On the campaign trail: Romney gets his facts wrong

Turns out Jeep isn't moving to China.

There must be pool reporters covering the Romney campaign trail who by November 6 will have the Kid Rock song “Born Free” indelibly burned into their brains. Whenever it plays, for the rest of their lives, they will flinch and remember the campaign-trail – because every time Romney or Ryan appears at an event, it is Born Free that heralds their arrival. Every god-damn time.

It plays again in Defiance, Ohio – just up the road from where I'm staying in Hicksville – when a grinning Mitt Romney strides out to speak to a large and enthusiastic crowd on the high school football field, his hair slightly wind-blown. It was an all-star event; Romney was supported by both Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman, who had played the role of Barack Obama in Romney's debate preparations.

The audience of around 8,000 was, as usual for Romney, an older, whiter crowd, many who had come in from surrounding counties, Paulding, Williams, Puttnam, Henry, rural farmland areas which are more naturally conservative than the town of Defiance, which has a large United Auto Workers union presence and a huge GM foundry on the edge of town.

Governor Kasich's speech was bullish. “I remember when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter and restored the American dream. And folks, I've got a feeling that this is that kind of election...” but Romney's address was workaday. “That Obama campaign slogan, 'forward'; well it doesn't feel like moving forward to the 23 million Americans out of a job. I'll tell you what does feels like moving forward: getting a new President!” was followed by massed chanting of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” and the re-hashing of Romney's usual stump-speech “five-point plan” to deficit reduction, but – apart from at one point – nothing new to see here; even “you did build that” got an enthusiastic redux.

Local reporter Jack Palmer wasn't too impressed with Romney's performance. “I didn't hear any new stuff,” he tells me. “But he was well-received by the crowd. The atmosphere was pretty good, though – they had some country music singers first.”

One line was new, though, and played especially well for Romney here: “I heard this morning,” he told the crowd, “that Jeep is thinking of moving production to China.”

This would be a huge blow for the President. There is currently an enormous Jeep factory in Toledo, an hour from Defiance, and others in the state and in Michigan, and their survival is a key tenet of Obama's reelection – at a visit to the Toledo plant in June he said that the car “symbolises freedom”.  “I'm not sure about that [Jeep line], says Palmer, skeptically. “I hadn't heard that. You'll have to fact-check that.”

I check it, and unfortunately for Romney it isn't true at all. The line came out-of-context from a Bloomberg interview with a Chrysler executive – in context, he is actually saying that the company is thinking of expanding Jeep into China, not in fact closing and moving plants from the US: good news for American autos, not bad.

To remove all doubt, Chrysler said in a statement that: “Bloomberg recently produced a story that led some to incorrectly believe that all Jeep production could shift to China from North America. That is not true, and Bloomberg quickly amended its story to eliminate any potential inaccurate perception. To be clear, Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China.”

Outside the rally, meanwhile, 150-odd Obama supporters and union activists were protesting, including Roger Molnar, a resident of Defiance. He tells me people have come to protest for  wide variety of reasons. “We're for Obama, but there's people with [libertarian candidate] Gary Johnson signs, stop the war with Iran signs, we are the 99 per cenr signs – there are a lot of issues here. The unions have their signs going on.”

Jacob Gallman, a cook at a restaurant in town, is also skeptical of Romney. “Personally, I think some of the stuff he does and says seems like he's almost set up to fail. It's hard to take him seriously.”

Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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".