Uncategorized information and stories.

british jihadists
A recent video showing ISIS extremists beheading American journalist James Foley has caused global disturbance, not only because of the brutal act but also because the executioner was speaking with a British accent.

The Islamic State—deemed by several experts to be more fanatical than al-Qaeda—has been recruiting British-born militants, and it is estimated that between 400 and 500 British jihadists have traveled to Syria to fight. While dozens have been killed during conflict, half are believed to have returned to Britain.

A video released by ISIS entitled “There is No Life Without Jihad” includes testimonies by three British members. One said, “The cure for depression is jihad…. Feel the honor we are feeling, feel the happiness we are feeling.” Another maintains that jihad is an Islamic duty, and a common thread among militants is a sense of devotion to the “call of duty.” Briton Nasser Muthana elaborated on this devotion to ISIS, saying, “We will even go to Lebanon and Jordan with no problems, wherever our Sheikh (ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) wants to send us.”

Even within the United Kingdom, sentiment for jihad is strong in certain communities and across social media. One British Muslim man admitted to the BBC he was planning to fight with ISIS to fulfill a religious obligation: “God has commanded for the Muslims to go and fight jihad.” He added that to die as a martyr would be a blessing and a victory, and that it would guarantee the “highest paradise.”

But there has been backlash by a majority of the British Muslim community against extremists. Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said Muslims condemned the actions of ISIS. He added that terrorists have distorted the tenets of Islam to justify their gratuitous violence. The Muslim Council of Britain proclaimed similar sentiments.

But how are British jihadists traveling to Syria and Iraq, and why can’t the British government prevent it? The BBC reports that most fly to Turkey and cross over the inadequately protected border into Syria and Iraq. Britons evade suspicion by claiming they are vacationing abroad or participating in humanitarian work, when in fact bogus aid agencies serve as a front to transport funds, resources and fighters in and out of Syria.

Once in the country, Britons can also meet up with organized jihadist networks that have the capacity to transport new militants to fighting zones. Traveling to Iraq and Syria remains legal, but if a British citizen is found to have joined ISIS and participated in violence he can be prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison.

A large proportion of Western jihadists report traveling to the Middle East to join more moderate Islamic groups, but then being coaxed into joining ISIS by well-funded recruiters. Extremist social media also reinforces propaganda of adventure, brotherhood, faith and a fight against injustice. In addition, once involved in a terrorist group such as ISIS, it becomes difficult to extricate oneself physically and psychologically.

Jason Burke, journalist for The Guardian, said, “The environment of a group such as Islamic State, created around a cult of extreme violence and a worldview that dehumanizes all outside the organization, can quickly turn an individual from a misguided insurgent into a pitiless terrorist killer, more than happy to execute a defenseless hostage with a knife, on camera.”

Mari LeGagnoux

Sources: The Independent, The Week

history of usaid
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was created in 1961 through the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Until the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act, USAID had existed as several different organizations; the act combined the organizations into one.

President John F. Kennedy was at the forefront of the transformation of US foreign assistance. He understood that there was a need for development to be combined into a single organization to promote social and economic development abroad. The values that guide USAID are rooted in our nation’s commitment to doing the right thing.

The agency’s model is also based off of the success of the Marshall Plan following World War II. The Marshall Plan allowed countries to rebuild their infrastructure, strengthen their economies and stabilize. This plan led the United States’ recognition that International Aid needed to become a part of our foreign policy strategy. We realized that investing abroad would reduce poverty, and create new markets for US products.

The precursors to USAID included a Mutual Security Agency, a Foreign Operations Administration, and an International Cooperation Administration. When USAID was signed into law in 1961, international development assistance opportunities grew tremendously, sparking what would become known as the “decade of development”.

In the 1970s, the agency shifted their focus to basic human needs. This approach focused on food and nutrition, population planning, health, education, and human resources development.

The 1980s saw yet another shift with foreign assistance aimed at stabilizing currencies and financial systems. USAID refocused on their commitment to broad-based economic growth, working to revitalize economic systems and promote employment and income opportunities.

In the 1990s, USAID focused on sustainability and democracy. They wanted to help countries improve their quality of life. This allowed the agency to provide developing countries with integrated assistance packages, transitional countries with help in times of crisis, and countries with limited the agency presence to receive NGO support.

The 2000s have focused on war and rebuilding. USAID has launched programs calling for reform. The agency has helped Afghanistan and Iraq rebuild their governments, infrastructure, civil society, and basic services including healthcare and education. USAID has begun reaching out to the private sector in order to help stretch its funding as much as possible.

USAID occupies more than 100 countries with the same overreaching goals set out by President John K. Kennedy in 1961. USAID aims to further America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while also extending a helping hand to people struggling to make a better life, recover from a disaster, or striving to live in a free democratic society.

