Monday, March 30, 2015

Sheikh Hamdan donates World Cup prize money to Dubai Autism Center

Sheikh Hamdan celebrates Prince Bishop's win with Jockey William Buick
Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, has donated his $6 million (Dh22 million) prize money for Prince Bishop winning the Dubai World Cup horse race to the Dubai Autism Center.

Sheikh Hamdan joined his father Sheikh Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai, at Meydan Racecourse on Saturday night to watch Prince Bishop romp home on the 20th  anniversary of the world’s richest horse race. 

And he wasted little time in spending his windfall, taking to Twitter to announce that he was pledging the money to a cause close to his heart.

Sheikh Hamdan, known affectionately as Faz3, is the chairman of the Dubai Autism Center. He was optimistic the money will go towards changing young children’s lives.

He also directed that plans and initiatives be launched so that the children in the center will reap the enormous psychological, social and therapeutic benefits as quickly as possible.

The Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world, is held at the Meydan Grandstand and Racecourse on the last Saturday in March.

Sheikh Mo at the races on Saturday
The brainchild of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, the Dubai World Cup was inaugurated in 1996 as a tribute to his love of horses and horseracing. The total value of the prize money stands at over $35 million, with the annual invitation-only Dubai World Cup, worth $10 million.

On Saturday night (March 28), Prince Bishop pulled away from favorite California Chrome on the home straight and won the $10 million Dubai World Cup by 2 ¾ lengths.

Starting from the inside post, jockey William Buick rode Prince Bishop to his first victory on dirt. It was the fourth attempt for the eight-year-old horse in the world's richest race.

Buick said it would take some time to gather his thoughts after winning the world's richest horse race.

"I can't express what I am feeling right now," he said. "It's very surreal. We were detached last, but ended up traveling very well in the last turn.

"I didn't look back, but I imagine we won well because I could hear the commentator. I feel a bit numb at the moment, but I'm sure when I get home and relax it will sink in."

Prince Bishop was bred in Ireland, but has been trained by Saeed bin Suroor in the Emirates.

Asylum applications at a 22-year high

Soar to almost 900,000 in industrialized world, says UNHCR

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported last Thursday (March 26) that the wars in Syria and Iraq, as well as armed conflicts, human rights violations and deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions in other countries, pushed the number of asylum applications in industrialized countries to a 22-year high last year.

And there is no end in sight...

A combination of armed conflict, deterioration of security or humanitarian situation and human rights concerns in a number of countries -- notably Syria -- have been among the main reasons for the sharp increase in the number of asylum-seekers registered among industrialized countries during 2014.

An estimated 866,000 asylum applications were recorded in the course of the year, some 269,400 claims more than the year before (+45%). This is the fourth consecutive annual increase and the second highest annual level since the early 1980s when statistics on asylum-seekers started being collected by UNHCR in a systematic way. As such, the 2014 figure is close to the all-time high of almost 900,000 asylum applications recorded among the industrialized countries in 1992.

UNHCR’s report, The Asylum Trends 2014, puts the estimated number of new asylum applications lodged in industrialized countries throughout the year at 866,000, a 45 percent increase from 2013, when 596,600 claims were registered. The 2014 figure is the highest since 1992, at the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres put the new figures in their historical context. "In the 1990s, the Balkan wars created hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers," Guterres said. "Many of them found refuge in industrialized countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

"Today, the surge in armed conflicts around the world presents us with similar challenges, in particular the dramatic situation in Syria. Our response has to be just as generous now as it was then -- providing access to asylum, resettlement opportunities and other forms of protection for the people fleeing these terrible conflicts."

UNHCR’s report says Syrians were by far the largest group among those seeking asylum in 2014, with almost 150,000 applications, one in every five asylum claims in the industrialized world. Iraqis accounted for 68,700 applications, almost double the number in 2013. Afghans were the third largest group, with almost 60,000 applications, followed by citizens of Serbia (and Kosovo) and Eritreans.

The industrialized country receiving the largest number of asylum-seekers in 2014 was Germany, with more than 173,000 applications. Syrians made up a quarter of all asylum applications in Germany. The United States received an estimated 121,200 asylum claims, mostly from Mexico and countries in Central America.

Turkey, which by the end of last year hosted over 1.5 million Syrian refugees, received 87,800 new asylum applications in 2014, mainly from Iraqis. Sweden ranked fourth among the 44 industrialized countries, with 75,100 applications, mainly from Syrians and Eritreans. Italy registered 63,700 new applications in 2014, the highest on record. Asylum-seekers in Italy came mainly from Mali, Nigeria and Gambia.

