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Maryland Church ‘Heartbroken’ for Refugee Family Caught in Trump Ban

A “Welcome new neighbors” card sits on a kitchen table covered with a red, white and blue flowered tablecloth in a three-story townhouse in Columbia, Maryland. The living room is fully furnished, including a rocking chair. It is waiting for its family to come home.

The calendar in one room shows February 8 … “because that’s the day they are still scheduled to arrive. … I mean, they won’t be arriving that day,” says Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff of Kittamaqundi Community Church, known as KC.

Kirk-Davidoff is the minister of the 100-member church that took on the resettlement of a refugee family from Afghanistan.

“Americans all over the whole country were [heart]broken by stories all over the news, especially in the summer in 2015, about people who were fleeing Syria and other areas in the Middle East, and dying in the Mediterranean as they try to cross,” Kirk-Davidoff said.

Her church started small, assembling welcome kits with household items for newly arrived immigrants.

Watch: Refugee Ban Leaves Resettlement Organizations in the Lurch

​Small effort led to big one

That effort led to a contract with Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, a nonprofit that partners with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help legal immigrants start a new life through the refugee resettlement program.

Families who are assigned to a community or a church sponsor through the LSS Good Neighbor Program do not have family or other ties in the U.S.

All through December, KC members said they prayed to be assigned a refugee family.

But they also were very aware, Kirk-Davidoff said, of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to curb the influx of refugees. 

“So it became really a matter of urgency for us to get the family here to the United States before inauguration,” she said.

The Sunday before the new president was inaugurated, they were told a family was on the way.

House rented, furnished

With the support of five other faith communities, including a nearby mosque, the church rented a townhouse, raised $20,000, furnished the house with donated furniture, and assigned volunteers to meet the family at the airport and provide guidance on shopping, transportation and other local resources.

Members of the mosque donated a prayer rug and placed it in the home’s living room in the direction of Mecca.

KC members do not know much about the Afghan refugees except that the parents speak some English and have four kids: 11- and 6-year-old girls, and two boys — a 9-year-old and a 14-month-old baby who was born when the family was in a refugee camp after having fled their homeland.

“We really had this child [14-month-old] particularly in our minds,” Kirk-Davidoff said. “We figure this kid will only remember this house. He’s really the one whose life will start in the United States.”

Hopes dashed

But he and the rest of the family will not be moving into the carefully prepared townhouse in Columbia — at least not yet.

On January 27, Trump signed an executive order that barred all refugees from entry into the U.S. for 120 days. He said the action was needed to keep Americans safe from terrorism.

Even then, Kirk-Davidoff still had hope. 

“We thought because the family at that point had a visa, had a date of entry. We actually celebrated that Sunday … we felt we had made it,” she said.

But then reality set in.

“I was heartbroken,” church member Don Link said. He was the one who originally felt the call to this outreach mission.

“Some of us cried. We all prayed for our family. This is affecting us in our own hearts and our plans, but that’s nothing to what it is doing to the family. I just can’t imagine how these parents tell the kids that they are not coming to the U.S. How do they go forward?” he said.

Sense of loss

In the living room of the rented house, Kirk-Davidoff sits on one of the donated couches. She talks about the journey of six congregations with different religions that came together to welcome a family fleeing war and persecution. She fights to hold back tears, but her voice breaks.

“We don’t have a photograph of the family, but we have a picture of them in our minds’ eye. We have a sense of them walking in this home and finding a new life here. They had become very real for us,” she said.

Colin Richardson, an LSS case manager, said the organization does not get into politics, but is deeply saddened that tens of thousands of people may have lost their opportunity for a new beginning with a promise of freedom and prosperity.

“Over the next four months we will be concentrating on the families we have here. … And just waiting to see how things play out in the future of resettlement,” Richardson said.

According to LSS, 1 percent of refugees are resettled to a third country. The United States has been the world’s top resettlement country. In fiscal 2015, the organization and partners, like Kittamaqundi Community Church, helped more than 1,000 refugees.

Moving forward

In the meantime, stuffed animals sit on beds without children, the prayer rug lies beside the empty couch, and the welcome card on the kitchen table stays sealed.

Neither Richardson nor any of the volunteers knows where the family is now.

