JOR171007LS008In 2011, Mohammad H. was an Internet technology student, with the war in Syria erupting around him. But he stayed focus on his studies – until the day a stray rocket landed in the courtyard of his university during a math exam.

“It was like an instinct,” he recalled. “I just got up and ran. Without thinking, I found myself hiding under a table with some other students. I waited there a few seconds, and once I figured out a second rocket wasn’t going to come, I got up and ran further away.”

Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians since then, Mohammad didn't stop running until he crossed the border. Together with his older brother, the then-19-year-old headed west and ended up in Lebanon, where he now lives.

In order to continue studies in his adopted homeland, he had to improve his English – his courses in Syria had been in Arabic – raise money for university fees, and get accustomed to a new system. He did not give up, completed his coursework and graduated last year. 

But with more than 2 million Syrian refugees crowded into Lebanon’s borders, Mohammad also knew his opportunities there were limited.

“I think my best chance is going to be to move to another country,” said Mohammad, now 25, coming to the same conclusion as millions of other refugees around the globe.

Enter Talent Beyond Boundaries, a U.S.-based aid group that is unique in focusing on the nuts and bolts of helping people like Mohammad find work in the developed world.  

The organization, which goes by the initials TBB, is the only group in the world facilitating work visas and matching companies with workers who can meet specific needs. TBB also helps with more basic tasks such as helping candidates hone their interview skills and refine their CVs. 

“We’ve got more than 10,000 candidates in our database, people we’ve found through social media, word of mouth, even by simply arriving in a village or camp and explaining what we do,” said Nuora Ismail, 28, a TBB strategy manager in Lebanon. Ismail was born in the U.S., but her parents met each other in Syria, where they both grew up.  

“It’s a long and difficult process,” Ismail said. “We have to convince candidates to trust us, and we have to make sure they’re vetted. Then there are workshops, matching candidates with potential employers, and dealing with governments for work visas. There is preparation before the move and after they arrive. There is nothing easy about it.”

TBB is the creation of Mary Louise and Bruce Cohen, successful Washington-based attorneys. In an interview, Mary Louise said she and Bruce were “shocked” to discover that of all the non-governmental groups working to help refugees around the world, none were focused on linking skilled professionals with potential employers.

“We didn’t realize at first how complicated the process would be,” she said. “But we were also very determined.”

 Mary Louise said she was inspired by her own children, now aged 28 and 32.

“I would have done anything to make sure my children had opportunities, and yet that wasn’t possible for parents in these war-torn parts of the world,” she said.

Mary Louise and Bruce Cohen, now 64 and 66, respectively, started asking questions in 2013, and within 18 months years they were in Beirut as part of what would become a decisive fact-finding mission.

“There were questions we needed to have answered before we decided to move forward,” Mary Louise said. “Were there really skilled professionals in the region, or had they already fled? Would the refugees be interested in this kind of help? How would the United Nations and other organizations look at this?” 

Six months later, in the summer of 2015, they hired their first employee – Sayre Nyce, now TBB’s executive director – and started work.

By most standards, success has been limited so far. As of February, the group has found jobs for only three candidates, and none of the three have actually started work. So far, only two countries, Australia and Canada, have said they are willing to consider TBB candidates. And under the administration of President Donald Trump, the biggest contributor to TBB’s estimated $800,000-per-year budget, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, has indicated it will not renew its grant when it expires in September.

But Mary Louise Cohen is not deterred.

“We’re proving this kind model can work, and we hope and believe that will pull others into this space,” she said. “Whether TBB is a player in this field in 10 years is not at all relevant. I think our contribution is to pioneer a kind of model that will eventually help hundreds of people a year, with all the impacts that implies.”

For the refugees, the hope that kind of possibility brings is essential.

“When I first heard about TBB I thought to myself that I didn’t need to put my name on another list for another aid group,” said Manal A., a 42-year-old Internet technology administrator from Yemen now living in Jordan. “But the skills I am refining with the help of TBB will help me no matter what happens. I feel more prepared, much more sure of myself.”

Mohammad, the Syrian student who fled his country after the rocket landed at his university, agreed. 

