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Wednesday
Dec062017

Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital in historic move

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In a momentous shift of United States foreign policy in the Middle East, President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday and initiated the process of relocating the U.S. embassy to the city from Tel Aviv.

"My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," Trump said from the White House, where he was joined by Vice President Mike Pence.

"While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver," he added. "Today, I am delivering."

A U.S. official and a source close to the White House told ABC News that official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital is expected to be intentionally broad and not meant to preclude the possibility that the Palestinians could claim part of the historic city as a capital of a future Palestinian state. The president does not want to "prejudice" the outcome of any future peace negotiations for a two-state solution, one source familiar with the plan told ABC News.

"Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions, but it is now also the heart of one of the most successful democracies in the world," Trump said Wednesday. "Over the past seven decades, the Israeli people have built a country where Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs.”

The president will also sign a six-month waiver of a 1995 law mandating an embassy move, thereby keeping the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv for the time being as he initiates the process of relocating the embassy – a process that is expected to take years and will include a survey of construction sites and a search for contractors. Until the new embassy in Jerusalem opens, current law requires the president to sign the waiver that maintains the embassy in Tel Aviv.

The approach described by the officials appears aimed at allowing the president to fulfill a key campaign promise, while also attempting to soften fallout of his decision to move the embassy by delaying it for an undefined period of time.

"While we understand how some parties might react, we are still working on our plan which is not yet ready,” a senior administration official said. “We have time to get it right and see how people feel after this news is processed over the next period of time.”

A senior official downplayed concerns about threats of violence to US citizens overseas as a result of the announcement, saying that the proper precautions have been taken to provide for anticipated additional security needs.

“We’re obviously concerned about the protection of US citizens, US officials anywhere in the world,” an official said, but added that US security agencies have been involved in the decision and are prepared to provide extra security that may be necessary.

Pope Francis spoke out against the decision Wednesday in a previously scheduled meeting with a Palestinian delegation of religious and intellectual leaders.

“My thoughts now go to Jerusalem,” the pope said. “In this regard, I cannot keep silent about my deep concern over the situation that has arisen in recent days and, at the same time, a heartfelt appeal so that everyone would be committed to respecting the status quo of the city in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the United Nations.”

One official described the president’s move in recognizing Jerusalem as the official capital as a “recognition of reality,” with a second official making the case that the location of the embassy is a neutral factor in the United States ultimate ability to be an effective arbiter of a peace deal.

“For a long time, the United States position held that ambiguity or lack of acknowledgement would somehow advance the prospect of peace,” the senior official said. “It seems clear now that physical location of American embassy is not material to a peace deal. It’s not an impediment to peace fundamentally, and it’s not a facilitator of peace.”

The senior official explained the president’s thinking in reaching his decision to move the embassy as being based in part on a belief that the move could actually be beneficial to achieving a broader peace deal.

“He has said that he thinks in a sense not making this acknowledgment of reality, one of the central issues, is sort of taking it out, so we can work on the core issues, the deal will help advance the peace, I think that’s fundamentally where his opinion has been on this subject all along,” the official said.

The official said the president is optimistic about the prospects for a grand peace deal and said that the president’s “peace team,” led by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has already made progress, even as the official acknowledged there are few deliverables the administration can currently identify.

“He’s encouraged by the progress his peace team has made so far, I know a lot of that progress isn’t visible, I think that’s one of the things -- I know he believes and I know the peace team believes -- it’s partly because that progress is not visible that they’ve been able to make so much progress,” the official said.


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Wednesday
Dec062017

Scientists discover the universe's most distant supermassive black hole 

Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science(NEW YORK) -- Scientists have discovered the farthest known supermassive blackhole, believed to have been created just 690 million years after the Big Bang.

The black hole is about 800 million times the mass of our Sun. Co-author of the study, Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said that it "grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form."

The newly found black hole sits at the center of a galaxy, drawing its contents inward, in what scientists call a quasar. Scientists believe it can provide information from when the universe was just five percent of its current age.

Experts believe there could be 20 to 100 quasars as bright and as distant as this one.

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Wednesday
Dec062017

US embassies beef up security ahead of Trump's expected announcement on Jerusalem

iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) -- Several teams of U.S. Marines will reinforce security at some American embassies in the Middle East, according to U.S. officials, in advance of President Donald Trump’s expected announcement that the U.S. embassy in Israel is moving to Jerusalem.

The U.S. military has made prudent precautionary planning in the Mideast region if violence flares up following Trump's expected announcement, according to several U.S. officials.

