MIDDLE EAST & REFUGEE ISSUES:
“From Syrian refugee to Oscar nominee, ‘Capernaum’ star gets second chance at childhood in Norway,” Public Radio International, February 2019
In 2016, Zain al-Rafeea was an impoverished delivery boy, one of the thousands of Syrian refugees living in the crowded outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. Having never gone to school, he could not write his name. Today, the 14-year-old is the star of the Oscar-nominated film “Capernaum” — an opus on disenfranchisement and poverty by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. The film’s name, which references a biblical village, has come to mean “chaos,” but it also carried the connotation of miracles — both of which have appeared in Zain’s life.
“Ravaged by war, Beirut’s historic sites are being reimagined,” National Geographic Travel, January 2019
In the mountains above Beirut, a stately Ottoman-era hotel came to life again last autumn after decades of abandonment. The Grand Hotel Casino Ain Sofar–once a preferred vacation spot for the region’s stars and the site of weddings and lavish parties–was left to looters and the occupying Syrian Army during Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. It was finally left empty and in disrepair. But this past fall, hundreds of Lebanese and foreign guests once again flooded the hotel—renovated but still deliberately bearing the scars of its past—this time for weeks of events that included an art exhibition, storytelling nights, and DJ sets. The hotel has once again become the site of weddings and parties.
It’s one of a handful of examples in a growing push in Lebanon toward rehabilitating threatened landmarks, many of them damaged in the war, and re-envisioning them as collective spaces.
“Stalemate risks Lebanon’s fragile stability,” U.S. News & World Report, January 2019
Last May, Lebanese voters headed to the polls in what, for some, marked a rare moment of optimism in the country’s fractured political landscape. It was the first time in nine years that the country had held a parliamentary election, and although few expected a major change in the balance of power, the fact that it even occurred seemed to mark progress toward greater political stability.
But since then, the mood of optimism has dissolved. Eight months later, as they jockey for power, political factions have not been able to agree on a cabinet. The lengthy delay in a government formation has threatened the country’s access to international funds at the same time as the economy appears to be on an escalating downward spiral. Some fear that an extended political stalemate combined with a deteriorating economy could threaten the fragile political stability that the country has maintained even as neighboring Syria fell into an extended civil war, sending more than 1 million Syrians fleeing to Lebanon.
“Perfect storm hits struggling refugees,” The Daily Star, January 2019
As torrential rains hit the Bekaa Valley, stormwater rushed into the tent Anoud Hussein shares with her five children, drenching their sleeping pads, blankets and clothing. “Where could we go? Our neighbors were in the same situation,” Hussein said. “We put some concrete blocks on top of each other and raised the children up, and I stayed in the water.” Her 6-year-old son grew sick and feverish. By the time NGO workers arrived at the camp in the Al-Rawda area the next day to evacuate them to temporary shelter in a school near Barr Elias, Hussein said, she was desperate, terrified that her son’s condition would become critical or that the family would be electrocuted by currents carried in the rising water.
Refugee settlements in the Bekaa and northern Lebanon struggle with winter storms every year, but this year, refugees and aid workers said, harsher than usual weather, increasing poverty and shrinking aid budgets have come together in a dangerous nexus.
“Mixed race Lebanese face discrimination,” The Daily Star, January 2019
Jaafar Issaoui shares the anxieties of many young Lebanese. He worries about the lack of good jobs and uncertainty about his future, the high cost of health care and the fear that he or a loved one could die “at the door of the hospital” in an emergency. Driven by those concerns, the 21-year-old from Beirut’s southern suburbs joined a group of friends at a mass protest held in the capital’s Downtown two days before Christmas, against failing infrastructure and services amid a stalemate over the government formation process.
But there he was reminded that while he may have the same hopes and fears as many other Lebanese citizens, those citizens do not always accept him as one of them. Issaoui is the son of a Lebanese father and a Guinean mother, and his dark skin and African features mark him as different. Some of the protesters in the crowd assumed that he was a migrant worker from Sudan or Ethiopia and began taunting him.
