Palestinian medical students in Cuba highlight pain of diaspora

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Samar Alghoul, 21, poses for a picture during an interview with AFP in Havana on June 2, 2024. (AFP)
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Motee Al-Mashar, 24, points to handwriting he made on a wall that reads "Free Palestine" at his apartment in Havana on May 31, 2024. (AFP)
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Motee Al-Mashar (R), 24, chats with Cuban students at a hospital in Havana on May 31, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 19 June 2024
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Palestinian medical students in Cuba highlight pain of diaspora

  • Cuba has long handed out bursaries to foreign students
  • Some 1,500 Palestinians, many of them doctors, have studied for free on the island since 1974

HAVANA: Thousands of miles from Gaza, medical student Samar Alghoul is supposed to be living her dream in Cuba, where she and hundreds of other Palestinians have been given the opportunity to study for free.
But, like the Palestinian diaspora all around the world, she is ridden with anxiety watching the decimation of her home from afar.
The 21-year-old lives in a dorm with six other students at the University of Havana, but often dreams of returning to her family’s side, even if it means running toward war.
“It would be easier for me to be with them than to have all these thoughts,” of not knowing “what they drink, what they eat, where they sleep,” Alghoul said of her mother, two brothers and sister who live in the Gaza Strip.
She said her mother tells her: “We are proud of you, we are proud to have someone outside of Gaza who is studying medicine.”
Alghoul is one of 247 Palestinian students, 75 of them from Gaza, who have received a scholarship from the Cuban government, according to figures from Palestinian ambassador Akram Samhan.
Cuba has long handed out bursaries to foreign students. Some 1,500 Palestinians, many of them doctors, have studied for free on the island since 1974, said the ambassador.
Whether studying, living abroad, or staying in refugee camps in the Middle East, millions of Palestinians in the diaspora are watching the destruction wrought back home with horror.
The conflict began on October 7 when the Hamas militant group attacked Israel, leaving 1,194 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza, including 41 who the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,396 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to data provided by the health ministry of Hamas-run Gaza.
Alghoul says her family, who lived in the north of the Gaza Strip, has had to move multiple times to flee bombing and is currently in central Gaza’s Deir Al-Balah.
“They open WhatsApp, send me a message, ‘We’re fine,’ and we don’t know when we’ll have more news,” Alghoul said in Spanish. Like all foreign students, she took intensive language classes when she arrived in Cuba in 2022.
Motee Almashar, 24, from southern Rafah told AFP that he and his Palestinian friends are trying to get back to normal life “to relieve some stress.”
But it’s not easy.
“As soon as you pick up your phone, you see the news,” he said.
Almashar is also too far away to be of much comfort to his mother, devastated after bombing in Rafah last month led to the deaths of his cousins, three uncles, aunt and grandmother.
The conflict has also impacted the students’ ability to make ends meet in Cuba, as they are no longer able to receive money from relatives in Gaza.
Ambassador Samhan said he has launched a drive for donations among Palestinian groups in the United States and elsewhere to help support the students.
Mohammed Refat Almassri, 26, who has lost an uncle and eight cousins in the war, is in his final year of studies and torn over what to do next.
His father is an ambulance driver in the Gaza Strip and he knows there is “an urgent need for doctors,” but cannot afford a flight back home.


King Salman Global Academy trains Indian scholars in Arabic teaching

Updated 16 July 2024
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King Salman Global Academy trains Indian scholars in Arabic teaching

  • Fifty lecturers take part in four-day course at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi
  • Training is part of Saudi-led language month to promote learning Arabic

NEW DELHI: A top Saudi linguistic institution, the King Salman Global Academy for Arabic Language, launched special training sessions for instructors teaching Arabic at Indian universities.

Some 50 lecturers are taking part in the four-day course held in New Delhi at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is the main host of the KSGAAL’s ongoing Arabic Language Month.

The event is aimed at developing and improving the teaching of Arabic for non-native speakers in the world’s most populous nation, and kicked off online in late June, running until July 26.

It includes both online and offline competitions and sessions for students and lecturers.

“The teaching of the Arabic language has transformed significantly. There are a number of institutions which teach pedagogy of Arabic according to the latest trends,” Prof. Mujeebur Rahman, head of the Centre of Arabic and African Studies at JNU, told Arab News.

“There is lots of research in the Arab world, published materials also, which Arabic teachers in the (Indian) universities are not aware of and not equipped with ... So, the purpose of this training is to apprise the teachers of the latest pedagogy of Arabic teaching as a foreign language ... and also tell them about the technological tools that are available.”