Trump is expected to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday and initiate the process of relocating the U.S. embassy to the city from Tel Aviv, two U.S. officials and a source close to the White House confirmed to ABC News Tuesday.

U.S. officials said planning has been underway to send several Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Support Teams (FAST) to some American embassies in the region to reinforce their security postures in anticipation of the expected announcement.

"Due to operational security I won't get into specifics, but the Department of Defense takes necessary steps to mitigate threats to U.S. personnel and interests around the world," said Lt. Colonel Mike Andrews, a Defense Department spokesman.

"In addition, [the Department of Defense] continually works closely with State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security to protect U.S. interests at all embassies and consulates," he added.

The FAST teams consist of a platoon of about 40 Marines specially trained to assist with providing extra security at U.S. embassies. They are available on short notice to help other Marines providing security at U.S. embassies worldwide.

On Tuesday, the U.S. embassy in Israel warned American diplomats and their families that "until further notice" they were not to conduct personal travel in Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank.

"United States citizens should avoid areas where crowds have gathered and where there is increased police and/or military presence," read a security message posted Tuesday on the embassy's website.

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavusoglu, who was meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday, warned the United States against making the decision. He also said he had told Tillerson personally that it was a dangerous move.

"It would be a grave mistake," Çavusoglu told U.S. reporters while waiting for a photo op with Tillerson. "It would not bring any stability, peace -- but rather chaos and instability."

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Wednesday
Dec062017

Prince William reveals Prince George played a sheep in school nativity play

Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Prince William revealed his family kicked off their own Christmas celebrations this year by watching Prince George, 4, in his school's nativity play.

George, the third-in-line to the throne, did not play the role of a king or a wise man in the play at St. Thomas's Battersea School in London, according to William.

"I went to my boy's nativity play. It was funny," he said. "He was a sheep."

William, 35, hand-delivered George's Christmas wish list of a police car to Santa Claus last week while on a royal tour to Helsinki, Finland.

"I’ve seen you and I had to give you this letter," William said to Santa, affirming that George was indeed a nice boy. "He hasn’t written down many requests, so I think one request is probably OK."

William revealed George's role in the nativity play during a visit to Manchester today with Princess Kate.

The couple, who have been advocates of ending the stigma around mental health, spoke to young people about mental health challenges at the Children's Global Media Summit.

Kate, 35, encouraged the teenagers to speak up and ask for help, saying, "People are so worried about what they say, they aren't saying anything at all, and what we've found from speaking to people is it's so good to have conversations."

William, who formed the Heads Together campaign with Kate and Prince Harry to address mental health, spoke out about the growing acceptance of the issue.

"Mental health used to be this scary word that people didn't like talking about," he said. "And it's slowly getting better now."

William and Kate later watched a performance by children and participated in a conversation on how digital media affects young people.

The Duke of Cambridge also met with members from his cyberbullying task force while in Manchester. The task force, which includes leading tech companies, last month released a first-of-its-kind online code of conduct aimed at creating a safer space online for children.

"We have put the most powerful information technology in human history into the hands of our children -- yet we do not yet understand its impact on adults, let alone the very young," William said in a speech. "And let me tell you parents are feeling the pressure. We need guidance and support to help us through some serious challenges."

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Tuesday
Dec052017

Civil war, humanitarian crisis escalates after former Yemen president killed, signals challenges for US

iStock/Thinkstock(BEIRUT) -- After Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed at the hands of Houthi rebels, experts in the region say his death could ignite an “explosion” of unrest in the already troubled Gulf nation that has been wracked by civil war.

Yemen, which has previously been vital to U.S. interests in the region, is also experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that has brought nearly seven million to the brink of starvation.

One factor that will now work against Houthi leadership in coming days is the very public manner in which Saleh was killed when he tried to escape from the house in which he had barricaded himself.

“Many people are out for blood now,” Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told ABC News. “The fact that he was killed in such a humiliating manner has really aroused anger in a lot of people.”

Saleh was killed two days after he backed out of an alliance with the Iran-backed Houthis, changing sides to embrace Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s MENA state news agency reported that the head of The Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, on Tuesday called the Houthi movement a “terrorist organization” and is demanding the international community “rid the Yemeni people of this nightmare.”

Yemen is vital to U.S. interests

The U.S. military has been providing support to the Saudis throughout their campaign, providing intelligence and even re-fueling Saudi jets mid-air between bombing raids. President Donald Trump has increased this assistance in the name of keeping Yemen secure and denying operating space to Islamic fundamentalists.

