away with their two children, packed if they need to evacuate.

Firefighters here say this is what they call “a career fire,” something they have trained for all of their lives. But even with that training, the fire’s power has been too much at times. They have needed downtime and a place to refuel—for themselves and their vehicles.

Estes worked three days straight when the fire first erupted. Help arrived quickly – firefighters from all over California, Oregon, Nevada, the East Coast and even Australia. Equipment came too – fire retardant, helicopters, engines, bulldozers.

“It can be a roller coaster obviously,” said Jay Smith, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

“As most fire fighters have a can-do attitude. You want to go in, very task oriented, just do our job and get people back in their homes. Make it safe for everyone who lives here.”

Fire crews battle a wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, Oct. 14, 2017.
Fire crews battle a wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, Oct. 14, 2017.

Firefighters here have lost their homes and one firefighter lost his life.

The extra help has given Estes a chance to go home for 12 hours to see his family, and begin to take in what has happened to his community.

For firefighters, the fight is shifting into the recovery phase, putting out every smoking log or ember they see, discussing what went well and what didn’t in the fire fight.

And with the recovery, there will be the emotional toll.

“Once everyone has gone, the dust has settled, you get the deeper emotions out,” Estes said. “Right now it’s a somber feeling.”

From Immigrant to NY Deli Owner to TV Analyst

 

Hatem El-Gamasy works behind the counter at Lotus Deli in Queens, New York, where he sometimes stays until 2 a.m. or later.

Hatem El-Gamasy works behind the counter at Lotus Deli in Queens, New York, where he sometimes stays until 2 a.m. or later.

 

Among the 1900s-era row of brick buildings on a Queens, New York Avenue, Lotus Deli is a one-stop shop for warm breakfast sandwiches, batteries, cigarettes, and late-night craft beer.

Owner Hatem El-Gamasy is the first New Yorker to greet you in the morning, and the last to say good night. To his diverse customer base, he is known as "Timmy," a father of two who safeguards neighbors' deliveries, holds keys for visiting in-laws, and greets your dog by name.

But to viewers 9,000 kilometers east of New York City, El-Gamasy — a Qewaisna Al Balad-native Egyptian-American and graduate of Menoufia University — is known as a self-assured TV analyst, specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs.

"I have four people working for me, this [deli] is how I feed my family," El-Gamasy said. "At the same time, I'm doing great discussing politics."

In the back of his deli in Ridgewood, Queens, Hatem El-Gamasy keeps a spare suit jacket, shirt and tie handy at all times.
In the back of his deli in Ridgewood, Queens, Hatem El-Gamasy keeps a spare suit jacket, shirt and tie handy at all times.

In a moment's notice, El-Gamasy, 48, loses the paperboy cap, slips into his repurposed back room, and fixes his necktie. He is Skype debate-ready in minutes.

"When they have breaking news, they may call you immediately," El-Gamasy explains of TV newsrooms.

Generating controversy

El-Gamasy had written opinion pieces for years, but generally went unnoticed by Egyptian broadcasters. That changed last year, when he predicted Donald Trump would win the presidential election even though democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was far ahead in the polls. Nile TV, a state channel, caught wind of the piece and interviewed El-Gamasy. After that, his phone rang a lot.

In September, The New York Times published an exclusive feature on El-Gamasy, revealing his unconventional TV reporting life to his audience and the world outside Ridgewood, Queens.

Nationally, discussion boards heralded his journey as an epitome of the "American Dream" — the notion that hard work plus equal opportunity may earn you limitless possibilities.

Abroad, his reception was varied.

"The late [professor and writer on Middle Eastern Affairs] Fouad Ajami, who was both an academic and a successful commentator, used to joke that he wanted to open a restaurant — though he never did," wrote Edward Yeranian, a foreign correspondent in Egypt who reports for VOA, "so I wouldn't judge the man because he owns a deli shop."

From the back of his Queens deli, Hatem El-Gamasy participates in an on-air discussion of the September 11, 2001, attacks, during the 2017 anniversary. (YouTube/ONtvLIVE)
From the back of his Queens deli, Hatem El-Gamasy participates in an on-air discussion of the September 11, 2001, attacks, during the 2017 anniversary. (YouTube/ONtvLIVE)

But news outlets and social media forums across Egypt and the Middle East were more critical of El-Gamasy's credibility.

An Arabic-language video by the online outlet Rassd News Network, which has gathered more than half a million views on Facebook, mocks El-Gamasy while falsely claiming that he actually lives in California. In the comments section, a language barrier-transcending "crying with laughter" emoji is prevalent.

The Lens Post, a bilingual English and Arabic site that claims to be by Arab youth, "for Arab youth," calls El-Gamasy's story "scandalous," and an example of "many fake political analysts" who appear on Egyptian TV news.

Backlash

"Oh, the political analyst Mr. Gamasy is just a sandwich guy; he's a pancake guy; he's this and this, nothing else,'" El-Gamasy recalls the commentary, "as if owning a small business is something I should be ashamed of. ... I have nothing to regret."

El-Gamasy has not been shy with his on-air criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatari government, and "fanatic religious groups," views which he believes fueled an offensive among his disparagers.

The reaction was swift and apparent. In the four weeks since The New York Times' article was published, Egyptian television outlets which used his commentary most — CBC eXtra News, ONtvLIVE, and Nile News — stopped calling.

Hatem El-Gamasy, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, commutes daily from his home in Brooklyn to his deli in Ridgewood, Queens.
Hatem El-Gamasy, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, commutes daily from his home in Brooklyn to his deli in Ridgewood, Queens.

Eventually, he stripped the matching $2.99 maps of the United States — the backdrop for his Skype recordings — from the walls. The padlock dangling against his orange back door, separating the deli from his studio, has since been clamped shut.

But behind it, one remnant of El-Gamasy's TV appearances remains: a single hanging black suit, together with a knotted gray tie and red Van Heusen button-down shirt.

"I'm not totally dead, you know," he smiled.

Once a pundit …

When he's not ringing up customers or discussing politics over coffee behind the counter, El-Gamasy spends hours honing his poetry and short stories, while keeping tabs on White House and Department of State email updates on foreign policy.

Late at night, El-Gamasy still pores over his many composition notebooks — penning, drafting and re-drafting articles for accuracy and eventual publication.

"Politics is like a running river," he said. "Nothing stops."

Following the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, El-Gamasy was invited to participate in a live 30-minute news discussion with U.S. Arab Radio, a platform dedicated to providing news and analysis to the U.S. Arab diaspora.

Refaat Abid, U.S. Arab Radio's New York-based host, says he sought out El-Gamasy after viewing one of his TV appearances in May. El-Gamasy had been talking about FBI director James Comey's firing and investigations into possible Russian interference in the U.S. election.

"He has a beautiful voice, like a poet," Abid said.

'To realize one's destiny'

As the evening's golden hour sets upon Lotus Deli, El-Gamasy basks in the quiet from behind the counter.

His index finger skims, line to line, through Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, a book he has read several times.

Hatem El-Gamasy, the owner of a deli in Queens, New York, recites a line from one of his favorite books, “The Alchemist:” “…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Hatem El-Gamasy, the owner of a deli in Queens, New York, recites a line from one of his favorite books, “The Alchemist:” “…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

He stops at a well-known passage and reads aloud:

"To realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation. All things are one. And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

El-Gamasy takes a sip of coffee: "It's really an inspiring book."

Content but tired, he contemplates a short nap. The night is young, and the week is long.

And there are many blank pages to fill.

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