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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
February
26
Monday

The world’s prevailing view of war was aptly summed up by US Civil War Gen. William Sherman, who said, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

That cruelty was evident in Syria last weekend, where government forces reportedly targeted hospitals in rebel-held Ghouta. The violence prompted a remarkable rebuke from the United Nations’ top human rights official, who on Monday blamed the world’s most powerful countries for failing to uphold a cease-fire. These nations have done too little to prevent “some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times,” he said.

The question of how to face atrocities is a difficult one. Should countries be compelled to act? What if the conditions for peace aren’t present? But a deeper question, perhaps, is whether Sherman’s view of war must be accepted as inevitable.

Instances of extraordinary wartime suffering can compel countries to rein in the most barbaric behavior. Witness the Geneva Protocol, agreed to in the wake of World War I's horrific deployment of gas, and the founding of the UN itself in the wake of the devastation of World War II. In speaking Monday, the UN’s Ra’ad al-Hussein suggested that what is at stake in Syria is clear: our humanity.

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Now on to our five stories, which include a look at the power of changing our expectations of others, an unseen side of the European refugee crisis, and a reporter's view of the true beauty of the Olympics. 

1. Conflicting goals, as Germany struggles to form a government

Germany's two largest parties are struggling to form a government. What's the holdup? They are struggling over whether to do what seems right for the country or what seems right for Europe. 

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When German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party finally agreed to a coalition deal with the center-left SPD a few weeks ago, that was supposed to be mission accomplished: a “grand coalition” much like the one that had governed from 2013 to 2017, and a potential political vacuum in Germany – and by extension for Europe – avoided. But uncertainty remains. The SPD rank and file is deciding now whether to ratify the deal, and a substantial number of members are opposed. They say that the party needs to remain outside government to rebuild its identity and support after suffering losses in the last elections. That would mean political uncertainty in Germany and Europe. But many Germans, especially on the left, say they are willing to forgo short-term stability to fend off growing disillusionment with the political center. “I think in the long term what we are doing, the anti [coalition] movement, is more responsible,” says Sinem Tasan-Funke of Jusos, the youth wing of the SPD. “In the long run it is better for two big parties to form governments apart from each other.”

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Conflicting goals, as Germany struggles to form a government

As a local chairwoman of Germany's center-left Social Democrats in the traditional heartland of Germany’s working-class left, Janina Kleist does not typically defy the party line.

But when it comes to the proposal to form another "grand coalition" between her SPD party and Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the young mother from Dortmund, in the Ruhr Valley, is breaking from her party’s leadership, which is pressing to ratify the deal.

If enough of the SPD base says “no” instead, it could herald new elections in Germany and prolonged instability at the epicenter of Europe. “For the country we have to say ‘no’ because we are losing more and more voters,” Ms. Kleist says. “The SPD needs to be there in four years. It is our responsibility to be a party that people can vote for.”

Germany's robust economy and political stability have served as a cornerstone for the European project, and Germany’s 2017 parliamentary election was supposed to stand as a strong rebuke to the political maelstrom assailing Western democracies. Instead, Berlin has been without an official government five months after political fracturing led the two major political parties to their worst results since 1949.

The rest of Europe has sighed relief that the German establishment was able to get beyond vast differences to form an alliance – unthinkable, for example, in America’s divisive political world. But it’s left many here feeling that it is precisely a lack of polarization that is at the root of German political uncertainty. And many Germans, across the political spectrum but especially on the left, say they are willing to forgo short-term stability to fend off growing disillusionment with the political center.

“I can understand that from the outside it may look like a stable coalition and a good thing for Europe,” says Sinem Tasan-Funke, the vice president of the Berlin branch of Jusos, the youth wing of the SPD that has led a movement called NoGroKo against the “grand coalition.” “I have a great sense of responsibility for Europe, and I think in the long term what we are doing, the anti GroKo movement, is more responsible. In the long run it is better for two big parties to form governments apart from each other. Shrinking big parties in Germany will not grant stability to Europe.”

A marriage of necessity

Much of the political drama has played out within the SPD as it decides whether or not to join Merkel’s party for the next four years. But a sense of frustration over blurred ideology under the last “grand coalition,” between 2013 and 2017, has cost all mainstream parties voters. In the CDU, many complain the party has lost its conservative roots, whether over immigration or energy policy. While the party voted overwhelmingly in favor of a grand coalition today, the process has left many frustrated by negotiations that saw the SPD score the ministries of labor, finance, and foreign affairs.

“The SPD members feel very insecure since they have lost so many votes during the last elections. But CDU adherents, they are not happy either,” says Jürgen Falter, a political science professor at Mainz University. “The coalition is not a marriage of love, it is only a marriage of necessity.”

He says it would be irrational for the SPD to vote against the deal, given that they gained considerable ground against the CDU. He expects they won’t.

The SPD leadership has tried to convince voters that it will become a new leftist force in an upcoming government – a win-win that also brings stability to the country and Europe even as polarization erodes a sense of democracy elsewhere. Martin Schultz, the SPD candidate who alienated voters by ruling out another “grand coalition” with Merkel and then performing a U-turn, stepped down from the party earlier this month, tapping Andrea Nahles to take his place. “We will not do a runner in this government. We will make our own policy proposals. We will consciously stand up to Mrs. Merkel,” Ms. Nahles said before SPD voting began Feb. 20. Results will be declared March 4.

