2 years ago

Alabamian who was born in Syria has life-changing experience in return to his birthplace

(Video above: Karim Shamsi-Basha looks into Syria from Israel’s Golan Heights)

By Karim Shamsi-Basha

Eerie landscape laden with conflict loomed while I felt the wind on my palm through the open car window. Knowing that I couldn’t see my sister, who was 50 miles away, added to the haunting feeling.

The car drove through farms with abandoned military posts riddled with bullet holes. To the right, olive trees thousands of years old stood firm. To the left, bombed-out Israeli tanks summoned ghosts of the past. In both directions, warning signs of land mines decorated the ancient landscape. I could smell fresh-baked challah bread. The Sabbath was near.

The town of Quneitra.
The town of Quneitra.

We ascended the Golan Heights, a land conquered by Israel during the Six-Day War with Syria in 1967. During my trip to the Holy Land a month ago, I struggled to reconcile what I grew up knowing with what I know now after living in America for 32 years.

Worldviews collided as I stood on what used to be the place of my birth.


Worldview No. 1:

I grew up in Damascus in the 1970s and ‘80s, and I heard much about the injustice of Israel taking our land. On the anniversary of the war, we had to march the streets of Damascus and shout. Some sayings would praise the leadership of Syria, the military of Syria, and the might of Syria. Other shouts were about Israel and the Jews “stealing our land.”

Expressing hatred during those school demonstrations was not appealing, so I just moved my lips. I wondered why I had to abhor an entire group of people. My father taught against that. He said discriminating based on nationality, religion, race or creed was the root of all the sick war and violence. Dad was a poet who lived on a cloud way up high, full of peace and love and joy and beauty.

But the Earth is full of humans who on occasion, fall short of expressing peace and love and joy and beauty. Humans hurt each other. Humans are imperfect. Humans have agendas.

The town of Quneitra is still home to thousands of Syrians.
The town of Quneitra is still home to thousands of Syrians.

Worldview No. 2:

I came to this country in 1984 at the age of 18, and I soaked in this way of life. Over the years, I developed many friendships with Jewish- and Israeli-Americans. As my acceptance of new ideas grew, and as I started seeing the other side of the coin, those friendships occupied more of a place in my head and in my heart.

When I went to Israel with my friend Michael Duvdevani, who grew up there but lives in Birmingham, my two perspectives were challenged. I heard stories of how the were bombing Israeli farmers from atop the, and how had no choice but to conquer the land for protection.

Did Israel have the right to take the land?

Do the Syrians deserve it back?

Will they bomb the Israeli’s?

Will the Israeli’s bomb the Syrians?

Too many questions. The answers depend on what label, group of people, or nationality you belong to.


We stopped the car and came to a viewing station. I deposited a shekel in the telescope and looked at a huge fence separating Syria from Israel. I also saw the town of Quneitra, where I used to camp with the Boy Scouts – young Arabs filled with hopes and dreams. We worried not about world peace, but about how to cook the fish we caught from a lake by the Sea of Galilee.

I called my sister Mimi, who has been stuck in Damascus since the eruption of the civil war. I said, “Guess where I am.”

She said, “I know where you are.” She can’t say the word Israel on the telephone.

“Can you see me waving?” I said with a quivering voice.

She laughed … while crying.

I gazed over my homeland.

Where do I even start?

As if the current civil war was not enough, now I have to look at a fence and accept it as a good thing that keeps farmers alive, while memories of bad things fight for recognition. Yes, I live in the United States, and yes, I have many Jewish friends, and yes, I revel in the freedom this country provides; but all those yesses cling to remnants of a turbulent history.

After a couple of hours of conflicting thoughts, I came to a conclusion: It wasn’t my place to decide to whom the land belongs. As hard as it might be, and like my father always said, I should turn to the virtues that should govern our lives.


We should all acquiesce to peace, love, joy and beauty. Those intrinsic merits within all of us will lead to a beautiful life.

They will open doors of reconciliation, doors of tolerance, and doors of forgiveness. They will water the ancient olive trees with gentle rain and not with the cold blood of violence. They will render the land mines obsolete.