The Russian Federation, which is not included in this report for methodological reasons, received some 265,400 applications for temporary asylum and 5,800 applications for refugee status from Ukrainians during 2014. At the same time, the number of Ukrainians seeking asylum in the 44 countries included in the report went up from 1,400 in 2013 to 15,700 in 2014.

While there has been a net overall increase in asylum applications, the number of new claims has not been spread evenly among the industrialized countries covered by the report. The top five receiving countries (Germany, the United States, Turkey, Sweden and Italy), for example, accounted for 60 percent of all new asylum claims.

The report reveals other disparities, as when a country's population size is taken into account, for example. Relative to the size of its population, Sweden is the country with the largest number of asylum seekers (24.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants on average, during the last five years), followed by Malta, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Montenegro.

While most industrialized countries saw increases in the number of asylum applicants during last year, some countries registered a decrease, notably Australia, where numbers went down 24 per cent from 11,700 in 2013 to less than 9,000 in 2014.

UNHCR's Asylum Trends 2014 report is based on data received from 44 governments in Europe, North America and parts of the Asia-Pacific. The number of people applying for refugee status in industrialized countries is just one element in the global picture of forced displacement from conflict and persecution.

Worldwide, by the start of last year, some 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations. Of these, some 16.7 million people were refugees and 33.3 million were internally displaced in their own country. Close to 1.2 million were asylum-seekers. UNHCR's forthcoming Global Trends 2014 report, due in June 2015, will provide a complete picture of global displacement in 2014.

The Asylum Trends 2014 report and annex tables are available here:

Annexes [Excel tables -zip file]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Raeda Taha play triggers fond memories

Raeda Taha performing with an image of her father serving
as a backdrop.
 CreditDiego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
It is one of the perks of social media to be able to find friends you have lost contact with for years and learn of the things they are doing.

And so it was that I heard about Raeda Taha, who I have not seen or been in contact with for more than 25 years!

Raeda was performing in a play she wrote at the Babel Theater in Beirut’s Hamra district. The one-woman show, titled “Where can I find someone like you, Ali,” was directed by Lina Abyad and ran from the end of February to March 7.

I heard about it from my cousin Lillian and it is with very fond memories that I read the article about the show in The New York Times.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, when I used to cover the Palestine Cause in general and its leader Yasser Arafat in particular, I landed often in Tunis where the Palestinian leadership had moved. After a few visits and stays in a hotel, I became friends with Raeda and started staying with her.

With Raeda at the beach in Tunis in the last 80s
Her hospitality, kindness and generosity made all the difference to these trips that sometimes lasted for more than a month at a time. Raeda was able to stay with me in London too once and spent Christmas with my family in 1990 if I remember well.

But all that is history and the future is Raeda’s seemingly brilliant career in writing and performing. Bravo Raeda! I hope I can see the play for myself sometime soon.

The following is the article, published on March 22, in The New York Times:

* * *

By Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In a measured voice, the middle-aged woman in the blue dress recalled how a colleague had come to her hotel room during a work trip years before and tried to rape her, retreating only after she had screamed to alert the neighbors.

In tears, she hid in the bathroom to ponder her dilemma: Should she tell her boss? Would that make matters better or worse?

Complicating her decision was the fact that her boss had been a father figure to her since she was a child. He was also, as it turned out, the iconic and controversial father of the Palestinian nationalist movement, Yasser Arafat.

With that story began the sold-out closing performance last week of the autobiographical one-woman show “Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali,” written and performed by the Palestinian writer Raeda Taha and directed by Lina Abyad at the Babel Theater in Beirut.

Ms. Taha’s show has drawn large crowds and critical acclaim since it opened here last month because of its deeply personal and often ironic take on a life shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the 1972 coverage of the hijacking
Ms. Taha’s pedigree gives her a rare tie to the Palestinian struggle: her father was a militant killed by Israeli commandos after hijacking an airplane in 1972. Mr. Arafat then virtually adopted her and her sisters, lavishing them with gifts as the daughters of a “martyr.” As an adult, she worked as Mr. Arafat’s press secretary.

And in an unlikely twist, one of the Israeli commandos who participated in the raid that killed her father was a young man named Benjamin Netanyahu, who won an election in Israel on Tuesday (March 17) that will likely give him a fourth term as prime minister.