It is a recognition that Germans are demanding more ideology, especially the youth. The NoGroKo movement bears some resemblance to the left-wing revolt in Britain that catapulted hardliner Jeremy Corbyn to the head of the Labour Party. The SPD has seen membership increase by some 25,000 since the beginning of the year, introducing a wild card into the upcoming SPD ballot among 464,000 members.

The rise of the AfD

Many in Germany want the deal ratified. They fear new elections would empower the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which scored 13 percent in the September race and made it into parliament for the first time, especially since voters are angry that politicians have taken so long to form a government in the first place. In a poll last week, they scored higher than the SPD for the first time.

In either scenario, the AfD platform is bound to get larger. Under a “grand coalition,” they become the main opposition. The party, mostly known as an anti-immigrant force, has more recently appealed to more moderate but frustrated voters, selling itself as the only one with ideological distinction in Germany today. Andreas Urbanek, who leads the local branch of the AfD in Dortmund, says his party is “just starting to take off,” because it offers an alternative. “It is distinguishable from the established parties," he says. "That is our main selling point.”

The AfD gained considerable ground everywhere, including 10 percent in Dortmund, but nowhere more so than in eastern Germany. In Frankfurt an der Oder, which sits on the border with Poland, the AfD won 21 percent of the vote. Martin Patzelt, a national lawmaker from the CDU representing the district, says that might not be a bad thing as it brings more frank talk to German politics.

Mr. Patzelt confesses that he didn’t want to run for office in the September race. But when Alexander Gauland, a co-founder of the AfD, announced he’d be a candidate in this district, Patzelt felt he had no choice. "I'm 70 years old, but when I heard that the AfD was trying to take over my district, that was a huge problem,” he says.

His party did come in first place, with 27 percent of the vote. “But now that the AfD is in parliament, we can openly have debates, which I find good. They can reassure many of their voters and introduce more into the public debate. That’s important for gaining new insights, also for the CDU,” he says. “The AfD reminds us how the people feel and think.”

‘There are a lot of fears’

Germans seem to be yearning for more honest introspection, even if it puts them in an unfamiliar place. It’s part of a wider struggle of social democracy across Europe amid changing economies and communities.

In Cologne, Sophie Passmann, a comedian who writes a column on politics and society for Spiegel Daily, says her party has aligned with the educated middle class on the left. But she says it has failed to recognize fears among the traditional working class, including of migration. “We are pretending that every member is automatically someone who says, ‘open the gates, bring them in, we will support them,’” she says. “We have to acknowledge that they are scared, and that they are not willing to support everyone.”

Says Ms. Passmann: “That is hard to admit.”

Ms. Tasan-Funke says the anguished politics in Germany since September clearly show that the political establishment is out of touch with demands on the ground.

“There are a lot of fears on both sides, that new elections will bring worse results than we already have,” she says. “But I think you shouldn’t listen to fear when making decisions that are that important.”

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2. The case that could lead to a post-union America

A US Supreme Court case could bring the country to a tipping point, dramatically reducing the influence of labor unions. It points to how conservative justices are shifting views of free speech.

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Mark Janus, a child-support specialist in Illinois’s Department of Healthcare and Family Services, argues that the $45 monthly fee he pays to his local union violates his First Amendment rights. “Every employee who did not choose to subsidize the union is being deprived of his or her fundamental right to choose which speech is worthy of his or her support,” he writes in a petition to the US Supreme Court. On Monday, the court heard arguments in the case, which unions and legal experts say could send public-sector unions into “a death spiral.” The precedent at issue – whether a government employee in a unionized profession can be required to pay a fee to help cover the union’s collective bargaining costs, even if he or she is not personally a member – is one that some of the court’s conservative justices have wanted to overturn for years. Given the expansive interpretation of First Amendment rights the high court has taken during Chief Justice John Robert’s tenure, today’s case is likely to give them the opportunity to do just that. “This case hits a sort of vulnerable point in the labor law machine,” says Cynthia Estlund, a professor who specializes in employment and labor law.

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The case that could lead to a post-union America

Robert Esparza has had a front-row seat to the decline of unions in Texas. When he joined the Local 66 ironworkers chapter here out of high school, there were roughly 1,200 other members who would get close to 90 percent of the work in the region. Forty-one years later the union only has 350 members, who get about 10 percent of the work – non-union workers, many working for a fraction of what unionized ironworkers get, are taking the rest.

“We’re kind of like a secret, really, nobody knows too much about us,” says Mr. Esparza, who is now the business manager and financial secretary-treasurer for Local 66. “We do go out there and market ourselves, but it’s tough because the thing is there are guys out there doing our type of work for half price.”

Unions across the country have been steadily shrinking for decades – 10.7 percent of the US workforce were union members in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a little more than half of what it was in 1983. As a result, they have lost much of their power in collective bargaining and politics, observers say.

The US Supreme Court has played a significant role in eroding the power of unions, and Monday morning the court heard arguments in a case that union supporters and legal experts say could send public-sector unions into “a death spiral.” The precedent at issue in the case – whether a government employee in a unionized profession can be required to pay a fee to help cover the union’s collective bargaining costs, even if they’re not personally a member – is one that some of the court’s conservative justices have wanted to overturn for years. Given the expansive interpretation of First Amendment rights the high court has taken during Chief Justice John Robert’s tenure, today’s case is likely to give them the opportunity to do just that.

“This case hits a sort of vulnerable point in the labor law machine,” says Cynthia Estlund, a professor at the New York University School of Law who specializes in employment and labor law.

