Welcoming refugees in Macedonia

Mini-doc for Al Jazeera English.

For people like Gabriela Andreevska, working with Europe-bound refugees crossing her country, Macedonia, feels like the film “Groundhog Day”. Every day, thousands arrive from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq ,Pakistan and elsewhere to Gevgelija, on the border with Greece.

Most are completely unprepared for the journey. They know little about what they need to do, and they’re often travelling with nothing except the clothes on the backs. The Macedonian government provides little for the refugees crossing its borders illegally. That is where ordinary Macedonians like Gabriela step in.

She, along with other activists, provide the weary travellers with food, clothes, information, and hugs. “I know it’s not part of their culture for me to touch a man, but I do it to let them know they’re welcome in Europe,” she says.

After a few hours in Gevgelija, most refugees board one of the three daily Soviet-era trains and continue on to the border with Serbia. But for Gabriela, the situation resets.

After a tiring day helping hundreds of people, she has to prepare for tomorrow, when she will do the same thing all over again. Every day is very much the same for her, but for the refugees it is a new place and another step on their way to a new life in Western Europe.

Directed, filmed, produced, and edited by Matthew Cassel

Being watched in Britain

The UK government says it wants to put an end to extremism by engaging the Muslim community. It recently began the “Prevent” program, which seeks to stop the extremism before it happens. However, many British Muslims are skeptical of the program, which they feel is another attempt to unfairly scrutinize their entire community.

I went to Birmingham, UK, to speak with Muslims and government officials about this subject. This is my report, video and written, on that investigation.


UK uses health workers in counter-terror plan
(original link on Al Jazeera English)

Medical workers, most would agree, have one important job to do: look after the well-being of their patients. However, in the UK, employees of the National Health Service are now being assigned another task: identifying potential terrorists.

This new directive comes from the Prevent programme, part of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy created in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

As part of this mission, since last year Prevent has been providing mandatory training to employees of the National Health Service (NHS) on how to identify potential terrorists among patients, visitors and other medical staff, and report them to the authorities.

Documents given by Prevent to medical workers, copies of which were obtained by Al Jazeera, say the following: “The NHS has been identified as a key player in supporting the Prevent strategy as healthcare staff are considered to be well placed to help to identify concerns and protect people from radicalisation.”

‘Government informants’

Al Jazeera spoke to a nurse working for the NHS on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to talk to the media. (Al Jazeera also learned of similar Prevent training being offered to educators, firefighters and others in the public sector; however, none agreed to discuss the training on record.)

“The healthcare worker’s job is to ultimately treat your patient,” the nurse said. “It doesn’t matter what they walk in the door with – you, as a healthcare professional within whatever specialty you work, you’ve been trained to support them.”

The nurse was concerned by the vague characteristics presented as indicators of possible radicalisation. One of the Prevent documents listed factors such as “identity crisis”, “personal crisis” and “unemployment” that could make someone vulnerable to radicalisation.

The document also listed political views that NHS staff should look out for, such as a “rejection of UK foreign policy”, “mistrust of Western media”, and “perceptions that UK government policy is discriminatory [eg counter-terrorist legislation]”.

The nurse said trainers were careful to avoid mentioning Muslims. However, medical staff were told that the main terrorist threat to the UK comes from Islamist groups, and the violent acts mentioned were mostly incidents perpetrated by Muslims.

She added that identifying potential terrorists was not part of her job as a health worker. “It’s actually something that the police should be doing,” she said. “Offering this training, it’s almost as if we’re becoming government informants.”

Outreach

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester and national lead for Prevent’s police programme, confirmed to Al Jazeera that medical workers and other civil servants were being given counter-terrorism training.

“If there are health professionals who have serious concerns that the person they’re dealing with is getting involved in extremist activity and that is harming their well-being and harming their community, then yes, absolutely, it’s about them being able to raise those concerns,” Sir Fahy said. “Clearly, there is a significant terrorist threat to this country. We can understand that people can feel very strongly about international issues and other political issues, and it’s trying to identify people who may be at risk of taking that concern to a level of violence.”