My father was on to something.


9 mins ago

Alabama House rejects bill to track race in traffic stops

Alabama lawmakers on Thursday refused to debate legislation that would have required police officers to collect data about race and traffic stops.

The bill sought to require police agencies to record data about the race and ethnicity of stopped motorists. The Alabama Senate had unanimously approved the measure, but it hit a roadblock in the Alabama House of Representatives.


Representatives in the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly voted down a procedural measure needed to bring the bill up for debate. The House vote was largely split along racial and party lines. Only five Republicans voted for the measure.

“After the vote, Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman from Pleasant Grove said lawmakers were sending a message that, “Bama is still backwards.”

Coleman said the bill collects data to determine if there are problems.

“When you vote against a bill that simply collects data, just data on who is being stopped, why they are being stopped and who is stopping them, there is something wrong with that,” Coleman said.

African-American lawmakers had shared stories of being stopped by police during debate on the bill as it moved through the Alabama Legislature.

The bill’s defeat sparked a filibuster by African-American legislators and threatened to cloud the remainder of the session. It eroded warm feelings that had filled the chamber moments earlier when lawmakers broke out in applause after voting to create a state holiday honoring civil rights icon honoring Rosa Parks.

The bill drew opposition from some law enforcement representatives who said departments already have policies against racial profiling and the bill would require additional paperwork.

Rep. Connie Rowe, a former police chief, said she was concerned that officers, assigned to work in mostly minority neighborhoods, could wrongly appear to be targeting minorities if the data was collected.

Rep. Allen Farley, a former assistant Jefferson County sheriff, was one of the Republicans who voted for the bill.

“This to me protects the good guys,” Farley, a Republican from McCalla, said. Farley said bad officers need to be identified.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, who voted against the bill, said he wanted to meet with lawmakers to see if they could work out a compromise plan.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

Jeana Ross is a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact

An Alabama program called First Class Pre-K is seeing such extraordinary results that Harvard University is producing a documentary about the effort and more than 30,000 four-year-olds were pre-registered last year in hopes of snagging one of the less than 17,000 available spots state-wide.

The program is overseen by Alabama Secretary of Early Education Jeana Ross, a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact, who has seen First Class Pre-K’s attendance increase by 374 percent under her leadership, while maintaining the highest possible ranking for quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Alabama hosts the program in more than 950 classrooms statewide and is one of only two states to meet all 10 of the institute’s quality benchmarks.


Ross told Yellowhammer News that the most rewarding part of her work is seeing firsthand the impact that skilled teachers can make, inspiring “a sense of wonder, joy, creativity, achievement and success” in a student’s learning.

“I care about children and their right to reach their greatest potential,” Ross said. “Education can and should provide children a powerful opportunity to find purpose and success for their future lives.”

Studies measuring results from tests such as the Alabama Reading and Math Test and the ACT found that First Class Pre-K alumni outperformed their peers who did not attend the program, according to the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.

Ross helped secure a $77.5 million preschool development grant to help fund the state-funded program, which also requires local communities to provide at least 25 percent of the funding to participate.

Also under her leadership, the Office of Early Learning and Family Support division of her department has expanded to serve 4,289 vulnerable families and children through more than $12 million in federal awards.

In all, Ross has led her department in writing and receiving federal grant awards totaling more than $100 million.

She attributes much of her success to the partnerships she has built with other groups serving children and families in Alabama to build a cohesive support system.

“My success has been achieved in a collective effort of devoted educators who, regardless of pay or recognition, work to create experiences where children enjoy through natural curiosity and joyful exploration a love of learning that lasts a lifetime,” Ross said.

Ross is a member of Governor Kay Ivey’s cabinet and was appointed by Governor Bentley in 2012. She advises the governor and state legislature in matters relating to the coordination of services for children under the age of 19 and, among her divisions, also oversees the Children’s Policy Councils, the Children First Trust Fund and the Head Start Collaboration office.