Over recent decades the Supreme Court has narrowed the kinds of fees a union can require non-members to pay. Unions can no longer require non-members to pay fees that support political activities, for example. Until now, so-called “fair share fees” that fund basic negotiations over the terms and conditions of employment like wage levels and pension contributions were allowed.

“Now they’re challenging that,” says Professor Estlund, by arguing that that kind of negotiation “is speech on public issues to which we object and we don’t want to contribute to.”

“Nobody knows for sure how devastating [that decision] will be, but it’s a potentially an existential threat for unions to be able to carry out their function,” she adds.

The $45-per-month at the heart of the case

The case has been brought to the court by Mark Janus, a child-support specialist in Illinois’ Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The $45 monthly fee he pays to his local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) violates his First Amendment rights, he argues, because the fees “support speech designed to influence governmental policies” on issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits for state employees.

“Every employee who did not choose to subsidize the union,” Mr. Janus adds in his petition to the court, “is being deprived of his or her fundamental right to choose which speech is worthy of his or her support.”

To remedy the infringement, he is asking the court to overturn a precedent set in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The justices then decided that public sector non-union members can be compelled to pay such fees in part to avoid “free riders” being able to opt out of paying fees while still benefitting from the union’s collective bargaining efforts.

It is an argument the Supreme Court has heard several times in recent years. Four years ago the court heard a similar case, and while the decision itself didn’t touch Abood, the majority – made up of the court’s five conservative justices – described the decision as “questionable on several grounds.”

Two years later, in a case brought by a group of California public school teachers, the court seemed poised to reverse Abood. A few weeks later, however, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away and the court deadlocked, 4-to-4.

Likely to be the key vote in the case is Justice Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Justice Scalia after an ugly and unprecedented political battle that saw Republicans block hearings for President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, for almost 300 days.

“What we’re talking about here,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy to David Frederick, the attorney for the AFSCME, “is compelled subsidization of a private party, a private party that expressed political views constantly.”

“Throughout history, many people have drawn a line between a restriction on their speech and compelled speech,” Justice Samuel Alito told Mr. Frederick a few minutes later. “When you compel somebody to speak, don’t you infringe that person’s dignity and conscience in a way that you do not when you restrict what the person says?”

Roberts court's expanded view of free speech

Samuel Paz is hoping to become an apprentice in the local union for plumbers and pipefitters in San Antonio. Sitting outside the union office last week, he says he would be happy to pay dues.

“The union will help you get a job, help you get a career,” he adds. “If my family was being provided for and, you know, I actually liked what I was doing, I wouldn’t really see a problem with it.”

That is not the feeling of workers like Janus, however. When the AFSCME was in negotiations with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner recently, his petition notes that, despite “Illinois’ precarious fiscal situation,” the union made demands that would cost the state tens of millions of dollars. Thus, he argues, agency fees “remain the largest regime of compelled speech in the nation.”

From the Citizens United decision in 2010 that defined political spending as protected speech to a 2012 decision that lying about receiving military awards is also protected speech, the Roberts court has taken an increasingly broad view of what qualifies as “compelled speech.”

“This is a court that has time and again valued free speech over countervailing state concerns that might restrict free speech,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

“The converse of that, applicable in Janus, is that compelled speech you disagree with is not allowable,” he adds.

If, as expected, the court sides with Janus and overturns the Abood decision, the consequences for both public and private unions around the country could be severe, some experts say.

“Unions are already weak, and they’re going to get weaker” with that decision, says Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y.

“We know from empirical evidence a substantial number of members aren’t going to pay,” she adds. “And it’s not because they don’t support a union, but because they know a lot of their other colleagues won’t pay, so why should they pay?”

For example: A 2015 analysis of four Midwestern states that had passed “right to work” laws – laws that exempt workers from paying any kind of union fees – found that the percentage of “free riders” in unions generally increased after the laws were passed.

These subsequent “free rider” concerns, she continues, would have an additional, and somewhat ironic, effect in that “the First Amendment right and the freedom of association [right] of the collective, the vast majority of public sector workers who voted to be represented in a union, will be substantially undermined.”

Others argue that the effects could be more limited. “The most obvious outcome” of that decision seems to be that unions would lose dues-paying members and therefore lose influence, says Daniel DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor of political science at the City College of New York. Public unions could retain political power by following the footsteps of some large private unions – such as The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, for example – that have been able to maintain some political influence through their committed members and advocacy for improving worker incomes and fighting inequality.

“Extra investment … from a smaller membership will keep them as relevant and strong in politics as they’ve been,” Professor DiSalvo adds.

Roberts echoed this point during the argument, suggesting that “the need to attract voluntary payments will make unions more efficient, more effective, more attractive to a broader group of their employees.”

At Local 66 in San Antonio, Esparza is breaking down the dues and benefits members get with a bandaged index finger. Members pay $47 per month in dues, but with many of them making upward of $3,000 a week he doesn’t think it’s much of a burden for them. Ironworking is more lucrative work than the child-support services Janus provides, but Esparza says he’s seen the benefits union membership has had, even as he’s watched his union’s membership decline.

“You work hard, you’re safe, you’re productive, you’re just a good worker, you can make a 30-year career out of it,” he says.

“I always tell the guys: Save some money because something that good doesn’t last forever. It might be over next week,” he continues.