“I used a computer for the first time when I was around 12, and I wrote my first computer code when I was 15 or 16,” he said. “As long as I can remember, my dream has been to work in this field. With the help I am getting, I feel like I am really getting ready. It is such a good feeling to be hopeful.”

A version of this story can be found in Al Fanar Media.
b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU120118AD003.jpegIn Berlin, a production of Euripede’s “Iphigenia in Aulis” recasts the hard choices a heroine once made in the stories of nine refugees.

BERLIN – Alaa Naser, 27, haltingly walked to center stage and sat in a chair positioned in front of a video camera. Another woman, a casting director, stood at the front of the stage with her back to the audience.

Naser’s face, insecure and sullen, appeared on a projector screen mounted on the proscenium of Berlin's iconic Volksbühne theater in a performance earlier this month. A row of eight other hopeful, would-be actresses were seated in a row at the very back of the stage. They were barely noticeable, but always present, and waiting for their turn in the hot seat.

After Naser sat, the casting director, her back still to the audience, began her questions. "Do you think of Iphigenia's death as a sacrifice or a suicide?" she asked in Arabic.

Panels lining either side of the main screen translated the dialogue into German and English.

"Even if I were to see Iphigenia's act as a sacrifice, I feel it's a selfish one" Alaa replied.

The interviews continued one by one as nine young Syrian women, now living as refugees in Germany, dramatized auditions for the lead role in a modern interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” written by the playwright Euripides in 406 BC.

In his modern interpretation of Euripides' classical work, Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar departed from Euripides' tragic plot in favor of documenting his actresses' lived experiences with war, familial obligation, love, passion and sacrifice through a production comprised almost entirely of reenactments of auditions for the play. The production combines purposes, providing a powerful experience for the audience and a healing experience for the actresses who have participated in it.

Euripides' original drama detailed the plight of Agamemnon, head of the Greek coalition forces during the Trojan War, as he struggles with the decision of whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis to bring his troops to Troy. If he ignores Artemis' demand for blood, the goddess threatens to start a mutiny among his soldiers.

As Agamemnon's family learns of the difficult decision, they quickly become enmeshed in the expectations of war, civic duty and family loyalities. The young Iphigenia, not wanting to let down her country or her father, ultimately surrenders herself to fate, proclaiming that she'd rather die on her own terms than be dragged to the gallows.

Al Attar’s interpretation of the play is a documentary of the young women's lives, providing audiences with a window into the inner struggles of a group the playwright believes have paid the heaviest price in the Syrian civil war.

"They occupied a pivotal position in confronting the political operation at the beginning of the uprising," he said, in an interview, adding that many Syrian women were working to change their society before the war. "We tend to ignore or forget sometimes that they also were fighting on other fronts. They were fighting the patriarchal authorities and these strict social doctrines."

Iphigenia premiered in September at a much different venue: A hanger in Berlin's abandoned Tempelhof airport, which served as the city's largest refugee camp during the height of 2015's refugee crisis.

Now in residence at the Volksbühne, Iphigenia is the third and final installment in Al Attar's trilogy of Greek dramas reimagined to tell the stories of Syria's displaced women.

Together with renowned Syrian director Omar Abusaada, the pair chronicled the geographic and psychological journey of Syrian women through “The Trojan Women,” in Jordan in 2013, “Antigone of Shatila,” in 2014 in Beirut, and now “Iphigenia” in Berlin.

All three dramas cast Syrian refugees. Many had no prior experience on stage.

"Being a brilliant actress or having a particular narrative wasn't a criterion, quite the contrary," he said. "Sometimes we thought we'd love to have people who have never even had the idea to be on stage. It was more important to see the hidden motivations within them."

The result is a visceral, almost journalistic chronicle of the diverse experiences of Syrian women now living in Germany who struggle with the trauma of their past while trying to build a life from scratch in a new place they know little about.

"It's more like a puzzle: We all created it," Al Attar said. "Each story from each participant came as a unit in and of itself. But how to put the units next to each other, and how then to put all the units within the frame of the Greek tragedy, is our contribution as professional theater producers – it's really an ensemble work that we all came together to deliver."