– Caitlin Zusy 

Source: USAID

quotes about humanity
War. Poverty. Crime. Hunger. With all of the injustices that exist in today’s world, it can be easy to lose faith in humanity. We may ask ourselves, “Why should we care if no one else does? Nothing ever seems to change or get any better, so we might as well accept the world as it is.”

Although it is important to acknowledge the existing injustices and view them as serious issues that need to be resolved, it is equally important for us to realize our own part in seeing those solutions become part of reality. The following quotes about humanity may explain and hopefully inspire us:

  1. “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” – Mahatma Gandhi
  2. “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela
  3. “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama
  4. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  5. “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.” – Voltaire
  6. “World belongs to humanity, not this leader, that leader or that king or prince or religious leader. World belongs to humanity.” – Dalai Lama
  7. “When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society.” – Pope John Paul II
  8. “One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.” – Joseph Campbell
  9. “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” – Leo Tolstoy
  10. “During bad circumstances, which is the human inheritance, you must decide not to be reduced. You have your humanity, and you must not allow anything to reduce that. We are obliged to know we are global citizens. Disasters remind us we are world citizens, whether we like it or not.” – Maya Angelou
  11. “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” – Albert Schweitzer
  12. “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.” – Mahatma Gandhi

As these quotes about humanity reveal, it can be difficult to explain human nature, but that does not mean we should lose faith or hope in ourselves or others. The Borgen Project promotes the idea that we each have the power within ourselves to change the world, which is one of the most beautiful abilities of humanity.

– Meghan Orner

Sources: Brainy Quote, Good Reads
Photo: Flickr

nelson mandela quotes love
Nelson Mandela will forever have a place in the hearts of those who follow him. His words will guide his followers through life trials and tribulations and bountiful celebrations. Let us remember a month after his passing Nelson Mandela’s quotes on love and coming together as one.

1. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
2. “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each body, the mind, and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”
3. “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than through acts of retribution.”
4. “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
5. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
6. “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
7. “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
8. “I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now and will do so until the end of my days.”
Amy Robinson

Sources: Salon, BrainyQuote, UN Foundation, USA Today
Photo: Giphy.com

Rachel Washburn NFL Cheerleader
For one former NFL cheerleader turned U.S. Army first lieutenant, 2014 has a lot to live up to.

Rachel Washburn, 25, closed 2013 as a Philadelphia Eagle’s “Hometown Hero,” an honor she was nominated for by her father, Lon, a former Army and Air Force pilot himself.

The honor does not seem out of place for the accomplished Washburn, her passion for public service is evident in many of her life choices since an early age.

Over the years and the many moves she endured as the child of a military member, Washburn gained respect for her father’s profession and felt drawn to an Army career.

Without a place to call “hometown,” Washburn followed an interest in history to the city of Philadelphia for her college years. She attended Drexel University with the assistance of a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, solidifying her future military commitment.

With a childhood of gymnastics behind her, in 2007, then college sophomore, Washburn auditioned to be an NFL cheerleader for her adopted hometown’s Philadelphia Eagles.

Despite never having attended a single cheer class, she was selected on her first tryout and cheered until 2010.

Between games, Washburn eagerly participated in Eagle supported, local VA hospital visits, as well as what she calls one of the greatest honors of her life, a USO tour to Iraq.

Following college graduation, Washburn enlisted in the military and wasted no time developing a decorated career. Her honors include, the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and the Combat, Airborne and Air Assault Badges.

These honors have been truly earned; during her first tour in Afghanistan, Washburn helped deliver a baby during a snow storm. The only medical assistance she had access to, was via radio.

Washburn recently returned from her second tour in Afghanistan as part of the Army’s new Cultural Support Program.

This program placed Washburn in an integral position, attempting to locate and communicate with civilian women and children. This mission she found particularly fulfilling as it enabled her and her fellow military members to give a “voice” to those often unheard due to cultural gaps most operations can have difficulty bypassing.

The Cultural Support Program also required frequent mental toughness training, in which military personnel are encouraged to develop their mental “happy place.”

Washburn had little difficulty in finding hers between the white lines of the Lincoln Financial Field, on her first cheerleading experience back in 2007.

Happy to be “home” for the holidays and honored by her Philadelphia Eagles, in 2014 Washburn will return to her current station at Fort Stewart Ga., where she is serving as a platoon leader and considering re-enlisting for yet another tour of overseas service.