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3. One state sees homeless people as problem-solvers, not problems

A program for the homeless in New Hampshire shows how effective social change can sometimes begin simply with higher expectations for those we hope to help. (We include audio of one young woman telling her story below.)

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In New Hampshire, a young woman named Renee is passionate about the need for a youth homeless shelter. There are only a few states, including New Hampshire, that don't have one. Helping her find her voice on that and other topics is a program called Granite Leaders. It teaches communication and advocacy skills to homeless and formerly homeless people, and connects them with those who are working on solutions, such as lawmakers. Now in its third cycle, Granite Leaders has spawned a cadre of bloggers, board members of nonprofits, and activists well equipped to share their stories – obliterating stereotypes of homeless people along the way. Other communities are starting to take notice. Groups across New England and in New Jersey and Michigan have contacted the program’s organizers as they consider launching something similar. Renee was recommended for Granite Leaders when staff at the Youth Resource Center in Manchester saw her penchant for social justice and mentoring. “If my story or my experiences can help one person,” the 19-year-old says, “then I’ve made my difference.”

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One state sees homeless people as problem-solvers, not problems

Fourteen years ago, Chrissy Simonds escaped from her baby’s abusive father – instantly becoming homeless. Eventually they found a place in supportive housing, where she learned to balance a checkbook, get a driver’s license, and embrace a sense of self-worth that had eluded her since her abusive childhood.

Now, she’s a go-to person when the mayor wants to know what’s really going on with homelessness, and she’s frequently testifying at the New Hampshire State House in nearby Concord.

Though it’s not easy to tell her personal story, she says, “it makes me feel better … because then they’re getting the truth. People that work [at a shelter] can act nice for that hour [when an official visits], and that doesn’t mean that’s how everything is going really.”

Her story is one example of what can happen when homeless people are seen not as problems, but as problem-solvers. 

Ms. Simonds graduated with the inaugural class of Granite Leaders, a program that teaches communication and advocacy skills to homeless and formerly homeless people, and connects them with those who are working on solutions.

Now teaching its third group, Granite Leaders has spawned a cadre of bloggers, nonprofit board members, and activists well-equipped to share their stories – obliterating stereotypes of homeless people along the way. 

Historically, social services haven’t done a good job involving people with “lived experience” in decision-making, but “empowerment” approaches like Granite Leaders could help propel a needed shift, says Donald Burnes, founder of the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at the University of Denver.

“We have to change the nature of public perceptions,” he says. “All of us tend to think about people experiencing homelessness as somehow damaged…. It’s not that they have to be fixed or cured. They need resources and they need relationships.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
John Pelletier (l.) and J St. Hilaire – both graduates of the 2014 Granite Leaders group – chat during a recent lesson. Ms. St. Hilaire joined the board of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness shortly after graduation. Over the next three years, she says, “we made a quantum leap: The city accepted a plan to end homelessness.”

The federal government requires the participation of homeless people on the boards of groups that receive certain funding. But making that representation robust, rather than mere tokenism, has been a challenge.

“We always knew … people who have experienced homelessness who want to get involved, and … folks from nonprofits that wanted them involved, but for some reason the connection was not being made,” says Cathy Kuhn, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH).

The coalition created Granite Leaders to fill that gap. And other communities are starting to take notice. Groups across New England and in New Jersey and Michigan have contacted Ms. Kuhn as they consider launching something similar.

Lessons in outreach

On a sunny Thursday morning during the fourth of six monthly classes, participants gather around a U-shaped set of tables in a church-turned-conference room. The space is provided by Families in Transition, which works in close partnership with NHCEH and also helped Simonds get back on her feet.

Today’s topic: the media – how to prepare for interviews, reach out to reporters with story ideas, and tap into social media platforms.

Simonds shares how a tweet, in which she tagged US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, led to a connection with state officials who helped her get a court date for child support enforcement – something she hadn’t been able to do for years. 

Now she urges everyone she knows, including people experiencing homelessness, to engage politically. “When people say why they don’t want to vote, I always have a comeback, because these people have helped me,” she says.

During a panel discussion with three professionals from area news outlets, Renee, the youngest member of the class, takes notes and pauses to stretch. She’s 19 and expecting a son in a few months, while her daughter, not quite 2, stays with a relative. (She asked to be identified only by her first name.) 

Renee says her mother kicked her out at 16, and since then she’s spent some nights on friends’ couches, in tents, in broken sheds, and even in a 24-hour McDonald’s during a blizzard. (Hear her in her own words, below.) 

She’s passionate about the need for a youth homeless shelter. New Hampshire is one of few states that doesn’t have one, partly because the low population doesn’t generate enough federal funding to sustain it.

The one lifeline Renee has consistently turned to is the Youth Resource Center, run by the nonprofit Child and Family Services in Manchester. Case managers there helped her get her Social Security number and birth certificate and open up a bank account. She can use the computers and phones, access a food pantry and donated clothes, and join in fun activities.

Staff members have seen her penchant for social justice and for mentoring, so they recommended her for Granite Leaders.

“Young people [need] the opportunity to tailor that passion into an area that’s positive,” says Erin Kelly, director of Child and Family Services. “People like Renee are important people to get around the table…. They are the experts…. Adults [often] invent systems and then no kids come to them and we wonder why.”

Inspired by lawmakers

Recently the Granite Leaders class visited the State House to hear from a panel of lawmakers. One of them inspired Renee by saying, as she recalls, “We are your servant.… You are our boss. You need to express yourself.”