Nine Saudi experts in different domains of language teaching were conducting the course under the supervision of Dr. Abdullah bin Saleh Al-Washmi, the academy’s secretary-general.

All aspects of teaching Arabic to non-native speakers are covered in the training to help teachers step up their skills.

“This would be beneficial to them when they go to classrooms and teach students. How to communicate and how to improve their own performance in the classroom, how to derive better outcomes from their teaching,” Rahman said.

Dr. Mohammad Eisha, Arabic translator and lector, said the training was helpful for keeping up with the newest teaching practices.

“There is a method to learn a foreign language and there is some technique ... training like this helps us,” he told Arab News.

“This is a good initiative by the King Salman Academy and it will boost career opportunities, and it will also stimulate learners to learn in a better way.”

Mohammad Ajmal, assistant professor at the Centre of Arabic and African Studies at the JNU, is also taking the training and said the course would help readers refine their skills.

“We are non-native speakers of the language. We will learn how to use technology in imparting language learning skills, and what can be the easy way of learning the language,” he said.

“I feel that the training will help me to be a better educator of the Arabic language.”


Beijing, Manila establish hotline to prevent clashes in disputed South China Sea

Updated 16 July 2024
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Beijing, Manila establish hotline to prevent clashes in disputed South China Sea

  • The territorial disputes have persisted since last year, sparking fears of a larger armed conflict that could involve the US
  • There was also a plan to set up a new communication channel between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards

MANILA: A recently signed agreement will open a direct line of communication between the presidential offices of China and the Philippines to help prevent any new confrontation from spiraling out of control in the disputed South China Sea, according to highlights of the accord seen by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
China and the Philippines have created such emergency telephone hotlines at lower levels in the past to better manage disputes, particularly in two fiercely disputed shoals where the Philippines has accused Chinese forces of increasingly hostile actions and China says Philippine ships have encroached despite repeated warnings.
The territorial disputes, however, have persisted since last year, sparking fears of a larger armed conflict that could involve the United States, which has repeatedly warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, a key Asian treaty ally, if Filipino forces come under attack in the disputed waters.
US Gen. Charles Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Philippine military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner in Manila on Tuesday and discussed ways to further boost defense ties, enhance the militaries’ ability to operate jointly and ensure regional ability, the Philippine military said.
During a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces at the Philippines-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in August 2023, the Philippine government said it was unable to reach Chinese officials through an established “maritime communication mechanism” for several hours. That emergency telephone hotline was arranged after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in January 2023.
Chinese and Philippine officials dealing with the territorial disputes held talks in Manila on July 2, following a violent confrontation at the Second Thomas Shoal in which Chinese coast guard personnel reportedly wielded knives, an axe and improvised spears and Philippine navy personnel were injured. The Chinese forces also seized seven Philippine navy rifles, said Brawner, who demanded China return the firearms and pay for damages.
Both sides “recognized the need to strengthen the bilateral maritime communication mechanism on the South China Sea” and signed an arrangement “on improving Philippines-China maritime communication mechanisms,” the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said in a statement after the talks in Manila, but did not provide a copy or details of the agreement.
A copy of the agreement’s highlights, seen by the AP, said it “provides several channels for communication between the Philippines and China, specifically on maritime issues, through the representatives to be designated by their leaders.”
The hotline talks could also be done “through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs counterparts, including at the foreign minister and vice foreign minister levels or through their designated representatives,” it said, and added without elaborating that Philippine officials were “in discussions with the Chinese side on the guidelines that will govern the implementation of this arrangement.”
There was also a plan to set up a new communication channel between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards “once the corresponding memorandum of understanding” between them is concluded, according to the agreement.
During the talks in Manila, China and the Philippines agreed on two other confidence-boosting steps to intensify “cooperation between their respective coast guard authorities” and the possible convening of a maritime forum between Chinese and Philippine scientists and academic leaders.
“Both sides recognized that there is a need to restore trust, rebuild confidence and create conditions conducive to productive dialogue and interaction,” the Philippine department of foreign affairs statement said. It added that China and the Philippines “affirmed their commitment to de-escalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions.”
It said that “there was substantial progress on developing measures to manage the situation at sea,” but acknowledged that “significant differences remain.”