Ross previously served in a variety of education roles in Alabama, including as a central office administrator, assistant principal and classroom teacher. She holds a master’s degree in education leadership from the University of Alabama and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from UAB.

“My hope for education in Alabama is for every child to have a competent, sensitive and responsive teacher every day, every year,” Ross said.

As other states look to Ross’s success in Alabama’s early education, she offered three recommendations in a 2017 U.S. Department of Education interview:

“Set high-quality standards, communicate what those are, and demonstrate what they look like; involve parents, businesses and industry leaders in the initiative; and provide supports such as coaching and monitoring to maintain quality,” she said.

Ross and her husband live in Guntersville and Montgomery and have two adult sons and two grandchildren.

Join Ross and special guests from across the state for a Birmingham awards event March 29 honoring the 20 Yellowhammer Women of Impact whose powerful contributions advance Alabama. Details and registration may be found here.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News.

1 hour ago

Reward offered in 6-year-old case of Baby Jane Doe

Police found the bones of a little girl six years ago in an Alabama trailer park right next to a long-sleeve pink shirt with heart buttons and a ruffled neckline.

The unidentified girl in the unsolved homicide case has been dubbed Baby Jane Doe. The Lee County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday up to a $5,000 reward for information leading to an involved person’s conviction.


Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes says authorities can begin holding perpetrators accountable once the child is identified.

Opelika Detective Sgt. Alfred White says they have the child’s DNA, but nothing to compare it to. The Opelika-Auburn News reports that police suspect the girl suffered abuse and malnutrition. Police Chief John McEachern says the girl could have easily spent her entire life in captivity.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

2 hours ago

Alabama Secretary of State to Facebook: ‘Don’t say you helped us with something if you didn’t help’

Secretary of State John Merrill challenged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s revelation that his company helped disrupt the spreading of false information during Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election last December, telling Yellowhammer News that he has been shown no evidence to support Zuckerberg’s claim.

In an interview published Thursday, Zuckerberg revealed to the New York Times that his company targeted and eliminated a “significant number of fake Macedonian accounts that were trying to spread false news” about Alabama’s election.

Merrill’s office spoke with Facebook’s Government and Politics Team on Thursday to follow up about Zuckerberg’s claims.


“We said, ‘we don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We wanted one specific example,” Merrill said.

Just a week before the election in December, a deceptive campaign ad implying that voters’ ballot selections would be made public was spread on Google and Facebook. Merrill’s office contacted both Google and Facebook and asked for the ad to be removed. Google removed it, but Facebook did not.

Merrill said Facebook never responded about the ad.

“We believe that people in each state need to have accurate information that’s truthful,” Merrill said. “If [Facebook] can’t use their platform for that, they shouldn’t allow that kind of content be published.”

He continued, “For future races, I think it’s important that Facebook be available to address serious issues, for candidates, for officials, and be responsive in that they hear what the accusations are and evaluate merits of the claim.”

Facebook is receiving pressure from all sides after recent reports revealed that it allowed Cambridge Analytica, a private data firm associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign, to mine data of more than 50 million of the platform’s users without their permission.

Merrill said that he hopes the pressure will lead to some change.

“I think they’ll be more responsive,” he said. “The people will hold them more accountable. I hope people will hold them more accountable.”

@jeremywbeaman is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News

2 hours ago

Lawsuit over HealthSouth fraud cleared to move forward

The Alabama Supreme Court says one-time employees of the old HealthSouth Corp. can move ahead with a lawsuit over the fraud that nearly wrecked the Birmingham-based company.

The justices overturned a lower court decision blocking the lawsuit in a decision Friday.


HealthSouth survived a massive fraud scandal in the early 2000s that resulted in the ouster of founder Richard Scrushy. The company now calls itself Encompass Health.

One-time employee shareholders filed suit in 2003 over the fraud, but the case was delayed 11 years. The court now says the latest version of the lawsuit is related to the original complaint and can go forward.

Encompass Health operates 127 hospitals and 237 home health and hospice locations in 36 states and Puerto Rico.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)