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March 9, 2010
A mistreated dog gets a new home in Amman


This is how Faith was found by representatives from the Humane Center the day of the puppy mill raid in north Jordan. Photo: Kristen Gillespie.

Worldfocus special correspondent Kristen Gillespie writes about a furry friend that she acquired while doing a Signature video on puppy mills in Amman, Jordan.

Faith got her name shortly after her rescue from a notorious puppy mill in rural north Jordan. Her muscles were atrophied, her body emaciated, her eyes infected, her teeth were broken, and yet, her spirit was intact — hence her name.

Not all of the 38 puppies and 32 dogs that were rescued made out so well. Some had gone crazy, others turned aggressive.

When I went to the Humane Center to work on this report, I began to notice Faith. She moved slowly, her eyes were still red and swollen and she was always quiet.

When the dogs would go outside to play every day after the shelter closed, Faith seemed more interested in getting attention from visitors than in running around. One day, the door to the shelter was slightly open and Faith slipped inside as the dogs sometimes do.

Usually, they run gleefully through the halls. But when I went in to retrieve Faith, I noticed she had gone back to her kennel and sat inside it, waiting for someone to come and close the gate.

“She’ll spend the rest of her life here at the Center,” said Margaret Ledger, the center’s director. “Months had passed since the rescue and no one had shown any interest in adopting her,” she added.

I started making excuses to go to the shelter and visit Faith. She seemed perfectly content, climbing up next to me on the bean bag in the shelter’s reception area and watching the world go by.

When I decided to adopt Faith, she spent much of the first several weeks at home sleeping and eating. Her eyes cleared up. The walks grew longer, her muscles developed and she turned into a happy, loving dog who learned how to play for the first time.

Faith enjoys her new life. Photo: Kristen Gillespie

While Faith and most of the rescued dogs and puppies found a happy ending in their new homes, the bigger picture in Jordan remains grim. In the weeks following the raid, the owner of the puppy mill demanded her dogs back, saying that she would sue for the $150,000 she claimed the dogs were worth.

By all indications, the law in Jordan would have granted her the dogs. The Worldfocus report on puppy mills, however, was enough to pressure the government into the exceptional act of producing a letter giving full custody of the confiscated dogs to the Humane Center and releasing them from legal limbo.

With no animal protection laws in Jordan, dogs are commonly stolen and sent into puppy mills or sold at the downtown market, with owners paying hundreds of dollars for their own dogs.

It’s not just puppy mills - people have begun breeding dogs to make money with almost no knowledge or hygiene standards. Puppies are often sick and sold far too young.

The government controls the stray animal population by regularly sending out armed teams to shoot stray dogs in the city streets at all hours of the day. Animal abuse on all levels goes unpunished, and the mills continue to operate unhindered.

I sometimes show people pictures of Faith and the 69 other dogs that were rescued that day on the personal authority of Princess Alia, a concerned member of Jordan’s royal family.

Recently while flipping through the pictures I looked more closely at one of Faith, chained to the side of the building with her muzzle covered in dust. The faraway look is one of deep sadness and despair.

Now when I look into her eyes, I know that Faith has truly come home.

- Kristen Gillespie

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March 5, 2010
Iraqi election campaign heats up ahead of landmark vote

Al Arabiya news channel, which broadcasts out of Dubai in the  United Arab Emirates, reported this week on how the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary election is playing out.

Just a few years ago, Iraqi women running for parliamentary seats didn’t show their pictures on any campaign signs because of Iraq’s conservatism. But that’s different now.

Al Arabiya also highlights the story of so-called “forgotten Iraqis” — desert Bedouins.

Worldfocus’ Mohammad Al-Kassim translated this report.

(View full post to see video)

View a montage of Iraqi election advertisements compiled by Al Jazeera English.

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March 4, 2010
Chilean wineries report significant earthquake losses

Map courtesy of WineWeb.com

Worldfocus Consulting Producer Edward Deitch is an MSNBC.com wine columnist who also blogs at Vint-ed, where this post originally appeared.

The impact of the massive earthquake on Chile’s wine industry has become more clear in recent days, and it is significant, though not as bad as some had feared.

Concha y Toro, Chile’s largest producer and exporter with vineyards throughout the wine region, said it had suspended its production for at least a week while it assesses the full extent of the damage.