Link, however, is optimistic that he can somehow reach out to organizations overseas responsible for resettlement of refugees, to see if they can offer assistance.

“Somewhere there are people who have interacted with this family, whether it’s an NGO, the United Nations folks or State Department folks. We don’t know yet. [But] I’m hopeful,” he said.

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Appeals Court Refuses to Reinstate Trump Travel Ban

A federal appeals court has denied the Justice Department’s request for an immediate reinstatement of President Donald Trump’s ban on certain travelers and all refugees.

 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco instead asked both the state of Washington and the Trump administration early Sunday to file more arguments by Monday afternoon.

 

The Trump administration appealed a federal judge’s ruling that temporarily placed the ban on hold. The higher court’s denial of an immediate stay means legal battles over the ban will continue into the coming week at least.

 

Acting Solicitor General Noel Francisco forcefully argued in the government’s brief Saturday night that presidential authority is “largely immune from judicial control” when it comes to deciding who can enter or stay in the United States. 

 

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Snow Socks Northern Afghanistan, Pakistan; Dozens Dead

Parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan struggled to dig out from heavy snow Sunday, with dozens of people reported killed and some major highways closed.

Heavy snow also blanketed the Afghan capital of Kabul, where the government closed its offices.

Deadly avalanches

In northern Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, over the past two days as many as 19 people were killed and 17 injured by avalanches, collapsed roofs and road accidents, said Naweed Frotan, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

The government was working to reach at least 12 districts in Badakhshan that had been completely cut off, he added.

On the other side of the border, at least nine people, including children, were killed by an avalanche in northern Pakistan’s Chitral district, with as many as 14 residents believed to still be trapped in collapsed houses, said district official Syed Maghferat Shah.

“So far the rescue workers have recovered nine bodies and efforts are under way to retrieve more,” he said.

The avalanche struck a small village of 25 houses, but evacuation operations were delayed by the weather, said Chitral deputy commissioner Shahab Hameed Yousafzai.

“There is no way to rush the injured persons to Chitral hospital because all roads in the valley have been blocked due to heavy snowfall,” he said.

In a separate incident in the Chitral region, a government rescue worker was killed when an avalanche struck a check post near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the commanding officer told Reuters.

Main highway closed

The snow wreaked havoc on major roads in Afghanistan, including the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, where police and soldiers had to rescue around 250 cars and buses trapped by the storm, said Jawid Salangi, a spokesman for Ghazni province, where as much as 2 meters of new snow was reported.

“Some people were carried to local residents’ houses and some to military and police checkpoints,” he said, noting that officials expected the road to reopen quickly. “Fortunately we arrived on time and there is not a single causality.”

The Salang pass north of Kabul was also closed under more than 2 meters of snow, according to police general Rajab Salangi, who oversees the area.

“It will remain blocked until the snow is cleared from the main road, facilities are provided and it is safe to travel,” he said.

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State Elections Test the Popularity of India’s Modi

Nearly three years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a sweeping national election victory with promises to develop the economy and root out corruption. But with a series of key state elections beginning this weekend, Modi’s popularity — and his surprise currency decree that sparked months of financial uproar — is now being tested.

 

India is just emerging from the fallout of a November decision that withdrew India’s two largest currency notes from circulation and caused weeks of chaos as people waited to get their money back in new bills. 

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party hailed the move as a way to curb tax fraud and corruption and push India toward more digital spending. Opponents say it was a self-inflicted blow on the world’s fastest-growing economy, causing enormous hardship for the vast majority of Indians, who often rely completely on cash.

 

While the five state elections will not decide whether Modi remains in office, a loss would be seen as a serious blow to his political image. Most important is the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, whose immense population of 204 million means state elections often help shape the national political agenda. 

 

“In these elections, Uttar Pradesh is the real biggie,” said Ajoy Bose, a political analyst in New Delhi.

 

“If the BJP were to lose in Uttar Pradesh, it would be a huge setback, both for the party and for Modi. It would destroy the myth of Modi, who has been projected as this political juggernaut of invincible proportions,” Bose said.