A North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, a possible blow to leader Kim

Updated 16 July 2024
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A North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, a possible blow to leader Kim

  • National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true
  • Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February

SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday that a senior North Korea diplomat based in Cuba has fled to South Korea, the latest defection by members of the North’s ruling elite that likely hurt leader Kim Jong Un’s push to bolster his leadership.
The National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true. A brief statement by the NIS public affairs office gave no further details.
South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported earlier Tuesday that diplomat Ri Il Kyu fled to South Korea with his wife and children in November.
Chosun Ilbo cited Ri as telling the newspaper in an interview that he had decided to defect because of what he called disillusionment with North Korea’s political system, an unfair job evaluation by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry, and the ministry’s disapproval of his hopes to visit Mexico to treat his neural damage. He said that hospitals in Cuba didn’t have the necessary medical equipment to treat his health problem due to international sanctions.
Other South Korean media outlets carried similar reports later Tuesday.
North Korea didn’t immediately respond to South Korea’s announcement of Ri’s defection. North Korea has previously expressed fury over some high-profile defections by accusing South Korea of kidnapping or enticing its citizens to defect. It has also described some defectors as traitors or criminals who fled to avoid punishment.
Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February, an event that experts say likely posed a political blow to North Korea, whose diplomatic footing is largely dependent on a small number of Cold War-era allies like Cuba.
The Chosun report said Ri had been engaged in efforts to block Cuba from opening diplomatic ties with South Korea until his defection. The report said Ri won a commendation from Kim Jong Un for his role in negotiations with Panama that led to the release of a ship detained in 2013 for allegedly carrying banned items like missiles and fighter jet parts. The report said Ri was then a third secretary of the North Korean Embassy in Cuba.
About 34,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea to avoid economic hardship and political suppression, mostly since the late 1990s. A majority of them are women from the North’s poorer northern regions. But the number of highly educated North Koreans with professional jobs escaping to South Korea has steadily increased recently.
In 2023, about 10 North Koreans categorized as members of the country’s elite group resettled in South Korea — more than in recent years, according South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Ministry officials have said that an increase in high-level defections were likely caused by North Korea’s pandemic-related economic difficulties and its pushes to reinforce state control of its people. Those who had to stay abroad longer than initially scheduled due to COVID-19 curbs were exposed to freer foreign cultures for an extended period.
“This high-level defection adds insult to injury for North Korea, as Ri was instrumental in representing Pyongyang’s interests in Havana,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime is no doubt taking measures to make it more difficult for diplomats overseas to defect, but increased repression is likely to further isolate Pyongyang and may actually encourage more defections,” Easley said.
Moon Seong Mook, an expert with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said news of high-level defections like Ri’s would spread to North Korean diplomats and others, potentially dealing a big blow to Kim — though it won’t likely lead to a regime collapse anytime soon.
Few North Korea monitoring groups question Kim’s grip on power. But observers say Kim is grappling with chronic economic difficulties, the influence of South Korean pop cultures and the expansion of the US-South Korean military cooperation.
The most high-profile defection in recent years happened in 2016, when Tae Yongho, then a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, arrived in South Korea. He said that he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea as he also fell into “despair” over Kim’s execution of officials and his pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called him “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes. Tae was elected to South Korea’s parliament in 2020.
In 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, arrived in South Korea. Also in 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait came to South Korea with his family.
In recent months, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have soared over North Korea’s launches of trash-carrying balloons toward South Korea and its continuation of missile tests. North Korea says its balloon campaigns were a tit-for-tat action against South Korean activists floating political leaflets via their own balloons.
On Tuesday, Kim’s sister and senior official, Kim Yo Jong, warned South Korea of unspecified “gruesome” consequences, saying that South Korean-sent leaflets were found again in the North. She issued a similar warning on Sunday. South Korea responded to North Korea’s earlier balloon activities by suspending a 2018 tension-reduction deal with North Korea.


Hundreds of Bangladeshi students injured as job quota protests ramp up

Updated 16 July 2024
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Hundreds of Bangladeshi students injured as job quota protests ramp up

  • 30% of all government jobs reserved for families of 1971 liberation war fighters
  • 234 students injured in Dhaka after clashes with government supporters

DHAKA: Hundreds of protesting Bangladeshi students have been injured in clashes with pro-ruling party groups, the country’s largest hospital said on Tuesday, in the wake of campus rallies against public sector job quotas.

The students have been demonstrating since early July against a quota system under which 30 percent of well-paid government jobs are reserved for the families of those who fought in the 1971 liberation war against Pakistan that resulted in Bangladesh’s independence.