“They said to me, ‘Why did you come down here?’” Issaoui told The Daily Star. “I told them, ‘I came down here just as you did. The things that brought you out here are the same things that pushed me to come.’”
“Refugee maternal mortality ‘alarming,'” The Daily Star, December 2018
Increasingly desperate economic conditions, high rates of teen marriage and the prevalence of cesarean section deliveries are driving a disturbing trend of deaths in pregnancy and childbirth among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Rates of maternal mortality are considerably higher among Syrian refugees than among Lebanese women, and they may be rising.
“Desperate bid for a better life ends in a tragedy at sea,” The Daily Star, November 2018
On the 40th day after 5-year-old Khaled Nijmeh drowned in the sea, his family gathered around his grave, an earthen plot decorated with cloth roses and living vines at a Palestinian cemetery in northern Lebanon’s Beddawi refugee camp. The boy’s mother sat above the headstone, which proclaimed her son a “child martyr,” staring blankly at an open copy of the Quran until she began to cry silently. His aunt used a napkin to wipe dust from the tomb. His father sprinkled perfumed water around the grave. His 8-year-old sister hovered on the sidelines as her uncles handed out maamoul pastries to mourners visiting other graves.
The Palestinian cemetery was not the resting place the family had wanted for Khaled. In some ways, the very fact that his grave was there was emblematic of the reasons his parents had, in late September, taken their two children aboard a smuggler’s boat bound for Cyprus.
“Syrians treat patients under the radar,” The Daily Star, November 2018
At a small clinic, its walls painted a cheery blue, on a narrow street in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Abed receives a steady stream of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese clients at his dental practice. Abed, who asked that his full name not be published, is Syrian, and like nearly all non-Lebanese health professionals, he is legally banned from practicing in Lebanon. But the Palestinian camps, which operate largely outside of the purview of Lebanese authorities, offer a gray area.
Trained in the United States, Abed had practiced in the Gulf before coming to Lebanon four years ago. He was working with the United Nations to open a dental clinic in Yemen, he said, when the war in that country forced them to withdraw. With the civil war in his own country and the threat of military conscription should he return, he came to Lebanon.
Despite the regulations, Syrian health professionals continue to practice under the radar throughout Lebanon, some running their own clinics, others working under the table for Lebanese physicians or for NGOs willing to turn a blind eye to their legal status.
“Lebanon’s stateless: locked out of society,” The Daily Star, August 2018
When smuggler boats started carrying Syrian refugees from Lebanon’s Tripoli toward Europe, Samir “Atris” al-Hussein considered joining them on the dangerous journey.
Hussein, 26, is neither Syrian nor a refugee. He was born and raised in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood to a father and mother who both hold Lebanese citizenship.
But because his parents did not register his birth before his first birthday, he is trapped in limbo, legally nonexistent in the eyes of the state.
“For Syrian refugees, Lebanon a meeting place,” The Daily Star, September 2018
Four years after Saeed fled Syria first to Lebanon, then Turkey and finally finding resettlement in Brazil he was briefly reunited with his mother and three sisters in Beirut. Saeed, who works as an online Arabic tutor, had been invited to Lebanon by his employer for a workshop two years ago and entered the country using his Brazilian residency card. His mother and two of his sisters, with their children, crossed the border from Syria to join him. His third sister, living in the United States and married to an American, came from abroad with her husband for the reunion.
“I was so happy and I just wanted to be with them all the time,” Saeed told The Daily Star. Like the other Syrians interviewed for this article, he asked that his family name not be published out of security concerns. “I didn’t want to do anything else. I just wanted to be with them, sit and talk with them, play with them and see my sisters’ children because I had never seen them. … We laughed and joked a lot and remembered the things we used to do when we were small.”