She gives an example about a bill she would have testified against if she had had time to attend the hearing; it would have required more places to charge security deposits and first- and last-month rent up front. She’s worked over 50 hours a week and still wouldn’t be able to save enough for a one-bedroom apartment under those conditions, she says.

Renee recently found a spot in a shelter, while she and her boyfriend, the father of the baby on the way, wait to get into Families in Transition housing. She’s earned her high school equivalency and hopes to further her education, perhaps for social work.

Her eyes are made up with artistic swoops of silver glitter, and one of the tattoos inked on her chest declares her tendency to see good despite difficult circumstances: “Have Faith.”

“If my story or my experiences can help one person, then I’ve made my difference,” she says.

Granite Leaders graduate J St. Hilaire knows the difference it can make to include homeless people in decision-making.

When she first joined the board of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, shortly after completing the class, “everything was really top down and funding oriented, and they [had] lost perspective of what was happening to the homeless people,” she says. Over the next three years, “we made a quantum leap: The city accepted a plan to end homelessness.”

Current class member Grace Jones says the connections here “have really emboldened me and given me a skill set [so] I can go out and rabble-rouse more constructively.”

Ms. Jones and Renee both say that people who don’t know what to do about homelessness underestimate the power of simple acts of respect and compassion. 

“I hated my life,” Renee says of a time when she was living with a band of homeless teens in a nearby cemetery. Then a young man befriended her and gave her confidence to make some positive changes, because “he treated me with kindness,” she says. “He didn’t look at me like I was trash or like I was any less of a person…. Being homeless, there’s nothing wrong with you. The situation is what’s wrong.”

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4. Tunisia's unexpected link between pollution and human smuggling

The European refugee crisis is a kaleidoscope of millions of stories. The story of the Kerkennah Islands shows how diverse the motivations can be. 

Mark
Taylor Luck
Walid Hadider (r.) prepares his nets for night fishing with his crewmate at the port of Kraten on the Kerkennah Islands, Tunisia, on Feb. 10. Mr. Hadider and his fellow fishermen claim that marine pollution and declining fish numbers are driving the islands' fishermen to smuggle migrants to Europe.

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Fishing has sustained Tunisia's Kerkennah islanders since the days of the Phoenicians. Once renowned for fish and octopus, the islands have since become a hub for a different export: people. Disillusioned by diminished hauls, rampant ocean pollution, and a dearth of alternative employment prospects, many of Tunisia's fishermen have decided to hang up their fishing nets and send their boats on a one-way trip to Europe. It's not a choice they are proud of, they say, but they see few options. Fishermen who once earned between $40 and $100 a day say they now struggle to bring back $4 to $7 worth of fish, if they bring in anything at all. With a full manifest of 50 migrants, fishermen can collect $42,000 from middlemen to send their boat to Italy – more than three times the boat’s value. “I am just a man trying to make an honest living from the only thing I know – the ocean,” one fisherman tells the Monitor: “If they never polluted our waters, we would never have smuggled human beings.”

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Tunisia's unexpected link between pollution and human smuggling

Ahmed insists he is not your typical migrant-smuggler. He is not part of an organized network, he has no ties to the criminal underworld, and, until recently, he had never committed an illegal act in his life.

He cites just one driving factor in his decision to hang up his fishing nets and send his boats on a one-way trip to Europe: pollution.

“I am just a man trying to make an honest living from the only thing I know – the ocean,” says Ahmed. “If they never polluted our waters, we would never have smuggled human beings.”

Ahmed, who did not wish to use his real name, is just one member of a new class of human smugglers. Disillusioned by diminished hauls, rampant ocean pollution, and a dearth of alternative employment prospects, these fishermen say they are running out of options. This perfect storm of circumstance is pushing the next great migrant wave to Europe – one that may deliver tens of thousands of migrants to Italy’s shores next summer.

The perfect storm

Tunisia’s Kerkennah Islands have emerged as a strategic launching point for migrants to Europe. The Italian island of Lampedusa is 100 miles away, closer to these Tunisian islands than it is to Sicily or the Italian mainland itself.

The number of migrants intercepted en route to Europe by Tunisian security forces nearly tripled this past year, from 3,010 in 2016 to 8,838 in 2017, according to the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior. Italian authorities documented the illegal arrival of 7,988 Tunisians in 2017, but Tunisian expert suspect the actual figure could be as high as 12,000. 

Fishing has sustained Kerkennah Islanders since the days of the Phoenicians. Today, Kerkennah's 4,000-5,000 fishermen support more than 90 percent of the islands’ 15,000 permanent residents. Kerkennah was once renowned for its fish and octopus, which many claim is more succulent due to the water’s salinity. Fishermen exported to Italy and elsewhere in Europe. But that all changed in recent years. 

At Kraten port, one of three major ports on Kerkennah, the docks are empty save for three fishermen readying their nets for night fishing. Twelve fishermen, having given up on any hauls this winter, play a makeshift football match on a muddy field next to the marina.

The port used to be bustling in the mornings. Some 50 tethered boats are a testament to its previous activity. The port’s cafe, once a meeting place, is padlocked.

Fisherman say they used to earn up to $40-$100 a day on a decent haul. Now they struggle to bring back $4-$7 worth of fish, if they bring in anything at all.

The few fishermen who still venture out, such as Walid Hadider, a spokesman and representative of fishermen from the islands’ Ennajet village, often give themselves one hour. If the returns are not promising, they head back to the harbor.