In a statement, it said, “Our company, as well as the rest of the industry, have been heavily impacted by this catastrophe.” It described serious damage to some of its main wineries and “important loss in wine and production capacity,” noting that the area in central Chile that felt the biggest impact from the quake “is the heartland of wine production.”

Another big wine operation, Miguel Torers Chile, said “material losses are significant” at its winery in the Curico Valley. About 300 oak casks were smashed, thousands of bottles were destroyed and a stainless steel vat with a capacity of 100,000 liters cracked, losing all the wine.

The winery’s president, Miguel Torres Maczassek, was on a business trip to the United States when the quake hit.

Melanie McEvoy Quirke, a spokesperson for the winery in New York, told me that some of Torres’s vineyards were even closer to the epicenter than the winery itself and that “as we speak they are getting ready for the harvest.” She had no information yet on vineyard damage.

Worries about the harvest were echoed in a comment on my blog from Tim Britton, an importer of South American wines in Berkeley, California, who said he had two concerns:

One, that not only have some of the vineyards lost stock, not all but many have some significant losses of bottle and vat stock; and two, the harvest is not far off and both equipment and workers will now be in very short supply. The impact of this quake on Chile’s wine exports may be felt for many years. The good news from our contacts is that with one exception no wineries incurred loss of life due to the fortunate timing of a Saturday early morning.

Juliet Rizek, a spokesperson for TGIC Wine Importers in Woodland Hills, California, said two of the wineries it represents, Viña Montes in Colchagua and Viña Santa Ema in the Maipo Valley, suffered some wine loss and structural damage to older buildings. She said the wineries had generators and were keeping the temperatures of the wines under control.

In a statement on the company’s Web site, the president and founder, Alex Guarachi, who is Chilean himself, offers a list of relief organizations to which donations can be texted on cell phones. By today, Montes reported that its equipment and bottle lines were operational and that power had returned. It said it would proceed with the harvest as originally planned.

Another company, Arboleda, reported damage to some of its wineries and continues to evaluate its losses and the impact on market availability. It advised customers to plan an extra two weeks of lead time for orders, saying that even if the winery is working, there will likely be a backlog at ports, which will place a priority on perishable goods such as fresh fruits.

- Edward Deitch

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March 2, 2010
A young orphan in Haiti steals a volunteer’s heart

Sonson with sunglasses. Photo: Tamara Palinkat

Worldfocus associate producer Mohammad Al-Kassim spent five days in the Haitian capital one month after the devastating earthquake hit the impoverished Caribbean island. While he was at the University of Miami field hospital, he came across the story of Sonson, a young orphan.

Sonson is a Haitian boy who was found in a garbage dumpster two weeks after a calamitous earthquake hit his hometown of Port-au-Prince.

Salvation Army workers found Sonson and brought him to the University of Miami medical field hospital located near the airport in the Haitian capital. Doctors there treated Sonson for worms, bacteria, and superficial cuts on his foot. Despite the awful conditions he was found in, Sonson is in fairly good shape physically according to medical personnel.

No one seems to know the whereabouts of his parents or even his real age, which nurses at the hospital estimate  at about two or three. He is scheduled to undergo a hand x-ray soon to determine age by his bone development.

Sonson has a big following here; he’s especially popular with the ladies.

Tamara Palinkat, 38-year-old Canadian volunteer with the University of Miami’s Project Medishare, is in Port-au-Prince helping with the earthquake recovery efforts. She says that she took an immediate liking to Sonson, drawn to his survival instinct.

“The idea that this little fella was fending for himself at the age of 2 or 3 years old pulled at my heart strings,” said Tamara.

Tamara has no children of her own but says that she always knew that one day “a child would adopt me and that would be that.” She wants Sonson to be that child.

She has started the adoption paperwork process, registering Sonson as an unaccompanied child with UNICEF and making known her desire to adopt him. She also wrote a letter requesting approval from the Canadian Embassy.

Sonson feeds Tamara. Photo: Tamara Palinkat

Tamara is busy with her volunteer work but says she is spending as much time with Sonson as she can. Her face lights up when she talks about him.

According to Tamara, the little boy doesn’t have nightmares but does spend a lot of time lost in thought, staring in one direction for a long time as if reliving past events. Tamara says Sonson was very withdrawn at first but has slowly been coming out of his shell.