– Zoë Dean

Sources: CNN, Philadelphia Eagles
Photo: Lazy Girls

Star Wars
When dignitaries and heads of state meet one another, the inevitable giving of gifts can be expected, and dreaded. While the notion of diplomatic gift exchanges between countries may hold a certain romantic charm, the gifts themselves rarely hold up to their expected allure. Like receiving a present from a distant relative, what one receives is rarely what one wants but unable to refuse without ruffling feathers.

As the reigning monarch of England for the past 61 years, Queen Elizabeth has received her share of useless gifts. The Economist reports that she has received “pineapples, eggs, a box of snail shells, a grove of maple trees, a dozen tins of tuna and 7kg of prawns”. To belabor the point, at her Diamond Jubilee last year, the queen received a sports shirt, 169,000 square miles on Antarctica henceforth known as Queen Elizabeth Land, and a Lego sculpture of the Tower Bridge.

While none of these items necessarily broke the bank, they illustrate the uselessness of mandatory gift giving between countries. For the woman who has everything, giving her perishable goods doesn’t help.

Since his election in 2008, President Obama has also received numerous trinkets including a Hermes golf bag and a “large silver bowl with palm tree design” with an estimated value of $3400.

As an explanation for receiving the gift, next to each listed donation on the Federal Register website is the comment, “Non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.”

It is high time for refusing gifts out of decorum be reformed.

In contrast to his political successor, President Thomas Jefferson abstained from receiving valuable gifts from foreign dignitaries, save for the occasional book or pamphlet. When he did receive a gift of note, like the several Arabian horses he received from the Tunisian ambassador in 1805, he sold them at a public auction to subsidize the cost of the ambassador’s visit.

When poverty and wealth inequality run rampant throughout the world, it is up to politicians and dignitaries to draw a line and refuse gifts they neither want nor need and instead contribute that wealth towards more noteworthy causes.

Emily Bajet

Sources: Monticello.org, Federal Register, ABC News, Politico

Founded in September 2013, Art For Freedom is the result of a partnership between global superstar Madonna and VICE Media. The completely digital organization aims to increase awareness of human rights violations around the world through artwork.

Each month, artists are invited to submit their original creations in response to the question, “What does freedom mean to you?” The organization then chooses a winning entry, whose creator is offered a $10,000 donation to the charity of their choice.

In addition to naming monthly winners, Art For Freedom also posts daily winners on its website. The inspirational submissions are displayed on the organization’s home page and can be accessed at any time through its interactive calendar.

Recently, Madonna named illusionist David Blaine as a guest curator for the organization’s December contest. Blaine’s duties will consist of reviewing entries and choosing which pieces will be displayed on the organization’s website.

Past celebrity curators included notables such as Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. For the month of November, Madonna herself hosted a live exhibit on Tumblr to showcase submissions.

Despite its recent start, the organization has quickly gained a following. Notable submissions for the December 2013 contest have included videos and photographs referencing numerous social problems including bullying, transgender issues, religious intolerance, racial intolerance, and other forms of prejudice.

The organization’s website currently features entries from around the world. The last two weeks have seen submissions from France, Bulgaria, Australia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, New Jersey, California, and New Hampshire.

Entries can be from a variety of mediums including film, music, photography, and poetry. Those interested in the organization’s monthly contest may upload original creations on the Art For Freedom website or by uploading the works to social media with the tag #artforfreedom.

– Jasmine D. Smith

Sources: Art for Freedom, Madonna.com
Photo: Blouin Art Info

There are few books that have the power to change the way we think about the world. “Half the Sky,” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is one of those books. Long after the reader closes the cover, they might find themself pondering the carefully chosen facts interspersed with heart-wrenching anecdotes from women around the world. The picture that emerges is nothing short of shocking.

The authors find that “more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”

Let that sink in for a minute. How is it possible that this routine violence against women has not made bigger headlines? Part of the reason, Kristof and WuDunn argue, is that there has not been any one large, catastrophic event to focus on, like a war. Rather, the killing and discrimination against women is an ongoing occurrence.

Another part of the reason may be that, in many societies, women are just not as important as men. Female babies are considered unlucky; female babies are less likely to receive medical attention; female children are less likely to receive adequate nutrition and education. The list goes on. And, until recently, it seems that female victims have been less newsworthy than their male counterparts.

But however slow on the uptake, the international aid community is, in recent years, prioritizing women’s rights. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was signed by Bill Clinton, and in 2008 the United Nations declared rape a war crime, just to name a few examples of progress. Indeed, as horrific as many of the women’s tales are, “Half the Sky” is an inspiring book. Women are not the problem, but the solution.

This is true across the board. Microloans given to women are both empowering and, often, financially successful. Providing women with more education not only increases their ability to provide for themselves, but also decreases pregnancy and increases the likelihood that women will seek medical treatment during pregnancies.