About 6 million Syrians are displaced outside the country as a result of the its civil war; many of those left family members behind. With borders slamming shut for Syrians around the world, and many refugees unable or unwilling to return to Syria for fear of military conscription, arrest or targeting by armed groups, Lebanon has become one of the only possible meeting grounds for families separated by the war — although not always an easy one.
“Companies make a business out of business services for Syrians,” The Daily Star, August 2018
The Facebook page of the Quick Line travel agency in Jal al-Dib displays the typical advertisements of the trade – pictures of sparkling seaside resorts and famous tourist sites: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Hagia Sofia. Interspersed with these are a second set of ads, targeting a different audience. Some display a Syrian flag alongside images of families crying and embracing. One advertises family reunification in Germany. Another reads: “Our Syrian brothers, now you can apply to travel to Canada, Australia, Brazil, Turkey and several other countries.”
The travel agency is one of numerous companies that have made a business out of offering immigration services to Syrian refugees desperate to leave Lebanon and either unwilling or unable to return to Syria. Various industries have sprung up around Syrians’ desire to travel. Some of them are blatantly illegal: smuggling; email scams that trick people into sending personal information and documents to bogus resettlement programs; and people selling fraudulent, or sometimes real, visas for thousands of dollars. On the other hand, there are companies like Quick Line that offer assistance with filling out and submitting visa applications. These are often working legally and providing a real service, but the odds of success for many applicants remain slim and the U.N. refugee agency cautions refugees who seek their assistance.
“Palestinians in Lebanon preserve bagpiping tradition,” The Daily Star, July 2018
On a sweltering summer Saturday afternoon, 20-odd young men and women filed up to the roof of a community center in Burj al-Shemali, toting bagpipes draped in Palestinian flags. Soon the strident strains of the reed instruments – playing, incongruously, a calypso song and accompanied by a pair of drummers – came cascading down over the rooftops of the crowded camp and the Mediterranean Sea below.
“Flagging International Aid Worsens Conditions for Syrian Refugees,” U.S. News & World Report, June 2018
“The situation is bad — what can I do?” Zaydan says. “I was sick from when I came to Lebanon, but this year the situation became critical. Bit by bit, the situation is getting more tense.” As the Syrian conflict drags into its eighth year, refugees waiting out the war in neighboring countries are growing weary and increasingly desperate. At the same time, their host communities are becoming more resentful as international aid donations appear to be starting to wane.
“This Beirut Hackerspace Brings Tech Startup Spirit to the Middle East,” GOOD Magazine, May 2018
“Young Adults’ Hopes, Doubts Cloud Lebanese Elections,” U.S. News & World Report, May 2018
Like many of her peers, Doaa Ibrahim is anxious about the lack of job opportunities for young people in her homeland of Lebanon and is frustrated by the political system that doles out power and favors based on sect. Ibrahim, 25, lives in Lebanon’s impoverished rural northern governorate of Akkar and works part-time teaching supplementary Arabic classes to Syrian refugee children. Ibrahim says she isn’t pinning her hopes on the upcoming election to improve daily life. “Nothing is going to change – I am sure. For sure they are going to lie to us, like they lied to our parents.” Ibrahim is joined by many first-time voters in the country who are greeting the contest with a shrug. On May 6, Lebanon will hold its first parliamentary elections in nine years, a vote that may test the nation’s proclaimed neutrality in the fractious Middle East by reshaping the calculus between the region’s two powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“A Mother’s Right: Giving Citizenship,” U.S. News & World Report, March 2018
Randa Kabbani says that when she fell in love with her husband, it never occurred to her that she was signing up for a life of hardship for their future children.
Kabbani is Lebanese and owns a family-run textile business in Beirut. Her husband – who died seven years ago, leaving her to raise their young son – was born to a Lebanese mother and lived his whole life in Lebanon. But because his father was Syrian, he was not eligible for Lebanese citizenship. That’s because Lebanon is one of a shrinking number of countries where citizenship cannot be passed down by the mother.