On its website, Prevent says it seeks to tackle terrorist threats wherever they occur. However, it also says that the “most serious is from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. With the overwhelming majority of Prevent’s efforts focused on British Muslims, many in the minority community believe they are being unfairly targeted.

Sir Fahy acknowledged the grievance, and said he hopes to address complaints by making Prevent’s efforts more transparent to the public. “It’s really about how we… confront the threat of terrorism, but at the same time maintaining the confidence of the Muslim community as we go along.”

Lost confidence

But that confidence may already be lost. Jahan Mahmood, a historian and former adviser to the government’s counter-terrorism unit, said that while Prevent mentions possible extremism from a range of groups, “there is a disproportionate focus on Muslims, there is no doubt about that. And that’s also one of the reasons it’s failed to gain traction with the Muslim population”.

In Birmingham’s predominantly Muslim Sparkbrook neighbourhood, Mahmood pointed above his head to lampposts where in 2010, the government installed hundreds of surveillance cameras – ostensibly for monitoring crime in the area.

But it was soon exposed that the counter-terrorism unit installed the cameras to monitor residents. After an outcry from the Muslim community, bags were placed on top of the cameras and they were eventually removed, with authorities assuring that they had never been turned on.

Mahmood said the incident led to a serious breakdown of trust between Muslims and the police. Al Jazeera spoke to a number of British Muslims in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, who said they believe Prevent and other counter-terrorism efforts are less about preventing violence than about monitoring every aspect of Muslim life. This has left many in the community feeling alienated from the rest of British society.

But Mahmood warned that it’s not only British Muslims who should be concerned over the government’s counter-terrorism laws and programmes like Prevent.

In recent years, Mahmood said: “We’ve seen draconian legislation introduced – and that means we are surrendering our civil liberties. Where will this end? The rest of Britain needs to wake up to the fact that we are sleep-walking ourselves into very serious times.”

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.

Gaza boy

This is a boy speaking on Al Jazeera Arabic. He looks about 6 or 7 years old and he speaks like an adult. He reminds me of the kids in Balata refugee camp in the West Bank where I used to live. I was shocked by kids this age who I met and spoke to. I would have serious conversations with them about a variety of issues. It was quite incredible, and quite disturbing how they are robbed of their childhood.

Here is my extremely rough and definitely not 100% accurate translation of much of what the boy says, I know it’s at least 90% accurate. If anyone would like to correct me please feel free.

I want to say, look at us, look at how we’re living here as if we’ve been tossed out. We don’t go play, we don’t laugh, we don’t study, we don’t watch children’s programs, we just turn on the TV and see [the violence] and the shooting and the war tanks.

We here dont have food, water, anything to drink, nothing here. We are tossed out like the beggars. Look at the people [on the other side] how they play and laugh [and live]. We under siege, it’s been about 2 years of siege on us, we dont eat we dont drink, they dont give us anything. They dont open the border crossing to allow in food and other things [for us].

Intersections in DC

Two different worlds:

CNN: With still two days before Obama’s inauguration, CNN is showing video from cameras posted at a number of intersections in Washington, DC, to show how many people are already arriving to witness the “historical event.” About 20 people are shown crossing each intersection. 

Al Jazeera: Palestinians in Gaza, finally allowed to get to certain areas that had been closed off by the occupying Israeli army, found over 100 bodies buried beneath the rubble. Al Jazeera is showing images of the dead bodies being unearthed from under the rubble.

Al Jazeera interviewing the injured

reuters

image: reuters

Al Jazeera Arabic is interviewing injured Palestinians, including a young girl whose legs were blown off by an Israeli air strike in Gaza. They are also interviewing a young boy whose face looks as though his eyes have been melted shut by the white phosphorus that the Israeli army is using against people in Gaza.

More on white phosphorus from Al Jazeera English:

 

Human Rights Watch has called on Israel to stop using white phosphorus which it says has been used in military operations in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

The US-based group said that its researchers observed the use of the chemical, which can burn away human flesh to the bone, over Gaza City and Jabaliya on Friday and Saturday.