In the short time they have known each other, Sonson has become the center of Tamara’s world. She doesn’t know yet if her adoption bid for Sonson will be successful — for now, she is focusing on her volunteer work and staying hopeful.

- Mohammad Al-Kassim

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February 24, 2010
The Turkish military under the ’sledgehammer’

Gizem Yarbil, an associate producer at Worldfocus who grew up in Turkey, writes about the significance of the alleged military plot in that country.

Turkey has been rattled by the news this week that about 50 military commanders were detained for allegedly planning a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Islamic-leaning government.

The commanders are accused of “attempting to remove the government through force and violence” in a supposed plot codenamed “Sledgehammer.” Alleged tactics include planting bombs at mosques and shooting down a Turkish warplane, with the ultimate goal of causing so much chaos and disruption that the military would need to step in and take control.

The military denies all allegations.

The Turkish military, which is generally seen as a bastion of secularism, has overthrown governments four times in the past, most recently in 1997, when it ousted an Islamist Prime Minister. Still, the crackdown is unprecedented in a country in which the military is regarded by many as untouchable.

Turkish soldier. Photo: Flickr user ozgurmulazimoglu

To those of us who grew up in Turkey, the news struck as a shock. There is a genuine respect, especially among the secular elite, for the military which is seen as the main protector of a country whose geographical location and precarious internal issues render it fragile and susceptible to outside threats. There is a fear in the Turkish psyche that outsiders are constantly looking for ways to destabilize the country, and the military is the only institution that can defend Turkey under such a scenario.

The operation is said to be a continuation of an earlier one dubbed “Ergenekon,” in which a shadowy group of academics, journalists, politicians and military officers allegedly tried to create an unstable environment of fear so that they could overthrow the government.

All these charges point to the fundamental political struggle inside the country between the secular establishment and a rising pious Islamic segment of society. The secular elite, represented by the judiciary and the military, is deeply fearful of the governing Islamist-leaning AK Party.

In fact,  many fiercely secular members of the public might even support a coup to overthrow the government, which they see as potentially steering the country toward an Islamic regime.

Although the military is strongly denying the evidence, some of it seems hard to refute. The Associated Press reports that in one conversation, a top officer accuses the political leadership of trying to “tear down the country and carry it into another (Islamic) regime,” and swears: “I will unleash (my forces) over Istanbul… It is our duty to act without mercy.” The authenticity of the recordings cannot be verified but it is hard to imagine that everything was concocted in such a high profile case.

In my opinion, it is high time the military accepts its rightful place in the Turkish state which is to defend the country in armed conflict. In democracies, the military don’t put tanks on the streets and overthrow democratically elected governments. In such cases, the country wouldn’t be a democracy anymore; it would be called an autocratic country ruled under a military junta. If we insist that Turkey is a democracy, the military should act like a military and not interfere in politics. If Turkey wants to be a part of the European Union, this is essential.

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February 17, 2010
Travel the Trans-Siberian Railroad with Google Maps

Haven’t you always wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian railroad?

Now you can take one of the great train journeys of the world without leaving the comfort of your own home.

A new joint venture between Google and Russian Railways provides a virtual gateway to the world’s longest continuous railway.

Look out the window and take in the scenery as you travel more than 5,600 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. Here’s the portal in English and in Russian.

There are more than 150 hours of footage shot from a moving train, as it winds across seven times zones.

You’ll travel over the Volga, the Yenisei and the Ob Rivers; around Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world; into and out of cities like Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest; through the Barguzin mountains; and alongside wooden Siberian villages. The 30-minute-stretch from Petrovsk-Zabailkalsky city is particularly picturesque.

To accompany your voyage, you can choose to listen to the hypnotic, natural sound of wheels churning along the tracks. Or, you can select to have Russian radio or traditional balalaika music piping through the “train.”

Riders aren’t able to listen to literary classics like Tolstoi’s War and Peace and Gogol’s Dead Souls, but you can, provided you understand Russian.

If you’re feeling antsy and don’t think you’ll last cooped up on the train for the full six-to-seven days of the voyage, you can stop, jump off and explore fourteen cities en route (a luxury that a Moscow-to-Vladivostok ticket won’t allow).

Through Google maps, you can view video, look at photographs, and read facts and descriptions of historic sites, museums and markets.