Yemen is home to the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda -- Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. conducts drone strikes in Yemen against the group regularly and, in 2012, the CIA foiled an AQAP plan to bomb a U.S. bound airplane.

Saleh was forced to resign as ruler of Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising in 2011. He remained in the country, however, and continued to wield power from behind the scenes. In 2014, his forces allied with the Houthis but that alliance splintered last week, setting off heavy clashes.

Furthermore, the Houthis are allied with Iran. Their slogans, plastered across the capital Sana'a often read 'Death to America', and 'Death to the Jews'. A Houthi-controlled Yemen is highly unlikely to cooperate with the United States.

The humanitarian crisis: food shortage and famine

Yemen’s civil war, pitting Saudi Arabia on one side against Iranian-backed Houthis on the other, has brought the country to the brink of famine. A Saudi-imposed blockade on rebel controlled areas has led to food shortages and the fuel to transport it. Roads and bridges have been bombed, making the transport of food even harder. The United Nations warned that 17 million Yemenis needed food aid and seven million were on the brink of starvation.

Germany's foreign minister said on Monday the situation in Yemen is "probably the worst humanitarian catastrophe right now worldwide." Sigmar Gabriel said after a Monday meeting in Paris with his French counterpart that Yemen "is even more dramatic" now than that of the Rohingyas.

Local people trapped

Save the Children said its communications manager, Mohammed Awadh, has been sheltering in a small storeroom with his wife and baby daughter.

“My daughter is nearly two and now she recognizes the sound of bombs,” Awadh said. “The building has been shaking under the bombardment and it’s very dark, we only have electricity for six hours a day.”

“This is unlike other conflicts in the region where at least civilians can flee,” Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Advisor for Amnesty International told ABC News. “The fighting is exacerbating an already desperate humanitarian situation, creating more needs while making it even more difficult for humanitarian aid and medical assistance to reach those most in jeopardy.”

Rovera explained that Yemen’s geography, jutting out into the sea at the very tip of the Arabian Peninsula and surrounded on two sides by water, with a long, impassable border with Saudi Arabia to the north, presents unique challenges to escape.

“For now, there is every reason to be very concerned about the plight of civilians. They are trapped. It is virtually impossible to flee, with the only way out of Yemen being a long and expensive journey overland to Oman across desert areas controlled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Calls for revenge

On Tuesday morning, the son of the slain former president, Ahmed Ali Saleh, called for revenge against the armed Houthi movement that killed his father.

A Saudi-backed uprising could shift the balance of power in Yemen once again, but there is unlikely to be enough popular support for his return to the country.

“The real lesson here is that regardless of plans being considered in foreign capitals around the world, what will really decide Yemen’s future is what happens on the ground,” Baron said. “Anyone who tells you they know what will happen in Yemen in coming days is either a fool, a liar or both.”

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Tuesday
Dec052017

Russia barred from competing in Winter Olympics

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has barred Russia from the Winter Olympics this February as a punishment for its systemic doping but will allow some individual Russian athletes to take part under a neutral Olympic flag.

The IOC's executive committee announced in a statement that it was barring Russia's national Olympic committee from the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The punishment, which will mean that no Russian athletes will not compete under the country’s colors, came amid intense pressure to punish the country for its alleged state-sponsored cover-up of doping by its athletes and is unprecedented in Olympic history.

In a statement released after it met in Lausanne, Switzerland, the committee said it had acted upon the recommendations of an IOC commission headed by the former Swiss President Samuel Schmid to investigate Russian doping. The statement said that Schmidt's report had confirmed “the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia.”

Speaking at a press conference after the decision was announced, Schmid said that his commission had not found any evidence that the Kremlin was aware of the doping cover-up, but the IOC banned Russia's former sports minister and current head of Russia's national soccer association, Vitaly Mutko, for life from the Olympics, along with his former deputy, Yuri Nagornykh.

Ahead of the anti-doping agencies of 17 countries, including the United States, had demanded the IOC impose a blanket ban, issuing a collective statement in September that it was time for the body to stop “paying lip-service” to the anti-doping fight.

The IOC stopped short of that, instead saying that some Russian athletes will be permitted to compete in Pyeongchang under a specially created status, "Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)," according to the IOC statement. Those athletes will have to first pass through an IOC panel that will confirm they have no doping violations on their records and that they have undergone sufficient testing. Athletes approved by the panel will compete in a uniform with "Olympic Athlete from Russia" written on it and under an Olympic flag. The Olympic anthem will be played in place of the Russian anthem at medal ceremonies.

Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, called the decision "strong and principled".

"There were no perfect options, but this decision will clearly make it less likely that this ever happens again. Now it is time to look ahead to Pyeongchang," Blackmun said in a statement.

The IOC report confirmed the findings previous of investigations commissioned by by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), that found evidence that Russia had concealed doping by hundreds of its athletes for years, aided by the country’s intelligence services, with the cover-up reaching a crescendo during the 2014 Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in Sochi. An investigation, conducted by the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren for WADA last year, led to Russia being partly excluded from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Last summer, facing similar calls to exclude Russia from the Rio Olympics, the IOC pushed the decision onto the international federations of individual sports, allowing them to choose which Russian athletes could compete. Although virtually Russia’s entire track and field team was barred from the Rio Games, in the end, the country was able to field around 70 percent of its Olympic team.

This time, anti-doping agencies and many athletes had demanded the IOC impose a tougher penalty, arguing that Russia had not done enough to clean up its act.

Russian officials reacted to the decision by attacking it as unfair. Some Russian MPs immediately raised the possibility that Russia may boycott the Winter Olympics, with the first deputy speaker of Russia's parliament, Ivan Melnikov, saying it would be "incorrect" for Russia's team to travel to Pyeongchang under a neutral flag. Speaking to the news agency Interfax however, Melnikov suggested the Kremlin may decide otherwise, in which case he would support its decision.

"Should our country's leadership and national sports decide otherwise, we will still be cheering for our people," Melnikov said, adding, "In this case, it is important to build an information campaign around the Games in a particular way.”

The Kremlin did not immediately comment on the decision, but on Monday spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was not considering a boycott, though President Vladimir Putin would make the final decision.

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Tuesday
Dec052017

For many black women, Meghan Markle's engagement offers 'hope'

ABCNews.com(NEW YORK) -- When Meghan Markle's engagement to Prince Harry was announced by his father's office last week, the world rejoiced. But a louder chorus, coming in a harmonized fashion from American black women, sang louder.

Twitter hashtags such as #blackgirlmagic and #blackprincess -- although royal experts have said Markle's official title will likely be duchess -- began trending almost immediately. Markle, 36, was called a real-life Princess Tiana, the fictional Disney princess of African-American heritage, and other tweets compared the former "Suits" star to fictional future queen Lisa McDowell of "Coming to America."

"Social media gives us the medium to celebrate any win collectively," Kimberly Foster, the founding editor of For Harriett, an online community centered on black women, told ABC News.

"By seeing Meghan Markle...and just seeing that she already had a great career," she added, "it means a lot to us because it means that there's hope for us in our personal lives."

Danielle Belton, managing editor of The Root, an online magazine dedicated to black culture, agreed. To her, Markle's engagement makes fairy tales seem attainable for black women.

"It’s a fantasy where even though you didn't get Prince Harry, part of you thinks maybe I could've ... maybe he was available," she said.

"He’s not available now," Belton added, laughing. "Meghan has that on lock."

But beyond the fanciful achievement, Markle's moment also points to a dearth of positive examples when it comes to black women on the world's stage. And many black women feel that the former actress, who identifies as biracial, fills in the gap.

"Black women miss Michelle Obama and I think we’ve been looking for somebody, something to be excited about," Tykeia Robinson, co-host of the adulting podcast "Gettin' Grown," told ABC News.

"We’ve not had someone to represent us in the media recently, and it’s just good to see something good happening to a woman, a black woman specifically, amidst all of the challenging news that we’ve been faced with this last few weeks," she added.

Still, cultural experts express caution when looking at Markle's achievement as one black women can hold exclusively -- especially since Markle doesn't identify as either black or white.

In a poignant essay written for Elle magazine, Markle wrote that while growing up in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles, she was often met with this question: "What are you?"

Markle said she watched as her African-American mother was asked by neighbors if she was the nanny and witnessed her mother being called the N-word over a parking spot. Her father, she wrote, is white.

And in one seemingly defining moment, when Markle said she was mandated to take a census in school, forced with the limiting scenario of choosing either white or black, Markle opted out.

"You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other -- and one half of myself over the other," she wrote.

When her teacher suggested she choose white 'because that's how you look, Meghan," the future television actress put her pen down in "confusion," she wrote.

"I couldn't bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out," she continued. "So, I didn't tick a box. I left my identity blank -- a question mark, an absolute incomplete -- much like how I felt."

Later in life, Markle would grow into a "strong, confident mixed-race woman," she said.