“Syria’s ‘selfie teen’ highlights the devastation of war — and the fog of war,” Nieman Storyboard, March 2018
The fog of war is especially thick in Syria, where access is nearly impossible for foreign journalists and accounts of the war often reach the outside world via social media. In the besieged Eastern Ghouta region, a blond, baby-faced teenager posting video selfies is the latest to step into the void.
“Staying on the Grid in Lebanon,” US News & World Report, February 2018
Ghassan Baytieh has staked out his turf in the city of Tripoli. One of about 10 large-scale private generator operators in the northern Lebanese city who can help provide electricity to homes and businesses when the government electricity is cut, Baytieh truly symbolizes power. His business has come with some problems. Six years ago, Baytieh says, a local gang tried to extort money. The ensuing confrontation escalated into a gun battle that killed one man and injured two others – all of them from the other side, not his, he adds. Before civil war broke out in 1975, Lebanon had 24-hour electricity. But the 15-year conflict destroyed much of the country’s power infrastructure. Decades later, the sector has not been fully rebuilt and has not kept pace with the population’s growing demand for power. The private generator industry arose as a makeshift solution but has grown into a deeply ingrained industry.
“How a cafe brings together warring rivals to mend their city’s wounds,” GOOD Magazine, February 2018
Just a few years ago, Syria Street, a main thoroughfare in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, was notorious as the demarcation line between two warring neighborhoods — a no-go zone to most. Some of its buildings still bear evidence of the conflict with their walls riddled with bullet holes. But on a recent afternoon, a group of young men from the rival neighborhoods — some of them former combatants — were sharing an argileh pipe as they took a break from plastering the walls inside one of those damaged shops.
“On a theater’s stage, inmates get a taste of freedom,” GOOD Magazine, February 2018
On a stage in Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison, a play is unfolding. In front of an audience that includes judges and members of parliament, the actors bring the scenes to life. But these aren’t your typical thespians; they’re inmates. In one scene, a middle-aged man with a shaved head explains that he was a militia commander in Lebanon’s civil war before being told to give up his weapons and go home in 1991, after the war’s end. “That’s a reason to take drugs!” he remarks to the younger inmate sitting beside him before summoning a troupe of fellow inmates for a song-and-dance number. In another scene, a Palestinian refugee with an unkempt beard gives a rambling reminiscence about his beloved donkey, Johar, which he believes to be imprisoned in Israel.
“Already embattled, UNRWA in Lebanon faces new threats,” Middle East Eye, January 2018
In the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian “refugee camp” – actually, a dense, urban neighbourhood – in Beirut’s southern suburbs, residents were on edge over the possibility of more service reductions. Shadia Moussa, 36, has one son in university, another one working, and a 13-year-old daughter who attends an UNRWA-run school in the camp. Moussa hopes that her daughter will also go on to university, but said now the future seems uncertain. “If UNRWA stays, God willing, she can continue,” Moussa said. “If UNRWA stops, she’ll stop, too, and stay at home.”
“Living under a banner of ambiguity,” U.S. News & World Report, December 2017
Trump’s Jerusalem declaration triggered a rare moment of unity between different sects and factions in Lebanon’s fractured social fabric. In massive street protests in Beirut’s southern suburbs organized by the Shia militia and political party Hezbollah; at the lighting of the Christmas trees in downtown Beirut, at the government palace; and at the seat of the Maronite Catholic Church; and in political speeches by Sunni Prime Minister Saad al Hariri, political leaders rallied around the slogan: “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.” But there is less clarity in the political narrative when it comes to the future of the approximately 174,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
“Palestinians in Lebanon less than half previous estimate, census shows,” Middle East Eye, December 2017
Lebanon’s first-ever official census of Palestinian refugees, released on Thursday, revealed that the figure is less than half that previously estimated, encouraging Palestinian leaders to push for greater rights.
