‘Protect our children’

US: Chicago school protest 27 March 2013

It’s hard to imagine the mayor of a major US city moving to close dozens of schools located in some of the most violent areas of the entire country. It’s even harder to imagine that mayor having his office announce the mass closings — the biggest ever in US history — while he was away on a ski holiday with his family. But Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel is a special kind of mayor.

Last Thursday Emanuel’s office announced that the city plans to shut 54 schools, nearly all of which are located in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods, in order to cover a $1bn deficit. Karen Lewis, the outspoken leader of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, blasted the move as “racist” and “classist,” and so did many other teachers, parents, school faculty, and others on Wednesday during a protest against the closings (images above).

Read a full report of the protest by The Guardian’s Gary Younge.

Repairing a heart

The above images document the before and after of my father’s recent open-heart surgery.

TWO WEEKS AGO doctors cut open my father’s sternum, stopped his heart, and temporarily installed a cardiopulmonary bypass pump as they spent more almost eight hours replacing a damaged mitral valve. It was his third such open-heart operation in just two years. Before that his most recent operation was last November, one that I also returned home for from the Middle East where I live in order to be with him.

Caring for ailing loved ones is something most of us have done or will do at some point in our lives. And as we all know it’s not easy, especially when other factors interfere. One of the things that drove me into activism and later journalism was growing up and seeing my father battle one health issue after another.

At different times during the last two decades my father, like tens of millions of Americans, was without health insurance. That meant he was solely responsible for the exorbitant medical bills incurred from his illnesses. And for years I watched as he struggled to overcome not only his physical problems but the resulting financial problems as well.

“Hello, I’m looking for…” the voice would come on the phone asking for my father. “He’s not in,” I’d say, as he slept just feet away on the couch in his small one-bedroom apartment. Or, I would respond in a less diplomatic fashion and tell them to go to the hospital themselves and ask him for money as he underwent further costly treatment that he couldn’t expect to pay for either. The phone never stopped ringing, and most times I would just ignore it.

For an impressionable kid in his late teens, it made me furious. I had trouble understanding how treatment for the sick and unwell was a political issue and not a basic right. There is no excuse for a country that spends billions on killing people abroad to not invest in healthcare and take care of its own people at home.

In recent years my family has been more fortunate as my father has worked at a job, albeit one he’s overqualified for, that provides him with health insurance. And that insurance has allowed him some of the best medical care available, especially for his last two heart operations when he was transferred to the University of Chicago hospital on the city’s South Side.

I have to say that I am eternally grateful to the staff at the U of C hospital. They do an incredible job at treating people like my father in need of specialized treatment for an organ as complicated as the human heart. The doctors and nurses were both friendly and extremely professional, which was reassuring for us at such a worrying time.

But while the staff has stayed the same, the hospital has changed dramatically. My father’s second heart operation in November was conducted at the old hospital, which seemed perfectly fine in my non-medical opinion. However, it paled in appearance to the brand new $700,000,000 medical facility that opened in February just across the street. As I recently sat gazing out from what’s become one of the tallest buildings on Chicago’s sprawling South Side, I couldn’t ignore the blaring contradictions staring right back at me.

Driving south on Cottage Grove Avenue the hospital emerges behind the trees and low-lying homes like a massive alien spacecraft that landed smack in the middle of the South Side. In an area where some of the only neighborhood shops you’ll find are liquor stores, and empty lots and boarded up homes are visible on every street, the hospital is one of the only signs of development on the South Side.

But that surrounding community is clearly not who the hospital is intended to serve.

In recent months, activists on the South Side have protested at the U of C demanding it open a trauma center to treat gunshot victims. The U of C sits in the middle of one of one of the areas with the highest rates of gun violence in the entire country. However, the hospital isn’t equipped with a trauma center to treat gunshot victims, even when they’re shot almost literally in its shadow. Instead, they’re forced to travel to the nearest trauma center, a journey that has proven to be fatal for some. In 2010 18-year-old Damian Turner was shot less than a quarter mile from the U of C hospital. Turner died en route to the nearest Level 1 trauma center more than ten miles away in the city’s downtown.