The fact still remains that women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. But the picture painted in Half the Sky is not one where men are the villains and women the victims. In many cases, women are perpetrators of discrimination and violence. For example, many owners of brothels that engage in forced prostitution are women.

Ultimately, gender-based violence and discrimination are not such over-whelming issues that we ought to resign in defeat. Yes, the problems are often complex and require cultural solutions rather than a quick technical or financial fix. But not always. There are many examples of incredible people who make huge differences. Edna Adan started a hospital in her homeland of Somaliland. The Edna Adan Maternity Hospital provides maternal healthcare for impoverished women, treating problems like obstetric fistulas that are rare in developed countries but it is estimated the between 2.5 and 3 million women worldwide suffer from fistulas.

An obstetric fistula is the result of prolonged or obstructed labor. Pressure from the fetal head cuts off blood flow to the mother’s organs, causing tissues between body organs to die. This often leaves a hole between the bladder and vagina through which urine drips uncontrollably. Aside from being painful and vulnerable to infection, fistulas are hugely stigmatizing, and often destroy families.

While we are not all trained medical professionals, there are many ways to help. Pressure from the United States has often been one of the most effective ways to accomplish reforms internationally. When the U.S. cares about something, economic incentives are often attached. If the U.S. were to make women’s rights a priority, the situation for half of the world’s population would likely improve significantly.

Claire Karban

Sources: Worldwide Fistula Fund, Half the Sky Movement
Photo: San Jose State University

The rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have become an issue at the forefront of international politics. In addition to penetrating the political sphere, this topic has become a hot topic in the pop world; countless movies, television episodes and songs have been dedicated to the advancement of LGBT rights. One of the most popular efforts has been by hip-hop artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Macklemore, a 30-year-old rapper from Washington, stormed onto the hip-hop stage in 2005 with his socially conscious songs that address topics ranging from homosexuality to drug abuse. He met his partner and soon to be producer, Lewis, in 2006, and they have been an unstoppable duo since.

This past year, Macklemore and Lewis won numerous awards for their newest album, “The Heist,” that includes “Same Love,” a song featuring the vocals of Mary Lambert. The song addresses urges the legalization of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. The song has sold over 2,000,000 copies and peaked at #11 on the United States Billboard Hot 100 charts. This past week, the United Nations Free & Equal Campaign recognized Macklemore & Lewis as “Equality Champions” for their contributions to the LGBT community.

The Free & Equal campaign was created by Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, as a response to the increasing number of human rights violations against LGBT people. The United Nations also created its first resolution to address the inequality. Macklemore and Lewis responded to the honor by thanking the U.N. for allowing it to “help spread a message of equality and respect.” Macklemore also added, “Ryan and I have always believed that human rights are for everyone- no exceptions.”

Other celebrities, including Ricky Martin, have also taken part in the Free & Equal campaign.

Lienna Feleke-Eshete

Sources: All Africa, YouTubeUNFE
Photo: The Masked Gorilla

Music has always been one of the most provocative and powerful mediums to promote advocacy and change.  From the protest folk of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, to the Civil Rights soul of Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, to the politically poignant hip hop of The Roots and Mos Def, music engages us with the issues of our time on an emotional level.

Last week, some of music’s most well known figures joined together to release Songs for the Philippines on iTunes.  Stars both past and present are featured on the album, the proceeds of which will go solely to the Philippine Red Cross to aid in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

Packed with 39 songs (many of which are classics) and a price tag of $9.99, the album makes for a wonderful addition to your holiday shopping list.  Some of the artists included on the album are Bob Dylan, Beyonce, Eminem, The Beatles, Lady Gaga, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Earth Wind & Fire. Where else can you find such an eclectic mix?  The variety alone makes it a great purchase.

Benefit albums have become a staple for iTunes following natural disasters.  Songs for Japan was released in 2011 to support the victims of the tsunami in Japan.  Much like Songs for the Philippines, Songs for Japan featured a similar variety of artists ranging from John Lennon to U2 to Foo Fighters.  These benefit albums show how the music industry can stand united to support a greater cause.

Of course, that is not to suggest that the artists are randomly chosen.  “This brilliant collection is united by a message of hope and compassion,” according to the iTunes synopsis of Songs for the Philippines.  With titles such as “Hero,” “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” “Carry You Home,” and of course, “Let It Be,” it’s easy to see such themes.

Songs for the Philippines is a great way to show your support and compassion for the people of the Philippines.  Oh, and in the unlikely event that you already own all 39 songs on the collection, iTunes features a link to the American Red Cross’s donation site for Typhoon Haiyan relief right beside the album.  There is no reason not to contribute.

– Taylor Diamond

Sources: Huffington Post, Spin, iTunes
Photo: Straits Times