“Syrian refugees return from Lebanon, only to flee war once again,” Refugees Deeply. October 2017
Refugees who returned to Syria from Lebanon under cease-fire deals this summer have been displaced again by fighting. Those who stayed behind are pressing for international guarantees of safety on return, as Lebanese officials explore ways to get more refugees to leave.
“Evicted refugees in Lebanon have nowhere left to run,” Refugees Deeply, September 2017
Lebanon wants to evict 12,000 refugees who live near an air base where foreign military assistance is delivered. The evictions, which began in spring and recently resumed after a short respite, have left refugees more vulnerable amid rising demands they return to Syria.
“Just outside Syria’s capital, a battle still rages over one of the last rebel-held enclaves,” Los Angeles Times, August 2017
As international attention has shifted to the fight against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria, a little-noticed but bitter struggle continues on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. There, government forces are determined to reclaim one of the last remaining urban areas controlled by rebel factions committed to overthrowing President Bashar Assad.
“Departure of Syrian rebels and refugees from Lebanon raises specter of forced returns,” Los Angeles Times, August 2017
For the second time in a matter of weeks, thousands of rebel fighters and civilian refugees who had found a haven in Lebanon are being transported back to Syria to live in what is being billed as a “safe zone” in the war-torn country. Depending on the point of view, the transfers are humanitarian gestures to people longing to return home, a security measure to protect Lebanon from extremists or a forceful removal of vulnerable refugees that could herald wider-scale expulsions.
“Lebanese town looks for relief after three tough years tied to Syrian civil war,” Los Angeles Times, August 2017
Ayman Hujairi’s stone quarry in the barren hills outside the town of Arsal on Lebanon’s northeast border closed its doors after fighting broke out between Syrian militant groups and the Lebanese army three years ago. Then his stone-cutting factory, also shuttered, was looted of all its machines and equipment, down to the wiring. But last month the Islamist group formerly known as Al Nusra Front was routed from the outskirts of Arsal. Hujairi and other residents are hoping life will return to normal for a town that has become emblematic of the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war next door.
“Finding a life partner is hard enough. For those of the Druze faith, their future depends on it,” Los Angeles Times, August 2017
Reem Kaedbey was never very religious. She’s not even sure there is a God. But when it came to marriage, she never had any doubt she would choose within her family’s sect, a tiny offshoot of Shiite Islam known as the Druze faith. “It’s a requirement for my parents,” said 28-year-old Kaedbey, who lives near Beirut and works for the United Nations. “I didn’t want to get into problems.” Finding a life partner is hard enough for anybody. Members of the Druze faith face an added pressure: keeping the religion alive.
“Syrian comedy troupe’s brand of satire fails to amuse Assad government,” Los Angeles Times, July 2017
Every time he gets the chance, Ayham Hilal, an Internet cafe proprietor in the Syrian city of Saraqeb, squeezes into a small community center with about 200 fellow theatergoers and loses himself in a comedy show. The sketches are productions of an all-volunteer performance troupe known as the Saraqeb Youth Group, which has been bringing its brand of satirical theater to the small city east of Idlib through the most brutal chapters of the country’s civil war.
“Beirut is blocking its world famous beaches from the people who actually live there,” GOOD Magazine, July 2017
“Italian activists have a secret strategy to protect Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” GOOD Magazine, June 2017
“In Arab world, an ancient tradition of oral storytelling gets a 21st century spin,” Nieman Storyboard, June 2017
“A small town in Italy was losing population, so it turned to Syrian refugees for help,” Los Angeles Times, May 2017
From the kitchen of their new apartment, Mohammed Ali and Kinda Nonoo watched their children run across a rooftop terrace with a view of the rolling green hills of southern Italy. They could see a shining sliver of the Mediterranean Sea, four miles away. The tranquility of the scene was a marked change from war-torn Aleppo, Syria, which Ali and his family had fled nearly five years ago, and the chaotic situation they had found in Lebanon afterward. And unlike in Lebanon, where the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees were seen as pulling jobs away from the local population, leaders in this Italian community were pinning their hopes on the refugees helping to rebuild its economy.