Chicago’s South Side is a microcosm of the growing inequality in the US where the bottom 90 percent control less than a quarter of the country’s wealth while the top one percent control more than one-third. And it’s clear that to the authorities the lives of working people simply aren’t worth as much. Since President Obama first took office in 2009, nearly 2,000 people were killed in Chicago before he paid a visit to a single victim’s family. Many of the killings happened within blocks of Obama’s Chicago home. Last year when mass shootings occurred in wealthier areas in Colorado and Connecticut, killing 12 and 26 respectively, Obama was on the scene within days offering condolences to grieving families.

Chicago is hurting, and the status quo can’t sustain itself for much longer. And while the logical solution for many would be for the local government to invest in the struggling communities, Chicago’s mayor has taken the reverse approach and is waging new attacks on working people. Last Thursday, while Rahm Emanuel was on a ski holiday, his office announced the biggest mass public school closing in US history — nearly all of the 54 schools located in predominantly poor Black and Latino communities. It’s no coincidence that those same neglected communities are also experiencing the highest rates of violence.

Being home and knowing my father’s heart is fixed and he’s on the road to recovery couldn’t make me happier. But this city full of many hard-working people just like my father is in bad shape, and if something doesn’t change soon, well, no hospital around is going to be able to repair the damage no matter how shiny its exterior.

A cold day in Chicago

The high was 30 degrees (-1 C) in Chicago today, but the brisk wind made it feel much cooler. Office smokers put on their heavy coats to go outside for the 3-4 minutes it took to get their nicotine fix. Even pigeons looked miserable as they huddled behind bus stops and other wind-blocking barriers on sidewalks knowing it was too cold for any children to chase after them. A perfect day, I thought, to test out my new Fuji X-pro1 camera. Unlike my other Canon DSLRs, the Fuji and its lenses are small and discreet. It’s easy to travel with and doesn’t make me feel like I’m some overcompensating Harley-rider in need of a massive camera around my neck just to take a few pics. Earlier as I strolled around the Loop, Chicago’s downtown, I didn’t feel like I drew much attention to myself, which I like when doing street photography. The results are above.

Death in Chicago

Excerpted from an email to friends back home (video below):

When people in the Middle East ask where I’m from there are usually two things they associate with Chicago: Michael Jordan and violence. I’m always happy to hear the former and hope one day they’ll be just as familiar with Derrick Rose when he returns. And when I hear the latter reference I usually respond with something like, “yeah, but nothing like in this region.” But recently I’ve started to think that’s not really true.

I remember living in Chicago and not being affected by reports of violence that happened in parts of the city far from where I lived. It might sound odd, but now that I live on the other side of the planet, that violence feels much closer to home with every “Chicago” headline I read in various media.

While visiting home recently I wanted to tell the story of Darius McGraw, a young man gunned down last November in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. The multiple headlines of reports on his death mostly read something like, “4 dead, 19 injured in weekend violence,” none mentioned, for example, that he had a two-year-old daughter. I didn’t know Darius well, but I knew the area where he lived on the Southwest Side and the organizers at the now-closed Southwest Youth Collaborative who dedicated their lives to that community. Darius spent almost half of his brief 22 years at the center where he practiced break dance and other activities to organize young people.

My report isn’t much, and it can’t do anything to repair the insufferable tragedy the McGraw family and SWYC community have had to endure. It’s merely an attempt to give a face and name to one of more than 500 people killed in Chicago last year.

Watch our video report below, which can also be found on Al Jazeera’s site.

The story of a Syrian refugee

Originally published as a blog post for Al Jazeera English

Before becoming a journalist I did human rights work in the occupied West Bank. I first visited as a naïve 21-year-old with little knowledge of the Middle East, or really anywhere outside my hometown Chicago.

During my travels through various refugee camps I was shocked learning how almost every single person I encountered had an unimaginable story to tell.

One man served 25 years in an Israeli prison, another woman’s husband was killed leaving her to raise their five kids on her own, a young boy would fearlessly gather stones to throw at tanks invading his camp.

The stories were endless. And the fact that I was unaware of them before I heard them myself is what drove me to become a journalist. I needed to record them so other people could also know.

I felt this same way walking through the Islahiyeh refugee camp in southern Turkey on Saturday.