And choosing that identifier matters amid black women's excitement, cultural experts say.

"Meghan Markle is claiming this experience ... and it kind of separates herself from some of these narratives about black women and black womanhood that make us feel affinity for her," Foster said. "There's a certain fluidity that she had that we don't have access to and that matters."

But Foster was quick to note that Markle isn't immune to "anti-blackness in her life," pointing to how Kensington Palace condemned in an unprecedented statement the discriminatory "racial undertones" in some early coverage of Markle after she started dating Prince Harry.

Markle is also aware how her biracial identity doesn't preclude her from her own blackness.

In her Elle magazine essay, Markle wrote about Rodney King and the racially charged unrests in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, along with her enslaved ancestors and the first taste of freedom they'd eventually attain in 1865. She described the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in America, "so shatteringly recent."

Identity politics aside, many black women are still claiming Markle and her engagement as a win.

"Every time we see a woman flourishing and happy and loved and loving, that matters," Foster said.

Disney is the parent company of ABC News.

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Tuesday
Dec052017

'We are paralyzed:' Families suffer in besieged Damascus suburb

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- When the mother of a dying 3-year-old girl asks Amina Ballour if there is anything she can do to help, she doesn’t know what to say.

The girl, Rama, is a regular patient at the hospital, where Ballour works as a pediatrician in Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb that is besieged by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rama suffers from nasopharyngeal cancer, a rare disease that starts in the upper part of the throat behind the nose. She is barely able to eat and has to come to the hospital regularly to get nutrition via a feeding tube. She needs medication and surgery that no one can provide for her in Eastern Ghouta -- and the siege prevents her from leaving for treatment.

“The truth is that I can’t do anything for her,” Ballour, 30, told ABC News in a voice recording in Arabic. “That’s the most difficult thing about our job. In many cases, we are paralyzed.” She said that Rama hasn’t been able to take the medication she needs for eight months.

“She could die within days,” said Ballour.

Last week, the United Nations said that world powers should urgently help arrange the medical evacuation of 500 people, including 167 children, from rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, saying that the area has become a “humanitarian emergency.” In recent weeks, nine people died while waiting for permission from the Syrian government to be evacuated from Eastern Ghouta, the U.N. said. An estimated 400,000 people are trapped there in urgent need of food, clean water, gas and health supplies. Few people there have more than one meal a day.

In recent months, the government has tightened its siege of Eastern Ghouta, and three weeks ago it intensified its military campaign there. At least 193 civilians, including 44 children and 21 women, have been killed by airstrikes and shelling during those three weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group.

On Sunday, Syrian warplanes struck several residential areas in Eastern Ghouta, killing 27 civilians, including nine children -- the biggest daily death toll since the intensified campaign began, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The airstrikes are so frequent that children no longer go to school, residents told ABC News.

Injured and malnourished children

Ballour said she sees injured patients every day, many of them children suffering from burns or in need of amputations. One of her patients is Abdurahman, a boy who’s about 10 or 11 years old, said Ballour. He arrived to the hospital along with a group of other children after an attack on their school. Abdurahman saw some of his friends die and lost both his legs in the attack, Ballour said.

"He went to school with both his legs and came back without them," she said. "He used to be a very energetic and enthusiastic child who really liked going to school. Now he's just sitting in bed. He can't get up."

Among her other patients is 1-year-old Yasmin who suffers from heart disease and needs open-heart surgery, which can’t be performed in Eastern Ghouta.

Ballour has also seen a big increase in the number of malnourished children because families have little access to food.

“The malnutrition cases are very painful for us. The parent bring their kids and say, 'We don't have anything to feed our children,'" she said, adding, "How can I cure any disease if the child is not eating?"

The acute malnutrition rate among children in Eastern Ghouta is nearly 12 percent -- five or six times as high as in January, said Jan Egeland, special advisor to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, in a news conference on Nov. 30. In the past two months, the U.N. has delivered aid supplies to only 68,000 of the 400,000 civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta, he said.

Hospitals are missing the most basic equipment and are subjected to attacks, according to aid organizations and local health workers. Ballour's hospital has been attacked several times, she said, most recently about 10 days ago in an airstrike that injured one member of staff. In a neighboring building, a mother and her four children were killed in the same attack, said Ballour.

Many medical workers also don’t have formal training. Ballour herself serves as a pediatrician and hospital manager even though the war prevented her from completing her residency. Even basic medicines such as antibiotics are not available most of the time -- and when they are they are very expensive, she said. She believes Eastern Ghouta has less than 10 percent of the medicine that the population needs. Children often have simple and preventable illnesses that evolve into serious diseases, she said.