Take, for instance, the city of Ulan-Ude — the capital of Russia’s Buryat Republic and major center of Tibetan Buddhism — about three-quarters of the way to the journey’s end.

On a short side trip, you can take a video excursion down Gagarin Street, view photos of the city’s panorama, and read about the Ivolginsky Datsan, where the body of Khambo Lama Itigelov, leader of Russian Buddhists from 1911-1918, is preserved.

Google map of Ulan-Ude

View the full Ulan Ude map on Google

While you may not be able to feel the wind on your face, talk to your fellow passengers, or taste the fresh berries and homemade pirozhki sold along route, this virtual train ride will give you a sense of the vastness of the landscape of the world’s largest country.

My weekend plans? I’m finally jumping aboard the Trans-Siberian.

- Christine Kiernan

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February 12, 2010
UN revamping its New York headquarters building

The 58-year-old world body’s main building is getting a major face-lift. Since its opening in 1952, the United Nations skyscraper sitting on the East River has not been through a major remodeling.

Michael Adlerstein, the Assistant Secretary-General in charge of renovation, says the project is long overdue because of the deteriorated physical state of the building.

The 39-floor Secretariat is plagued with hazards such as leaking roofs, asbestos, and antiquated HVAC systems.

New York architect Michael Adlerstein is no stranger to high profile projects, as he previously renovated New York’s Statue of Liberty and consulted on the preservation of India’s Taj Mahal.

Though the UN building is being renovated and remodeled, it will not necessarily have a new modern and futuristic look. “We are going back to the old coloring of the glass that has the film on there that was done for blast protection several years ago,” he said.

In fact, the building will look more like 1952 than 2010.

“Basically the UN will look exactly as it did when the ribbon was originally cut,” said Adlerstein.

The money for the renovation comes from the member states through a special assessment separate from the regular budget of the UN.

The project, which started in 2008, is budgeted at $1.87 billion and is scheduled to finish in 2013. The money for the renovation comes from the member states through a special assessment separate from the regular budget of the UN.

Once the renovations have been completed , the building will have a hybrid heating system, new insulation, and new lighting. Assistant Secretary-General Adlerstein noted that the new construction would result in lowering the energy consumption of the UN by more than half and the water consumption by over 45%.

- Mohammad al-Kassim

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February 8, 2010
Turkish women fight against honor killings


Gizem Yarbil.

Gizem Yarbil, an associate producer at Worldfocus who grew up in Turkey, argues Turkish immigrants may cling even more strongly to their customs– including honor killings– when faced with the difficulties of life in the West.

The first honor killing story I delved into as a journalist was of a Turkish girl from Germany.

Hatun Surucu was 23 years old when her youngest brother shot her at a bus stop in Berlin in 2005. She was training to be an electrician and she had a son.

She was born in Germany to Kurdish parents who had migrated to the country from Turkey. From the day she was born, she was confined to a secluded lifestyle under the strict scrutiny of her parents and her brothers. When Hatun was 16, she was married to her cousin in Turkey in an arranged marriage. She moved to a village in Turkey and had her son when she was 18. When Hatun decided to leave her marriage and moved back to Berlin, she knew she couldn’t return to her family home. She took refuge in a women’s shelter, got rid of her head scarf and started to rebuild her and her son’s life.

Hatun’s new western lifestyle was deemed dishonorable by her family. They decided she was bringing a bad name to the family so she had to be killed.

Hatun’s story is only one example of honor killings among Europe’s Muslim immigrant communities. A report by the Council of Europe warns that honor killings are far more prevalent in Europe than previously believed. Reasons for an honor killing range from having sex out of wedlock, refusing to consent to an arranged marriage, refusing to wear a head scarf– even having been raped.

Joschen Blaschke, the president of the European Migration Center at the time we interviewed him in 2006, traced the problem in Germany with the Turkish immigrant communities to the economy. He said that when the economy slumped in the 1980s in Germany, most immigrant Turks had to settle for lower wages and inferior work. He argued that this caused the community to become more isolated, and that many families became more religious and determined to preserve their culture, including the concept of “honor.”

In an article in 2008 by BBC reporter Alexa Dvorson about her chilling conversation with a group of boys in Germany of Turkish, Kurdish and Palestinian origin, echoes Blaschke’s sentiment.  Confronted by the reporter, a Kurdish teenager tries to justify honor killings.  “We have no money,” he says, “We have nothing except our honour. If we lose that, it’s the worst things that can happen to us.”

