Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

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1. Will Rick Perry put himself forward for the Republican candidacy? The Texas governor is said to be very close to announcing his bid. As a mainstream conservative who is also well liked by the evangelical and Tea Party factions of the party, he has the potential for widespread appeal. At the end of his speech at the Republican spring conference this weekend, he received a standing ovation and the audience chanted "Run, Rick, Run!"

Perry, a former air force pilot, is a good speaker and was even better received than other popular figures at the conference, including Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman, who has already announced her candidacy. Known as an all-American tough guy, he jogs with a pistol in his belt and shot a coyote during a run last year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that his aides are currently looking at the problems he would face as a late entrant, such as raising sufficient funds. Romney and Bachmann: live in fear.

2. Ron Paul is celebrating his victory in a straw poll taken at the same weekend conference. The Texas congressman -- who at 75 says he is not too old to be president -- gained 612 votes, despite not matching this success in nationwide polls. This rating put him far ahead of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who got 382 votes in the straw poll and is expected to join the race later this week.

Here is Paul on NBC's Today, saying that his victory shows that he appeals to people who are fed up with US involvement in "endless, undeclared, unwinnable wars dumped on the young people", and concerned about the economy.

3. Bachman has cemented her reputation as a formidable fundraiser. Her latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, the Republican presidential hopeful had $2.8 million cash on hand. By comparison, the veteran politician Paul has $1.6 million. She took in $13.5 million in the 2010 election cycle, making her the most prolific fundraiser in the House.

Interestingly, the vast majority of this is from individuals making relatively small donations, which is in keeping with her position as the grassroots, Tea Party candidate. Of the $1.7 million she reported raising last quarter, all but $1,500 came from individuals. The average donation was just $619.34. Her individual contributions are now nearly 100 per cent of her total funds, compared with just over half in 2006.

The Washington Post attributes this to "money blurts", which create excitement and attract a high volume of small donors:

[Bachman has] made a specialty of raising money in the wake of bold and well-placed remarks. Shortly after accusing President Obama of having "anti-American views" during one cable-news appearance, for example, Bachmann took in nearly $1 million.

Will other candidates be inspired to make similarly lucrative, controversial statements?

4. A study by a Facebook advertising firm appears to suggest that the best bet for Republican candidates trying to attract online clicks is to focus their ads on President Barack Obama, rather than on issues such as the economy.

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It also showed that Sarah Palin is still a bigger magnet for online page views than any of the other announced or potential Republican presidential hopefuls -- although this could be because she has greater recognition. The Huffington Post has more details on the data.

5. Senator John McCain angered the Latino community by claiming yesterday that illegal immigrants were responsible for starting some of the huge fires that have devastated Arizon in recent weeks. He said there was "substantial evidence" that migrants set fires to keep warm, signal to others, or distract border guards, although he didn't say what this evidence was.

This is good news for the Obama administration, which is engaged in an aggressive push for Hispanic support ahead of 2012. After successes with increasing black voter turn-out in 2008, Obama's team is trying to raise historically low rates of Hispanic registration and turnout in at least six swing states.

However, according to Politico, Obama has angered one national Hispanic organisation by missing their annual conference for the third consecutive year, despite promising before his election in 2008 that he would return as president.

Juan C. Zapata, a Florida Republican and chairman of the group's educational fund, told Politico: "He sent a very clear message to the Hispanic community that, 'I want your support on the campaign, but I am not willing to do anything to earn it'."

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".