In addition to children with serious injuries and life-threatening diseases, Ballour meets children with deep mental scars.

"We meet children who have seen their fathers' and mothers' dead bodies," she said. "We meet children who were rescued from under the rubble. Sometimes they come out alive, but it leaves a big mark in the children's life."

Hytham Bkkar, a 38-year-old media activist in Eastern Ghouta’s city of Douma, said that on a normal day he’ll need to leave the house to look for wood for heating and flour for baking bread. But often airstrikes will prevent him from going out.

"My personal opinion is that it's a detention not a siege," he told ABC News in a voice recording in Arabic. "We are subjected to the same things that a prisoner is subjected to in a cell. We have a bigger area to move around in. That's the only difference."

When he does leave the house he knows that his 4-year-old son Elias will worry at home.

"He’ll ask his mom, 'Dad is late. What if he died? I hope nothing happened to him.' Yesterday I came home late and he said, 'Dad, we were worried about you. We thought you died,'" said Bkkar. "He says that on a daily basis."

Elias was born in late 2013, the same year that the siege was imposed on Eastern Ghouta. He hasn't known a life without war and siege.

"He knows warplanes and shelling and he knows how to hide in the shelter and what to do when there are airstrikes," said Bkkar. "When he draws something, he draws a warplane and dead people."

On Oct. 26, a plane dropped a bomb in front of Bkkar’s apartment, he said. His brother, nephew and three others died in the attack, he said. His home was damaged and it took 15 days to repair it.

Airstrikes part of daily life

There's no normal day in Eastern Ghouta, said Samira, a 45-year-old resident and aid worker who asked ABC News not to use her real name out of fear of repercussions. During a recent interview she said that rockets had just been fired close by after she left her office with a colleague to run an errand. The colleague, a young woman, froze in the middle of the street. Samira dragged her away into a store where they sought shelter. When they left there was another explosion and they hid in a different store.

"I'm now at the office," Samira told ABC News after the incident, in a voice recording in Arabic. "I have to go home, but I'm waiting for things to get quieter.”

The airstrikes often prevent her from going out when she wants to, but she still goes to work every day and attends weddings, as well as funerals, when she can.

"Every time you leave the house you know that there's a possibility that you may not return," she said. "Or there's a possibility that the people you leave in the house and the house itself will be gone when you come back. That is always on your mind."

A few days ago she was riding on the back of a motorcycle when an airstrike hit just one street away. Samira and the young man driving the motorcycle were on their way to see families so poor that they were staying in tents in the winter. Their plan was to find out the sizes of the children so that they could bring them clothes and shoes for the winter. The actual rocket didn’t hit their path, but the shrapnel did. Thick smoke filled the air.

"I told the young man, 'Can you imagine if we die here in the street?'" said Samira. The young man asked her if they should turn back, but she asked him to continue.

Airstrikes had already forced them to postpone the trip many times, she said, and they had intended to bring the children clothes before the start of the winter. The young man drove fast.

"The civil defense and an ambulance also came driving and because of the smoke we didn't see each other and almost crashed," she said. "If we didn't die in an airstrike we almost died in a car crash."

One meal a day

Samira eats only one meal a day, in the evening, yet she describes her life as the life of a queen compared to many other residents of Eastern Ghouta. Samira has a water tank at home, which is a luxury in eastern Ghouta. She can afford to pay to have some electricity and internet. Most others can’t, she said. She also has a car, but she hasn’t driven it for about seven months because gas has become too expensive. One liter costs about 7,000 Syrian liras, she said –- about $50 per gallon -- in a place where people either have little or no income.

"For the cost of gas you can feed a family," she said. "So it's better to feed a family or buy medicine for a sick person and walk rather than drive."

The last humanitarian aid to arrive in Eastern Ghouta was only enough to feed a family for four days if they had only one meal a day, she said. One woman who had been looking forward to having a cup of tea with some of the sugar that was included in the aid package told Samira that she ended up selling the sugar and the other aid she received. She spent the money on a cheap kind of flour so that she could make bread that would last her family for a whole month instead.

Families suffering

Every morning before she goes to the office Samira hosts women who come to her to share their concerns and ask for help. One of them has seven children and is raising her daughter’s two children. Their father died and their mother later remarried. The woman tries to earn a little money by cleaning people’s houses, but it pays very little, said Samira. Samira said she tries to help, but knows it's not enough -- she once gave the woman 3,000 Syrian pounds (about $6). The woman said she was going to shop for a dish with bulgur and tomato.