Fishermen here have faced declining hauls over the past three years and point to Thyna Petroleum Services (TPS) and Petrofac – two firms which are extracting oil and gas off the islands’ shores – as the main culprits.

In May 2016, oil washed up on the shores of several miles of beach on Kerkennah after a pipe on one of TPS’s offshore oil wells a little over four miles off the coast of the island burst. Kerkennah’s fishermen reported a second oil spill in November 2017, which they blamed on underwater pipes.

The Tunisian government collected some $50,000 in fines from TPC in relation to the 2016 spill. Local residents are demanding that the government distribute those funds to fishermen as compensation.

The fishermen claim that environmental regulations and monitoring have become lax since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, allowing for violations by TPS and Petrofac to go undetected.

Tunisian environmental reports have been inconclusive; one sample of ocean water detected pollution, the second did not.

The proof, the fishermen say, is in the wildlife – or lack thereof.

In addition to a drop in fish and octopus populations, fishermen claim that another key source of income – the sea sponge – has been killed off by recent pollution. Used in cosmetics and as insulation, sea sponge once brought Kerkennah’s fishermen up to $400 a day during the harvest in October and November. Last year, all harvested sea sponge was already dead, deteriorating like wet cardboard between their hands.

A new export

Tunisian middlemen began approaching fishermen who work the waters around the Kerkennah Islands in 2015, after promising young men across Tunisia passage to Europe.

Boats on the islands, hand-crafted from olive wood, are generally valued at $12,500. With a full manifest of 50 migrants, fishermen can collect $42,000 from middlemen to send their boat on the one-way journey, more than three times the boat’s value.

That’s a tempting proposition for fishermen who say they have seen hauls decline precipitously over the past three years.

With no catch to sell, Kerkennah’s fishermen are turning to the only available export: people.

Before the Tunisian revolution in 2011, 30 percent of Tunisians under the age of 35 expressed desire to migrate illegally to Europe, according to a study by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. Amid economic stagnation, inflation, and a 30-percent youth unemployment rate, that figure jumped to 45 percent in 2016 – almost half of young Tunisians.

Twenty-something Issem Trabulsi, from the economically depressed suburbs of Tunis, says he attempted an illegal crossing to Europe in October after spending five years looking for a job.

The boat, which took off from the port town of Kelibia, was turned back by coast guards. Now Mr. Trabulsi is saving 1,500 euros (about $1,800) to attempt another crossing, this time from Kerkennah, which many believe has a higher success rate.

“As soon as my family raises the money, I will be in Kerkennah,” Trabulsi said. “I would rather drown in the ocean than drown in unemployment.”

Those risks are significant concerns for fishermen considering sending their boats on the one-way trip to Europe as well.

Last October a boat left the port of Ataya in Kerkennah and later collided with a Tunisian navy vessel, killing 45 migrants – mainly Tunisians. That accident, and the potential loss of life, weighs heavily on fishermen torn between making an honest living and the need to repay mounting debts.

“I told my father that we should send one of our two boats to Europe; we could pay our debts, build a new house,” said Mohamed Choukri, a 21-year-old fisherman.

“But he said that the lives of 50 people would be on our consciences for the rest of our lives,” Mr. Choukri said as he lit a cigarette. “He is right, but soon we may not have a choice.”

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5. Beyond medals, how our reporter found beauty in Olympic struggle

One of the highlights of my Olympic reporting career was working with Christa Case Bryant in Vancouver. This is her moving, personal story about how she came to see the deeper meaning of the Olympics in a new way while covering the Pyeongchang Winter Games. 

Mark

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I grew up dazzled by the Olympics, and deeply valued the five years I spent training as a cross-country skier in hopes of becoming an Olympian myself. So it was deeply disappointing to arrive in Pyeongchang and find that the Olympics no longer felt magical. But over the course of three weeks, I realized it’s not about magic. Because if it were, this exorbitantly expensive sporting stage would have no relevance to our everyday lives, and to humanity’s greater struggles. Yes, I have seen some fairy-tale endings here, and they are amazing. But one of the most moving moments for me was watching figure skaters Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knierim skate through a difficult free program, their hearts heavy in the wake of the Parkland shooting. They were clearly struggling, and yet there was something so beautiful in their striving. Slowly it dawned on me: Like the Games as a whole, it was not beautiful despite the struggle; it was beautiful precisely because of the struggle – a victory of the human spirit, if not one recognized by medals.

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Beyond medals, how our reporter found beauty in Olympic struggle

Falling is not supposed to be beautiful. 

But there was something in the way that US national champions Chris Knierim and his wife Alexa Scimeca Knierim were skating their pairs long program that I found profoundly moving, despite the fact that they were clearly struggling.

I knew that just being here at the Olympics was a victory for them, after a long illness that left Alexa wondering if she would ever skate again – a comeback she said was made possible by turning her life over to God. But I didn’t know that as they were warming up, images from the Parkland shooting – which had occurred just hours earlier – were playing on the TV in the warm-up room. I didn’t find out until later that Alexa had turned to Chris and told him, “The world is so much bigger than us.”

“I kind of put pressure on myself today because I wanted to honor those who were lost and skate really well for them and kind of have somewhat of a happy moment for our country,” said Alexa through tears, shortly after their performance. “And unfortunately, too many mistakes today, it was one of our lowest scores … Maybe I’m just being too tough on myself but I wanted to lift the spirits of folks who are probably in mourning right now.”

