In Lebanon, Syrian Refugees Met With Harassment And Hostility

Syrian refugee children play at an informal refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.

Hassan Ammar/AP

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Hassan Ammar/AP

A neat row of potted plants, all in bloom, greets visitors at the entrance of the Jassem family home in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Inside, decorative tassels dangle from the ceiling, with a golden-colored cloth is on display. Children play around foam mattresses resting on a clean-swept concrete floor.

It has the feel of a family home, but the Jassems are living in a plastic tent. They are refugees from Syria, which they fled five years ago, for a patch of ground in rural Lebanon.

Doha Jassem, who shares the shelter with her brother and his family, says they left their homes in Idlib, a northern province of Syria after the war came to their village. Bombings were happening around them and they were afraid for their children.

They have tried to start their lives over, but Lebanon doesn’t allow formal refugee camps. So the family have scrimped together what money they can to rent land and build a shelter. But, she says, they have been forced to move four times. On one occasion the Lebanese army told them they didn’t have the right land permit, and ripped down their tent.

That general feeling of insecurity has morphed into a real fear for their safety. Jassem plays a recording on her phone, and the children in the shelter crowd in to listen.

In the recording, a male voice calls for violence against Syrians on a specific date.

“In every area. In the street you’re on, in your building. Gather; gather amongst yourselves,” the voice says, his tone deliberate and cold. “Anyone who sees a Syrian, hit him. Hit him. Break him.”

Even though Jassem doesn’t know who was behind it, she believed the threats. She says it caused panic among the refugees in the informal settlement where they live.

“Syrians started sending this to each other to make sure no Syrian went out that day,” she says. “None of us even tried to step outside.”

Her daughter’s eyes well with tears. A young boy, no older than 3 years of age, picks up on the change in mood in the tent and starts to sob.

After fleeing from the war in Syria, the Jassem family sought refuge in Lebanon, where they’ve made a home inside a plastic tent.

Ruth Sherlock for NPR

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Ruth Sherlock for NPR

Across the country, refugees have reported feeling increasingly unsafe. And while attacks against them are mostly isolated incidents, aid agencies say they are increasingly concerned by a noted, hostile, shift in public opinion.

Feelings of resentment have hardened with politicians — who have an election coming up next year — playing to their electorates by calling on refugees to leave.

In a recent press conference, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party suggested asking Syrians not wanted by the Assad regime to return to parts of the country that Damascus controls. It would allow Lebanon to “get rid” of hundreds of thousands of refugees, he said.

Most of the main political groups have spoken out against the presence of Syrians in Lebanon. Nabil Kaouk, the deputy leader of Hezbollah’s Executive Council has said “the refugee crisis is choking Lebanon.” The war in neighboring Syria has sparked an influx of refugees into Lebanon equal to around one quarter of the country’s population. The United Nations has registered more than 1 million Syrian refugees, though the actual numbers are known to be much higher. In some towns in Lebanon, there are now more Syrians than Lebanese.

When Syrians first began to flee the war in 2011, many Lebanese opened their homes to them.

“There was a warm connection between Lebanese and Syrian people,” says Maria Assi, the CEO of Beyond Association, an NGO that helps Syrians in Lebanon. “Until now all the people around the world say the Lebanese people don’t treat the Syrian people well. When we are the only country in the world that received such a big number of refugees.”

Assi said the generosity of the Lebanese towards the refugee population is something that continues to this day. She blames the rise in hostility on a failure of the government and international aid agencies to put in place a long-term strategy to help the country adapt to the increase in population.

She says the enormous strain on the country’s already weak infrastructure is something that can no longer be ignored.

“Even the health clinics, or in the schools, now it’s more difficult,” she says. “Now there is even pollution in the rivers, because the wastewater from Syria has gone into them.”

With no end in sight for the Syrian war, Lebanese are facing the prospect that the influx might be permanent.

“It is not easy for Lebanese community to think Syrian refugees will stay,” Assi says. “No country accept. And no people around the world can accept.”

Tensions worsened this summer as the Lebanese government launched an offensive to push Syrian rebel groups away from the country’s border. But the government detained some 400 refugees living in a settlement near the town of Arsal in the process. Four men died in custody.