“The roadblocks, and the dangers, for investigative journalists in the Arab world,” Nieman Storyboard, May 2017
“A Humanitarian Corridor Provides an Alternative to Bombs and Boats,” Refugees Deeply, April 2017
One evening in late February, Ayan al-Soud, his wife Atya al-Abdullah and their four children boarded a flight from Beirut to Rome. It was the family’s first time on a plane but the second time they had crossed national borders to escape war in their country. This time, they hoped they would find their new home more welcoming.
“Living in the Shadows, a Family Tries to Secure Its Children’s Future,”, Refugees Deeply, March 2017
In a one-room schoolhouse tucked amid the tents in an informal refugee camp in northern Lebanon, a pair of volunteers were trying to keep about 20 squirming Syrian children focused on a French lesson. “Ahmad, quel âge as-tu?” (“Ahmad, how old are you?”) Uncomprehending, a seven-year-old boy with alert eyes and a shock of straight, black hair falling over his forehead summoned the one phrase of French he had committed to memory: “Je m’appelle Ahmad.” (“My name is Ahmad.”)
“Here’s one way of fighting terrorism that the U.S. may be rethinking under Trump,” Los Angeles Times, March 2017
On a warm day in late fall, hundreds of children, parents and local dignitaries streamed into a once-empty lot in a small town in the mountains of northern Lebanon to celebrate the inauguration of a new park and playground. Children jostled in an unruly semblance of a line to go down one of the giant inflatable slides brought in for the occasion. Performers dressed as clowns and Winnie the Pooh wove among mothers in hijabs. A banner hanging from the half-finished cinder block building next to the park announced that the project was paid for by the United States Agency for International Development.
“An American in Lebanon Encounters Trump Supporters Far From Home,” Zocalo Public Square, December 2016
A few weeks after I arrived in Lebanon to volunteer with Syrian refugees, I learned that my plan to offer an English class for both Lebanese and Syrian youth in the small town of Bqarzla was so sensitive as to require an audience with the village priest. After Sunday mass in the village church, a fellow volunteer, Samer—Syrian, Orthodox Christian—and I were escorted to the high-ceilinged sitting room of the priest’s spacious quarters next door. A group of men wearing suits and smoking cigarettes—village notables and friends of the priest—had been invited to join us. They greeted us amiably and invited us to sit.
The priest, or Abuna—an honorific meaning “Our Father” in Arabic—eventually emerged from an interior room, also in a suit, and bearing a pot of strong coffee, and commenced to smoke a cigarette. After we had dispensed the usual pleasantries, he asked me the “American” question that, prior to the election, I heard frequently. “Inti ma Trump walla Clinton?” (“Are you with Trump or Clinton?”)
“Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila tackles homophobia, Islamophobia on U.S. tour,” Los Angeles Times, June 2016
“In Israel, secluded Arab village wants to be a tourist must-see,” Los Angeles Times, January 2015
The freeway that hugs Israel’s Mediterranean coast doesn’t have an entrance or exit for Jisr az-Zarqa. To reach the Arab village, people use a one-lane tunnel that passes under the highway.
The last remaining all-Arab village on the coast of Israel and one of the poorest communities in the country, Jisr has been isolated from its Jewish and Arab neighbors for decades.
“Go inside the magical life of Europe’s family circuses,” National Geographic Travel, July 2018
A small boy stands in the middle of a wooden dock with the calm, sun-dappled water of the Rhône river stretching behind him, fixated on three oranges that appear suspended above his head. In her series “Circus Love,” photographer Stephanie Gengotti captured scenes of the mundane and the magical while embedded with Europe’s independent circus troupes.