Iphigenia's storyline of sacrifice for her family's survival is what originally drew Alaa to audition for the production, she said, sitting in the empty main theater of the Volksbühne after she'd had her makeup done for the night's performance. 

After finishing up an architecture degree in Damascus, Alaa, originally from Salamiyah, a small city just northeast of Homs, set her sights on Berlin. The city's vibrant art scene and cosmopolitan population seemed to make it the place for a perfect fresh start for her after years studying in Damascus. Her prospects of finding a job in war-torn Syria were slim to none.

But while drawn to Europe for personal and economic reasons, her decision to leave Syria and make the long journey to Berlin two years ago was ultimately for her family, a narrative that parallels Iphigenia's.

"Iphigenia is living through war and we were as well," she said, speaking in English. "Iphigenia has to do something for her family to make them happy and at peace – if I'd have stayed in Syria, I would have seen my mother crying every day, telling me not to go out, that she was afraid and too scared for my safety. I left my family and my home to save my family and give them peace of mind.”

But once when she arrived in Berlin two years ago, she found wasn’t ready for the transition. Overwhelmed and isolated, Alaa's high expectations for a new beginning were shattered. She retreated inside herself and barely left her apartment, she said.

"I was so weak here," she said. "I spent a year and a half at home without any friends, not speaking to others."

The fact that she couldn't speak German didn't help.

"I have a problem with both the language and with myself," she said. "I already don't accept everything about myself, but I also wasn't even able to express to others who I really am."

It took acting in Iphigenia and the community she developed along the way to finally break out and find her voice.

"When I came here, my hair was all in my face and my voice was so quiet," she said of her first days in the theater. "But after weeks, I was able to speak with others. When I speak to you, I don't have any reason to be weak anymore. I can be strong on the stage."

Alaa's experience is a testament to the power of theater to give refugee women back their confidence after a prolonged period of trauma and isolation, said Ingrid Lutz, director of research and training at the Institute for Theater Therapy in Berlin.

Long practiced in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands as a restorative treatment for trauma victims, theater therapy first got its start in Germany in 1995 with the help of Lutz and others who helped establish educational programs and empirical studies that showed its efficacy as a therapeutic method.

For refugee women, who at times feel the need to swallow their trauma for the sake of others, the problem lies in reestablishing their self-worth and confidence, said Lutz. Reinterpreting their lived experiences through classical pieces of theater is often a safe and cathartic means in which to do so.

"Theater is a medium where the inexpressible comes out on stage," said Lutz. "There's so much that we simply can't express or explain, but that we're able to show with our bodies and play out."

Al Attar is quick to point out that the prime objective of the production is not to be a therapeutic outlet for its actresses, but he's aware that the very nature of how the project highlights the women's personal struggles will undoubtedly have that effect.

"We're giving these women spaces to deal with and tackle really sensitive psychological aspects," he said.

The nine women who take the stage detail their experiences as female refugees in Germany with unrequited love, isolation, forfeiting their passions at the behest of their families and even contemplating suicide.

But even with the serious topic matter, the true takeaway from the play is a message of strength through adversity, said Alaa.

"When you leave your family or your home, you feel dead inside. But there's life that comes after that death," she said. "I think everybody has a strength inside of them, but they have to wait for the chance to show it. Now, I'm able to show my strength."
Another version of this story can be found here.
Rolling Stones in ConcertHAVANA, Cuba — “For my generation, the Rolling Stones’ music still tastes of the forbidden,” recalls artist Lisette Padilla, 49, over iced tea and cigarettes at her apartment in Old Havana.

The British rock legends are finally coming to Cuba to play a free, open-air concert Friday for an expected audience of 400,000.

Read more at GlobalPost

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130124AA002.jpegExclusive Feature - Amid a perennially recurring discussion on the relevance of the Michelin star, it still hardly hurts to have one, as L'Assiette Champenoise, a family-run restaurant in the French Champagne region, can confirm, having won its third Michelin star in the unveiling of winners this week.

A refresher on what the stars mean: one star denotes "a very good restaurant in its category", two stars mean "excellent cooking, worth a detour” and three stars mean "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Exclusive Feature - More and more hotels around the world are starting to cater to the LGBT community as acceptance begins to grow.

