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Voice of America

Voice of America is an international news and broadcast organization serving Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Balkan countries
  • Woman Blinded by IS Blast Bakes to Support Family
    Iraqi mother Ibstisam Muhammad, 51, has a full-time job making bread to support her family even after she was blinded by an Islamic State (IS) bombing. Muhammad, nicknamed Aum Ashraf, has been a baker for 15 years, making Mosul’s special flatbread recipe. She was blinded by shrapnel when an IS car bomb exploded in front of her house in Mosul during the beginning of the Iraqi operation against IS in November 2016. She told VOA her family has given her the reason to stay resilient and continue her job despite the difficulties caused by her impaired vision. “As the saying goes: 'We get strength from our weaknesses,' ” Aum Ashraf told VOA. “I can still stand tall and work to provide for my children. I am using my utmost power to make sure they can have a decent life. I don’t want them to have needs that I can’t fulfill.” WATCH: Mosul Woman Blinded by IS Bombing Makes Bread to Support Her Family Aum Ashraf has four young children, ages 4 to 18. Her husband, 60, is suffering from chronic heart disease and is unable to work. Like many Mosul residents who had to endure a brutal battle between IS militants and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, Aum Ashraf’s family had to flee after their house was damaged in the IS car explosion. They are now renting a small house in eastern Mosul. “By God, we suffered a lot. We witnessed a lot of humiliation and wrongdoing,” she said. The daily struggles and hardships faced by her family also affect many of their neighbors in the city that has not recovered from IS rule and warfare. U.S.-backed Iraqi army troops and allied Shiite militants declared victory over IS in December 2017. The Iraqi government now says it needs up to $100 billion to reconstruct recaptured areas. An assessment by the Norwegian Refugee Council in July estimated $874 million was needed to repair basic infrastructure in Mosul alone. For Aum Ashraf, whose bread is well-known in the city for its freshness and sweet smell, baking skills can help pay rent, buy food, clothes and schooling needs. But she says she hopes to get medical treatment to recover her sight, a wish unlikely to come true by only selling bread. WATCH: Ibstisam Muhammad Makes Mosul’s Special Flatbread Doctors have told Aum Ashraf that she needs to seek treatment outside Iraq to determine if she can regain her vision. She hopes that private donors and aid organizations could step in to help her see again. “If only good people could come to help me see my children and my house again, to engage in a normal life like before,” she told VOA. “Thank God I don’t think about it a lot, but I wish from God for them to help me and aid me in this good deed,” she said.
  • Immigration Judges Say New Quotas Undermine Independence
    The nation's immigration court judges are anxious and stressed by a quota system implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that pushes them to close 700 cases per year as a way to get rid of an immense backlog, the head of the judges' union said Friday. It means judges would have an average of about 2½ hours to complete cases — an impossible ask for complicated asylum matters that can include hundreds of pages of documents and hours of testimony, Judge Ashley Tabaddor said. "This is an unprecedented act, which compromises the integrity of the court and undermines the decisional independence of immigration judges,'' she said in a speech at the National Press Club, in her capacity as head of the union. Tabaddor said the backlog of 750,000 cases was created in part by government bureaucracy and a neglected immigration court system. "Now, the same backlog is being used as a political tool to advance the current law enforcement policies,'' she said.  Signature issue Curbing immigration is a signature issue for the Trump administration, and the jobs of the nation's more than 300 immigration judges are in the spotlight. They decide whether someone has a legal basis to remain in the country while the government tries to deport them, including those seeking asylum. Tabaddor presides in Los Angeles, where she oversees 2,000 cases, including many involving juveniles. The judges are employees of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is overseen by the attorney general — unlike the criminal and civil justice systems where judges operate independently. Immigration court judges have repeatedly asked for independence, and Tabaddor brought it up again Friday, calling the current structure a serious design flaw. A Justice Department spokesman said the union has repeatedly tried to block common-sense reforms that would make the judges' jobs better, and that the proper home for the courts is where they are right now, under DOJ. Earlier this year, the Justice Department sent a memo to immigration judges telling them they would need to clear at least 700 cases a year in order to receive a "satisfactory'' rating on their performance evaluations. Sessions has pushed for faster rulings and issued a directive that prevents judges from administratively closing cases in