Home to almost 8,000 Syrian refugees, the camp’s residents have, like Palestinians, endured the most horrific crimes before abandoning their homes in search of refuge. And as I work on a larger story on their plight, there is a story of one person in particular that I feel compelled to tell in full.

As we walked through Islahiyeh I waved to a man sitting at his cigarette stand outside a tent that I later learned he lives in with his family.

His face was covered in bandages and he responded warmly to my greeting so I approached him to say hello and wish him a speedy recovery for what I assumed was a war-related injury. It turned out my assumption was correct.

His name was Mohamed Ayman al-Ezz, and he’s a 43-year-old court reporter from Taftanaz, a part of Idlib province in northern Syria.

On April 4, during a Syrian army raid into Taftanaz against fighters from the Free Syrian Army, al-Ezz says he was taken from his home by the government troops.

He said the soldiers accused him of feeding the rebels inside his home, a charge he firmly denies.

“I wasn’t a fighter, I had nothing to do with the fighters, I was only a civilian,” he told me.

He said the army detained him for a few hours before handing him over to six masked men he described as “shabiha,” the notorious pro-government militia.

He expected to be interrogated, but instead was taken to an empty home with three other local men who he knew quite well. Their hands were bound behind their backs.

Al-Ezz said that one of the masked men standing only metres away took aim with an AK-47s and shot each one of the detainees with a single bullet to the head. Al-Ezz was the fourth to be shot.

He was eager to tell me the names of the other three men: Awad Abdel Kader, Ahmad Jaafar, and Eyad Ghonim. Al-Ezz estimated the ages of the first two men to be around 70 and 60 respectively, and Ghonim he said was only a few years younger than al-Ezz.

He told me that the masked men said very little to the detainees. Only to Jaafar, who had served time in prison accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, they asked, “didn’t you learn your lesson by now?”

Al-Ezz said when it was his turn the shooter pointed the gun at his face and asked, “What were you thinking trying to go against a government that has an entire army at its disposal?”

He doesn’t remember what happened after that, but he said people in the area later told him that from inside their homes they had seen the badly injured al-Ezz stumbling in the streets of Taftanaz before he fell down just 50 metres from his home.

They went to his aid, but seeing him unconscious and his face completely disfigured from the bullet that entered under his left eye and exited under his left ear, they left him for dead covering his body with a sheet. He said it would’ve been too dangerous for them to do anything else as the army was still around and anyone in the street could be captured or killed.

When the army left late that night, al-Ezz’s wife went out searching for her husband and found a man covered in a sheet near their home. He was unconscious, but still breathing.

Because of the severe wound and the blood covering his entire face, she didn’t recognise her husband at first. But after taking the man inside she found al-Ezz’s identity card in his pocket and realised it was her husband.

Al-Ezz said that his wife and neighbours, knowing he needed urgent medical care, discussed what options they had to help him. The only medical centre in the area was a government hospital, and going there could be risky if they thought he was an FSA fighter or supporter of the opposition.

In the end they decided on the government hospital, and when they arrived they told staff that he had been shot by armed “terrorists,” the term often used by the government for the opposition forces.

After a three-hour investigation, al-Ezz said intelligence agents in the hospital found no evidence that he was connected to the FSA or opposition groups and so he was admitted for treatment and operated on soon after.

A week later, while still in the hospital recovering and awaiting additional treatment, al-Ezz said that local men he thinks had links to the shabiha visited him in the hospital. He suspected their visit was to investigate whether rumours were true or not that one of the four men that were supposed to have been executed days earlier had somehow survived.

Almost immediately after they left he fled the hospital, fled Idlib, and fled Syria altogether coming to Turkey and arriving in the Islahiyeh camp where he remains today, six months later.

The entire left side of al-Ezz’s face is completely paralysed and he’s unable to close his left eye that he covers in bandages. He said that he still needs specialised treatment, including surgery, but that the procedures would cost tens of thousands of US dollars, money that he doesn’t have.

And Mohamed Ayman al-Ezz was just one person in one refugee camp whose cigarette stand I happened to pass.

Istanbul street 2

One day I want to live in Istanbul. It’s an incredible city, and probably the easiest to photograph in. I took a few images on a brief stopover on my way from southern Turkey near the border with Syria back to Doha.