- Gizem Yarbil
Deutsche Welle reports on women’s groups in Turkey working to stop honor killings:

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February 4, 2010
Documentary tells story of Burma’s undercover journalists

Still from the documentary Burma VJ

Gizem Yarbil is an associate producer at Worldfocus.

It is difficult to be a journalist in Burma. The country has one of the worst freedom of press records in the world. According to the latest worldwide index on press freedom provided by Reporters Without Borders, Burma ranks 171 out of 175 countries.

The latest news out of the country validates Burma’s horrendous press freedom record. Just last week a military court in Burma sentenced a journalist to 13 years in prison for working with Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based media outlet that reports news from Burma.

Democratic Voice of Burma relies on a courageous group of journalists on the ground in Burma. These brave men and women try to report under the extremely harsh restrictions of the authoritative regime. They operate carefully below the radar of the local authorities and smuggle their material out of the country.

This year, a documentary film that portrays the plight of these audacious undercover journalists is in the running for an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature. Burma VJ, directed by the Danish filmmaker Anders Ostergaard, tells the heroic story of Burma’s bold video journalists, armed with their battered handycams to report the uncensored truth from their country while risking torture and jail sentences.

They have to be swift and smart while filming on the streets as many around them belong to the military regime’s civil police. The footage is smuggled out of the country via the internet or trustworthy friends to Democratic Voice of Burma, where it gets distributed online to other global news outlets for free. The station also broadcasts in Burma via satellite which is now available to many in the country.

The film chronicles the events of the Saffron Revolution in September of 2007, when a group of monks started an anti-government protest on the streets of Rangoon which grew into a massive but peaceful uprising against the repressive regime. We follow the unfolding of the events through the lens of the undercover video journalists who put their lives at risk amid shooting military to bring the world’s attention to what’s happening in the country.

Their footage eventually reaches the international news outlets through Democratic Voice of Burma. As the world watches the brazen footage of the military beating and shooting at the monks and the civilians, the regime becomes aware of the power of the pictures and starts to clamp down on the journalists.

It is easy to take democracy and freedom for granted when we don’t know what it is to live without them. When I saw Burma VJ, it reminded of how important it is to live in a free, democratic society– so important that many in the world put their lives on the line for it.

Here is the trailer for Burma VJ:

- Gizem Yarbil

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February 2, 2010
Talk about war ripples through the Middle East

Israeli soldiers on leave in the city of Jaffa. Photo: Mohammad Al-Kassim

Talk about war is getting louder in the Middle Eastern press, with many speculating about a possible outbreak of hostilities not only between Israel and Hamas, but Israel and Syria, or Iran and a host of adversaries.

In a column in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Bradley Burston writes, “The countdown to the Second Gaza War has begun in earnest.”

The peace process is widely believed to be at an impasse, and there are other significant developments as well.

This week Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak publicly warned Hamas “to watch its step,” while senior Hamas and other Palestinian factions are warning of another Israeli offensive on Gaza.

And last week Hamas blamed Israel’s Mossad for the killing of one of its a top commanders in Dubai, UAE, and vowed revenge.

The Israeli Air Force has stepped up its bombing of tunnels in Gaza and is reacting with airstrikes every time a rocket is launched out of Gaza towards Israel.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, two Palestinian factions claimed responsibility for planting two barrels of explosives that washed up in an Israeli port, marking a new tactic and an escalation of the conflict.

This week the top news out of Iran concerns the deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems off Iran’s coast in the gulf, leading to rising tensions with Tehran.

Some experts say heavyweight Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen over Iran’s alleged support of the rebels there.

Israel could in theory find itself in a war on multiple fronts. Earlier this week in a bold statement, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said war with Syria was inevitable, and added that Iran is still a central danger to Israel’s security and all options are still on the table in how Israel deals with Iran.

Just last week, the London based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Syria has called up its reserve military forces in anticipation of a full-scale war with Israel.

In Lebanon, the Secretary General of Hezbollah– the Lebanese Shi’a Islamist political and paramilitary group — Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, said his forces will “change the face of the Middle East region” if there is another war with Israel. The last time Israel and Hezbollah clashed was in the summer of 2006 and that war lasted for 34 days.

- Mohammad Al-Kassim

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