State elections roll across India 

Elections were Saturday in the northern state of Punjab and the beach resort state of Goa. Hundreds of paramilitary troops and police were posted near voting stations across Punjab to ensure security as voters stood in long lines to cast their ballots. By evening, when voting ended in Punjab, around 83 percent of the state’s eligible voters had cast ballots, officials said.

 

In Goa, more than 83 percent voters had cast their vote when polling ended Saturday.

 

In the next phase of the election, the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand votes February 15, and remote northeastern Manipur votes March 4 and 8.

 

Elections in Uttar Pradesh begin February 11, but because of the state’s size, voting is divided into seven phases. Results from all the elections will be declared March 11.

 

In 2014, the BJP had won an overwhelming 71 out of 80 parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh, or 15 percent of all national legislators in the powerful lower house, ensuring that it emerged as the single largest party in Parliament.

Uttar Pradesh is key 

But Modi now faces a tough fight in Uttar Pradesh, with the state’s current top official, Akhilesh Yadav, in a political alliance with the Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that ruled India for decades. While the Congress Party is a shadow of its former self, it remains the country’s second most popular. The alliance is seen as a way to boost the chances of Yadav’s Samajwadi Party while the Congress Party tries to remain relevant in a politically key state. 

 

All those candidates must also face Mayawati, a former chief minister of the state and a master of caste-based politics. Mayawati, who uses only one name, is a Dalit, the name given to the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy. She commands strong support among the state’s Dalits, who form more than one-fifth of the population.

 

Uttar Pradesh voters are divided over the recent currency decree, analysts say.

Currency chaos an equalizer 

“People in rural areas of the state saw the currency withdrawal as an equalizer, where the rich and the poor were hit by the same shortage of currency notes,” said Nomita P. Kumar, an economist at the Giri Institute of Development Studies, a think tank in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital. “Poor people were happy that, for once, the rich were in the same boat as themselves. They think it was a smart move by Modi to curb corruption.”

 

Not so in Punjab, where the ruling coalition of the BJP and the regional Shiromani Akali Dal party faces the twin challenges of strong anti-incumbency sentiment and palpable anger against the chaos unleashed by the currency withdrawal. Voters appeared to hold Modi responsible for the economic disruption that followed the abrupt removal of currency.

 

“The people’s anger is directed against Modi and this will be reflected in the way they vote,” said Bose, who returned Tuesday from a trip through that state.

 

The BJP-led coalition also faces a strong challenge from the upstart Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, which has tapped into the voters’ disappointment with the state government.

 

In Goa, the ruling BJP was beset with divisions among its political allies, while the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress were also putting up a strong fight.

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Thousands Protest Globally Against Trump, Travel Ban

Protests erupted for a third straight week across the United States and beyond, targeting policies of U.S. President Donald Trump and criticizing his presidential demeanor.

Late Friday, a U.S. federal judge temporarily blocked the president’s executive order, signed January 27, that banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

However, that didn’t stop demonstrators from gathering around the globe.

In London, several thousand people gathered Saturday outside the U.S. embassy, holding signs and chanting anti-Trump slogans. The protest was organized by several anti-racism and Muslim advocacy groups who condemned the U.S. travel ban as well as Prime Minister Theresa May’s government for taking so long to criticize it.

Later in the day, protesters marched from the embassy in Grosvenor Square to Downing Street.

A week ago, hundreds of people had gathered in downtown Toronto to protest the travel ban imposed by the new U.S. president. On Saturday, thousands gathered outside the U.S. consulate in the city and marched against Islamophobia as well as the U.S. leader.

Similar protests in Paris and Berlin drew smaller crowds of about 1,000 protesters each.

In Australia, about 1,000 people rallied in the eastern city of Sydney to protest the executive order and call on Australian leaders to close the country’s offshore refugee processing centers.

A small group of about 30 activists gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Indonesia to protest the travel ban as well.

March: Protesters in London Rally Against Trump, Travel Ban

Poll: Nearly half of American support ban

Polls suggest nearly half of Americans support the ban, with opinion sharply divided along party lines.

The latest poll, released Friday by CBS News, found that 45 percent of U.S. citizens approve of the travel ban, compared to 51 percent who disapprove. A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier in the week showed 49 percent agreed with the measure, compared with 41 percent who disagreed.