“This epic mountain trail traverses the length of Lebanon,” National Geographic Travel, July 2018
On a hilltop outside the village of Mishmish—it means “apricot” in Arabic, although most of the surrounding orchards are populated by apple trees—a dozen hikers paused to catch their breath after a long climb through the mountains of northern Lebanon’s Akkar District. The fields around them were dotted with crimson poppies, the surrounding slopes green with fir and cedar trees, while the higher mountains in the distance were still streaked with snow in the early days of May.
On the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), some hikers discover the small but storied Mediterranean country for the first time; others rediscover home.
“Hiking the scenic border-to-border Lebanon Mountain Trail,” Lonely Planet, March 2018
The 470km-long Lebanon Mountain Trail traverses the full length of this tiny Middle Eastern country, passing through ancient cedar forests and olive orchards, and ambling by rushing waterfalls, Roman temples and monasteries carved into cliff faces. This hike offers an astonishing way to experience a land often only known by outsiders for its tragic recent history and the frenetic bustle of Beirut’s nightclubs.
“Meet the man living in a lost city carved in stone,” National Geographic Travel, November 2017
Mofleh Bdoul grew up in the ancient city of Petra, scrambling up the rocky slopes along with herds of goats amid the ruins of tombs and temples. The 73-year-old still lives in a cave a stone’s throw from the one where he was born. But over the years, he has seen his home transform from remote hinterland into a tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
“Meet the quirky hermit who lives on a sacred cliffside,” National Geographic Travel, October 2017
On the sun-dappled terrace of a centuries-old chapel chiseled into a cliffside overlooking Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley, the hermit was lecturing one of his daily visitors on his choice of body art. Father Dario Escobar, an 83-year-old Maronite monk from Colombia, has become something of a niche tourist attraction since he set up residence in the mountainside enclave 17 years ago.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE, SOCIAL ISSUES, MENTAL HEALTH & LOCAL GOVERNMENT:
“Mentally ill inmates are swamping the state’s prisons and jails. Here’s one man’s story,” Los Angeles Times, June 2016
Reginald Murray sat next to his mother for the first time in more than a year, under the alternately bored and watchful eyes of the guards in the visitors’ room at Atascadero State Hospital. He teased his mother about her weight; she teased her son about the scruffy beard he had grown. They weren’t allowed to hug after the initial greeting. Instead, Murray kept reaching over to touch his mother’s arm. She made a show of being annoyed, but they were both smiling. The state mental hospital on California’s Central Coast wasn’t where Murray wanted to spend the day after his 27th birthday. But it was better than where he had been a month earlier — in a solitary unit in the state prison in Lancaster.
Over the last two years, Los Angeles County officials have announced a new focus on diverting people who are mentally ill from jail and prison. In July 2014, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey told county supervisors that the jailing of mentally ill defendants was “a moral question.”
“The use of the jail as a mental health ward is inefficient, ineffective and in many cases it is inhumane,” she said.
But it is also growing.
No one knows what’s behind L.A. County’s rise in mental competency cases, Los Angeles Times, February 2016
The morning calendar in Department 95 was busy, as usual. Housed in a nondescript brick building on an industrial stretch of San Fernando Road in Cypress Park, the courtroom handles mental health cases for Los Angeles County Superior Court. On a recent Thursday, the roughly 70 defendants set to appear included a homeless man charged with violations related to camping in a Beverly Hills park; a woman accused of embezzling money from an elderly acquaintance; and a woman charged with felony battery on a police officer. She was accused of kicking an officer who had tried to remove her from the Pasadena library. These defendants, like most on the docket, had been sent to Department 95 to determine whether they were too mentally ill to stand trial. More and more cases like these are landing in Department 95, and it’s not clear why. Competency cases increased by nearly 50% from 2014 to last year. Between 2010 and 2015, the annual total ballooned from 944 to 3,528.