Ms. Taha still hates him.

“Netanyahu is still my enemy,” she said before the show. “He participated in the killing of my father.”

Ms. Taha’s show, and its sympathetic portrayal of a hijacker considered a terrorist by much of the world, was in no way controversial in Lebanon, where highly destructive wars over the years have left most people hostile toward Israel and supportive of those who fight against it.

That feeling was clear in Ms. Taha’s play, but her focus was much more on the Palestinians themselves and on the frequent clash between the public celebration of those who die fighting Israel and the private suffering of those they leave behind.

Wearing a blue dress and a necklace bearing a black and white photo of her father, Ms. Taha, 50, took the stage before spectators ranging from gray-haired intellectuals who remembered her father to bearded university students born long after his death. Seated near the front was a group of Palestinians from the West Bank sporting black and white kaffiyehs on their shoulders.

Ms. Taha sat on a couch and addressed the audience in Arabic, switching accents and postures as she embodied different characters and recounted tales from her life.

Many were from the 1970s, making the play a time capsule from a different Middle East. Palestinian militants led by Mr. Arafat planned attacks on Israel from Beirut; Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah did not yet exist; nor did the Palestinian Authority. Nor peace talks aimed at ending the conflict.

Dwelling in the background was the story of her father, Ali Taha, one of four militants who hijacked a Belgian airliner on its way to Israel in 1972, seeking to swap its passengers for Palestinian guerrillas imprisoned in Israel.

The plot failed. Israel secretly disabled the plane, preventing the hijackers from fleeing, and a team of Israeli commandos disguised as mechanics stormed the aircraft, capturing two hijackers and killing the others.

Ms. Taha’s father was among the dead, making him a “martyr” and giving his relatives a status they struggled to make sense of. Ms. Taha was 7 at the time, and the youngest of her three sisters was 8 months old.

Ms. Taha recalled the family home filling up with people she did not know, wailing and bearing photos of her father.

She said she saw her mother on the couch, devastated, but surrounded by other women who tried to make sure she acted appropriately.

“Red nail polish no!” she said they told her mother, prompting laughs from the audience. “You are now the wife of a martyr.”

She joked about men who flirted with her mother, mixing slogans like “Revolutions need blood!” with compliments about her eyes and hair, prompting more laughs.

Her mother was torn, she said, once saying that she wished her husband had been a “radish seller” who had stayed alive rather than a fighter who got killed.

Other stories talked about Ms. Taha and her sisters dealing with their father’s death.

At one point, they asked their school principal what “hero martyr” meant.

 “He is the one who dies as a sacrifice for the thing he loves most,” the principal said.

“Oh,” Ms. Taha replied. “My father loves Palestine more than he loves me.”

At that, the principal started crying and Ms. Taha’s sister quipped that he was jealous because “dad is the hero martyr and not him.”

Raeda on stage (Photo Mohammed Khayat)
Ms. Taha also poked fun at the attention she and her sisters received as the “daughters of a martyr.” They were paraded about at official occasions and traveled to countries that supported the Palestinians, causing ironic jealousy among their friends whose fathers were still alive.

In one story that drew hearty laughs, a friend of Ms. Taha’s could not conceal her glee when her own father was assassinated by Israeli intelligence.

“Now I can travel with you!” the girl said.

The last part of the show narrated the quest by Ms. Taha’s aunt Suheila to get the Israeli authorities to hand over Mr. Taha’s body so it could be buried.

After trying multiple avenues, the aunt confronts Henry A. Kissinger, then the secretary of state, who agrees to help.

That story could not be independently verified; Ms. Taha said after the show that it was “100 percent true.”

After the family buries Mr. Taha, the show closes with a video of Suheila, who still lives in Jerusalem, singing a song about her departed brother.

After the show, some in the audience spoke of what had and had not changed between Israel and the Palestinians in recent decades.

“The past was different in many ways, but the occupation is still the same,” said Hanadi Abu Bakr, 50, who was visiting Beirut from the West Bank city of Nablus.

She had wanted to visit Beirut since she was a child, she said, but tensions between Israel and Lebanon had always prevented her.

Chantal Hoyek, a Lebanese translator, said the play recalled a time when many Arabs believed that armed struggle against Israel would help the Palestinians return to their homeland. Ms. Hoyek, 28, still supported that struggle but did not think it would succeed.

“It’s not a revolution anymore,” she said. “It is a hopeless case.”

Monday, March 2, 2015