Rafael Diaz-Yoserev, 69, who came to the United States from Cuba at age 13, may have voted for Trump, but admits he often finds the president’s demeanor offensive.

“I still don’t like him,” says Diaz-Yoserev, who works as a surgeon in Miami, Florida. “But I’m in agreement with everything he’s done so far.”

The White House says the order is aimed at protecting the U.S. from foreigners who wish to do it harm. But opponents say it actually makes the country less safe because it is an unconstitutional and discriminatory policy that represents a first step toward fulfilling Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslim immigration.

Diaz-Yoserev doesn’t see it that way.

“I have nothing against immigration. I’m an immigrant myself,” he says. “But if some foreigners are inconvenienced for the protection of the people of the United States, then it’s obviously an acceptable trade-off.”

Those opposing the ban, which affects travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations, however, gathered by the thousands at rallies across the U.S.

March: Anti-Trump Protesters Rally in Palm Beach, Florida

Marching in Florida

Saturday evening, more than 2,000 protesters marched from Trump Plaza in West Palm Beach, Florida, to near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where the International Red Cross was hosting a fundraiser that included President Trump.

In Miami, hundreds of people had gathered at Bayfront Park for an afternoon rally that shut down several streets. The demonstrators were protesting several of Trump’s emerging policies, including rights of the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning (LGTBQ) community.

Thousands of people also rallied for LGBTQ rights in front of the Stonewall Inn, a U.S. National Monument and gay rights landmark in New York.

Earlier in the week, Trump had released a statement pledging to support the rights of LGBTQ people in the federal workplace after speculation started to grow that he may do away with the 2014 executive order. Some activist groups have expressed concern that Trump would do away with the order or institute some other policies that would have affected the gay community.

A few hundred protesters gathered in the snow in Philadelphia Saturday outside a building where Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech to the city’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers group. The demonstrators held signs that said, “No Ban No Wall.”

About 600 protesters rallied at a park near House Speaker Paul Ryan’s home in Janesville, Wisconsin, according to the Janesville Gazette. Demonstrations were also held in other U.S. cities, including Denver.

In Los Angeles, dozens of supporters and opponents of the president squared off at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Wes Parker, 62, from Long Beach, California, told the Reuters news agency he supported the tighter measures. 

“We just have to support the travel pause,” said Parker, holding a sign that said “Trump is love.” “If you were a new president coming in, wouldn’t you want what you feel safe with?”

Jennifer Morita Kerr, wore a sign that said “Japanese Americans against the ban. Immigrants welcome,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Kerr, of Hacienda Heights, California, told the Times, “I’m here because this happened to my family. My father, my grandparents and my great grandparents were all put in internment camps. They lost everything.”

Late Saturday, the Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal in a step toward asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the judge’s ruling.

VOA’s William Gallo contributed to this article.

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Pakistani Official Signals Flexibility in Discussing Afridi Case With US

A top Pakistani official has hinted that his government would be willing to discuss with the new American administration freedom for Shakil Afridi, the jailed doctor who helped the United States hunt down Osama bin Laden in 2011.

“We will handle this issue within the parameters of our legal system but at the same time we don’t want it to become an irritant with anyone. That is not the purpose of [our legal proceedings],” said Tariq Fatemi, the Pakistani prime minister’s foreign policy aide.

His remarks to a local television station, Geo News, followed reports of renewed pressure on Pakistan to release Afridi since U.S. President Donald Trump assumed office last month.

Fatemi denied the reports, however, saying the issue has not “at all come under any discussions” his government has held so far with the Trump administration.

Fatemi went on to acknowledge the previous U.S. administration had demanded Afridi be released, but was “elaborately” informed that the man is a Pakistani national who violated local laws and was being dealt with accordingly.

Hailed as a hero in US

Afridi is hailed as a hero in the U.S. for helping the CIA obtain the Bin Laden family’s DNA by organizing a fake immunization campaign that led American forces to raid and kill the fugitive al-Qaida chief in his hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May of 2011.

Fatemi maintained that “if a third country’s assessment finds his [Afridi’s] actions useful to them, it is not the case under Pakistani rules.”