County turns to urgent care centers, rather than jails or ERs, to treat the mentally ill in crisis, Los Angeles Times, January 2016
Athe psychiatric urgent care center in Boyle Heights, a young woman wearing a nightgown knelt in a corner, praying in Spanish. A repeat visitor, the woman had been picked up by police the day before after she left the board and care facility where she lives and was found standing in the street wearing only a bra. When asked how she had ended up at the urgent care center, the woman smiled shyly. “I forgot,” she said. County mental health officials and police are increasingly looking to urgent care centers such as the facility in Boyle Heights as an alternative to jail beds or overcrowded psychiatric emergency rooms for people in the throes of a mental health crisis.
Jesse is a typical boy in probation-run foster care: unwanted, Los Angeles Times, September 2015
Jesse Opela hunched on a plastic chair in the “music room” at Central Juvenile Hall, a cramped space with no air conditioning, an old CD boombox, a keyboard and a bookshelf filled with aging bestsellers. Tears rolled down the sturdy 17-year-old’s face as he apologized to his probation officer.
“I messed up everything,” Jesse said. “I had so many chances and I messed all of them up.”
Not too long ago, Jesse had dared to dream that he would be one of the lucky ones — not like most of the other kids in the probation-run foster care system.
Long waits outside L.A. County psychiatric units stall patients, police, Los Angeles Times, July 2015
When Los Angeles police Det. Jim Hoffman arrived at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center’s psychiatric emergency department on a Saturday morning in March, he found a small crowd waiting.
Two police officers from the LAPD’s Central Division were sitting in a narrow hallway outside the locked psychiatric unit with a man and woman in handcuffs. Both patients had been brought to the hospital overnight on so-called 5150 holds, a forced 72-hour detention for mental evaluation of those deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. But the ward was full. The man — and a rotating series of cops with him — had been waiting for 11 hours for a bed to open up. The woman had been there for more than eight hours.
“The nightmare outcome of a son’s mental illness,” Los Angeles Times, April 2015
It was obvious to Cynthia that her son was a danger. She and Anthony had sought help from California’s medical, legal and law enforcement institutions. But they had found only temporary relief, and were frustrated by the piecemeal and often impenetrable nature of the state’s mental health system.
“L.A. County struggles with felons bolting from probation,” Los Angeles Times, January 2014
Peter Azevedo is a hard man to keep on the straight and narrow.
Released from state prison in early 2012, he has been in and out of L.A. County jail at least half a dozen times, serving a few days, a few weeks or a few months for skipping out on probation, using drugs and carrying a knife. As of Christmas Eve, he was gone again.
“Casting a vote for chaos,” Los Angeles Times, October 2010
Earlier this year, angry trash haulers helped mount a recall of two City Council members in Montebello who had voted to award an exclusive waste-hauling contract to a rival company.
Tens of thousands of dollars were spent. Dozens of complaints alleging harassment were filed with police during the campaign. But for all the furor, fewer than 10% of the city’s voting-age population showed up to cast ballots.
“How San Onofre’s new steam generators sealed nuclear plant’s fate,” Los Angeles Times, July 2013
The San Onofre nuclear plant was approaching the end of its life span. But Edison wanted to invest $680 million in new steam generators, attorney Carol Schmid-Frazee told a judge presiding over a hearing at the California Public Utilities Commission’s San Francisco headquarters. The new equipment, she said, would give the 2,200-megawatt plant a new lease on life, providing cheap, reliable energy in Southern California for decades to come while also saving ratepayers nearly $2 billion.
But less than a year after the new steam generators came online, a tube in one of them sprang a radioactive leak, setting off a chain of events that ultimately led Edison to close the plant permanently. The generators that were supposed to save San Onofre ended up killing it, and today the atomic behemoth sits idle, never again to produce a watt of power.
“San Onofre nuclear plant to be closed permanently,” Los Angeles Times, June 2013
“San Onofre’s future hinges on finding cause of abnormal tube wear,” Los Angeles Times, May 2012