"She told me, 'I will buy bulgur for 2,000, and for 1,000 I will buy tomato, onions and a little oil. But then there's not enough money to buy salt,'" said Samira.

The 2,000 pounds would probably only be enough for about 2 pounds of bulgur, which wouldn't last the big family very long, said Samira.

Another woman who visits Samira has six children, one of them a 16-year-old disabled son who can’t walk. The mother has to carry him around, said Samira. Her husband was going to open a bakery with a business partner -– but his partner took all the money and fled. The husband now has a big debt and has to pay off $100 every month.

"But he doesn't even have one Syrian pound to pay every month," said Samira. The woman has sold all of her furniture except for one closet. The other day she had a fight with her husband because he wanted to sell the closet too, said Samira.

"She told me, 'If he sells the closet, where will I put my children’s clothes and notebooks?"

"I try to support the women mentally, but I often feel paralyzed," said Samira. "I help with very small amounts of money or if I have some food in the house that I can share I give it to them. But I know that it might only last them one day. I really, really feel paralyzed. A lot of people feel you should help them more, but you can only help them with very little that won't last long in Ghouta."

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Dec052017

Inside China's 'Christmas Village,' where the world's decorations come from

ABC News(YIWU, China) -- It was during the middle of the summer that production of Santa hats, tinsel and LED-lit Christmas trees reached their peak in the city that has come to be known as China's "Christmas Village."

Located a little over an hour away on the bullet train south of Shanghai, Yiwu, an inland city of 1.2 million people, reportedly produces nearly two-thirds of the Christmas decorations consumed worldwide. Between September 2016 and this past August, the 600 workshops and factories surrounding the city churned out $3 billion worth of Christmas products, according to monthly tallies from Hangzhou Customs.

Some Christmas factories told ABC News that at least 30 percent of their orders are from the United States, while most of the rest of the goods are shipped from the city to adorn houses in Russia, Latin America, and China itself.

Christmas is not an official holiday in China, but more and more people have gotten into the holiday spirit. And that means more and more decorations shipped from Yiwu, which is located in Zhejiang province.

“My children really like Christmas; it’s just like spending the Chinese New Year,” Huang Aijuan, the owner of a factory that produces artificial Christmas trees, told ABC News.

In order to receive all the goods in time for holiday sales back home, Christmas traders from all around the world make yearly pilgrimages to the city months in advance. Their first stop is often the Yiwu International Trade Market.

Located in the center of the city, the wholesale-only market is a multistoried shopping labyrinth divided into five sections. The market covers a sprawling 2 square miles, roughly the same size as 26 of Macy’s Herald Square flagship store in New York City. The Christmas subdivision in Section One makes up only a small portion of the 75,000 mini-showrooms that sell virtually everything and anything at relatively low prices.

Yiwu is really where the whole “Made in China” phenomenon started. Just years into China's “reform and opening” era in the early 1980s, the Yiwu Market had already taken shape. It was then that the city started to supply the world with all sorts of toys, ornaments, small home appliances, underwear, umbrellas and auto accessories.

More recently, under President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to reinvigorate trade along the Ancient Silk Road, freight trains now run directly between Yiwu and Madrid, London and Prague, as well as Tehran.

With 13,000 permanent foreign residents, according to the local government website, and numerous traders who travel back and forth between Yiwu and destinations mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the city is arguably becoming one of the most diverse places in China, thanks to the cultures the traders bring with them.

To maintain its reputation as the world's factory, suppliers in Yiwu face pressure to keep costs low to be able to compete with other emerging countries with cheaper labor.

Workers in the factories that ABC News visited at the end of August were mostly migrant laborers from different parts of China. They said they worked as long as 13 hours per day, seven days a week. One worker earned the equivalent of about $30 per day, he said.

One factory owner told ABC News that the local government had asked her to improve working conditions, so she planned to move into a bigger space.

But as the world's demand for Christmas decorations continues, Yiwu seems poised to be the real-world Santa’s workshop for the foreseeable future.

 

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Dec042017

In Europe, Tillerson faces questions about presidential support

Mark Wilson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet with European allies this week to push an aggressive agenda on Ukraine, Iran, North Korea and Syria while questions swirl around his status in the Trump administration.

Tillerson arrived Monday for a week of meetings in Brussels, Vienna and Paris, amid reports that President Donald Trump has already plotted his succession plan. Trump shot down reports that Tillerson’s departure is imminent, but affirmed his weakened status, tweeting: “I call the shots.”