Afridi’s fake immunization campaign was followed by the covert American military action that triggered widespread backlash in Pakistan, prompting many internationally-backed health programs to shut down.

Soon after media reports emerged about how the world’s most wanted man was tracked down, Pakistani authorities moved to detain the doctor, put him on trial and convict him for treason. Currently, Afridi is serving a 33-year jail sentence in a Peshawar prison.

Fatemi also dismissed reports the Trump administration plans to add Pakistan to its list of seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens have been subject to strict screening before being allowed into the United States.

Instead, the key Pakistani advisor described as “positive and constructive” his discussions with the Trump team during a visit to Washington days before the inauguration of the new U.S. president.

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Police Chief Runs Investigation of Myanmar Lawyer’s Killing

Myanmar’s national police chief has taken personal charge of an investigation into the killing of a prominent lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party, police sources said, after leaks and conflicting comments by officers about its progress.

The killing of Muslim advocate Ko Ni, 63, shot in the head Sunday in front of onlookers while he held his grandson outside Yangon’s international airport, has rocked the commercial capital, where acts of political violence are rare.

It comes amid heightened religious and communal tensions in the Buddhist-majority country, with a report from the United Nations human rights office Friday saying a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the northwest in recent months “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity.

Tens of thousands turned out for Ko Ni’s funeral, and the public is closely watching how authorities investigate a killing the civilian president’s office has called an attempt to destabilize the state. 

Colleagues have told Reuters Ko Ni was working on amendments to Myanmar’s military drafted constitution to help the National League for Democracy-led government rule effectively in a system that keeps soldiers in control of key ministries.

Police chief arrives

Major General Zaw Win, chief of the Myanmar Police Force, arrived in Yangon from the capital, Naypyidaw, Thursday to oversee the probe, which is being led by the police’s criminal investigation department, two police officials told Reuters.

The official, who like other police spoke about the investigation on condition of anonymity, said the military’s domestic intelligence agency was also involved in the probe.

A military intelligence agent told Reuters he was instructed to monitor Ko Ni in the months before the lawyer’s death. The intelligence agency was primarily concerned with how the suspect obtained a firearm, ownership of which is tightly controlled in Myanmar, the official said.

Citizen investigators

The suspected shooter, named by police as Kyi Linn, 53, was arrested after a group of taxi drivers chased him down. One of the drivers was shot and killed. 

Despite a ban on police talking publicly about the case, photographs showing parts of a report on Kyi Linn’s interrogation have spread widely online. The leak sparked a race on social media to identify a man who, according to the document, Kyi Linn said enticed him to shoot Ko Ni.

The office of President Htin Kyaw said late Friday that a 46-year-old named Aung Win Zaw had been detained just hours after Ko Ni’s shooting, in the eastern state of Kayin, which borders Thailand.

Aung Win Zaw is accused of conspiring with Kyi Linn to kill Ko Ni, the office said in a statement, adding that police were searching for more suspects.

Police said Kyi Linn, who is charged with murder, has been jailed twice in the past for trafficking Buddhist artifacts, but was released in a 2014 amnesty granted by then-President Thein Sein.

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WeChat Users Send 46 Billion Digital Red Packets for Lunar New Year

Users of WeChat sent around 46 billion electronic red packets — digital versions of traditional envelopes stuffed with cash — via the Chinese mobile social platform over the Lunar New Year period, the official Xinhua new agency reported Saturday.

China has a long tradition of giving red packets during the Lunar New Year, which fell on January 28 this year.

Internet giants such as Alibaba Group Holding have promoted the use of virtual red packets, also known as “hongbaos,” to grow business in the country’s booming mobile payment market.

The number of digital red packets sent via WeChat, owned by Alibaba rival Tencent Holdings Ltd, rose 43 percent in the January 27 to February 1 period compared with a year earlier, according to Xinhua.

People in the provinces of Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shandong and Hebei led the red packets mania, while South Koreans were WeChat’s most active hongbao senders outside the Chinese mainland, Xinhua said.

Since its launch in 2011, WeChat has become China’s most popular mobile social media platform. Besides sending text, audio and video message for free, users can also use the WeChat digital wallet to pay utility bills, make donations and buy plane tickets.