an effort to decrease the backlog by 50 percent by 2020. This month, he appointed 44 new judges, the largest class of immigration judges in U.S. history, and has pledged to hire more. He said in a speech to the judges that he wouldn't apologize for asking them to perform "at a high level, efficiently and effectively.'' Tabaddor wouldn't say whether the quotas were also putting pressure on judges to deport more people — not just decide cases faster. "There's certainly no question they're under pressure to complete more cases faster,'' she said. "I think I would just say listen to the attorney general's remarks and you can decide what messaging is going to be sent.'' Asylum qualifications Earlier this summer, Sessions tightened the restrictions on the types of cases that can qualify someone for asylum, making it harder for Central Americans who say they're fleeing the threat of gangs, drug smugglers or domestic violence to pass even the first hurdle for securing U.S. protection. Immigration lawyers say that's meant more asylum seekers failing interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to establish credible fear of harm in their home countries. They also say that immigration judges are overwhelmingly signing off on those recommendations during appeals, effectively ending what could have been a yearslong asylum process almost before it's begun. President Donald Trump hasn't been behind the move to bolster the roster of judges. "We shouldn't be hiring judges by the thousands, as our ridiculous immigration laws demand, we should be changing our laws, building the Wall, hire Border Agents and Ice,'' he said in a tweet in June, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • US Agency Endorses Plan to Block New Mining Near Yellowstone
    U.S. officials recommended approval on Friday of a plan to block new mining claims for 20 years on the forested public lands that make up Yellowstone National Park’s mountainous northern boundary. Regional Forester Leanne Marten submitted a letter to the Bureau of Land Management endorsing the plan to withdraw 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) in Montana’s Paradise Valley and the Gardiner Basin from new claims for gold, silver, platinum and other minerals, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Marna Daley said. A final decision is up to the office of U.S. Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, who favors the withdrawal. Zinke said in a statement that it could be finalized in coming weeks. The Trump administration’s support is notable given the president’s outspoken advocacy for the mining industry and his criticism of government regulations said to stifle economic development. The proposal has received bipartisan backing in Montana, with Democrats and Republicans alike eager to cast themselves as protectors of the natural beauty of the Yellowstone region. The rocky peaks and forested stream valleys covered by the withdrawal attract skiers, hikers and other recreational users. It’s an area where grizzly bears, wolves and other wildlife roam back and forth across the Yellowstone border — and where the scars of historical mining still are visible on some hillsides. The Forest Service recommendation follows concerns among business owners, residents and local officials that two proposed mining projects north of Yellowstone could damage waterways and hurt tourism, a mainstay of the local economy.  Those two projects would not be directly affected because the companies behind them have already made their mining claims, the companies have said. But others have said the new move could discourage investment into those project. About 1.7 million people drove through the area last year, and withdrawing the land from new mining development would help protect the areas for wildlife and recreation, according to U.S. Forest Service officials. The withdrawal includes only public lands, not existing mining claims or exploration on private lands. It’s been in the works since 2016 under Zinke’s predecessor, former Interior Sec. Sally Jewell. “I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to mine and places where it isn’t. The Paradise Valley is one of those unique places,” Zinke said. Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said the areas covered by the withdrawal were “truly special places that deserve protection.”  U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, called on Daines to support legislation sponsored by Tester that would make the withdrawal permanent. Tester’s bill was introduced last year and is currently before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Daines is a member. An identical bill sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is pending in the House. The mining industry opposes putting the public land off limits. Backers of the withdrawal want it made permanent.  Under the proposal, government officials have estimated that 81 acres (33 hectares) would still be disturbed by mining and 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) of new roads would be built, according to a Forest Service analysis completed in March. That compares to an estimated 130 acres (53 hectares) of land disturbed by mining and 7 miles (11 kilometers) of roads over 20 years if the withdrawal were not enacted.