The United Nations has registered more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but there actual numbers are known to be much higher.

Ruth Sherlock for NPR

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Ruth Sherlock for NPR

A video also began circulating widely of Lebanese men beating up a refugee on the street. They were arrested by the authorities. The hostility has become so intense that hundreds of Lebanese writers, poets and scholars have signed a petition of protest. “We started off as a reaction to what was happening,” said Makram Rabah, a political analyst and a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut.

Rabah said they wanted to take a “moral stand” against the persecution and assault of refugees. But he also warned that the attacks hurt Lebanon’s stability. Many Lebanese see echoes in today’s crisis of the conditions that bred the Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. That conflict was in part set off by clashes over tensions following an influx of Palestinian refugees.

Rabah is not predicting a return to civil war. But he warns that “instigating hatred” pushes people to extremes, and could drive some desperate refugees into the arms of extremist groups.

In the Bekaa valley, Jassem says her family has been directly attacked. One recent day she went with her husband and son to buy vegetables, when she says a man ran at them.

“We were riding my husband’s motorcycle and we had my son,” she says “[and] this man launched himself at the front of the motorcycle with a sickle.”

She said he swung at them and the blade hit the motorbike. Then they drove away as fast as they could saying, “We were so afraid.”

It’s not just street vigilantes the family is afraid of. One day, Jassem says, soldiers raided their tent. They had come to check permits, and only the women were home. She said they made them and their children wait hours in the hot sun.

Jassem believes the harassment was intended as warning. We’ll host you while your country is at war. But don’t think for a second that you’re welcome to stay.

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U.S. Reveals Details Of Alleged 'Sonic' Attacks On Diplomats In Cuba

The alleged attacks were first reported in December 2016 when staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and at least one Canadian began to notice symptoms.

Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

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At least 19 American diplomats in Havana have been diagnosed with wide-ranging symptoms, including hearing loss, severe headaches, loss of balance and other forms of cognitive impairment.

U.S investigators have been searching for a device that may have caused the “sonic harassment,” but an ongoing investigation hasn’t revealed the culprit.

The alleged attacks were first reported in December 2016 when U.S. Embassy staff and at least one Canadian began to notice symptoms. After assessing that incident, it was thought that the problem was over by this past spring, but a new incident came to light in August.

“We can confirm another incident which occurred last month and is now part of the investigation. Based on continued assessments of personnel, there are now 19 confirmed U.S. government personnel who have been affected,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement.

The disclosures came the same day the union representing American diplomats said mild traumatic brain injury was among the diagnoses given to those victimized by such attacks. Representatives of the American Foreign Service Association met this week in Washington, D.C., with foreign service officers stationed in Havana.

“AFSA strongly encourages the Department of State and the U.S. Government to do everything possible to provide appropriate care for those affected, and to work to ensure that these incidents cease and are not repeated,” the group said in a statement.

Medical experts told ABC News that some U.S. officials were exposed to a sonic device in Havana that caused serious health problems and physical symptoms. Sound waves above and below the range of human hearing can cause permanent damage.

Other media reports suggest the injuries may have been caused by sonic equipment that Cuban intelligence officers installed in the U.S. Embassy or in the homes of U.S. diplomats.

According to the Mayo Clinic, mild traumatic brain injury can cause temporary dysfunction of brain cells. More serious traumatic brain injury can result in bruising, torn tissues, bleeding and other physical damage to the brain that can result in long-term complications or death. Symptoms can be immediate or appear days or weeks later and range from loss of consciousness or confusion to sensory problems, memory loss or headache and nausea.

In May, the State Department expelled two Cuban officials who were working in Washington, D.C. The department said the move was not out of retaliation, but rather was to punish Cuba for failing to keep American citizens safe — something that it’s required to do in accordance with an international treaty known as the Vienna Convention.

The United States has stopped short of accusing Cuba of being behind the alleged attacks. The Cuban government has denied any wrongdoing and is said to be cooperating in the ongoing investigation.

Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba were only restored in 2015 under the Obama administration. However, relations weakened after President Trump tightened travel restrictions and trade embargoes.

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L.A. Area Wildfire Spurs Hundreds Of Evacuations, Smoke Keeps Others Indoors

The La Tuna Fire had burned more than 5,000 acres of brush-covered mountains Saturday, as several hundred firefighters worked to contain the blaze.

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Ryan Astorga/AP

Several wildfires are burning across California sending residents fleeing, as a heat wave brings scorching temperatures up to 25 degrees above average on the west coast.

Los Angeles County’s La Tuna Fire has already consumed more than 5,000 acres of mostly mountainous brush-land, north of the city’s downtown.

#LaTunaFire Red lines show est fire burn area Approx 50 homes under threat right now in Brace Canyon – Mandatory evac follow @BurbankPDpic.twitter.com/e1lEwgzmiY

— LAFD (@LAFD) September 2, 2017

The blaze “is the largest fire in the history of L.A. city in terms of its acreage,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at a briefing Saturday.

It has prompted the evacuation of 300 homes in Burbank, more than 250 in Glendale and 180 in the city of Los Angeles, said Garcetti.

Around 500 firefighters are battling the fire, which was 10 percent contained around midday Saturday.

L.A. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said “the biggest factor is the weather and the wind,” when it comes to battling the slow-moving blaze. But he added that the “erratic” winds, which helped spread the fire Friday had subsided by Saturday.

Garcetti said fire officials have “great confidence” they can defeat the fire, “with the exception if winds just pick up and go wild.”

By Saturday, just one home had burned, according to Garcetti.

Another HOT day in store for the #BayArea, including coastal locations. Stay hydrated, and don’t forget about kids and pets! #CAheat#CAwxpic.twitter.com/DirCXE60KG

— NWS Bay Area (@NWSBayArea) September 2, 2017

On Friday, fire officials urged anyone “feeling unsafe in their homes,” to get out, whether or not their location fell under an evacuation order. Terrazas said Saturday that area residents should be prepared, with gassed up cars and important documents and pets at the ready.

So far no injuries have been reported, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. But residents are advised to stay indoors, due to heavy smoke.

The fire is one of 29 raging across California, even as the state has committed “a lot of resources in Houston,” said Garcetti. Terrazas said around 100 California firefighters are currently helping with hurricane relief after Harvey hit Texas last week.

Elsewhere in California, the Ponderosa Fire in Butte County has burned nearly 4,000 acres, destroying more than two dozen homes and spurring evacuations.

.@BurbankPD officers are now wearing respiratory masks. Please stay indoors and avoid outside activities due to heavy smoke from #latunafire

— Burbank Police (@BurbankPD) September 2, 2017

A red flag warning for the region is in effect through Saturday, meaning hot and dry conditions, combined with gusty winds, “will result in the potential for rapid fire spread,” according to the NWS.

An excessive heat warning for much of the state remains in effect through Saturday. Temperatures could reach 113 degrees in Southwestern California, according to the National Weather Service.

In a bright spot though, forecasters say by Sunday, “clouds and possible showers should bring significant cooling to most areas.”

Garcetti said Saturday the hope was to bring in more state resources to help get the La Tuna fireunder control, “so we can put those back out on fires that are going to be going for many more days.”

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Trump Asks Congress For $7.85 Billion In Harvey Relief Ahead Of 2nd Trip To Region

Homes are surrounded by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey near Beaumont, Texas, on Friday.

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David J. Phillip/AP

The Trump administration is asking Congress for nearly $8 billion in Harvey aid, as the search and rescue phase is slowly giving way to recovery, more than a week after the storm slammed into southeast Texas.

President Trump makes his second trip to the region Saturday, with a visit to a Houston relief center, where he is set to speak with storm victims. Later Saturday, he is scheduled to fly to meet with emergency responders in Lake Charles, La., including the volunteer Cajun Navy.

Request for federal funds

The trip comes one day after the White House asked Congress to appropriate “$7.85 billion in Federal resources for response and initial recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey.”

A view of a controlled release of water from the Barker Reservoir that is causing flooding on the west side of Houston on Friday.