Having seen the trend, almost four years ago, four friends decided to start up the Gay European Tourism Association (GETA) to focus exclusively on the European gay travel market.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Exclusive Feature - As the bus bounced over the bumps in the mud-track road, my boyfriend and I scanned through our various guidebooks, tiredly looking for hotels or guest houses we had not yet tried to find a bed for the night.

We were approaching the Burmese town of Bagan, an ancient city in the centre in Myanmar, home to thousands of temples dotted across an enormous sandy plain and one of the country's hottest tourist destinations.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Exclusive Feature - With same-sex weddings recently being introduced to the UK and elsewhere and a growing acceptance of the LGBT community, an increasing number of hotels are beginning to cater to the LGBT community.

'Gay-friendly' holiday accommodation extends to not only to hotels, but also bed and breakfasts and rental apartments.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Exclusive Feature - A comfortable, clean and central place to crash at the end of a day's exploring – that's what most travellers look for in a hotel, but with increasing competition from alternative accommodation sites like Airbnb, some hotels are trying to set themselves apart by becoming a destination in themselves.

Boutique and themed hotels aren't necessarily a new phenomenon but holidaymakers are increasingly looking for that new "experience" to give their stay an edge, perhaps, let's say, by being greeted by a giraffe over breakfast. And in Nairobi's Giraffe Manor, holidaymakers can do just that.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Exclusive Feature - Travelling is bad for the environment, say some; planes, buses, boats and cars all pumping out carbon dioxide, while tourists pick rare flowers and break off pieces of coral as they dive, staying in hotels built on the site of a destroyed rainforest....

OK so most people don't travel like that and many hotels and travel providers are responsible, but as issues of climate change increasingly hit the headlines, people are asking how they can better protect the environment and travel in an eco-friendly manner.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_MAR130218AA001.jpegExclusive Feature: Third floor, second window from the right - the HotelAdlon Kempinski has been famous for many things in its 107-year history, but it is that particular window that shot to fame after pop star Michael Jackson dangled then-baby, 'Blanket' Jackson, out of it in 2002, to the delight of fans, but to the horror of responsible parents the world over.

(By the looks of it, however, all has turned out well, with Blanket having survived the incident to see the dawn of his almost-teenage year.)

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Avocado farms drain riverbeds across central Chile, Arctic oil tempts northern nations, Germany's offshore wind turbines disturb marine life, and Cambodian loggers flee a fierce forest protector.

Read more at Deutsche Welle


CARACAS - Christmas came early to Caracas this year. “Today, Friday, November 1, we would like to declare that Christmas has arrived!” Venezuela’s new president, Nicolas Maduro, told a crowd of shrieking children in a downtown park last month.

The gift to the Venezuelan people was not exactly selfless. Maduro won the presidency in April in a very narrow election, amid opposition claims of fraud. In its aftermath, government and opposition supporters clashed in the streets. People died. By October, inflation had reached a decade-long high of 37 percent, and there were periodic shortages of basic goods. The government blamed the crisis on a conspiracy by capitalist opponents; economists and opponents pointed toward the more likely cause of government mismanagement, including pork-barrel spending and poor handling of the country’s oil reserves.

Read more at New Republic


Exclusive Feature: Stretching up on my toes and holding my heavy hand luggage high above my head I struggle to push it into a stuffed overhead locker;

I am boarding the flight back home to Berlin and, as one of the last to board the plane, have only limited space to squeeze my bulging case into the already well-packed space.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers

b_159_129_16777215_00_images_Maritim_Hotel_room.jpegBERLIN - Money, money, money, that's what Berlin's state government was salivating over as they passed a new tax set to bring in more than €25 million per year for Germany's 'poor but sexy' capital.

But instead of taxing the residents living in the German city, this is a tax aimed at tourists – a 5% levy that hotel owners must pay to Berlin's finance office from Jan. 1, 2014, and a penalty likely to be passed on to visitors keen to take in the top attractions.