My first time in Istanbul was exactly one year ago when I posted some pics taken with my G12. But as you’ll see if you compare the two posts, the quality of those images is nothing compared to the ones in this post all shot on my Canon 5D MKII.


Egypt elect’s a president

It was an historic moment in Egypt. More one year after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians took part in free elections to choose their next president. Below is a sampling of my coverage for Al Jazeera English just before, during and after the elections.

In pictures: Egypt’s colourful campaign:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Aboul Fotouh rallies support:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Brotherhood mobilises for Morsi:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Sabahi tours Cairo:

image: Matthew Cassel

The faces of Egypt’s voters:

image: Matthew Cassel

In Pictures: Voting in the Nile Delta

image: Matthew Cassel

Egypt election results spark angry protests:

image: Matthew Cassel



War on Iran?

Iranians welcome their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Beirut in October 2010. (Matthew Cassel)

History was repeating itself. At least that’s what I was beginning to think a few months ago. The US media, like in 2003, was using all its strength to bang the drums of war, although this time in Iran. It was non-stop, every morning I’d wake up to find an article about why Israel and the west had to take action to stop Iran.

Unlike during the lead up to the war with Iraq, this time I was a journalist and not a student activist. I had been planning to go to Iran last month to cover the elections, the effects of sanctions and to gauge feelings about a potential western strike and, of course, to take pictures in that beautiful country. But alas, I was never granted a visa and any visit to the IRI was put on hold.

The below are a couple piece I was able to do from outside Iran. In the first piece I look at a very small yet telling sample of English-language media and how it’s been covering Iran. Fortunately, it seems cooler heads are prevailing and the calls for war, while still very much ongoing, have quieted down somewhat:

Media roundup: An imminent strike on Iran?

In the article I quote Colin Kahl, who responded to claims that Israel’s 1981 of Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear sites actually stopped Iran from developing the bomb. Kahl wrote:

“By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organise the programme. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault.”

In the second piece I had the honor of speaking to Hooman Majd, one of my favorite contemporary writers on Iranian affairs. Majd has written two books on Iran in recent years, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend (one and two).

I remember reading his first one which was published just a year before the contested 2009 elections and subsequent protest movement. Majd captures a certain level of nuance that I previously thought all English-language media had been somehow allergic to.

Here is a quote taken from the interview, Hooman Majd on Iran and sanctions:

“(For) the average Iranian it’s hard to see what comes next if you have these crippling sanctions, if you try everything to destroy the Iranian economy, which is what basically America is set out to do. And President Obama said himself that (Iranians) are going to hurt, and that’s the idea to continue trying to do that. But to what end? To try to get Iran to capitulate on its nuclear programme? Well, like I said before that’s not going to happen.”

It is my own personal feeling that a strike on Iran, a country already sandwiched between two US-occupations, by Israel or the west would immediately spiral into something much bigger that would easily encompass the entire Middle East and other areas. And this region already has enough people dying from the wars and occupations at present, it doesn’t need any more.

No surprises in snowy Lebanon

The car stopped on the side of the road and out like children we jetted into the field of untouched snow. After five years in Lebanon it was my first time experiencing snow in the mountains here. We threw snowballs at each other and I made a friend, literally. On the road 50 meters away I noticed a couple minibuses stop and let out about 40 or so men who looked even more excited by the white stuff than I was.

When my friends and I finally overdosed on snowballs and snowmen we went up to the road where the men were still hanging out. The guys’ mood was celebratory and they stood next to snow with cigarettes, beers and coffee in hand. Inside the buses a few guys danced to Arabic music playing on full blast. As I walked past I noticed their accents didn’t sound Lebanese. Unlike most Lebanese dialects, they pronounced a hard “G”-sounding “qaaf” and a more guttural “ayn”. I’ve never been to Libya, but their accents sounded like some of the rebels who I remembered hearing in TV interviews over the summer. But it was too unlikely that I’d run into a group of Libyans in Faraya, and I told a friend that maybe they were from eastern Syria.

But that also didn’t seem right. With the uprising in full swing I couldn’t imagine a group of Syrians traveling, drinking and celebrating like these guys were. Khallas, I had to ask one of them, “excuse me, but where are you guys from?”