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Scott Dalton for NPR

The letter, sent by White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, said Harvey has already damaged more than 100,000 homes, left 43,500 people in shelters and resulted in nearly a half million households registering with FEMA for help with housing and home repairs.

The bulk of the funding would go toward FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. About $450 million is slated for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program to help small businesses and homeowners get back on their feet.

Departing for Texas and Louisiana with @FLOTUS Melania right now @JBA_NAFW. We will see you soon. America is with you! pic.twitter.com/z3bHVdJVPr

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 2, 2017

As The Washington Post eports:

“The request is $2 billion more than White House and congressional leaders were expecting to seek as of Thursday. Government officials were continually reevaluating the damage and how much money was needed for the short-term response.”

But the near $8 billion request is essentially just a down payment on a tab that will very likely be billions more.

The letter also calls on Congress to raise the debt ceiling quickly, warning that “the debt ceiling could, unless modified, affect critical response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey.”

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that if the debt ceiling is not raised, the government only has until the end of the month before running out of cash.

A view of flooding on the west side of Houston, Texas on Friday.

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Scott Dalton for NPR

In response to the letter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The Senate stands ready to act quickly to provide this much-needed assistance to those impacted communities, and support first responders and volunteers.”

But, as is often the case in Washington, a funding fight may be inevitable. Another complicating factor is the National Flood Insurance Program, which many storm-ravaged residents are relying on, is set to expire Sept. 30, unless Congress acts.

Some areas still ‘deadly dangerous’

As the rain has subsided and the focus has moved from rescue to rebuilding, chemical plant fires, lack of drinking water and still-swollen waterways mean many residents are still focused on simply surviving.

The region is grappling with areas that are “deadly dangerous,” according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

National Guard vehicles drive down a flooded street in Wharton, Texas, on Friday.

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Scott Dalton for NPR

Meantime, memorial and funeral services have already begun for some of Harvey’s known 42 victims. That number could still rise as floodwaters recede and reveal Harvey’s true toll.

Beaumont struggles

Beaumont, Texas, is still in “crisis mode,” reports NPR’s Debbie Elliott. While the Neches River is expected to crest Saturday, the main water pump on the river has been knocked out of commission, leaving the city without clean water.

“It is about seven feet above the record,” Abbott said Friday of the Neches River. “This flooding poses an ongoing threat to Beaumont and the surrounding area.”

North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann told Weekend Edition‘s Scott Simon, “I saw cars and trucks backed up on Highway 20 for miles, people just fleeing their homes, trying to get out of Beaumont and some of these surrounding towns.”

“My family’s been in this area for more than a hundred years, and this never flooded,” Beaumont-area Nikki Stanner told Mann. “This time it did. It’s a mess and it stinks.”

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In Cambodia, A Crackdown On Independent Media Threatens A Respected Daily

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to garment workers during a visit to a factory outside Phnom Penh on Aug. 30. His government has slapped the English-language Cambodia Daily with a $6.3 million tax bill and ordered it to pay by Sept. 4. If it doesn’t, Hun Sen said, it should “pack up and go.”

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Heng Sinith/AP

A respected English-language newspaper in Cambodia may close because it won’t be able to pay an enormous tax bill the government claims it owes by Sept. 4.

The Cambodia Dailywas slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill last month, after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation into private organizations operating in the country. The paper, founded in 1993, was given the deadline to come up with the millions the government said it owed from back taxes accrued over the last 10 years.

Hun Sen has publicly called The Daily“a thief” and said last month if it can’t come up with the money, it should “pack up and go.”

“I am very afraid that the paper will fold, we can’t pay the tax bill,” Jodie DeJonge, the editor in chief, tells NPR.

The paper and its deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, daughter of the paper’s founder Bernard Krisher, say there’s no justification for the amount the government says is owed and have requested a formal audit. They and others argue that Hun Sen is trying to stifle dissent ahead of the general elections next year.

“The government is really afraid going into next year’s election to allow those dissenting voices,” says DeJonge.

Human rights advocates expressed strong concern over the government’s action.