Read more at 4 Hoteliers


Sao Paolo - Brazil has become an economic powerhouse -- one with a questionable environmental track-record. A new study on air quality has found that air pollution in Sao Paulo kills more people each than road accidents, AIDS, and breast cancer combined. But as they gasp for fresh air, Brazilians are also demanding fresh answers. Michael Scaturro has more from Sao Paulo.

Hear more on Soundcloud


BERLIN - A Gustav Klimt painting valued at $44 million was returned to the Canadian descendant of previous owner Amalie Redlich in April 2011 by Salzburg's Museum of Modern Arts. The 1915 painting Litzlberg on the Attersee was seized by the Nazi Gestapo after Redlich was deported in 1941 before being killed.

• In April 2011, the Dresden Gallery returned a painting of painter Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein's finest early works. Portrait of a Young Woman with a Drawing Instrument was seized from the three Rosauer sisters by the Nazis in Austria in 1938. The painting hung in the gallery for more than 70 years before a claim was made for it to be returned to the heirs of the sisters by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe

Read more at USA Today


PARIS - Cosmetics giant Sephora is one of the busiest stores on the Champs-Élysées.

Six million customers a year pass through the front entrance done in elegant black and white, while inside it's all pink, pop music and perfume.

Read more at USA Today


LAHORE - Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai may have been rejected for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Friday but she's still a winner for many girls at home.

"No war can be won through guns – the only solution is education that is why I proudly say 'I am Malala,'" said Gul Rahman, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Malala's home region of Swat, who was sure the school activist would win.

Read more at USA Today


The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, is the surprise winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee made the award Friday morning in Oslo for the Hague-based group's "extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." It is the 22nd time that an individual organization has won the award. Last year's prize was scooped by the European Union.

Read more at USA Today


ACCRA, Ghana—Sani Boubakar, 28, lost his right leg 10 years ago in an auto accident in his hometown of Doutchi, Niger.

“On that day, I knew I would be disabled forever,” he said.

He moped around his family’s home for two years until he discovered other young men missing legs but playing soccer in a new national team for the Amputee Football Federation of Africa.

Read more at The Washington Times


BERLIN - They call their children Max and Sophie, love crime series and are as besotted as we are with Fifty Shades of Grey. But when it comes to data, Germany habitually outperforms the rest of the world...

Read more at The Guardian


BERLIN - Berlin's Boxhagener Platz flea market in Friedrichshain is just one of many that spring up across the city, tempting in tourists and residents alike on sunny Sunday afternoons.

Set in a square surrounded by cafes and framing a children's park and patch of grass, the market is a treasure trove of old eastern bloc furniture, second-hand clothes, books, and household ornaments. It is the perfect place to relax, browse and chat with the open and talkative stallholders

Read more at Deutsche Welle


BERLIN - It is nearly impossible to walk around Berlin without spotting a bear - as a heraldic emblem carved into a stone plaque on a building, a garishly colored statue decorating the street, or even a fluffy souvenir hanging outside one of the many tourist shops on the Unter den Linden boulevard. But why is the bear such an important symbol for a city that has no real bears? If Berlin were located in Canada or Russia, it would be much easier to understand the connection to the animal - grizzly, brown or otherwise - that roams in the wild.

Read more at Deutsche Welle

Chocolate fashion show Zurich

With a jaw-dropping fashion show, they proved on Thursday evening that chocolate is not just to be savoured, it is also to be flaunted.

French chocolatier Jean-Claude Jeanson and designer Stéphane Martello, alias Mister Crochet, spent 120 hours creating the most spectacular choco-dress to appear on the Zurich catwalk.

As is typical of his style, Martello sought inspiration in nature to create a flamboyant bird’s nest gown from 200 metres of wire covered with tissue.

Read more at The Local


BERLIN - "Come on," shouted my friend James, who had come to visit me in Berlin and, at that moment, was climbing through a hole in a fence to an abandoned theme park he had found in his guidebook.

Carefully, my other friends and I followed him through. We were on our way into Spreepark, one of a number of abandoned sites throughout the city becoming popular with tourists looking for something beyond the normal Berlin attractions like Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Alexanderplatz.


Read more at Deutsche Welle
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