Her compassion and humanity were deeply moving to me, and pierced the shell of skepticism or even cynicism that I’d been feeling at the Games this time around. I had grown up dazzled by the Olympics, sitting in front of our little black-and-white TV, and deeply valued my experience of training for the 2002 Olympics, though in the end I went as a spectator rather than an athlete. Even in 2010, covering the Vancouver Olympics for the Monitor, that childlike wonder permeated my experience.

But after three years reporting in the Middle East, picking my way through the rubble of war and the hatred of centuries – only to return to an America riven by a tribalization of another kind – I found, to my great disappointment, that the Olympics no longer felt magical.

Over the course of three weeks in Pyeongchang, however, I have come to appreciate the Games in a new light. It’s not about magic. Because if it were, it’s true – this exorbitantly expensive sporting stage would have no relevance to our everyday lives, and to humanity’s greater struggles. Yes, I have seen some fairytale endings here at the Games, and they are beautiful and amazing and make grown men cry. I would argue, though, that the real essence of the Olympics is that they show us what it means to struggle: to be willing to fail en route to reaching for something higher – and to have faith that we will ultimately prevail.

And that, I realized, was what I saw in the Knierims’ performance. It was not beautiful despite the struggle; it was beautiful precisely because of the struggle – a victory of the human spirit, if not one recognized by medals.  

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle,” wrote Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. “The essential thing in life is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”

Hence the Olympic motto – citius, altius, fortius. Faster, higher, stronger – not fastest, highest, strongest.

That seems to be often lost in the 21st-century version of the Olympics, which is as much a commercial enterprise as a sporting event.

South Korea’s tab for the Pyeongchang Games is expected to be about $13 billion – including a $109 million stadium that will be demolished after being used for just four ceremonies. NBC spent nearly $1 billion for the broadcasting rights, and thousands of other journalists paid exorbitant rates to live, eat, and work in the Olympic bubble for three weeks. Swiss timing company OMEGA sent 230 tons of equipment – including electronic starting guns, motion sensors, and scoreboards – to Pyeongchang, tested it with “stand-in” athletes, and brought together 300 timekeepers and 350 trained volunteers to run it all. Individual teams also faced expensive bills; just shipping a single bobsled crate to the Games costs about $10,000 round trip, never mind the millions that go into building such specialized equipment.

When so much has been invested, it is understandable that the focus is on quantifiable results. And what is easier to quantify than medals? Especially gold medals. For Olympic committees, national sport federations, sponsors, athletes, and the media, that is the currency of the Games. But the relevance of the Olympics to a world facing so many challenges – historic refugee flows, a brutal seven-year war in Syria, persistent poverty, and many others – is in something deeper. It is in faith, perseverance, and resilience. In determination and grit. In dedication to an ideal, and the tenacity to stick to it. 

In short, it is a championing of the human spirit and its ability to rise above the challenges and disappointments of life on Earth.

I saw it in five-time Olympian Kelly Clark’s grace and poise after finishing fourth in the snowboarding halfpipe, behind two young women whom she had mentored and supported.

I saw it in the finish line hugs and smiles of the US women’s cross-country ski team, which had been dreaming of a medal in the 4 x 5 km relay for years, but never recovered from a 1-minute deficit after the first leg. Their embrace of Sophie Caldwell, who skied a brave but tough opening leg, was a beautiful expression of the team culture that yielded America’s first gold medal in the sport just a few days later.

I saw it in figure skater Nathan Chen’s gutsy performance in the free skate, putting down six quad jumps after a hugely disappointing short program left him in 17th. That comeback underscored his central philosophy: Never give up.

But it was alpine racer Mikaela Shiffrin, the world’s best female slalom skier, who finally articulated for me what I had seen in these athletes, and in the Knierims’ performance. 

“It’s the Olympics, and for me that’s about showing heart and passion as much as it is about medals,” she wrote on Instagram after finishing fourth in her signature event, the day after an emotional win in the giant slalom left her drained. “It’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics. It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze.

“We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when [they] felt both – because we care. That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that.”

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The Monitor's View

The quality of mercy in stemming violence

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In the history of seeking justice for violence, nothing can quite match what is happening in an Indonesian hotel. Some 120 former terrorists behind two bombings in 2002 and 2004 are meeting privately with dozens of their victims – to offer apologies. Officials also hope the three-day event will reinforce the contrition of the former terrorists, help them to reintegrate into their communities, and push them toward preventing others from resorting to violence. Forgiveness was not demanded. Both the apology and any mercy offered had to be seen as coming from the heart. Yet the bombing victims were also told that forgiveness would aid in the reconciliation needed to rebuild a moral consensus in Indonesia against terrorism. Such a process of personal reconciliation is now widely used in “restorative justice” programs in many courts of law. In Colombia, former rebels who participated in the country’s long civil war are being offered judicial leniency if they confess their violence against civilians. The aim is to break the cycle of violence driven by revenge. The practice was popularized by South Africa after the end of apartheid. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained, “Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.”

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The quality of mercy in stemming violence

In the history of seeking justice for violent acts, nothing can quite match what is happening in an Indonesian hotel this week. Over three days, about 120 former terrorists behind two mass bombings in 2002 and 2004 are meeting privately with dozens of their victims – to offer apologies.

Like a mass wedding, it is meant to be a bonding exercise, with a testing of the sincerity of vows.