“The Cambodia Daily has served as an important mainstay of independent news and objective criticism for 25 years even as the government’s tolerance for critical views has markedly declined,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Closing the Daily would be a devastating blow to freedom of the press that would have an impact well beyond the paper’s readership.”

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has kept a tight grip on power for some 30 years. But when the opposition party did better than expected during local elections in June, Hun Sen ramped up his rhetoric against dissenters and cracked down on the media. The government last month also ordered the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute to close.

Meanwhile, the government has also gone after Cambodian radio stations, and sent tax notices to the Khmer-language arms of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.

John F. Lansing, the CEO of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, which oversees Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, released a statement calling the developments “disturbing” and “part of a pattern of intimidation and harassment of independent news sources that coincides with the run to the 2018 elections.” Lansing called on the Cambodian government “to reverse this decision to muzzle objective sources of news and to allow all impacted stations to resume normal operations immediately.”

‘We’d backtrack to dictatorship’

This is not the first time Hun Sen has harassed the media. The Cambodia Daily has long been a thorn in his side. With a motto of providing “All the News Without Fear or Favor,” the newspaper has garnered a reputation for holding the government’s feet to the fire and producing dogged investigative journalism on subjects ranging from human rights to illegal timber trade.

At a time when Cambodia was emerging from decades of violence, the staff wanted the paper to be a reliable source of news, especially when it came to reporting what the government was doing, says Gretchen Peters, a former managing editor who worked at the Daily from 1994 to 1996.

“When I was there, we tried to remain neutral and to report both sides of the story,” she says. They used the paper as a training ground to teach Cambodian journalists to do the same, says Peters.

Today, The Cambodia Daily’s circulation is just under 5,000 but its website has a global reach. With an editorial staff of about 30, the paper publishes in both English and Khmer. That has been crucial to spreading information, says former Daily journalist Sisovann Pin. He worked for the paper between 1993 and 2008 and started the practice of publishing a Khmer-language section.

The Daily is important for independent news for the older generation that doesn’t understand English, and for the younger generation [who can speak English] so they can learn news,” says Pin.

He says if the Daily were to shut down, it would be a big loss for the Cambodian people.

“We’d backtrack to dictatorship,” he says. The current crackdown is the worst the paper has ever seen, he adds.

‘Depressed free expression’

Cambodia is not the only country in the region to crack down recently on dissent and the press.

Steven Butler, the Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says it is a time of “depressed free expression” in Southeast Asia, though the reasons for this differ from country to country.

“I think China has become a proselytizer,” he says, pointing out that China’s severe controls of the press and the Internet probably has some influence and may be seen as a model for how to curtail dissent.

The United States may also be partly to blame, says Butler.

Since President Trump came to office, “What’s happening is that the United States is not speaking with the same voice in favor of press freedom and human rights,” he says.

He warns this is creating an atmosphere in which governments are feeling more empowered to take action against dissenters and the media.

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Fresh Air Weekend: Director Elia Kazan; Singer Ronnie Spector; Novelist John Updike

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week, we commemorate Fresh Air‘s 30th anniversary as a nationally syndicated show with interviews from our first years on air:

Celebrating 30 Years Of ‘Fresh Air’: Filmmaker And Theater Legend Elia Kazan: Kazan, whose film credits include Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, spoke in 1988 about directing Marlon Brando and his 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Celebrating 30 Years Of ‘Fresh Air’: Ronnie Spector, Lead Singer Of The Ronettes: Spector, who spoke to Terry Gross in 1988, was part of the 1960s girl group that gave us “Be My Baby.” She left the music business for a number of years before returning to recording in the 1970s.

Celebrating 30 Years Of ‘Fresh Air’: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist John Updike: Over the course of his decades-long career, Updike authored more than 25 novels, including the Rabbit series. He also penned short stories, poems, essays and a memoir. Originally broadcast in 1989.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

Celebrating 30 Years Of ‘Fresh Air’: Filmmaker And Theater Legend Elia Kazan

Celebrating 30 Years Of ‘Fresh Air’: Ronnie Spector, Lead Singer Of The Ronettes

Celebrating 30 Years Of ‘Fresh Air’: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist John Updike

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