“We are from Libya!” he said proudly.

Wow. The first group of Libyans I’d met since the fall of Gaddafi. Before I asked anything else, I wondered what their relationship to the uprising was. Gaddafi supporters? Nah. Ordinary Libyan civilians who sat on the sidelines throughout the months of fighting? Maybe, but they didn’t come across as those kinds of guys.

When I asked what brought them to Lebanon, more smiling faces approached and one told me they were on vacation from Libya. With my camera at my side I couldn’t resist. I think I was only able utter the word “mumkin [is it possible ]…” before one of them reached his hand out for mine and shouted, “We are Libyan revolutionaries! Take our picture!” They all cheered fists in the air. I wanted to shoot the group in front of their bus, but the man dragged me and ten comrades surrounding him across the street and into the snow. They readied for the portrait and a guy in the back yelled, “Allahu Akbar,” while a kneeling man drinking a tall can of Efes (a Turkish beer) wobbled in front:

image: Matthew Cassel

Just in case you’re expecting some continuity to this post, don’t. The below picture has absolutely nothing to do with Libya. But like 40 joyous revolutionaries in the snow, the following was also a scene begging to be photographed: Some guy drove his BMW through slippery winding roads to reach the snowy mountains with a propane tank in the trunk just so he can heat the coals for his hookah. The hookah, which you can see next to the propane tank in the picture below, sits conveniently outside the car with its hose snaked through a crack in the door to be enjoyed in the comfort of German engineering:

image: Matthew Cassel



Interview with Ece Temelkuran

This article was first published under the headline, “Firing Turkey’s Ece Temelkuran: The Price of Speaking Out” on Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar English. Because a reader in Saudi Arabia informed me that Al-Akhbar’s website is blocked in that country I am reposting here in full:

Journalist Ece Temelkuran (image: Sedat Suna)

For the first time in her nearly two-decade-long career, journalist Ece Temelkuran is without a job. The feature reporter and columnist, currently in Tunisia, writes regularly about the plight of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. She was fired from her staff position at the Haberturk daily on Thursday after publishing articles critical of the Turkish government’s handling of the massacre of Kurds on December 28 at Iraq’s border.

Turkey has long been feted by mainstream Western media as a bastion of secular democracy in a wider and largely Muslim region ruled by despots. However, critics argue that this image is allowing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become increasingly authoritarian. In recent years, journalists who report on stories not fitting within the government narrative have been targeted.

Ninety-seven media professionals are currently in prison according to the Turkish Union of Journalists. In addition to this, The Economist magazine recently reported that 47 lawyers, more than 500 students and some 3,500 Kurdish activists are in prison. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that more than one-third of the world’s convicted “terrorists” are in Turkey.

Temelkuran has played a leading role on social media (she started the hashtag #freejournalists on Twitter) in defending 11 journalists who are currently on trial in Turkey for supporting illegal “terrorist” organizations.

After beginning her career as a correspondent in 1993, Temelkuran became a feature reporter in 2000 for Turkey’s Milliyet daily. In 2009, she left Milliyet to take a job at the nascent Haberturk, another major daily in Turkey. On Thursday Temelkuran received a phone call while in Tunisia that she had been dismissed from her job at the newspaper.

In addition to covering Turkish affairs at home, Temelkuran has reported extensively from the Middle East and Latin America.

I spoke to Ece Temelkuran on Thursday by phone about her career, her dismissal and the current state of journalism in Turkey.

Matthew Cassel: When you’re not reporting around the world what types of stories do you generally write about inside Turkey?

Ece Temelkuran: The Kurdish issue, Armenian issue, women rights, social issues…Not the most popular subjects, especially the Kurdish and Armenian issues.

MC: Why aren’t they popular issues in Turkey?

ET: Because since the establishment of Turkey [in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire] Kurds have been treated as second-class citizens and there has always been a lack of political and individual rights for them. There is deep and wide racism against Kurds in Turkey and there is the armed PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] movement and anything that goes under Kurdish issues is considered terrorism. So it’s not surprising Turkish media doesn’t cover the issue, and if they do they represent the government’s point of view.

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