The movement to reform the system started in 2018, forcing the government to issue a circular canceling the quota, but last month a high court order nullified it.

Students have been rallying since the announcement of the court’s ruling and on Monday and Tuesday morning clashed with members of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League party.

In the capital Dhaka alone, at least 234 were injured.

“A total of 234 students received treatment at our hospital following the students’ clashes on Monday,” Brig. Gen. Asaduzzaman, director of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, told Arab News.

“At the moment, six of the injured students are admitted to our hospital. We have kept them under observation as some of them got head injuries ... among the injured, there are students from different educational institutions, including Dhaka University.”

The protests escalated on Sunday, after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina undermined demonstrators by saying: “If the grandchildren of freedom fighters do not receive benefits, who would get it? The grandchildren of razakars?”

The word “razakar,” a deeply offensive term in Bangladesh, means someone who collaborates with an enemy occupying force and refers to those who collaborated with the Pakistani military during the 1971 war.

“The comparison with the collaborators agitated the protesting students very much. It’s not right that all the families who don’t belong to freedom fighters’ families are all collaborators,” Mohammad Nahid Islam, coordinator of the Students Against Discrimination group, which is part of the protests, told Arab News.

“Till last week, students from 35 public universities joined the protests with us across the country ... now, the protests spread over almost all educational institutions.”

Islam said that the students did not seek the abolishment of the quota system but its reform, so that it continues to protect marginalized groups but does not disproportionately distribute public service jobs prioritizing the descendants of the 1971 fighters.

“At the moment, the third generation of the freedom fighters are enjoying the quota benefits, which is 30 percent. We are demanding the reformation of the quota system, limiting it,” he said.

“We are demanding the reform by reserving some quota for the underprivileged population. We are demanding job recruitment on the basis of merit.”


Russia gives cautious reaction to Zelensky’s summit offer

Updated 16 July 2024
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Russia gives cautious reaction to Zelensky’s summit offer

  • Zelensky said on Monday that Russia “should be” represented at a second summit on the Ukraine conflict
  • Zelensky’s apparent welcoming of Russia to talks marks a change of tone from the conference in Switzerland

MOSCOW: The Kremlin on Tuesday gave a cautious reaction to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s apparent invitation to a future peace summit, saying that Russia first needs to understand what Kyiv means before attending talks.
Zelensky said on Monday that Russia “should be” represented at a second summit on the Ukraine conflict, following high-level talks last month in Switzerland that Moscow did not attend and heavily criticized.
“The first peace summit was not a peace summit at all. So perhaps it is necessary to first understand what he means,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Zvezda television channel, responding to Zelensky’s comments.
Zelensky’s apparent welcoming of Russia to talks marks a change of tone from the conference in Switzerland, ahead of which the Ukrainian leader categorically ruled out inviting Moscow.
The surprise comments from Kyiv come as Ukraine’s forces lose ground on the front line and as the United States gears up for presidential elections that could fundamentally change the dynamic of the conflict.
Leaders and top officials from more than 90 states gathered at a Swiss mountainside resort on June 15 for the two-day summit dedicated to resolving the largest European conflict since World War II.
China and Russia were markedly absent.
The Kremlin sharply criticized the gathering, saying that any discussions on ending the conflict that did not include Russia were “absurd.”
Washington said Monday that it backed Ukraine’s decision to invite Russia to a second summit, but expressed doubt about whether Moscow was ready for talks.
“When they want to invite Russia to that summit, of course, that is something we support,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told journalists.
“We’ve always supported diplomacy when Ukraine is ready, but it has never been clear that the Kremlin is ready for actual diplomacy,” he said.
Ahead of last month’s summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was open for talks and would announce a ceasefire if Kyiv effectively surrendered territory that Moscow claims as its own.
Zelensky slammed Putin’s demands as a territorial “ultimatum” reminiscent of those issued by Adolf Hitler, and Ukraine’s Western backers including the United States reacted with scorn.
However there is growing apprehension in Kyiv about how a potential Donald Trump victory in November’s US elections might affect continued American aid to Ukraine.
The Republican Party candidate has suggested he would end the conflict very quickly if he won back the presidency, a promise Kyiv fears would mean being forced to negotiate with Moscow from a weakened position.
Zelensky said on Monday he was “not worried” about the prospect of a Trump victory and that he was still counting on support from the United States, Ukraine’s biggest financial and military backer.