The government in Jakarta designed the event to encourage the former militants to make amends through confession and remorse. But officials also hope it will reinforce the contrition of the former terrorists, help them to reintegrate into their communities, and push them toward preventing others from resorting to violence.

The bombings in Bali and Jakarta killed more than 200 people and were conducted by radical Islamic groups in the world’s largest Muslim country. Both the survivors of the attacks and the families of the slain had to be convinced that the expected apologies would be sincere and that the behavior of the ex-offenders had changed.

Forgiveness was not demanded. Both the apology and any mercy offered in response had to be seen as coming from the heart. Yet the victims were also told that forgiveness would aid in the social reconciliation needed to rebuild a moral consensus in Indonesia against terrorism.

Since the attacks of 9/11, many countries have developed methods to deradicalize and rehabilitate men and women who joined militant Islamic groups. Such programs are needed more than ever. The defeat of Islamic State in the Middle East has pushed many of its followers to return to their home countries. Yet few of the rehab efforts go as far as putting reformed offenders and victims in the same room and encouraging apologies.

Such a process of personal reconciliation is now widely used in “restorative justice” programs in many courts of law. It is also under way on a grand scale in Colombia, where former rebels who participated in the country’s long civil war are being offered judicial leniency if they confess their violence against civilians. Some former commanders of the group called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have apologized to a few victims. The aim is to break the cycle of violence driven by revenge.

The practice was popularized by South Africa in the 1990s after the end of apartheid. Those who confessed past wrongs to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were exonerated. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained, “Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.”

In the United States, where much of the news focuses on school shootings, sexual assaults against women, and violence at political protests, little is being said about encouraging private apologies by reformed perpetrators to their victims. Yet given the potential healing of emotional wounds taking place in a Jakarta hotel room this week, perhaps the US and other countries can learn something about the quality of mercy for those who sincerely say sorry.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Prayers for Yemen

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Today’s column explores how an understanding of everyone’s identity as the spiritual creation of the Divine can inspire our prayers for peace even in the most unyielding of situations.

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Prayers for Yemen

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“Don’t forget Yemen’s awful war” was the Monitor’s headline for an extensive quote sourced from an editorial in an Indian paper (The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, Dec. 18, 2017, p. 32). The editorial said: “Till now, the international community has largely looked away. It cannot continue to do so.”

Humanitarian organizations, selflessly working in and outside the country to bring comfort and relief, are a most welcome part of the answer to the needs of the Yemenis. But I also take this as a call to prayer.

In particular, I’ve found that praying for a deeper perspective of everyone’s true identity can bring healing and inspire efforts to help others in a way that nothing else can. The Bible provides that deeper perspective, giving profound insights into the nature of our identity as the spiritual creation, the very expression, of the Divine. Time and again, through divine grace, individuals in the Bible grew morally, surpassed limitations, and accomplished good because they glimpsed something of their actual eternal nature.

Sometimes this discovery happened suddenly, as in the case of Paul (then Saul), who saw a blinding light and changed from persecuting others to following Christ Jesus in living and teaching about God’s love. Other times it was a gradual transformation, as in the case of Jacob, who, after a dispute with his brother Esau, later bravely reconciled with him, seeing his face like the face of God (see Genesis 33:10).

As Jacob had the capacity to see his brother in a new, more spiritual way, each of us has a higher spiritual sense, a spiritual intuitive capacity, that’s natural for us to exercise. That spiritual sense aids us in seeing that as God’s loved child, everyone – including those in a situation with the complex geopolitical factors Yemen faces – has safety, inherent worth, and infinite value. Within every person – including the sick and hungry, or those heartbroken from loss of a loved one or their home – lies the profound truth that we are each the spiritual reflection of divine Love, and so infinitely loved. Cultivating the conviction that every individual is infinitely valued as the child of God also inspires practical ways to respond to needs.

Every individual shines as this perfect and safe individuality created by God. Holding in prayer to this fundamental spiritual fact about the general population, decisionmakers, and military interveners doesn’t ignore or excuse wrongdoing. Rather, it gives one a solid basis from which to pray for wrongdoing to be eliminated, to denounce it as unacceptable because it is not part of anyone’s true being.

Taking this mental stand for true identity as free from evil or harm, and for the rightness of peace and harmony, is effective as we ourselves sincerely strive to live up to this ideal, as we are spiritually minded, loving, compassionate, and peaceful. Living those and other Godlike qualities in our daily lives gives authority to our prayers for peace and brotherhood in Yemen and beyond.

As recent progress in Northern Ireland and Colombia has shown, no situation, no matter how seemingly intractable, is beyond the reach of divine Love. Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy writes in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “Whatever holds human thought in line with unselfed love, receives directly the divine power” (p. 192). Doing this is prayer that purifies motives and buoys individuals and families, bringing out courage, hope, and comfort. We help neutralize fear and hatred in the world to the degree we let God’s peace fill our own thoughts and express God’s all-embracing love.

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Viewfinder

Never say 'neve'

Alberto Lingria/Reuters
The Colosseum is seen during a rare snowfall in Rome Feb. 26 that shut schools and grounded flights. In St. Peter’s Square, priests and seminarians from the Vatican threw snowballs, while near the Colosseum, students skied down the Oppian Hill.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 27th, 2018 )

Thanks for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow. Staff writer Henry Gass will look at what life is like for those living on the edges of the United States in Texas' colonias. Here's a video preview of the story from the Monitor's Facebook page.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 26, 2018
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