His disagreements with the president on how to handle hot-button issues like North Korea, Iran and Qatar have played out in public. It has led Trump to privately muse that Tillerson is “too establishment” for his cabinet, according to a senior White House official.

Some U.S. diplomats worry that Tillerson’s work abroad this week may be less effective without the appearance of the full support of the President.

“Foreign governments read that there’s tumult, that there’s a big controversy in the U.S., that he may be fired today,” a State Department official told ABC News.

“It weakens your message and your negotiating position when there’s a question if you’re going to stay.”

One senior EU diplomat told ABC News that they’re concerned that Tillerson does not speak for the president.

The Secretary of the State will likely face questions in Europe about whether the administration will move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump is expected to make an announcement on the matter in the next few days.

Tillerson will also make the case for: countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, supporting Trump’s new Iran strategy, maximizing diplomatic pressure on North Korea by way of China and reassessing how to solve the civil war in Syria.

“This is the not the first time there’s been speculation of this kind in the media, and that has not impeded the Secretary from working very effectively with close allies and partners,” another State Department official countered.

There’s also concern about the number of key European embassies without ambassadors. These political appointees are seen as the conduit to understanding the often-conflicting Trump doctrine.

The Senate confirmed five ambassadors to Europe in early November, including U.S. Ambassador to France Jamie McCourt, U.S. Ambassador to Spain Duch Buchan, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Robert Kohorst, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Edward McMullen, and U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands.

U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom Woody Johnson and U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson were confirmed earlier, but there are still key vacancies like Germany. Nominee Richard Grenell is still awaiting confirmation.

Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell was recently confirmed and is traveling to Europe with the Secretary of State. But the administration has yet to submit a nominee for the ambassador posting to the European Union.

Tillerson's week ahead


Tillerson will meet with the EU’s chief diplomat and key architect of the Iran deal Federica Mogherini on Tuesday before the NATO meetings.

At NATO, Tillerson will continue Trump’s drumbeat that all members should increase their military budgets to 2 percent of their GDP, according to a senior State Department official. Some countries have already increased their budgets or vowed to reach 2 percent over time, but Germany, the largest economy in Europe, has yet to come close to reaching the mark.

At the same time, NATO allies will seek reaffirmation from Tillerson on the U.S.’s commitment to shared defense in case of an attack under Article 5.

In a speech ahead of his trip Tillerson called the U.S security relationship with Europe " ironclad," adding that, "alliances are meaningless if their members are unable or unwilling to meet their commitments." Despite those reassurances, there are still questions in some European capitals whether the U.S. will come to their defense in the event of a cyber-attack or other multi-pronged attacks.

Counterterrorism is also high up on the agenda. Tillerson will encourage better information sharing between European countries and coordination with NATO, according to another senior State Department official.

Allies will be encouraged to apply the maximum diplomatic isolation possible to North Korea after it launched its latest ballistic missile test last week, the first one that could reach the U.S. capital. They will also be encouraged to put economic pressure on China to manage North Korea, according to a senior State Department official.

Germany, the biggest country in the European Union, responded by withdrawing a lower level diplomat from Pyongyang but kept its ambassador in place. The White House has urged for complete isolation. Trump tweeted in August that Tillerson was “wasting his time” with diplomatic efforts, but there are some leaders in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party who believe that they should keep lines open with North Korea.

The U.S. is also interested in getting an agreement to revisit the Geneva talks on how to solve the civil war in Syria. Tillerson will advocate for expanding the de-escalation zone, according to a senior State Department official. The talks have been stalled over Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s role in the country. Tillerson recently said that Assad and his family have “no future” in Syria.

It’s been two months since Trump decertified Iran’s compliance with the deal. Tillerson will lobby support for Trump’s expanded strategy for countering Iran’s aggression, according to a senior State Department official.

In Vienna, Tillerson will affirm the U.S.’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, according to Senior State Department official.

He will also hold a bilateral meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday to push for more cooperation with North Korea, working together on defeating ISIS and solving the conflict in Ukraine.

But ahead of this meeting, Tillerson had harsh words for Russia.

“Russia continues aggressive behavior toward other regional processes and promoting non-democratic ideals,” he said last week.

“We, together with our friends in Europe, recognize the active threat of a recently resurgent Russia.”

ABC News reported Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis presented the president with a plan to arm Ukraine with anti-tank Javelin missiles. That plan has yet to be approved and passed on to Congress, but it’s seen as a bargaining chip during talks.

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